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

Janine Bradbury, “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”, 5.15pm, Tuesday 20th November, Room 101, 5 University Gardens

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Racial Passing and its Transatlantic Contexts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Lifebrought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

Bio: Janine Bradbury is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at York St John University where she is also the Acting Subject Director of American Studies. Her work on passing has appeared in the Guardian and her forthcoming book Contemporary African American Women Writers and Passing will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Anzia Yezierska

**Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW on the 28th of February**

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Anzia Yezierska. She was born around 1880 in Russian Poland and emigrated to the United States in 1890. She grew up in poverty in the Jewish immigrant community of Manhattan’s lower East Side, one of nine children.* She left home at seventeen, rejecting the expectations of her deeply religious father about the ‘appropriate’ roles for women in society. She held down a series of manual jobs while studying, and eventually gained a degree and pursued a career as a writer.

Issues of gender, identity and poverty permeate Yezierska’s writing. Her first book, a collection of short stories titled Hungry Hearts (1920), was well-received. It was quickly turned into a Hollywood film, boosting Yezierska’s reputation as a writer and earning her a significant sum of money. She published prolifically throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but her work became less popular and fell out of fashion in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1970 in relative obscurity, having published just one book in the last forty years of her life (Red Ribbon on a White Horse, 1950).

Shortly after Yezierska’s death, Alice Kessler-Harris arranged the first reprinted edition of Bread Givers (1925) in 1975, and Persea Books went on to reprint copies of many of Yezierska’s other works over the coming years. Public and scholarly interest in Yezierska has grown steadily, as new generations find inspiration in her words.

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Sketch of Yezierska, 1921 [image from Wikimedia Commons]
While much of Yezierska’s work is autobiographical, this is arguably most true of Bread Givers. Yezierska’s protagonist Sara Smolinsky is fiercely independent, and ready to take advantage of all the opportunities available to her in the so-called ‘New World’:

“Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!

[…]

“My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m American!”

Bread Givers, ch.VIII

The presence of such a strong-willed female protagonist is refreshing, especially for a novel of this period. It skilfully questions the realities of the American Dream, while simultaneously raising issues concerning identity and cultural assimilation. The tension between the old and new is drawn out through the relationship between Sara and her parents, who prevent her from truly escaping from the restrictions imposed by her religious and cultural background. And, while the novel was once criticised for its use of vernacular and colloquialisms, the value of such rhetorical techniques is now lauded by scholars and the public alike, for adding to the novel’s realism.

Given recent discussions about gender and women’s roles in society, Bread Givers remains astonishingly relevant to a modern reader. Indeed, perhaps Yezierska’s greatest talent is presenting such a vivid and accurate portrayal of a very specific community, yet enabling readers from diverse cultures and backgrounds to find value in her writing.

Yezierska’s first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, is available to read online. It’s well worth dipping into if you want to get a feel for her writing style and the themes she engages with in her writing.

 

By Sarah Thomson

 

*Biographical detail taken from Alice Kessler Harris’s foreword and introduction to Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, Inc. 2003).