George Egerton

George Egerton (pen name of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright; 14 December 1859 – 12 August 1945) was an Australian-born Irish writer.

She was born in Melbourne, Australia, to a Welsh mother and an Irish father. Due to her father’s employment as an army officer, her family moved extensively between Australia, New Zealand and Chile, before settling in Ireland, where Egerton spent most of her childhood. In a letter to her cousin Ethel de Vere White, in 1926, Egerton declared herself to be “‘Intensely Irish’“.

She was schooled for two years in Germany at a Catholic boarding school. After the early death of her mother, in 1875, when Egerton was just fourteen, she had to help her father to raise her younger siblings. To earn money to support her family, she trained as a nurse in London and New York, where she spent two years, from 1884 to 1886.

In 1886, she returned to Ireland as the travel companion of Charlotte Whyte-Melville, whose husband Henry Higginson (Henry Peter Whyte-Melville) was a friend of her father’s. Two years later, in 1888, to her father’s horror, Egerton eloped with Henry and they moved to Norway. Henry later divorced Charlotte to marry Egerton, in June 1888, but died a year later, in 1889, due to complications related to his alcoholism.

Egerton remained in Norway for two years, and had a brief love affair with Knut Hamsun in 1890 (She would later become his first English translator, after rendering his novel Hunger – Sult – into English, in 1899).

In 1891, she returned to Ireland and married the Canadian writer Egerton Tertius Clairmonte. Due to his lack of income, Egerton decided to start a career as a writer, under the pseudonym ‘George Egerton’ (a tribute to both her mother Isabel George Bynon and to her husband Egerton Clairmonte).

Punch Magazine, April 28th, 1894

Egerton published her first short story collection, Keynotes, in 1893, and dedicated the book to Knut Hamsun. The book achieved commercial success, prompted comparison to Ibsen, and made her a literary celebrity. In a review published in The Academy in 1894, literary critic William Sharp described Egerton’s fictional world as “topsy-turvey”, for its exploration of female sexuality and abusive marital relations. Egerton soon acquired a reputation as a scandalous fin de siècle figure, and was satirized as ‘Borgia Smudgiton’, in “She-Notes”, published in Punch, on March 10th and 17th, 1894, as well as in the cartoon “Donna Quixote”, published in Punch on April 28th, 1894.

Egerton was also a controversial proto-feminist figure: she rejected any notion of gender equality, because she believed that women were superior to men; she also publicly tried to distance herself from the suffragist movement. In a letter to Ernst Foerster in 1900, she wrote: “I am embarrassed at the outset by the term ‘New Woman’ … I had, contrary to opinion, no propaganda in view — no emancipation theory to propound, no equality idea to illumine“.

However, in her private letters, Egerton expressed pro-suffrage opinions. In a letter to her father from February 29th, 1908, she wrote: “The women won’t be beaten in the long run. – In every class they have a greater average of intelligence than the men…It isn’t a question of Rights. It is a question of Economic change. A Surplus population of women who must work, outside home life…means: if I pay the tax – I must get the vote!

Egerton wrote for the famous quarterly literary periodical The Yellow Book, and corresponded with Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats. She was also close friends with George Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry and J. M. Barrie. Thomas Hardy’s New Woman character in Jude the Obscure (1895), Sue Bridehead, is said to have been based on Egerton. Her novel The Wheel of God (1898) is also said to have been a potential influence on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922).

In 1895, she gave birth to a son. That same year, in 1895 (some sources say 1901), Egerton divorced Egerton Clairmont and embarked on single-motherhood. Her son would later die during WWI, in 1915.

In 1901, Egerton married the theatre critic and agent Reginald Golding-Bright, who was fifteen years her junior. Under his influence, she became theatre agent to George Bernard Shaw, who produced her first play, and also to Somerset Maugham.  Egerton passed her final 40 years in seclusion in London. Her husband died in 1941.

Four years later, Egerton was found dead in a nursing home, after presumably having fallen down the stairs. Some speculated that she had suffered a stroke some weeks before. She died on August 12th, 1945.

By then, she was already completely forgotten, but, in her time, Egerton was considered one of the most important writers in the late 19th-century New Woman and Decadent movements. Nowadays, she is also considered a key exponent of early modernism in English-language literature. She wrote novels, short stories, plays, a volume of letters, two translations from Norwegian, and left behind an unpublished and incomplete autobiography, and a journal.

According to Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own (1977), Egerton set out “to invent a new literary form for the feminine unconscious”. In “A Keynote to Keynotes,” Egerton wrote: “I realized that in literature, everything had been better done by man than woman could hope to emulate. There was only one small plot left for her to tell: the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man liked to imagine her – in a word, to give herself away, as man had given himself away in his writings.” (“A Keynote to Keynotes”, by George Egerton, in Ten Contemporaries: Notes Toward Their Definitive Bibliography, ed. John Gawsworth (1932)

Egerton’s writing style challenged the narrative conventions of her time – a choice that also mirrored her thematic refusal to conform to the prevailing codes of morality that kept women in a subordinate role. As she wrote in her short story “Now Spring Has Come” (1893), “the untrue feminine is of man’s making”.

Books

  • Keynotes (1893, short stories)
  • Discords (1894, short stories)
  • Symphonies (1897, short stories)
  • Fantasias (1898, book of Nietzschean parables)
  • The Wheel of God (1898, novel)
  • Rosa Amorosa. The Love Letters of a Woman (1901, novel)
  • Flies in Amber (1905, short stories)
  • His Wife’s Family (1908, play)
  • The Backsliders(1910, play)
  • Camilla States Her Case (1925, play)
  • A Leaf from The Yellow Book: The Correspondence of George Egerton, ed. Terence de Vere White (1958)

Anthologies

  • Femmes de Siecles, stories from the 90s, women writing at the end of two centuries, ed. Joan Smith (1992)
  • Woman’s Part …short fiction by and about Irish women 1890-1960, ed. Janet Madden-Simpson (1984)
  • Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, ed. Elaine Showalter (1993)
  • The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short Stories, ed. Dennis Denisoff (2004)
  • Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890-1914, ed. Angelique Richardson (2002)

About her

  • Six Modern Women: Psychological Sketches,by Laura Marholm Hansson, tr. Hermione Ramsden (1896)
  • The New Woman and the Empire, by Iveta Jusova (2005)
  • Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (1995)
  • The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, ed. Barbara Harman, Susan Meyer and Joan Sutherland (1996)
  • “Bitextuality and Cultural (Re)Production in the 1890s”, by Rosie Miles, Women’s Writing, Volume 3, Issue 3 1996, pp. 243–259.
  • “Reconsidering the awakening: The literary sisterhood of Kate Chopin and George Egerton”, by Charlotte Rich, Southern Quarterly, Spring 2003
  • “Irish Women Novelists 1800-1940”, ed. Anne Fogarty, Colby Quarterly, 2 [Special Issue], June 2000, pp. 145–156.
  • Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. Abigail Burnham Bloom (2000)
  • A new woman reader: fiction, articles, and drama of the 1890s, ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson (2001)
  • New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism, by Ann L. Ardis (1990)
  • The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle, by Sally Ledger (1997)
  • The Cambridge guide to women’s writing in English, ed. Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, Elaine Showalter (1999)
  • A Literature of their Own, by Elaine Showalter (1977)
  • Victorian Fiction, by John Sutherland (1988)
  • New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism, by Ann Heilmann (2000)
  • The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, ed. Barbara Leah Harman and Susan Meyer (1996)
  • The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-siècle Feminisms, ed. Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis (2001)
  • The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late Victorian England, by Talia Schaffer (2000)
  • British Women Writers and the Short Story, 1850–1930: Reclaiming Social Space, by Kate Krueger (2014)
  • Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, by Eleanor Fitzsimons (2016)

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