Wednesday, April 30, 2014
April 30, 2014: Reading New England Women: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
[Many of the writers and works that have been “re-discovered” in the academy over the last few decades remain largely and unfortunately unread in our broader society. That’s definitely true for a great many of the wonderful New England women writers we’ve brought back into the canon. So this week, I’ll highlight an exemplary work by five such New England women writers. Check ‘em out!]
On a fictional woman we should all get to know—and the many women she should have.
I made an extended case for Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) in this long-ago post, and would reiterate that her entire career and body of work are well worth our collective attention. She continually moved back and forth between political activism and spiritual uplift, gritty realism and sentimental heart-string-pulling, and while talented at both is particularly interesting because of the duality (it’s as if Nicholas Sparks also wrote labor activist novels). But if we were to read only one of her books (and I know that the odds of reintroducing the entire Phelps canon into our collective consciousness are slim to none), to my mind it should absolutely be The Story of Avis (1877), perhaps my favorite American novel about the complexities and challenges of women’s lives and identities.
As its title suggests, Phelps’ novel follows its protagonist Avis Dobell through much of her tumultuous life, from childhood with a mysterious deceased mother and professorial single father through her education and training as a painter and into her adulthood, when she finds herself torn between marriage and motherhood on the one hand and career and artistic ambition on the other. Many scholars have called the book one of the most overtly feminist 19th century novels, and there’s no doubt that Avis’s needy husband Philip Ostrander (an academic with whom Avis falls in love as she nurses him back to health from a Civil War wound, and to whom she always maintains a kind of caregiving relationship) and their children pull her away from her individual career and goals. Phelps is too talented a novelist to turn that plot into a one-sided political treatise, however, and every aspect of Avis is drawn sensitively and demands our close reading and thought.
Moreover, Phelps structures her novel around a series of conversations between Avis and other women, scenes that both reveal Avis’s tragic flaw (her inability to connect to others sufficiently, either to empathize with their lives or to share hers with them) and open up a far wider and more compelling window into 19th century American women’s lives. Some of these women are likewise influenced by that darn Philip, including his abandoned first wife and his lonely widowed mother; but many others are simply illustrative of other experiences, such as Avis’s widowed Aunt Chloe (who could have been a botanist but settles for planting flowers while helping raise Avis after her mother’s death) or her childhood friend Coy Bishop (who seems to be far happier with marriage and motherhood—but is she? Is anybody, entirely?). I don’t know of any American novel that includes so many rich and complex female characters—and while Avis unfortunately doesn’t learn as much as she should about any of them, we have no excuse not to do the same.
Next writer and work tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other under-read writers or works you’d share?