John Lane published George Egerton’s (Mary Chavelita Dunne’s) Keynotes in 1893 and Discords a year later, heading up what would become his new series, “Keynotes,” and bringing Egerton fame and notoriety. Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Egerton’s Keynotes collection typified the decadent in turn-of-the-century culture. Among the critical responses, Owen Seaman in Punch parodied “The Cross Line” as “She Notes” by “Borgia Smudgiton,” seizing on elements of style and subject, particularly the way Egerton aims to convey a feminine sensibility and a camaraderie between male and female characters.
These stories are innovative in their literary aesthetics and techniques: The writing is characterized by fantasy, impressionism, and truncated open-ended narratives. The stories focus on a woman’s sense of self, with descriptions of psychological states and moods. In conveying a peculiarly feminine sensibility, Egerton’s prose centers on intuitions and moments of understanding: A sense of immediacy is conveyed by the use of the present tense. Her attention to the relationship between the self and language, its role in constructing experience rather than just expressing it, resembles the perspectives of Aestheticism.
The stories are informed by the subject matter and style of Scandinavian naturalism, including the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsen, and Knut Hamsun. Egerton lived in Norway and translated Norwegian literature. Although she denied affiliation with the New Woman movement, Egerton wrote about the concerns of contemporary feminism in Keynotes and Discords. Disturbing depictions of domestic and sexual violence (“Wedlock,” “Gone Under,” “Virgin Soil”), alcoholism (“A Shadow’s Slant,” “Under Northern Sky”), poverty, and prostitution characterize Egerton’s treatment of the conditions of married life, in which both working- and middle-class women are vulnerable to economic, physical, and psychological abuse.
While examining the material conditions of women’s lives, Egerton also develops a cosmological viewpoint of women that posits an essential female nature of moral and spiritual superiority, which she saw as repressed by the confines of polite urban society and its Victorian mores. Her vision of the true nature of womanhood departed radically and fundamentally from those of her contemporaries in the social and moral purity movement, such as Sarah Grand. Like them, she criticizes male sexual hypocrisy and asserts women’s right to make marital and sexual choices, but she also celebrates women who can take pleasure in sexual feelings and power, and she aestheticized their experience (“A Cross Line,” “A Little Grey Glove”). She explores their need for fulfillment, insisting on a unique female imaginary and capacity for erotic fantasy, although this model of sexuality, “the primitive, the generic, that makes her sacred, mystic, to the best men” (Egerton, 197), still corresponds to a heterosexual one.
Part of this depiction of real womanhood was of a proactive, sexual maternity in which the woman chooses a eugenically fit mate, which features in many of the stories (“Gone Under,” “The Spell of the White Elf,” “A Cross Line”). In “A Cross Line” the heroine fantasizes about riding wildly on a horse; her sexual power and potency—registered further when she recognizes her pregnant state—is depicted in her performance before an admiring and desirous male crowd, “hundreds of faces” gazing at her dressed in a “cobweb garment of wondrous tissue” (20). Yet those deterministic characteristics of Egerton’s vision were balanced within a unique imaginary that conveyed optimism and hope. For example, “The Regeneration of Two” concludes with a successful commune of working single mothers and a loving partnership between a New Woman and a New Man based on interdependence, respect, and equality: One of the very few free-love unions to be portrayed as hopeful of success in women’s writing at this time.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Egerton, George. Key Notes and Discords (1893, 1894). Edited by Martha Vicinus. London: Virago Press, 1983.
Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First Wave Feminism. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 2000.
Ledger, Sally. Introduction. George Egerton, Keynotes and Discords (1893). Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2003.
Richardson, Angelique. The Eugenization of Love: Darwin, Galton and Late Nineteenth-Century Fictions of Heredity and Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.