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"The terrible patience of the centuries...",
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This review is from: Daughters Of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle (Paperback)
Fin-de-Siècle translates as "end of century" in this case, for the end of the 19th century a period renowned for so called `decadence' within the arts. Stories by women became endemic to the age. This book contains many examples - women writing courageously about sexuality, or marital discontent were often denounced as `literary degenerates' or erotomaniacs, and only a few of the most deserving, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', have been rescued, and anthologised quite a few times, but most have never been reprinted or anthologised. This volume brings together twenty of the most original.
The best of them is still undoubtedly 'The Yellow Wallpaper', a gentle beginning gradually gives way to a chilling story of a woman being driven to madness by the stifling treatment by her husband and her doctor, all with the aim of ministering to what the men are pleased to call "nerves". What is the worst part is that these men are acting from the best of their instincts, to protect and help her. It must stand for the worst Victorian paternalism in both spouse and medic.
To be honest, there is not much that would cause the most innocent of maiden aunts to raise much of an eyebrow in any of the stories here - one has to remember that at the time that they were written, novels by women were regarded as highly suspect and unusual. They were writing from a time (most began writing in the 1870s or 80s) before emancipation was much bruited or understood. Some of the short stories have a sense of artificiality - perhaps merely because the writers were preternaturally conscious that they would be held in scant regard. Some reacted with an extraordinary kind of hearty bluffness about the opposite sex and depicting their men almost as if as soon as one had a husband he became oddly sexless. There are no bedroom scenes, though one hale fellow picks up his wife and carries her off to her settee. There is also an outrageously mocking satire by a man, the so-called Borgia Smudgiton, printed in Punch, giving his version of female writing. It's hilarious.
This collection is worth reading, for the Gilman story alone, but there are others to enjoy, particularly the spooky story by Charlotte Mew, Edith Wharton's 'The Muse's Tragedy', and Constance Fenimore Woolson's 'Miss Grief'. Other stories are also worth a look even if you don't read to the end, to see how women had to re-invent themselves in order to get a hearing.