I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy via NetGalley of Virginia Pye’s new novel, which will be out from Regal House in October. I have followed Virginia on social media for several years now, and I really enjoyed her other two historicals, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, novels that feature American missionaries in China.
The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann is quite different yet equally satisfying and rich in historical context. Victoria Swann, who lives in Boston during the Gilded Age, is the author of a series of popular novels that feature adventurous heroines in exotic places. Her husband and her editor both keep a close eye on her career, always encouraging her to write more.
But Victoria grows increasingly unhappy with the stories they push her to write. She longs to produce works of literary value, stories that reflect the ways in which women really experience life. After completing the first such manuscript, her editor puts it away in a drawer, unwilling to give it even a cursory read. Her husband rails against her lack of business sense, and their marriage begins to unravel.
When Victoria is assigned a new editor at the publishing house, she sees a chance to push forward with her literary liberation. What follows is a unique kind of adventure story of how a determined woman takes control of her life in a time (and place) when almost everything works against her.
Two things I especially liked about this novel: the fine characterization of Victoria Swann and the ways in which Virginia Pye’s narrative gently echoes Gilded Age women writers. If she is a new-to-you author, I would encourage you to read any of her already-published books while you await the release of The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann.
Margaret Coalson Sherk Sams was born in Oklahoma in 1916 and grew up in California. She aspired to be a wife and mother, but she wanted to experience something of life outside her family home first, so she enrolled at Riverside Junior College in 1933. There, Margaret renewed an old high school friendship with Bob Sherk, who was studying to be a mining engineer. They started dating and fell in love before Bob decided to seek his fortune in the Philippine Islands. He left California in January 1936 to start a job in northern Luzon; she followed several months later and they married. Their son David was born in 1938.
The Sherks were living in Suyoc, a gold-mining town in the Benguet region, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and then Luzon in the Philippines in December 1941. Earlier that year, concerned about deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Japan, Bob had wanted to send Margaret and David back to California. Margaret was reluctant to split up the family, so when officials in the U.S. High Commissioner’s Office in Manila assured her she was safe, she and David remained.
The Sherks evacuated Suyoc mere steps in front of the invading Japanese army and ended up in Manila. Bob did his patriotic duty and joined the U.S. military forces as they headed to the Bataan peninsula to defend the island. Margaret and David ended up interned with thousands of other Allied nationals on the campus of Santo Tomas University in January 1942. They had been told to pack enough food and clothing for three days. They remained prisoners until 1945.
Margaret struggled to provide for David in the camp. She knew few people there and didn’t have much money to pay to have goods brought in from the outside. The Japanese provided little food and restricted Red Cross operations. Several months later, Margaret met Jerry Sams, an electronic engineer with a wife back in the states. He was kind to her and helped secure food and other necessities for David. They quickly fell in love and began an affair. Margaret pushed for a physical relationship because she wanted Jerry to feel tied to her. And despite the perilous conditions of the internment camp, she knew that having Jerry’s baby would cement their relationship and guarantee their survival.
In the years following their dramatic rescue in 1945, when Margaret was safely in the United States, she wrote about her experiences. She wanted to explain what happened in the camp and why. It’s an astonishing story that reveals much about how women of the mid-twentieth century were expected to conduct themselves. Margaret got on with family life; she waited more than thirty-five years before seeking a publisher for her book.
Lynn Z. Bloom, then Professor of English and the Aetna Chair of Writing at the University of Connecticut, learned of Margaret’s story. In 1980, Bloom, a specialist in women’s writing, autobiography, and memoir, had published an edited version of the diary of another American woman, Natalie Crouter, who was interned with her family in the northern Luzon city of Baguio. Bloom turned her editing skills to Margaret’s memoir, which was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1989 as Forbidden Family: A Wartime Memoir of the Philippines, 1941-1945.
I came across both Natalie Crouter’s diary and Margaret Sams’s memoir in the 1990s when I was researching my first book. Masterpiece Theater’s dramatization of A Town Like Alice, about British women in Malaya during World War II, had sparked my interest in civilian women caught up in active conflict zones. That first book, published by the University Press of Kansas, was called Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. I included the experiences of Margaret Sams, Natalie Crouter, and dozens of other American women—those interned and those who managed to evade the Japanese.
It inspired me to dig deeper into some issues, resulting in the publication of two more books, to create a kind of Philippines trilogy: Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines and Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. Then I was finished with writing about the Philippines, but not about American women. I subsequently wrote two biographies of very different women. (There are plenty of blog posts here about those books.) Since the publication of my Dale Evans biography nearly a year ago, I have been slowly moving toward a new biography project. The subject is still mostly a secret. It’s taken a long time to figure out the focus of the book—what I think this one woman’s life has to say about larger issues in twentieth-century America. I have to figure out how to get all the necessary research done. I have to estimate how long it will take to write the book. All of that is to come. And I’ll take it one step at a time.
In today’s language, Harriot Stanton Blatch was a suffragist nepo baby.
She was born in 1856 in Seneca Falls, New York, the sixth of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s seven children. Throughout her childhood, reform occupied center stage in the household. Her mother was one of the organizers of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, which helped launch a movement that in some shape or form continues to this day. Harriot’s father, Henry, was an abolitionist, journalist, and politician.
Harriot received an undergraduate degree from Vassar College in 1878 and a master’s degree in 1894. In between, she joined the suffrage cause and helped her mother and her mother’s political partner, Susan B. Anthony, write their History of Woman Suffrage. Harriot also married a British businessman, William Henry Blatch, in 1882, and spent the next twenty years living in England with him and raising their two daughters, one of whom died young. By the 1890s, she’d become a proponent of “voluntary motherhood,” encouraging married women to choose when and how often to become pregnant, thus deciding when to have intercourse with their husbands.
(left to right: Nora Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriot Stanton Blatch)
The Blatch family moved to New York City in 1902, following the death of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriot immersed herself in reform causes that highlighted the intersection of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. After joining the Women’s Trade Union League, she founded, in 1907, what would come to be known as the Women’s Political Union. This brought some 20,000 New York City working women into the suffrage movement. Harriot further revitalized the movement by organizing public parades at a time when “proper” women didn’t flaunt themselves in such a way.
Harriot Stanton Blatch’s tactics and ideology overlapped with those of feminist Alice Paul; in 1915 she merged her Women’s Political Union with Paul’s Congressional Union, which became the National Woman’s Party. When the United States entered World War I, Harriot took on the directorship of the Woman’s Land Army, an organization that guaranteed farm labor would continue as American men joined the military.
After the war, she published two books: Mobilizing Woman-Power, a celebration of women’s contributions to the war effort and a brisk reminder of their duties as citizens, and A Woman’s Point of View: Some Roads to Peace, which focused on the affects of war on women and children and the role of women in shaping peace.
The Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920, guaranteeing most American women the right to vote. Harriot became a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, viewing it as the next necessary step to securing women’s rights. In 1922, she published a co-edited collection of her mother’s papers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton as revealed in her letters, diary, and reminiscences. Shortly before Harriot’s death in 1940, she finished (with the help of feminist Alma Lutz) her own autobiography, Challenging Years: The Memoirs of Harriot Stanton Blatch.
Historian Ellen Carol DuBois brought Harriot Stanton Blatch’s career to life in the 1997 prize-winning biography, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. DuBois, now retired as a professor of history and gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, is considered a pioneer in the field of women’s history. As a graduate student at Northwestern University, DuBois became involved with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the radical wing of the 1960s women’s rights movement. Her 1978 book, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869, was considered for many years as the best book on the suffrage movement, inspiring many other historians to explore its multiple facets.
The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Each week I’m highlighting one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women. This week’s installment on Harriet Jacobs and Jean Fagan Yellin contains elements of a great literary detective story.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) is best known for her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs had been born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, and as a girl came to live in the household of one of the town’s physicians, Dr. James Norcom. By the time she entered her teens, Norcom made clear his plans to force her into a sexual liaison. Jacobs, determined to avoid this and secure her freedom, began an affair with a local lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, and had two children with him. Still, Norcom pursued her.
In the 1830s, Harriet Jacobs hid herself in her grandmother’s attic and orchestrated the sale of her children to Sawyer, who eventually got them to freedom in the North. Jacobs remained in the cramped space for seven years before she could arrange to safely follow. In New York, she became involved in abolition work and in the early 1850s began writing an account of her life as an enslaved person.
A sympathetic white friend had purchased Harriet Jacobs’s freedom. Jacobs no longer had to worry about Norcom using the Fugitive Slave Law against her, but she still chose to publish her autobiography under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and she changed the names of the other real-life people in her story. She told an unvarnished tale about the sexual violence endemic in slavery, something long whispered about but rarely publicly discussed. Jacobs also worried about reactions to her confession about her out-of-wedlock relationship with Samuel Sawyer. It took a great amount of bravery to write such a revealing book.
By the time it was getting into readers’ hands in early 1861, the secession movement had started in the South. The Civil War would begin in April. Harriet Jacobs worked in Washington, D.C. to assist the formerly enslaved people who fled there for safety. She and her daughter Louisa operated a school, too, before they headed back South after the war to help the newly freed people. Jacobs ultimately returned to Washington, where she died in 1897.
Harriet Jacobs’s book was largely forgotten by the time the twentieth century rolled around. Most historians who ran across old copies of it assumed it was fiction, penned by an abolitionist to promote the cause. But Jean Fagan Yellin (1930- ), then an English professor at Pace University who wrote about nineteenth-century women, race, and literature, wasn’t so quick to accept that assumption. She combed through archives for years, looking for mentions of the work and clues to its author’s identity. In 1981, Yellin published the article “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Narrative” in the journal American Literature. Six years later, Harvard University Press republished Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Yellin.
The biography, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, came out in 2004, Jean Fagan Yellin’s expert narrative of Jacobs’s extraordinary life. Without Yellin’s willingness to ask new questions and explore new sources, Harriet Jacobs might have been lost to history for many more years.
The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” On Wednesdays during March, I’ll highlight one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women.
I’ll begin with Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), a writer, social activist, suffragist, and feminist who was a member of the socially and culturally influential Beecher family that included the minister Lyman Beecher and the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher. Note: Gilman didn’t always like the feminist label and her views on race were hardly laudatory.
(Photo: Francis Benjamin Johnston via Library of Congress)
While separated from her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892, a semi-autobiographical account of a young wife’s struggle with post-partum depression and the doctor-recommended “rest cure.” The story received mixed reviews at the time, but has since gone on to become a classic piece of feminist literature.
Feminism and social reform intrigued Gilman, leading her to reject the tradition gender conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was especially critical of the lack of financial independence for women. In 1898, Gilman published Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. The book’s success turned her into an international figure in the women’s movement. Two years later, she remarried, this time more happily to her cousin, Houghton Gilman.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman has attracted the attention of scholars and biographers since at least the 1980s. In 2010, historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz published Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of my favorites. Horowitz showed how Gilman’s experiences as a patient and then later as a writer documenting her treatment reflected the way nineteenth-century Americans understood mental health and illness. It’s one of the most interesting explorations of Gilman and her work.
Horowitz received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University in 1969, when “second-wave” feminism was at high tide in the United States. She went on to teach, ending her academic career at Smith College as the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History. Many of Horowitz’s books, including Wild Unrest, focused on women’s history. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, published in 2002, was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
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