Saturday, April 23, 2016

No Pride and Prejudice but Juicy in other Ways

Elegant Sherbrooke Street in Montreal in 1910 era.

The Arch-Satirist, the 1910 novel by Montreal author Frances Fenwick Williams, contains some sassy prose but it lacks for a plot or at least for some plot twists.

The novel is primarily a vehicle to explore the modern mating-game (interesting enough) but through the women characters' dialogue. The book is  all Tell and no Show.

And, although the story takes place in Montreal, there is little local colour. Mount Royal is described and that's about it.

All description is of female features, Their looks. Many of the women in the novel have a wonderful complexion, so either women were more careful with their skin back then, or their diets were better, or it's a lie, because the up-and-down climate in Montreal is not condusive to great skin.

These are 'society' women, so maybe they were, indeed, the careful type.

So much for my review of a  forgotten novel, one that is not nearly as good as Pride and Prejudice or La Grande Sophie.

Nonetheless, I like to think of FFW as Montreal's Edith Wharton.

The plot of the Arch-Satirist can be easily summed up. A rather homely, cash-poor young woman from a high society family cannot marry any of her many suitors because of a dark secret: she has a half-brother tucked away in the bad part of town, a low-life artist with a drug problem.

Interesting. FFW had a secret, too, I discovered. She was born a boy! (At least, according to 1881  Canadian census.) She married in 1909, at about 30, but the marriage fell apart immediately and her husband, a prominent NY social planner, never re-married.

In the Arch-Satirist Frances Fenwick Williams explains that, in the era, marriage conferred upon a woman a certain respectability.

Fenwick Williams' column in the short-lived Tabloid the Saturday Mirror (February -June 1913)

So true. It is unlikely that Fenwick-Williams would have been allowed onto the Board of the Montreal Suffrage Association had she not been married, whatever her own very fine social connections. (Her father was a stock market official and her grandfather had been a McGill doctor.)

The Arch-Satirist would have worked better if the protagonist's dark secret had been a half-sister who was a prostitute.  But, maybe, then the novel wouldn't have been published. Too close to home. The Social Evil, as it was called, was a great preoccupation of the Montreal social elite in 1910.

The heroine of the book is a 'good  woman' but her friends, well, not so nice.

 One unmarried beauty is engaged to three different men at the same time, 'kissing three different men" as it is put, and another friend, married to a rich old man, flirts unabashedly with scores of young men and makes no apologies for it.

Eugenics is an underlying theme in the book, in that FFW seems to suggest all behavior is inherited. Of course, that was a popular belief in the 1910 era.

In Canada, the suffrage movement was all about promoting social purity.

As I write in my own book Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and the Conscription Crisis, Frances Fenwick was a bit of a mole on the Board of the Montreal Suffrage Association.

She was a huge fan of militant Mrs. Pankhurst (despised by the male members of the MSA Board) and she was an avowed feminist. Her 1913 newspaper column was titled The Feminist.

FFW  led a kind of double life, no doubt. Oddly, she writes on the subject of double lives in the Arch-Satirist.

Mr. Zangwell, in his clever "Serio-Comic Governess" has shown us a young lady leading two  very different lives at one and the same time. In the day-time she is a highly respectable and decorous governess, at night, a music-hall artiste. In both lines she is a success. Now, this success is probably owning to the fact that this particular young lady is gratifying her curiosity and her desire to lead a conventional existence at one and the same time. She is, in short, doing that which she wishes to do.

There are many such, "serio-comic governesses" in real life. Perhaps you, who read, may be one; perhaps, unknown to you, the dear friend from whom you have no secrets and who, you fondly believe, has none from you, may have a personality which you have never even guessed at.

Her friends were the Brit writers, Ida A.R. Wylie and Ivy Compton Burnett.