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A constant companion,
This review is from: Daughters Of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle (Paperback)
I actually originally read this book of women's fin-de-siecle short stories last year, but it has been more or less a constant companion ever since. In those gaps where time is too short to read a healthy dose of whichever novel I am on, a quick dip into this wonderful collection is the perfect reading substitute.
Edited by Elaine Showalter (feminist academic and one of My Heroes), this collection rescues fin-de-siecle literature from the clutches of the dominant male writers of the time such as Wilde and Haggard. This was the time of the New Woman, and women were writing furiously. As Showalter says in her excellent introduction:
"Not only as heroines of drama, but also as competitors in marketplace, women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s. They were writing with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to - and about - the New Women of the fin de siecle. Famous, even notorious, in their own day, these women writers have been overshadowed not only by such distinguished male contemporaries as Conrad and Wilde, but also by minor novelists like Haggard and Stoker."
It's time for the women to step forward and take the credit they are due. Arguably the most famous story in this collection is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story The Yellow Wallpaper, which I defy anyone not to love. The story was written in the 1890s after she had been suffering from post-natal depression, and had been treated by Dr Silas Weir Mitchell. He had made her go through the rest cure, and she was not allowed to do anything by stay quietly in bed - she could not even read or write. Now, I can tell you here and now that if I was shut up somewhere in the country without recourse to a healthy dose of books I would be throwing myself out of a high window in fairly short order. Charlotte PG instead waited until she could write again and wrote this furious, eloquent, heartbreaking story of a woman in just such a situation, descending from depression into true madness in her confinement.
However, the lesser-known stories are just as wonderful. Kate Chopin - best known for her novella The Awakening - opens the collection with a very, very short story called An Egyptian Cigarette which sees a woman who smokes a cigarette brought back from Cairo for her and slips into a druggy dream of Egyptian Gods, and a mysterious man.
There is also a feminist counterpart for Conrad's The Heart of Darkness: Charlotte Mew's A White Night. It is narrated by the heroine's brother, Cameron, and follows Ella, Cameron, and Ella's new husband King on their honeymoon to Spain. There they witness the ritual burying alive of a veiled woman, which Showalter rightly calls "a warning of female destiny in the contexts of patriarchy", then sees the party's reaction to it. Ella is massively disturbed and transforms from strong New Woman into speechless hysteric, while Cameron believes that "the woman didn't really count", the whole thing was merely a "spectacle" and a "rather splendid crime".
These are all truly fantastic stories, and I heartily recommend that you all go and haste ye to a place where you can buy it. Go, go, go! You won't regret it.
(And what a gorgeous cover - lovely Virago designs strike again.)