This story by George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) first appeared in the influential collection Keynotes. Published in 1893 by Elin Mathews and John Lane, it was the first book in a series of 33 volumes, 13 of which would be written by so-called New Woman writers. These works openly explored female sexuality, questioned women’s options, attempted to render the psychological states of women, and experimented with narrative. In all of these, Egerton led the way, not only freeing others to write “like women” but most surely pioneering the way for D. H. Lawrence, whose 1921 novel Women in Love explores the sexual and psychological tensions between lovers in like manner to “A Cross Line.”
Egerton’s story begins with a man’s voice described significantly as “profane,” “indelicate,” “vulgar,” and unwelcome. The voice is heard by a woman sitting on a “felled tree” in the middle of a wilderness with “lopped” branches all around. Nearby “a little river rushes along in haste to join a greater sister that is fighting a troubled way to the sea.” These images reflect the woman’s troubled psychological state: Surrounded by vibrant nature, she, like many of the trees, has been tamed, but her spirit continues to rebel through flights of fantasy. The voice becomes a whistle, and then the man appears. He is a stranger, and she is to him at first only “the female animal,” as if he has just chanced upon some interesting bug. The pair discuss fishing, but their dialogue slowly transforms into a courtship dance, in which each is sexually drawn to and repulsed by the other. There is no physical contact, however, because they recognize a line they should not cross because the woman is married. The woman then returns to her husband, who is by all accounts an attentive lover and satisfactory companion. They seem to be happily married, although Egerton realistically portrays their struggles to communicate as if there were a line between them, a line drawn by gender, one that they cannot cross.
As summer continues in the peaceful country existence for this couple, the monotony becomes oppressive, and the wife escapes into a fantasy world of adventure and sexual freedom. She also becomes introspective about who she is as a woman among women. In 1932 Egerton wrote, “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” (58). Yet, the woman in this story identifies a line that must not be crossed: Women must give but never want. They are expected to tame the wild beast in men, but they are not, cannot be passionate themselves. But this woman declares, “I have been for myself and helped myself, and borne the burden of my own mistakes.” Finally she affirms her identity in a community of women and mothers (her own mother, who is dead, and a maid whose child is also dead) and opts to accept motherhood over licentiousness, for she is pregnant and remains sexually faithful to her husband.
Egerton, George. “A Cross Line.” In Nineteenth-Century Short Stories by Women: A Routledge Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump. New York: Routledge, 1998.
———. “A Keycycle to Keynotes.” In Ten Contemporaries: Notes towards their Defi nitive Bibliography. Edited by John Gadsworth, London: Ernst Benn Ltd, 1932.
McCullogh, Kate. “Mapping the ‘Terra Incognita’ of Women: George Egerton’s Keynotes (1893) and the New Woman Fiction.” In The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, edited by Barbara Leah Harman and Susan Meyer, 205–223. New York: Garland, 1996.
Stetz, M. D. “George Egerton,” Turn of the Century Women 1, no. 1 (1984): 2–8.