5 August 2010

Frances Newman (1883-1928) - Southern Writer of Brilliance

Frances Newman (1883-1928) was born in Atlanta, GA, and is hardly remembered now, although she wrote two amazing novels: The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), and Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers (1928).

The Hard-Boiled Virgin is divided into 50 or 60 sections with only one paragraph in each, and the very long, circuitous sentences and frequent double negatives make this no easy read, I'm delighted to say. This is a by no means atypical sentence:

'She was not born a mystic, but merely human reason could hardly have been responsible for her conviction that her troublesome soul - like other people's - was the shape of a canteloupe seed and nearly the same colour, and that it was about ten inches long, and that it was made of a translucent cartilaginous substance with a small oval bone in the center.'

And how about this for an oblique description of orgasm via masturbation:

'a fountain rose and fell and dropped its electric spray through her thin brown body'.

I seem to remember Flannery O'Connor saying something about avoiding things that 'look funny on the page', but it seems to be ungooglable. O'Connor calls The Hard-Boiled Virgin 'undramatic' and hates the fact that there is no direct speech in it at all. In The Habit of Being, she writes Betty Hester (known as 'A' in the book): '[Newman] must have been a very intelligent miserable woman - but no fiction writer.'

I strongly disagree with the last part of this, although I can understand the reaction. Her second novel, Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers, is perhaps a little more accessible, but only a little: there are paragraphs in this, the sentences tend to be shorter, and there are even a few instances of direct speech, although never as separate paragraphs!

But it's still very oblique, as if resisting saying anything concrete. People don't just says things, their mouths say things, or they hear their mouths saying things, or they hear the voices of the thing they call themselves saying things, etc: layer upon layer of writing evades saying anything directly. And yet both books contain strong social criticisms, and the first sentence of Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers is like a feminist attack on convention, deliberately stating that the protagonist's name (and by implication identity) has been subsumed into that of her new husband:

'On the fifteenth morning after the bishop of Virginia and the rector of St Paul's Church had given her a legal right to open her eyes and see her very light brown hair lying against Charlton Cunningham's very dark brown hair, Charlton Cunningham's wife opened her eyes on his warm violet silk sleeve.'

Even with their oblique references to birth control, menstruation, and sex, her books shocked many: the New Woman was attacking the stronghold that the Southern lady had defended for so long.

At times though, I confess that I wonder if I'm reading the mind of a schizophrenic, such is the dislocation. But far more often, I feel this is the work of a brilliant writer, someone deliberately writing against the artificiality of representations of reality that we find in so many other writers. Newman is struggling to express how her characters feel to be living, how they actually think. The comparisons with Virginia Woolf are inevitable, but although she's in the same ballpark, the game Newman plays is unique.

This link contains brief information on Frances Newman.

But for much more in-depth criticism, this is a fascinating piece on her from The Southern Belle in the American Novel, by Kathryn Lee Seidel.

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