Critics of Rita Mae Brown (born November 28, 1944) often assert that she is too radical and too argumentative in her works. Others point out that she is dealing with a problem of acceptance that has been the plight of many minor writers. Brown is no more “defensive” about her sexuality than are many other lesbian or gay writers, such as Allen Ginsberg in his poetic statement Howl (1956).
What sets Brown’s work apart is that she does not disguise her prolesbian stance and does not become an apologist, as did some writers before her. Brown’s work is feminist and thus has put off some conservative readers. She began writing in the early 1970’s and was influenced by the National Organization for Women (NOW, an organization that asked her to leave because of her political views), the women’s movement, and the movement against the Vietnam War. Most important, Brown reacted to her own sense of freedom, discovered upon her relocation to New York City, where she could be open as a lesbian. Structure is the basic element Brown considers when writing fiction, carefully planning the framework of each story and how characters, plot, and other literary elements will be placed. Brown’s relatives inspired her to write the Hunsenmeir novels, Six of One, Bingo, and Loose Lips, featuring the complexities of several generations of an extended southern family at different times in the twentieth century. Brown appropriated autobiographical elements for those books, in which character Nickel Smith, depicted at various ages, shares many of Brown’s own characteristics. Interested in ancient literature, Brown acknowledges being inspired by the intricate Greek plays of Aristophanes and other early dramatists. She frequently incorporates tall tales, lies, legends, and historical and literary references in her novels to develop characterizations and settings. Humor and absurdity often lighten the intense tone of Brown’s fiction, helping to expose facts and enabling broader awareness of nuances and secrets that would otherwise remain obscured.
During the late 1980’s, Brown deviated from her previous literary endeavors by beginning to publish mysteries. She published her eighth novel, Wish YouWere Here, in 1990; it features a Virginia sleuth and her pets, including a cat named Mrs. Murphy. The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, which reviewers have described as cozies, have attracted readers who might have been unfamiliar with Brown’s previous works. Brown continued to produce both literary novels and Mrs. Murphy mysteries during the remainder of the 1990’s before developing a foxhunting mystery series. By the early twenty-first century, Brown was concentrating mostly on writing her two mystery series, both of which feature heterosexual female protagonists, weaving her social and political commentary more subtly into plots than she had done in her 1970’s novels.
Brown’s agrarian interests shape her mystery fiction, which emphasizes protecting natural resources and educating people to respect the environment. Sensory details, such as noting weather conditions and seasonal changes, enhance the landscape descriptions. Brown has noted that each mystery she writes occurs in a particular season, and she cycles consecutively through the seasons of the year in four novels. Emphasizing pastoral aspects of her settings, Brown devotes passages to the praise of nature and animals, inserting Bible verses occasionally. Her portrayals of settings as sanctuaries from modern stresses often convey a spiritual tone.
Brown’s affinity for animals has resulted in her giving some animal characters, both domestic and wild, names, and she has attributed some of her writing to their insights, including anthropomorphic dialogue and scenes from animals’ points of view; this has caused many literary critics to dismiss certain of her works. The resilience of people and of creatures remains an enduring theme in Brown’s fiction, in which characters become empowered by their experiences and interactions.
Brown’s novels draw on her own life; most of her work is clearly autobiographical. In her autobiography, Rita Will, Brown writes that when Rubyfruit Jungle was released, she received hate mail and threats on her life. The book is radical, and many readers found it upsetting.
Rubyfruit Jungle is a coming-of-age novel for protagonist Molly Bolt; it is also a direct statement of Brown’s own coming-of-age. It describes the early life of Bolt, an adopted daughter of a poor family living in Coffee Hollow, Pennsylvania. Brown traces Molly’s life from Coffee Hollow to Florida to New York City and takes Molly from a naïve young girl of seven to a mature, worldly-wise woman in her mid-twenties. Molly Bolt’s life story is exactly that of Rita Mae Brown. In most cases, Brown presents all of the characters as merely renamed family members and friends from her childhood through her time in New York. During the course of the novel, the reader sees Molly defy local authority figures of every kind: parents, educators, family members, employers, and lovers. Molly has been described by at least one critic as similar to Huckleberry Finn in his rebellion against authority. Like that of Mark Twain, Brown’s style employs folk humor and observations about the world. Unlike Twain, however, Brown does not rely on dialect or local color, though Brown’s style is in the vein of other southern American writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Alice Walker, who have a sharp eye for idiosyncratic behavior.
Molly moves to Florida, as did Brown. While there, she becomes aware of her feelings for other women, falls in love with her college roommate at the University of Florida, and is expelled for this love, just as Brown was expelled from the university for being a lesbian. Molly leaves Florida and arrives in New York City, where she establishes herself in the gay community of Greenwich Village. There she finds a menial job, puts herself through school, and meets a beautiful woman who becomes her lover. From this point on, the novel concentrates on Molly’s life as a lesbian.
When Molly left for New York, she was estranged from her mother. Only when she returns to Florida to film her mother as a final project for her degree does Molly really understand that the choices she has made have helped her to develop as an individual who can face the reality of her world. Breaking away from the homogeneity of family, friends, and society has been a difficult ordeal for Molly; however, it is something she had to do in order to grow. Brown explores a similar situation in her 2001 novel Alma Mater, in which female college students also make sexual and romantic decisions that counter their friends’ and families’ social expectations.
In Her Day
In Her Day, which treats the difficulties and divisions within the women’s movement of the 1970’s, was Brown’s second novel. The focus is on Carole, an art historian at New York University (NYU). Other characters include LaVerne and Adele, women in their forties who are friends of Carole; Bon and Creampuff, a couple who are friends of the first three women; and a young woman named Ilse, a waitress in a feminist café where all the women dine one night. Ilse is attracted to Carole, and the two begin a relationship. The novel details the age conflict between Carole and Ilse and the even greater conflicting political views of the two women. Eventually, a radical newspaper exposes Carole as a lesbian to her misogynist chairman at NYU, and, when she suffers at his hands, she realizes that perhaps she is too conservative. In the meantime, Ilse’s moderate views are influenced by Carole, and she begins to become more conservative. Although the women are unable to reach a common ground that will support their unstable relationship, the novel does illustrate a sense of compromise, which is clearly a nod from Brown to the feminist movement that disowned her when she was young and living in NewYork.
This novel is weaker than Rubyfruit Jungle. Brown tries too hard to be humorous, and her humor is too dark and crude for the novel. Also, In Her Day is somewhat harsh and off-putting, with its political diatribes.
Venus Envy, another autobiographical novel, revolves around Mary Frazier Armstrong, owner of a successful art gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. The heroine, known as Frazier to her family and friends, is hospitalized with what is thought to be terminal cancer. In a drug-induced state, Frazier writes letters to all the people who are important to her, including her mother, father, alcoholic brother, business partner, and two gay male friends. In these letters, Frazier sums up her relationship with each recipient and then informs each one that she is a lesbian. The next time the doctor visits the hospitalized Frazier, he tells her he has made a mistake, and she will not die. The rest of the novel portrays Frazier dealing with the consequences of her letters.
With Venus Envy, Brown reclaims her stature as a writer who is able to use humor, in this case derived from the plot, to make her point that people should be accepted as they are and should be allowed to lead their own lives. The novel redeems Brown as a radical of the 1960’s and 1970’s. While Rubyfruit Jungle is clearly her best work, Venus Envy shows that by eliminating the harsh tone of In Her Day, Brown could recapture her unique style and voice.
The Tell-Tale Horse
In The Tell-Tale Horse, the sixth volume in her foxhunting mystery series, Brown depicts the complex social dynamics and rivalries of a central Virginia foxhunting community. The novel’s protagonist, seventythree- year-old Jane Arnold, first introduced in the novel Outfoxed, serves as the Jefferson Hunt Club’s master of foxhounds. The widowed Arnold, who is known as Sister, has the freedom and financial resources to pursue her interests on her farm, where she maintains wellbred foxhounds and horses. Foxhunting introduces a diverse cast of characters into Sister’s world, ranging from her lover, Gray Lorillard, to employees, friends, and enemies. Conflicts between characters often escalate into crimes, including embezzlement, fraud, and murder. In The Tell-Tale Horse, Sister and her friend Marion Maggiolo find a nude woman’s corpse perched atop a large horse figure promoting Marion’s store, Horse Country; the dead woman has been shot through the heart. It is discovered that the victim, Aashi Mehra, was the mistress of billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur Lakshmi Vajay, who foxhunts with Sister. Brown’s adept characterization provides insights, as reasons for characters’ antagonism and disdain for specific individuals are revealed. Sister ponders whether Lakshmi’s wife, Madhur, murdered Aashi for vengeance or perhaps a wireless service competitor killed Aashi to protect technological secrets. As subplots consume Sister’s attention, two additional murders occur. She maintains contact with Sheriff Ben Sidell, whose investigative skills she trusts. Although she fears being the next victim, especially after finding bloodied white roses in her stable, Sister often displays more interest in foxhunting than in sleuthing; through this device, Brown provides some relief from suspense and tension.
Nature is a prevailing theme in the novel, with digressions taking such form as Sister’s discussion of how to tend foxes; she stresses that she wants to protect, not kill, wildlife and to promote responsible land conservation. Brown juxtaposes an emphasis on rural endeavors by locals to improve natural landscapes with the encroachment of urban outsiders who have acquired fortunes from telecommunications technology using cellular towers erected on nearby mountains. In this series of novels, Brown addresses various social issues in addition to ecological concerns, including racism, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy. Her knowledge of both southern American culture and the culture of foxhunting enthusiasts provides authenticity, although at times her digressions related to these cultures seem excessive and disrupt the narrative flow. The Purrfect Murder
Greed provokes chaos in The Purrfect Murder, one of Brown’s Mrs. Murphy mysteries. During the autumn after her fortieth birthday, Mary Minor Haristeen, known as Harry, focuses on managing her Crozet, Virginia, farm and her remarriage to equine veterinarian Pharamond (Fair) Haristeen. As in this series’ previous fifteen novels, crime upsets Harry’s rural community, which is populated by diverse personalities, including characters with deep roots in Crozet and newcomers who have substantial wealth to build elaborate homes there. Past and present relationships fuel emotions of jealousy and revenge, triggering confrontations as characters seek to acquire the things they desire, such as money and power.
Harry contemplates who murdered Dr. Will Wylde, a local gynecologist who performed abortions. Harry’s recurring friends from prior books, including Cynthia Cooper, a local deputy, consider possible culprits; suspects include pro-life activists and Dr. Harvey Tillach, whose wife Wylde had seduced. Harry—along with Tee Tucker, a corgi, and cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter— visits area residents, Wylde’s widow, Benita, and his office staff. She discusses the murder while planning an elaborate fund-raiser with her closest friend, Susan Tucker. The omniscient narrative shifts, observing various characters’ activities, such as smug building inspector Mike McElvoy visiting construction sites and arguing with owners, including arrogant Carla Paulson.
Tension escalates when an attacker kills Paulson at the fund-raiser, and police arrest Harry’s friend Tazio Chappers, an architect, who is found holding a knife near the corpse. Determined to exonerate Tazio, Harry, often oblivious to her own vulnerabilities, intensifies her investigation into both Wylde’s and Paulson’s deaths. Brown gives voice to her animal characters, which communicate with each other and try to alert Harry to notice subtle details that may offer clues to the crimes. (She uses the stylistic technique of italicized dialogue to indicate her animal characters’ communication with each other.) She often uses comic scenes with animal characters to counter the serious tone of passages describing crimes or villains. Byincluding in her narrative the discussion of such topics as building codes and abortion, Brown suggests the disruption that urban concerns pose to rural tranquillity at the same time she increases her ability to hide clues for Harry and her pets to comprehend.
The Sand Castle
Family conflicts reveal people’s capacity for forgiveness and tolerance in The Sand Castle. As an adult, Nickel Smith recalls an August, 1952, trip with her mother, aunt, and cousin, characters Brown featured in three prior Hunsenmeir novels. In this story, Nickel, the narrator, is seven years old and her cousin, Leroy, is eight. Leroy’s grandmother, Louise, whom Nickel calls Wheezie, and her sister Juts, who is Nickel’s mother, drive the children to a Maryland beach in an attempt to comfort Leroy, who is mourning his mother’s death from cancer six months prior. Wheezie, also bereft after losing her daughter, quarrels with Juts regarding their contrasting religious beliefs. Enjoying the bickering between her mother and aunt, Nickel teases Leroy, who is emotionally paralyzed. His passivity contrasts with Nickel’s outspokenness.
The sisters reminisce about beach trips during their youth, telling the children about a prank they played that embarrassed their aunt and sharing details of their family’s history. At the beach, Wheezie and Juts start building a sand castle, assigning the children the task of toting buckets of water and sand. The sisters continue to spar verbally, each criticizing the other’s choices regarding marriage and lifestyle. Juts views the sand castle as her opportunity to construct something grander in design than the home she desires but cannot afford. Nickel digs a moat to protect the castle, but Juts realizes the sea will eventually wash it away, making a biblical reference that offends Wheezie. Fighting between the sisters escalates, and Wheezie abandons Juts and Nickel at the beach. Eventually she returns, however, and they eat soft-shell crabs at a local restaurant. Leroy, horrified by Nickel’s tale of crabs eating flesh, rejects that delicacy.
The group returns to the beach, where the castle still stands but is occupied by a crab; the crab crawls into Leroy’s swimming trunks and pinches his genitalia. Soon the beachgoers unite in an effort to resolve Leroy’s predicament and avert castration. On the drive home, their attempts to comfort Leroy in his physical pain also contribute to healing their emotional distress, reinforcing their love and acceptance of one another despite their differences. Brown’s use of humor to depict this day provides a realistic glimpse of the family dynamics that often surround grieving. By telling this story, adult Nickel keeps her promise, made in Loose Lips, that the Hunsenmeir sisters will remain alive in her memories.
Poetry: The Hand That Cradles the Rock, 1971; Songs to a Handsome Woman, 1973.
Screenplay: The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982; Mary Pickford: A Life on Film, 1997.
Teleplays: I Love Liberty, 1982; The Long Hot Summer, 1985; My Two Loves, 1986 (with Reginald Rose); Rich Men, Single Women, 1989; The Woman Who Loved Elvis, 1993.
Nonfiction: A Plain Brown Rapper, 1976; Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual, 1988; Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, 1997; Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers, 1999.
Translation: Hrotsvitha: Six Medieval Latin Plays, 1971.
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Day, Frances Ann. “Molly Bolts and Lifelines: Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973).” In Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Greenya, John. “Virginia Foxhunting, Murder.” The Washington Times, March 25, 2007.
Perry, Carolyn, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
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