How a little-known short-story writer broke new literary ground
‘A Cross Line’ first appeared in George Egerton’s 1893 collection of short stories, Keynotes. Egerton, whose real name was Mary Chavelita Dunne (she was nicknamed ‘Chav’ long before that word came to mean something else), has a claim to being the first female modernist writer in English. In ‘A Cross Line’ and a handful of other short stories from the 1890s, she pioneered an elliptical, impressionistic style of fiction that later writers such as Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf would bring to a wider readership.
‘A Cross Line’ is one of Egerton’s greatest triumphs. But since the story is relatively unknown, it’s worth rehearsing a brief summary of the plot before moving to a consideration and analysis of the story’s literary style and its key themes. An unnamed woman meets a grey-eyed man who is fishing, and the two strike up a conversation – and, possibly, a romance. We soon learn that the woman is already married, to a husband who fusses over hens and their chicks and wouldn’t let his wife ride the horse he once owned. The woman continues to meet with the grey-eyed fisherman, and during their conversations, the woman – who is described as possessing a ‘gypsy ease of attitude’ and is frequently compared to wild animals – declares that women need to love and be loved, but she suggests that social constraints mean that this rarely happens. Her husband doesn’t understand her, but the grey-eyed fisherman does – or at least, he doesn’t misunderstand her. She implies, though, that as she’s married she must break off meeting with the grey-eyed man (whether they are actively having an affair or merely meet to talk and flirt is not made clear). He tells her to hang something white on the lilac bush outside her home if she wants to stop seeing her. She goes home, where it gradually becomes apparent that she is pregnant. This is made clearer (though, in all honesty, never explicitly clear) through a conversation the woman has with her maid, Lizzie. After telling the maid to go and hang something white on the lilac bush, to signify to the fisherman that their ‘friendship’ is over, she changes her mind and decides to hang it herself.
This concludes a very brief and potted ‘summary’ of the plot of ‘A Cross Line’. Though in actual fact it’s hard to call such an overview a ‘plot summary’: the story works through hints and suggestions, things which are half-revealed and half-concealed during the conversations the woman has with 1) the grey-eyed man, 2) her husband, and 3) the maid. Nothing much ‘happens’, with the woman’s realisation that she is pregnant being the one major event (if one can even call that an event as such).
This gives a sense of the unconventional style of Egerton’s story. It’s like the sort of story that Katherine Mansfield wrote, only Mansfield did so a quarter of a century after Egerton. Egerton, a writer associated with the New Woman of the 1890s, was born in Australia in 1859 (Mansfield, we might recall, would be born in New Zealand nearly thirty years later), to a Welsh mother and an Irish father, and indeed she would spend a number of her early years living in Dublin. (Perhaps her two most famous stories, ‘A Cross Line’ and ‘Virgin Soil’, are both set in Ireland.) She would also spend several years in Norway, where she encountered the work of Strindberg and Nietzsche (both namechecked in ‘A Cross Line’), Knut Hamsun, and Henrik Ibsen. Indeed, the strong, passionate, imaginative wife and altogether more ‘maternal’ and nurturing husband we are presented with in ‘A Cross Line’ bear the influence of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Jørgen Tesman. Egerton was friendly with that fellow Irish champion of Ibsen’s work in the Anglophone world, George Bernard Shaw, and she was determined, in these short stories, to depict ‘the terra incognita of herself’ – ‘herself’ being ‘woman’ as a whole.
Egerton’s work has only recently been given the due it deserves for doing this, and doing it so early on. Her stories in Keynotes and the follow-up volume Discords (1894) are arguably the first short stories written in English which we can label ‘modernist’ or, at the very least, ‘proto-modernist’, though in many respects Egerton reads as even more boldly experimental than some of Mansfield. As Ruth Robbins – one of Egerton’s finest and most sensitive close readers – has remarked, ‘A Cross Line’ contains one of the earliest detailed descriptions of foreplay in English fiction, complete with eye-kissing and ear-biting.
But it is what the story doesn’t do, what it refuses to provide, that brings into sharp relief what makes it so pioneering. The only character in the story who is given a name is the maid. We aren’t told the woman and man are married; we are left to infer it from the way their interactions are described. The story, like Egerton’s other masterpiece, ‘Virgin Soil’ (about a young woman who is coerced into a loveless marriage by her overzealous mother), is told in the present tense throughout, inviting us to withhold judgment of the female protagonists as we read and to plunge us into the immediacy of the moment, to experience everything ‘as it happens’.
The way Egerton explores issues of femininity and womanhood in ‘A Cross Line’ is similarly elliptical and ambiguous. Not long after we’ve met the female protagonist, we are told – viewing her through the eyes of the grey-eyed fisherman who has also just made her acquaintance – that her figure has a ‘gypsy ease of attitude, a scarlet shawl that has fallen from her shoulders forming an accentuative background to the slim roundness of her waist.’ This verges on voyeurism (and the story will get a lot more sensual further down the line), but it also hints at the Victorian patriarchal attitudes against which this free-spirited woman is living her life, her scarlet shawl hinting at sin (the Scarlet Woman of Revelation) and the word ‘fallen’ similarly suggesting other kinds of fallenness, even while the garment slipping from her shoulders arouses a frisson in both the fisherman and, one suspects, many readers.
But the word ‘gypsy’ also provides a clue to her character, suggesting somebody who is free-spirited, living on the margins of acceptable society perhaps. It also denotes a certain exoticism: the word is from ‘Egyptian’, lest we forget, after Romanian travellers were mistaken for Egyptians in Europe. And Egyptian and Middle-Eastern culture and symbolism runs throughout this story. Later, during one of the story’s most ambitious passages, this gypsy-hearted woman will indulge in a lengthy daydream, imagining herself as Cleopatra (Queen of Egypt, lest we forget), as well as Salome performing the erotically charged Dance of the Seven Veils – another Middle-Eastern female archetype whose spirit she appears to channel. Later, the grey-eyed man tells her she is ‘as impenetrable as a sphinx’. He is referring to the desert-dwelling statue of Egypt, but seems to have muddled that noseless landmark up with the Sphinx of Greek myth who posed a famous riddle (or actually, two riddles) in the story of Oedipus the King. The answer to that Sphinx’s most famous riddle was ‘Man’, but Egerton’s story suggests that in the new ‘terra incognita’ she is exploring, the answer is ‘Woman’, but few men of the time are interested in solving the riddle (or they’re not able to).
And writing about women’s sexual liberation in 1893 would prove to be a lost cause, with many people not ready for deal with such an issue. But Egerton herself appears to have held rather complex views on this issue. As with Ibsen’s famous declaration that he was not writing in favour of women’s rights with A Doll’s House, Egerton was exploring these issues but not necessarily seeking to endorse a political viewpoint. It’s revealing that during the female protagonist’s sexual fantasy in ‘A Cross Line’, Cleopatra’s journey to meet with Antony gives way to a dream of dancing for a group of men, with jewelled serpents as her props. The bite of the asp that put an end to Cleopatra’s life, following her doomed love affair with Mark Antony, is not far from this scene.
But thanks to the elliptical, modernist style of ‘A Cross Line’, Egerton managed to get these taboo subjects in print in the first place. If she had been more forthright and direct, she would probably have been censored, or at least censured. Her very desire to confront the innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires of women could only be realised in published fiction if she employed hints and suggestions rather than direct description – and so, in exploring the terra incognita of woman, she helped to invent a new kind of English short story. Modernism had arrived. It would take decades for Egerton’s role in doing this to be recognised, and she would not be around when it finally happened, having died in 1945.