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. Read the rest of this entry
In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the pioneering and half-forgotten writer of the modernist short story
A bridegroom waits in the hall, while his bride sobs upstairs in her mother’s arms. Married off to an older man against her wishes, the seventeen-year-old Flo leaves home to take up married life with Philip, her husband. Five years later, she makes the journey she has been putting off ever since she got married: she returns home by train and tells her mother that she leads a miserable life married to the repulsive adulterer Philip, who has recently taken off to Paris with a girl from the Alhambra. What’s more, Flo tells her mother that she blames her for this wretched existence she now leads: her mother failed to prepare her daughter for the realities of men and married life, and she had to find out the hard way. She announces her intention to leave her husband. The next day, having slept in her childhood bed, she departs for the railway station and leaves ‘in the opposite direction’ to begin a new life.
This much constitutes a brief plot summary of ‘Virgin Soil’ (1894), one of George Egerton’s most celebrated short stories. Not that any of them are that celebrated: although Egerton has begun to receive more attention and analysis from literary critics interested in women’s fiction and the history of modernism, she remains a little-known figure in English literature. Read the rest of this entry