Guest Blog – Playfulness and Pseudonyms: Introducing George Fleming, yet another forgotten Transatlantic Literary Woman

Guest Blog by Lisa Nais, 
Doctoral Researcher,
University of Aberdeen 

Playfulness and Pseudonyms: Introducing George Fleming, yet another forgotten Transatlantic Literary Woman

The nineteenth century saw quite an astonishing number of literary talents named George: George Fleming, George Paston, George Egerton and, of course, George Eliot. The other thing that these Georges had in common was their sex: they were all female. Julia Constance Fletcher, Emily Morse Symmonds, Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright and Mary Ann Evans. With the exception of George Eliot, it is hard to determine which of these women is least known. Here, I shall make the case for George Fleming. If you type her pseudonym into Google, you have to scroll down four pages until you find the first reference to the author. A footballer, a managing director and a teaching fellow of the same name are more popular than my subject. I continued my little experiment and scrolled down another few pages, looking for my own publications on Fleming. Somewhat dejectedly, I gave up on page twenty.

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Hence, an introduction is in order. Julia Constance Fletcher was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1853 to a clergyman from Indianapolis and his Swiss wife, who was rumoured to be prone to infidelity. When Constance was in her teens, her parents’ marriage broke apart, and her mother started living together with her lover and the children. Eventually, they married and moved to Italy with Constance, while her brother joined the American military forces. Constance enjoyed a Bohemian lifestyle, and when they went on the Grand Tour in 1876, she transformed her experiences into a novel, Kismet, which, published in 1877 under the pseudonym “George Fleming”, turned out to be a bestseller. The next year saw the publication of another bestseller, Mirage, which is now thought to include the first fictionalisation of Oscar Wilde, whom Constance met and struck up a friendship with in 1876. In 1879, she was the subject of the London rumour mills, as she was engaged to be married to Lord Byron’s grandson. This engagement was short-lived, however, because of her mother’s reputation. Rather than despairing over her loss, Constance took her friend Robert Browning’s advice and returned to her literary career, publishing four novels and two short story collections in the years 1880-1895. In the 1890s, she turned to the London stage, producing several popular plays of her own creation and adapting, for instance, Rudyard Kipling’s The Light that Failed and Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesque, with great success. At the turn of the century, however, she suffered a ruptured blood vessel at the back of her eyes and partially lost her sight, which left her incapable to write as prolifically as she had done before. Her popularity waned and her income diminished in the last decades of her life. She died in Venice in 1938.

Part of the reason for the incognisance of Constance Fletcher and her body of work is her withdrawal from public life due to her diminishing eyesight; another part is the androcentrism of the literary canon. However, a decent amount of work has been done to re-establish Fletcher’s reputation. Type “Constance Fletcher” into Google, and the first three hits are a Wikipedia entry and two more scholarly biographical encyclopaedia entries for Fletcher, followed by my scholarly article on her novel Mirage and her contribution to the British aesthetic movement. While the majority of these sources also state her pseudonym, the name “George Fleming” seems not to be associated with Constance Fletcher nowadays, when the exact opposite was the case in the nineteenth century.

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George Fleming was well-known before Constance Fletcher was. Her first two novels were published as part of the Roberts Brothers’ No Name Series in the US and under the pseudonym George Fleming in the UK (Macmillan). The American mode of publication entailed speculation about the identity of the author, as books in the No Name Series were published anonymously. Fletcher playfully claims the novel back as her own, opening Mirage with the words “Her name was Constance” (9). However, the British and the American publishing context overlapped at times. For example, the two novels were reviewed by Henry James in the American periodical The Nation. James lived in London at the time and likely read the English edition by Macmillan, which was signed off George Fleming. The American edition, in contrast, was published anonymously, and this ambiguity is reflected in James’s review. Since he was acquainted with Fletcher, James picks up on her authorial playfulness, noting that “we say ‘her’ characters, for, in spite of the name on the title-page, the tone of these pages is irremediably feminine” (LC I 275). The title page of the American edition of Mirage, however, stated no name. The curiosity and speculation generated by these publishing practices are characteristic of Fletcher’s deployment of her pseudonym. I will spend the remainder of this blog article discussing the piece of writing that most overtly plays with Fletcher’s masculine alter ego: an 1888 essay that argues that women cannot think for themselves.

“On a certain Deficiency in Women” was published in the July number of the Universal Review, a short-lived London periodical. It was signed “George Fleming”. And the writer refers to himself in the first person. The piece, I venture to argue, only masquerades as an opinion article. The article opens:

Many years ago the present writer had the pleasant fortune of spending an entire Sunday afternoon lying upon the sun-warm bank of an alpine torrent by the edge of a pine wood, while, near at hand, two young girls discoursed at length upon the triumphant joys of solitude. (398)

Having marked my share of undergraduate (opinion) essays, I would like to grab my red pen, rudely circle the whole passage, and write in all-caps “You’re not in creative writing class!” across the top of the page. Indeed, this opening may well be that of a short story. Under this assumption, then, the question is: what does the opener tell us about the narrator and his story? “Many years ago” reminds rather of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time”. Next comes a parallel alliterative structure “the present writer had the pleasant fortune”, which includes an assonance on top of things. Such a complex, almost poetical structure is hardly deployed co-incidentally. In addition, to that, Fletcher sets the scene in a secluded, romantic spot: on a “sun-warm bank”, near an “alpine torrent” in a “pine wood”. I’m almost tempted to write “romantic” with a capital R. The opener of the piece locates the story in a romanticised setting, well before the year 1888, in which the essay was printed, and thus sets up “George Fleming” as the narrator of the piece whose memory and reliability cannot be straightforwardly assumed.

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The story continues for three pages before the actual philosophising begins. George Fleming’s hypothesis is summarised neatly on page 405 near the close of the piece: “In the present writer’s eyes [women’s] disability consists almost entirely in the feminine incapacity or radical disinclination (the word matters little) for serious, concentrated, and continued thought.” Blatantly misogynist on the surface, this statement also includes some subtle criticism of its superficial meaning. The tautology, “incapacity or radical disinclination”, conjures up a scientific or even medical context for the narrator’s argument. However, the evidence on which his argument is based is “the present writer’s eminent good fortune to [have] become acquainted with a vast number of women, old and young”—that’s not exactly good practice (400-401). Then, the parenthetical aside, “the word matters little”, comments on the pseudo-scientific (mal-)practice. Undercutting the narrator’s argument, the authorial voice butts in to belittle the effort of the androcentric scientific community to define woman’s place in the home with ostensibly scientific substantiation. There are numerous ways to refer to woman’s inferiority, but, really, the verbosity conceals a very simple argument, which serves to keep woman in her designated place.

This is exactly what Fletcher reveals in the sentence following George Fleming’s thesis statement: “And this again derives in a great measure from the crowded life, the gregarious habits, the sheep-like following and halting of educated women” (405). The statement constitutes not only the cause, but also the effect of the belief in woman’s inferiority. Note the use of the noun “halting”. It is not part of a sequence, as in “sheep-like following and halting”, which would imply that the sheep (apparently aka women) actively follow and halt. Rather, an Oxford comma or respectively an additional “and” between “gregarious habits” and “following” is ambiguously missing, which indicates that the agent that does the halting could either be the women or society. Fletcher’s authorial voice develops this ambiguity further. Conspicuously, she ceases to use the narrator’s pronoun “he”, and switches to an authorial “we”, concluding “And are such things [solitude, that is the time and space needed to pursue the same goals as men], then, finally denied to the larger half of our adult population?” (406). The verb “deny”, here, clearly indicates that the agent that imposes such limitations on women is not woman herself.

These instances of narratological as well as semantic playfulness reveal Fletcher’s authorial voice. This voice is that of a New Woman. As Margaret Stetz has argued, New Women’s writing often includes plots that “register outrage against constricting social limitations based on gender” (199). Fletcher’s essay does not merely register outrage; it playfully adopts a misogynist viewpoint in order to undercut and ridicule it, thus making blatant her disdain for such a perspective. And on top of that, her own illustrious career—two bestsellers and another three novels up to 1888—constitutes an antithesis to “George Fleming’s” flawed hypothesis.

Lisa Nais

References

Fleming, George. Mirage. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878. [published anonymously]

— “On a certain Deficiency in Women”. The Universal Review1.3(1888): 398-406

James, Henry. Literary Criticism: Volume I. New York: Library of America. 1984

Stetz, Margaret D. “New Women Writing Beyond the Novel”. In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880-1920: Volume Seven. Ed. Holly A. Laird. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 189-202

EVENT: ‘Starving for Heroines: On Women Writers, Fame and Forgetting’ with Joanna Scutts

Please join Transatlantic Literary Women on Thursday 12th of December at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for a talk by cultural historian Joanna Scutts on forgotten women writers and our relationships with them. We hope you can join us for this discussion on a subject very close to our hearts!

2 pm, Thursday 12th December, Board Room, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EW.

Free to all but booking required via eventbrite:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/starving-for-heroines-on-women-writers-fame-and-forgetting-tickets-72958895019

NLS Event Poster

‘Starving for Heroines: On Women Writers, Fame and Forgetting’ Why are we constantly rediscovering women writers? How do they get lost in the first place? In this talk the literary critic and cultural historian Joanna Scutts will explore the power structures that shape literary fame, and argue that we mustn’t let our hunger for individual icons blind us to the diversity of women’s voices. Real change – in how we read, remember, and write about brilliant women and brilliant books – depends on raising up a crowd of diverse, surprising, and transformative voices.

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Joanna Scutts is a literary critic and cultural historian based in New York. She is the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (2017)the story of a forgotten 1930s self-help writer and lifestyle guru for single women. As a postdoctoral fellow at the New-York Historical Society, she helped plan and launch a new Center for Women’s History, which opened in 2017. Her writing has appeared in The Washington PostThe New Yorker online, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement, among many other venues. Her new book project explores friendship and feminism in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1910s.

 

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This is a collaboration between the National Library of Scotland and The Transatlantic Literary Women Series, which is generously funded by the British Association for American Studies/United States Embassy Small Grants Programme. Follow us on Twitter: @atlantlitwomen

EVENT: ‘Diana Gabaldon and the American Obsession with Scotland’ with Dr. Rachel Noorda

Please join us and Dr. Rachel Noorda on the 11th of November for the second event of this TLW series: the Outlander-themed discussion, ‘Diana Gabaldon and the American Obsession with Scotland’.

Free to all! 5:15pm on the 11th of November, Room 205, 4 The Square, University of Glasgow.
Come along for refreshments, and a discussion of transatlantic relations in popular literature and media!

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Transatlantic American writer Diana Gabaldon is author of the bestselling Scottish historical fiction Outlander series, which has sold over 20 million copies. In this talk, Dr. Rachel Noorda investigates Gabaldon’s popularity amongst readers in the United States through the lens of the Scottish diaspora to untangle the reasons for the American obsession with Scotland in literature.

Dr. Rachel Noorda is Director of Book Publishing and Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University. She earned her PhD in Publishing Studies from the University of Stirling. Her research expertise and interests include twenty-first century book culture, international book marketing and audiences (like the Scottish diaspora), and small business and entrepreneurship in book publishing.

The Transatlantic Literary Women Series is generously funded by the British Association for American Studies / United States Embassy Small Grants Programme. Follow us on twitter @atlantlitwomen.

 

Workshop: Debunking the Scholarly Journal Mystique

                        

Workshop Leader: Susan Tomlinson (University of Massachusetts Boston)

Wed 2 Oct 2019, 2.30pm; Room 205, 5 University Gardens, University of Glasgow

Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask! Please join the Transatlantic Literary Women team for this friendly, hands-on workshop led by the brilliant editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Professor Susan Tomlinson. Free. ALL welcome.

Modelled on the Modern Language Association’s “How to Get Published” roundtable and individual “Chat with an Editor” meetings, this workshop will explore the vagaries, challenges, and delights of scholarly journals. Professor Susan Tomlinson, the editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, will offer guidance for entering this stage of your scholarly development: How does the peer-review process work? What do editors look for and what distresses them? How should you decide when to submit your work and how should you prepare your submission? Bring questions, pitch ideas, and let’s talk about the future of the profession.

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Susan Tomlinson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Her work focuses on late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century US literature, particularly black and middlebrow women writers and the anxieties their work incites among the arbiters of modernism. 

The Transatlantic Literary Women Series is generously funded by the British Association for American Studies / United States Embassy Small Grants Programme. Follow us on twitter @atlantlitwomen.

 

 

EVENT: Jessie Fauset at the Front of Modernism by Susan Tomlinson

We’re SO ready for our first TLW Series 4 event!

Please join us on Tuesday 1 October 2019 for the first TLW event of the new session – a talk by the brilliant US-based scholar Professor Susan Tomlinson (University of Massachusetts Boston) on “Jessie Fauset at the Front of Modernism”.  Talk starts at 5.15pm, refreshments available from 5pm. Room 202, 4 University Gardens, University of Glasgow. Free. ALL welcome!

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France enchanted Jessie Fauset (1882-1961), whose fiction, poetry, and travel writing tracked a personal and intellectual engagement that began during her time as a postgraduate student at the Sorbonne and continued through her career as an author, editor of the Crisis magazine, and architect of the Harlem Renaissance. This talk will trace Fauset’s professional and personal relationship to France as a coming-of-age site, from the function of the First World War in her first novel There Is Confusion (1922), through her foray into Jazz Age Paris in Plum Bun (1928), to the racial violence and despair of 1933 in her final novel, Comedy: American Style. It explores how black American modernists refashioned prevailing constructions of Great War literature, entre-deux-guerres expat culture, and middlebrow transatlanticism. Susan will invite us to consider the contours of cultural enchantment and how it forms transatlantic women writers’ literary sensibility and reforms our own constructions of modernism.  

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Susan Tomlinson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Her work focuses on late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century US literature, particularly black and middlebrow women writers and the anxieties their work incites among the arbiters of modernism. 

The Transatlantic Literary Women Series is generously funded by the British Association for American Studies / United States Embassy Small Grants Programme. Follow us on twitter @atlantlitwomen.


 

Get to know the TLW Team – New Committee Member Lindsay Middleton

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I am writing to introduce myself as the newest member of the TLW team. I am very excited to have recently joined as an online committee member! I will be involved in managing the blog and Twitter accounts, as well as organising the wonderful events and bookclubs that TLW have in store.

Over the past few years I have attended the University of Glasgow, getting my MA in English Literature and my MLitt in Victorian Literature there. Over that time I have attended numerous TLW events, so I am thrilled to now be involved in such a valuable and important community.

My current research is slightly at odds with the TLW rubric, in that I consider recipes and literature from nineteenth-century Britain. My PhD project – ‘The Technical Recipe: A Formal Analysis of Nineteenth-century Food Writing – uses a formal reading to chart the development of the recipe as a textual genre, as well as investigating the innovations in material food technology that influenced Victorian eating and cooking. As such, my project sits across the disciplines of English Literature and the History of Technology, and I have one supervisor at the University of Glasgow and another at the University of Aberdeen. It’s fair to say, then, that I’m used to my interests being spread across multiple areas!

One of my core beliefs when it comes to my research, and in general, is that recipes, domestic texts and women’s writing have the ability and power to both highlight the structures that govern society, but also to disrupt them. Given the domestic slant of my work, and the fact that the majority of historical food texts were marketed at and read by women (either housewives or their female servants), I am passionate about uncovering the latent power that is so often overlooked in these texts. Recipes are not normally deemed ‘literary’, and cookbooks – like popular fiction – are too often dismissed as ‘feminine’ unscholarly texts, and are therefore overlooked in scholarship. The gap this creates is one I see as full of potential.
The hidden texts read daily by hidden women do not just represent and strengthen the patriarchal structures those women work within, in the domestic sphere. Those texts also have the potential to upset those systems and create spaces within patriarchal societies in which women can express themselves.

It is this interest that has lead me to the TLW and the events they put on, as they create a space in which women’s writing is at the fore. Having fruitful discussions with likeminded readers is such a rewarding thing, and demonstrates the good that comes from paying attention to women writers who have used their writing to create a space of power and presence. Moreover, my interest in food has always led me to those transatlantic women who adapt and create new culinary trends in their travels. From the endlessly influential Julia Child, to Elizabeth David, to M.F.K Fisher, whose writing about crossing the Atlantic in The Gastronomical Me is incredibly beautiful, these women have always used food as a means of creating community across the ocean – and that is something I find fascinating.

I am therefore very excited to get involved with the TLW team, and be a part of the very necessary conversations they facilitate. And who knows, maybe some tantalising discussions about female foodies lie in our future!

Lindsay

 

TLW Bookclub: The Custard Heart & Other Stories, Dorothy Parker

TLW Bookclub is back! And we’re back in style with Dorothy Parker’s collection of vibrant Jazz Age short stories.

Join the team on Wednesday 20 February at 5pm in room 203, 4 University Gardens to talk about Penguin Modern’s The Custard Heart, with three brilliant stories from Dorothy Parker; her award-winning ‘Big Blonde’, the iconic ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’ and the story the collection is named after, ‘The Custard Heart’. Whether you’ve spent a lifetime reading Parker or are reading her for the first time, we welcome all for some friendly discussion. Snacks, wine, soft drinks and copies of the book are all free!

There are thirty free copies of the book available from John Smith’s bookshop on campus. Please ask at the front desk and give them the not-so-secret password: martini.

First come, first served. When they’re gone they’re gone!