“Damsels in distress”: lost female voices of the twentieth century

By Paula Maher Martin, Gale Ambassador at NUI Galway

“What women are to women”, a symphony of thoughts and impressions, language polished delicately to reflect the “body,” resounding with a feminine “grasp” of reality… In a 1929 Times Literary Supplement review of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Arthur Mc Dowall synthesises in these terms the female experience in literature, as intimated by Woolf.

The study of Gale Primary Sources archives appears essential to reconstruct the struggle of twentieth-century female authors to build a room of their own in time and paper. Figures dimmed in the whirlwind of the academic canon and the literary marketplace, such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Stella Gibbons, Georgette Heyer or Zelda Fitzgerald, emerge as monuments that testify to what Mac Dowell terms a “love of life, a love of freedom and of letters” through a highly individual corpus that succeeds in ”bringing us into the presence of reality”,  in defining not only “what women are to women” but “what people are to people”.

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher 1879-1958 enjoyed moderate literary success in her lifetime, both in the United States and abroad, and engaged in diverse cultural, social and educational endeavours, such as the creation of the Book of the Month Club. Sutherland, John. “A dutiful Dorothea.” The Times Literary Supplement, 3 Dec. 1993, p. 25. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eeGs9. Accessed 8 May 2018.

In the case of the American novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, her obituary, which appeared in The Times in 1958, characterises her work as realistic in excess: juxtaposed to her intricate narrative and vivid characters, her style is described as flat and unexciting.

Her 1924 novel The Home-Maker is epitomic of the rest of her corpus. It explores Canfield Fisher’s fascination with psychology and questions notions of individuality and gender, family and society. These aspects are highlighted in contemporary advertisements of the novel, which claim to offer – in the form of “striking situations” , delineated with a “penetrating delicacy of perception” –  “a solution of the problem of the married woman of exceptional business ability”.

John Sutherland in his 1993 overview of Canfield Fisher’s life and works defends her influence in contemporary American cultural and educative life and justifies her rejection of the best-selling narrative model she had discovered in The Brimming Cup in favour of a quest for independence, truth and social betterment clothed in sober, compassionate fragments of reality.

Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker is a tale of captivating subversion of contemporary gender roles that remains relevant today, contrasting a domestic, sensitive husband, miserable in the workplace, and his spirited wife, confined at home. “Multiple Display Advertisements.” Times, 25 July 1924, p. 9. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eyQN4. Accessed 8 May 2018.
Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). Her works and “gift for satire” are defined in her obituary by biographical aspects: her journalistic as well as poetic background and problematic relationship with her father, on the one hand, and the influence of the Second World War, on the other. “Stella Gibbons.” Times, 20 Dec. 1989, p. 18. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6f4M23. Accessed 30 May 2018.

In contrast, the novels of both Stella Gibbons and Georgette Heyer are reduced to formulaic vehicles of escapism and mass entertainment.

In most reviews and advertisements of Gibbons’ later works, she is delimited by the epithet “author of Cold Comfort Farm”; her first novel, a best-selling satire of contemporary narrative practices. “LONGHMAN.” The Times Literary Supplement, 9 Nov. 1951, p. 709. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/55RdR3. Accessed 28 May 2018.

As seen in the advertisement above or in Jan Stephens’ review of the coming of age novel Westwood, the idealised mirage of reality “light-heartedly” drawn by Gibbons in her work contrasts with the ravaged vestiges of post-war Europe it claims to reflect . Consequently, according to Stephens, Westwood can be defined as a “study in growth” of the protagonist, flourishing against a background of “sketches…necessary figures in a planned, [artificial] landscape” .

However, in Gibbons’ short story for the 1946 Christmas special of The Illustrated London News, “Miss Pens and the Holyshell spectre”, strokes of nostalgic irony foreground the civilised traditional values which underlie the author’s narrative microcosm, values instrumental to the healing of the landscape and society of England, as well as for the regeneration of the individual.

An illustration of the short story. Gibbons, Stella. “Miss Pens and the Holyshell Spectre.” Christmas Number. Illustrated London News, 21 Nov. 1946, p. 5 – 8. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/54ykP7. Accessed 30 May 2018
Georgette Heyer (1902-1974), best-selling and prolific mystery and historical novelist, specialised in the Regency period. The only publicised photograph of the author, who zealously guarded her private life. Laski, Marghanita. “The appeal of Georgette Heyer.” Times, 1 Oct. 1970, p. 16. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6fQCz3. Accessed 17 May 2018.

In parallel, Heyer’s reception, while accentuating the entertainment value of her works and encyclopaedic knowledge of the Regency, defines her style in derogatory terms: an unoriginal, “worn” set of narrative formulae of pleasant effect and an Austen-like style that contour an imaginative world, surrealistic and “artificial”. As Laski expounds in her controversial outline of the phenomenon of Heyer’s popularity, her stories are void of politics, poverty, religion, sex and dominated by a “carefree merriment”.

The widow Mrs Wingham’s match-making schemes for her daughter reward her with a husband. Following Lord Harleston’s confession, Mrs Wingham claims rationally “I have never fainted in all my life”, contrary to the heroines that inspire Heyer, who tend to register and react to the world through their body and feelings.. Heyer, Georgette. “A Husband for Fanny.” Christmas Number. Illustrated London News, 15 Nov. 1951, p. 11+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eqHD7. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Pleasure and entertainment certainly operate in the well-resolved short story “A Husband for Fanny”, also in the Illustrated London News. Heyer creates spirited heroines that defy the period’s morality, dictated by appearance and convention. Fanny, who projects the outcomes of her mother’s unorthodox education, “a well-informed mind behind a lovely face” (p.14), elopes with the man she longs to marry against the wishes of her relatives.  Despite Heyer’s blissful nuptial resolutions, she grants an independence of mind and agency to her female protagonists that allows them to thrive against tradition and find fulfilment.

A self-portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948) “the first American flapper”, who, after a frantic life cruising Europe with F. Scott died in a fire in the mental hospital fire where she had been confined to treat her schizophrenia. “Jazz Age Priestess.” Economist, 10 Oct. 1970, p. 57. The Economist Historical Archive, 1843-2014, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epp73. Accessed 15 May 2018.

For many, Zelda would always be the infamous wife of her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this Economist review of Nancy Milford’s seminal biography; Zelda, she emerges as more than the vision coloured by popular culture. Zelda evolved from the “prison of Southern womanhood” to a “flaming youth of the 1920s”, mad, wild and jealous of her husband’s achievements; as a strong  woman, reinventing herself alternatively as an artist, a ballerina, an author, in an effort to externalise her individuality.

This image accords with the reactions to her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz, described as a “picture of a genius as a mere figure in the wings”  impregnated of a “sad, slick allure” and tinted by the “faded colours…of the Jazz Age”.  Nonetheless, it was condemned as largely derivative, of an excessive, superficial exuberance to match the illusory character of popular imagination.

Zelda recognised the influence of her husband’s sophisticated style, but she claimed to possess a more ecstatic quality, as quoted in this piece. “F. Scott Fitzgerald.” The Times Literary Supplement, 23 Jan. 1953, p. 52. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epmp3. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Examples of her writing manifest shards of a woman whose being is blurred and made “inanimate” in love, enclosed in a language of the sublime, transcending sensual cognition, space and time; words of “haze and mist”.

A love letter from Zelda to F. Scott. Tom Gatti, and Ruth Lewy. “Love letters 16 straight from the heart.” Times, 12 Feb. 2011. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epp35. Accessed 15 May 2018.

As products of socio-political and economic turmoil, constrained by fashion and convention, Zelda and Dorothy, Stella and Georgette “struggled against it all to be themselves, and lost”.


Gibbons, Stella. “Miss Pens and the Holyshell Spectre.” Christmas Number. Illustrated London News, 21 Nov. 1946, p. 5 – 8. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/54ykP7. Accessed 30 May 2018.

Heyer, Georgette. “A Husband for Fanny.” Christmas Number. Illustrated London News, 15 Nov. 1951, p. 11+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eqHD7. Accessed 16 May 2018.

“Jazz Age Priestess.” Economist, 10 Oct. 1970, p. 57. The Economist Historical Archive, 1843-2014http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epp73. Accessed 16 May 2018.

“Jonathan Cape.” The Times Literary Supplement, 22 May 1924, p. 320. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6UvfC0. Accessed 8 May 2018.

  1. J. “Notes for the Novel-Reader: Fiction of the Month.” Illustrated London News, 27 Dec. 1941, p. 821. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6f4UU1. Accessed 15 May 2018.

Laski, Marghanita. “The appeal of Georgette Heyer.” Times, 1 Oct. 1970, p. 16. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6fQCz3. Accessed 17 May 2018.

“Longman.” The Times Literary Supplement, 9 Nov. 1951, p. 709. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/55RdR3. Accessed 30 May 2018.

McDowall, Arthur Sydney, and McDowall (AKA). “Women and Books.” The Times Literary Supplement, 31 Oct. 1929, p. 867. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S7yP1. Accessed 28 May 2018.

“Miss Dorothy Canfield.” Times, 10 Nov. 1958, p. 15. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eyNr8. Accessed 8 May 2018.

“Miss Georgette Heyer.” Times, 6 July 1974, p. 14. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6f4Pj2. Accessed 15 May 2018.

“Multiple Display Advertisements.” Times, 27 June 1924, p. 20. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eyQF1. Accessed 8 May 2018.

“New Fiction.” Times, 25 Apr. 1953, p. 3. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epn53. Accessed 12 May 2018.

Scott, E., H.. “American Affairs.” The Times Literary Supplement, 1 May 1953, p. 281. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eyN89. Accessed 16 May 2018.

“Stella Gibbons.” Times, 20 Dec. 1989, p. 18. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6f4Yq6. Accessed 30 May 2018.

Stephens, Jan. “Growing Up.” The Times Literary Supplement, 16 Nov. 1946, p. 561. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/55RPV7. Accessed 30 May 2018.

Sturch, Elizabeth L., and Mrs Sturch (AKA). “Period Pieces.” The Times Literary Supplement, 24 Apr. 1948, p. 229. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6f4U95. Accessed 15 May 2018.

Sutherland, John. “A dutiful Dorothea.” The Times Literary Supplement, 3 Dec. 1993, p. 25. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6eeGs9. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Tahourdin, Adrian. “Ecole Fitzgerald.” The Times Literary Supplement, 21 Dec. 2007, p. 27. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6epp57. Accessed 16 May 2018.

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About the Author

Paula Maher Martín is a third-year student of English and Classics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Interested in language as a means of simultaneously reflecting and transcending human experience, she plans to do postgraduate research in English, with a focus on the metaphysical construction of reality in Modernist literature. She enjoys reading Nancy Mitford, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh or Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the wind, the music of the world, wandering immersed in philosophical abstractions, writing poetry in lectures and falling in love with characters in paintings. Paula is blogging for Gale in both English and Spanish.