In Keynotes (1893), you seem to be trying to find and set the tone for your exploration of (what you conceived as) the female experience.
I wonder whether the opening story, “A Cross Line”, could be read as a keynote to your Keynotes: here, as in each of the subsequent stories, we have a woman who is on the verge of crossing a line. The collection begins with the first stirrings of motherhood and ends with mourning – each seen as a rite of passage and a form of trespass.
The book is dedicated to Knut Hamsun, “in memory of a day when the west wind and the rainbow met”. In “Now Spring Has Come”, which seems to be based on your relationship with Hamsun, a woman is ditched by a famous writer, while Spring forfeits its promise of love. In the meantime, she lashes out at the state of affairs that leaves her with few choices in life: “Men manufactured an artificial morality; made sins of things that were as clean in themselves as the pairing of birds on the wing; crushed nature, robbed it of its beauty and meaning, and established a system that means war, and always war, because it is a struggle between instinctive truths and cultivated lies. Yes, I know I speak hotly; but my heart burns in me sometimes, and I hate myself. (…) In one word, the untrue feminine is of man’s making.”
She bemoans a culture of repression where she is not able to give free rein to her desires, and is made to brave Autumn and Winter to wait for Spring: “We have one short life, and it is spoiled by chains of our own forging in deference to narrow custom. (…) You see there is no time of sowing wild oats for women; we repress and repress, and then some day we stumble on the man who just satisfies our sexual and emotional nature, and then there is shipwreck of some sort. When we shall live larger and freer lives, we shall be better balanced than we are now”.
My favourite story in this collection was “The Spell of the White Elf”, where our narrator, a woman with (in her own words) no vocation for marriage, meets a learned lady married to a man who keeps the house while she goes out to “win bread and butter”. “There is something manlike about her”, muses our narrator.
The learned lady later tells her about the white elf whom she, not being able to bear children, adopted from an acquaintance who used to hate her. “Well, the elf was born; and now comes the singular part of it. It was a wretched, frail little being, with a startling likeness to me. It was as if the evil the mother had wished me had worked on the child, and the constant thought of me stamped my features on its little face.”
The lady was writing a book at the time, and the thought of the elf kept disturbing her work: “It made me think sometimes that it would be pleasant to hear small, pattering feet and the call of voices through the silent house; and I suppose it acted as an irritant on my imaginative faculty, for the whole room seemed filled with the spirits of little children. They seemed to dance round me with uncertain, lightsome steps, waving tiny, pink, dimpled hands, shaking sunny, flossy curls, and haunting me with their great innocent child-eyes, filled with the unconscious sadness and the infinite questioning that is oftenest seen in the gaze of children. I used to fancy something stirred in me, and the spirits of unborn little ones never to come to life in me troubled me.”
“A Little Grey Glove”, the most conventional story in this collection, begins with an epigram by Oscar Wilde: “The book of life begins with a man and woman in a garden and ends – with Revelations”. The story is narrated by a male character who falls in love with a divorced woman whom he had met while fishing. The woman leaves him one of her gloves and promises to return to have it back, in exchange for “her grey eyes shining”.
“An Empty Frame”, another favourite of mine, centres on a woman who muses about her unhappy marriage, while throwing away an empty frame where she used to keep her past lover’s photo. “Her inner soul-struggle is acting as a strong developing fluid upon a highly sensitized plate; anger, scorn, pity, contempt chase one another like shadows across her face.”
In “Under Northern Sky – I: How Marie Larsen Exorcised a Demon”, a maidservant entertains her drunken master with her storytelling, like a Scheherazade, so that her mistress can enjoy an uninterrupted night of sleep. “Under Northern Sky – II: A Shadow’s Slant” centres on an abusive marriage, and seems to hint at the shadow of a change: “No, you are not afraid, you little white-faced thing; you obey because you are strong enough to endure, not because you fear me.” In “Under Northern Sky – III: An Ebb Tide”, the concluding story, a servant, Gundrun, helps her recently widowed mistress to make a journey towards “a brighter dawn”, after the death of the master of the house.
While cooperative cross-class relationships between women provide the framework of your exploration of keystones of (what you take for) the female experience, most of your protagonists are white, middle- and upper-class, European women – so that the trespassing you attempted to do here, while remaining shocking for your contemporaries, feels conventional and tame for us now.
Like a character in one of your stories, you seem trapped inside the very values you were trying to subvert. You are banging your wings against the grid, and your writing reads like an attempt to capture their flutter on a photograph: something broken, doomed to failure, but strangely beautiful.
“It is the fashion to decry love; yet the vehemence of the denials, the keenness of the weapons of satire and scepticism that are turned against it only prove its existence. As long as man is man and woman is woman, it will be to them at some time the sweetest and possibly the most fatal interest in life to them. Thrust it aside for ambition or gain, slight it as you will, sooner or later it will have its revenge. I had felt no breath of it as maid, wife, or widow; my heart had been a free, wild, shy thing, jessed by my will. Sometimes, by way of experiment, I let it fly to someone for an hour, but always to call it back again to my own safe keeping. Now it left me. – George Egerton, “Now Spring Has Come”, In: Keynotes
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1983, 256 p. Goodreads
- Keynotes was originally published in 1893
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy; The Classics Club; A Century of Books; Reclaim Her Name; Virago Modern Classics; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; Australian Women Writers Challenge, hosted by Elizabeth.