Today’s guest post comes from Lisa Nais, who is a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen. She holds an MA in English and Linguistics from the same university. Her doctoral research focuses on American writers in Venice in the late nineteenth century and the intersection of publishing practices with the creative process.
Part of my research revolves around Constance Fletcher, an American novelist and playwright, who only crops up in the literature as a footnote (quite literally, often) to canonical male authors. Figuring out who this woman was seemed daunting initially, but I soon found that digging around in the archives (both physically and virtually) is the most rewarding and exciting part. After all, who doesn’t like burying their nose in old, gossipy correspondence?
My most intriguing find so far turned out to be part of a large collection of Elizabeth Robins papers at NYU. Robins was an ardent feminist, writer and actress, who starred in one of Fletcher’s plays. Amid the many letters back and forth between them, there was a seemingly unrelated and insignificant invitation to tea. It was addressed to some woman I’d never heard of, Gladys, and Fletcher had signed off using her pseudonym, ‘George Fleming’. I hadn’t once come across a letter in which she’d done that. What’s more, its tone was much too familiar to assume that this ‘Gladys’ person didn’t know Fletcher’s identity. This is the letter:
25 Hornton St/Kensington W.
My dear Gladys,
Would I find you in, abt. 11.30 on Sunday morning? or, will you come to me any time after 4.30 Sunday afternoon? I have exactly 3000 things to say to you; one or two of which you really must hear—about business—the others are all pure joy because You are Gladys & I am
Really, it sounds a bit coquettish. Had I not known that Fleming is Fletcher’s pseudonym, I’d have thought this was a flirtatious letter from George, who might be the editor of some newspaper, to Gladys, his secretary, who clearly isn’t paid enough for putting in overtime on a Sunday. Swept up by the gossipy, almost melodramatic letters I had been reading, I immediately spun a few theories. Cross-dressing in correspondence? Did Fletcher lead an even more outrageous life (for nineteenth-century standards) than I’d previously believed?
This was one of those rare cases in which reality turned out to be just as intriguing as those theories. What appeared to be a letter between female George and her lover is actually a letter from a playwright to her actress. ‘George Fleming’, the author of the play Mrs. Lessingham, writes to ‘Gladys’, its notorious protagonist.
Constance Fletcher joins a long list of Georges: George Eliot, George Egerton, George Paston—or rather: Mary Ann Evans, Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright and Emily Morse Symonds. Numerous women published their work under pseudonyms in the nineteenth century. While many adopted pseudonyms out of a degree of necessity, women writers like Constance Fletcher made these adverse conditions of the world of publishing work to their advantage. Fletcher uses her pseudonym to play with and overturn gender roles.
Let’s have a look at the letter again. What Fletcher does is stay in character—after all, ‘George Fleming’ is a role that Constance takes on. She addresses her lead actress in character as well, and on top that, much more intimately that she would have addressed the real person, Miss Robins. This pretend intimacy is augmented by the intended genre mix-up. Instead of an invitation to a professional acquaintance, her staying in character allows for the letter to sound, suggestively, like a lover proposing a rendezvous. The author addressing his character becomes the man writing to his lover. To extend the metaphor: like the author owns his character, the man possesses his mistress. This is underlined by the plot of the play. Gladys Lessingham is a notoriously decadent woman who ends up committing suicide because this is just what happens to fallen women in Victorian society.
This reading of the letter ignores the gender and identity of its author. Of course, the author doesn’t own his character. Fletcher invokes those misogynistic overtones on purpose to highlight women’s creativity. After all, these two women, author and actress, collaborate in the creative process of shaping the character that ends up appearing on stage.
A more public demonstration of topsy-turvy gender roles is George Fleming’s essay ‘On a certain Deficiency in Women’, published in The Universal Review, July 1888. This essay is a musing on the question of whether women have the capacity for serious thought, and George Fleming comes down, emphatically and vehemently, on the negative side of the argument. But everyone knew by then who ‘George Fleming’ really was. Fletcher’s friend Henry James teasingly outs her as a ‘she’ in a review published in The Nation in 1878, and by the 1890s the identity of George Fleming was an open secret. George Fleming was the woman author of a scandalous play about extra-marital love and suicide. The essay’s superficially misogynistic argument together with her signature compel the reader to delve deeper.
Indeed, on closer analysis George Fleming becomes the narrator of the essay, while its author, Constance Fletcher, undercuts ‘him’ subtly at every possible occasion. That way, she deconstructs the misogynistic argument that women can’t think properly for themselves by portraying it as a superficial narrative, and its supporters as unreliable narrators. This wouldn’t work, though, if her pseudonym didn’t come with connotations of its own. In acquiring a reputation for her pseudonym, Fletcher took a custom that many women writers adopted out of necessity, and appropriated it to her advantage. Writing under a pseudonym had become a way to overturn gender roles and norms.
Overall, this entire argument was sparked by an ostensibly insignificant find in the archives. I had been looking for biographical information to fill in the blanks, but the little things—the name that didn’t ring a bell, the tone that seemed a bit out of the ordinary, the pseudonym in an unexpected place—ended up providing me with more insightful information than if Fletcher had left her life story written down for me to find. (Not that I’d object to that, though!)
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