Empire Girls: the colonial heroine comes of age by Mandy Treagus (University of Adelaide Press 2014) is an academic study of three novels: Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter for Today (1894), and Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom (1910). By bringing together these three colonial writers and discussing their work in well-written jargon-free prose, Treagus places their work in a larger context, beyond nationalities. Treagus’s uncovering of what they have in common makes for interesting reading, should one be a fan of fiction of this period. While I of course will focus on her chapter on Sara Jeannette Duncan and on the novel itself, I want to quickly point out that Empire Girls discusses such commonalities as the difficulty of being a woman should one desire anything other than marriage, the notion of Other and racism in their works, and the disconnect all three writers experienced between their culture and the English culture for which they were writing. I find it a relief to learn that Duncan was not alone in her concerns (limited role of women) and in her apparent weaknesses (racism, Empire). Not only did actual women experience limitations, fictional women fared worse under the constraints the realistic novel form imposed on their authors.
I’ve often stumbled when it comes to placing Duncan’s work in a literary period. Is it late Victorian? Is it early modern? Because it reads like neither, too sparkly to be Victorian and too tame to be modern. Treagus offers us this placement: fin de siècle. Of course, that is exactly what Duncan is, writing as she does across the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. That explains the awkwardness, the feeling of everything being in flux.
In her Introduction, Treagus brings up a concept with which I am not familiar: the Second World. Although Wikipedia defines it as former communist countries, Treagus seems to mean the developing world, or former colonies where whites continued to rule. More interesting is her discussion of the Bildungsroman, the novel form that focuses on a character’s development from innocence to maturity, such as Dickens’ Great Expectations or George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. She questions whether, given the social restrictions limiting women, there could be a Bildungsroman with a female character. In her chapter on Olive Schreiner, she links the Bildungsroman to the morals of empire: the character struggles towards maturity, and those who hindered or harmed along the way will be punished — the Bildungsroman demands justice, making it in turn a reflection of a culture imposing its law around the world (p. 56). Except that in the colonies, where such things as nature are indifferent and opportunities unequal, protagonists “are not rescued by strangers, vocation, romance or inheritance.” (p. 56)
More generally, she concludes: “In their use of the Bildungsroman form as a vehicle for the depiction of the growth of a female protagonist, all three authors reveal the form, as it functioned in their time, to be lacking.” (p. 250)
In the chapter on Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter of Today, Treagus links Elfrieda Bell’s devotion to beautiful things to Aestheticism, her brass Bhudda to a fashionable Orientalism, and her denunciation and renunciation of marriage to the “New Woman.” Treagus traces the term “new woman” to its origins in 1894. It is these new women who defy convention, seeking education and self-fulfilment. Obliged to choose between romance/marriage and her destiny, Elfrieda chooses art. In this she is supported by her mother (speaking of mothers, Treagus points out that Bell carries Duncan’s mother’s maiden name). Elfrieda’s mother encourages her independence of mind, and wants her to have the career she never had. Her mother persuades the father to send Elfrieda to art school in Philadelphia and then to Paris for further study, whereas her father is worried that too much learning, especially late at night, will develop into “headaches and hysteria.” Elfrieda’s views on marriage and relationships shock her female friend Janet, her various suitors, and readers at the time (p. 141-143).
If a Künstlerroman is a novel about the development of the artist, then A Daughter of Today becomes an anti-Künstlerroman, because Elfrieda Bell, although clever, remarkable, and unusual, although beautiful and most responsive to the lessons at the École des Beaux-Arts, learns a bitter truth: she does not have the talent to be an artist.
So she takes up a new art: journalism, and that for no ideal higher than feeding herself. In Duncan’s realistic depiction of Elfrieda’s humiliation and descent into poverty, we see the influence of Duncan’s contemporaries: George Meredith, Gissing and Zola, Thomas Hardy and W.D. Howells.
Duncan’s description of this part of Elfrieda’s education – trying to break into journalism in London – is far more vivid than any part of set in Paris.* Elfrieda starts out by writing for the worst newspaper, and is ashamed to admit it to her friends. And this job she got only by going to newspaper offices herself rather than just mailing them her work — by charming the editor with her wit and her personality. I can’t help but thinking that Duncan is drawing on her own experiences of trying to break into journalism, particularly in England.
If one chooses art over love, and fails at art, then what happens? Elfrieda tries again. But if her writing fails, what then? Both Duncan and Elfrieda have little choice: if the novel form studies the development of an artist, if the author and the protagonist choose art over love, then when the art fails, what choice is there? Elfrieda has been rejected by her best friend Janet, has in turn rejected her suitors, and feels a flicker of unrequited love for an unsuitable man. Is it any wonder that the rejection of her manuscript, for which she has risked her reputation and her friendships, causes an unhappy ending? Or as Treagus so aptly puts it: “Elfrieda’s suicide, rather than resulting from any ‘unnatural’ behaviour on her part, would seem to have resulted from a lack of available plots, once she had worn out the two she was involved in: her Bildung, and the romance plot.” (p. 120)
Is A Daughter of Today relevant now? Yes. I was surprised by how current some of Duncan’s descriptions of Elfrieda were: her self-consciousness, her conviction that her cleverness and unusualness will make her a success (at what hardly matters), her chronic posing, her unreflecting commitment to the ideas of her time — all of which characteristics could apply to a teen today wanting to be a social media star. I would say that Elfrieda’s sad ending is not from a lack of available plots but from a lack of understanding — she is so busy projecting an image of herself on the world that she fails to look inward, arriving at the age of 21 with no knowledge of herself. The way Elfrieda’s death is described through a friend’s eyes rather than through Elfrieda’s suggests to me that Duncan has no sympathy for Elfrieda at the end; rather, she disapproves of Elfrieda’s final dramatic gesture. The question for me is: why did Duncan deny Elfrieda the getting of wisdom? It is almost as if she tired of her selfish little creation.
*Treagus makes a good case for Duncan’s description of the art school in Paris being modelled on The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff (1887; trans. 1890), although she also points out that Duncan and her husband went to Paris in 1891.
Empire Girls can be read digitally from the University of Adelaide website.
A Daughter of Today is also available digitally, its copyright having expired.
Tiffany Johnstone writes about Duncan as a new woman on Women Suffrage and Beyond.