Who was she?
Mary Chavelita Bright Dunne known by her pseudonym George Egerton.
Although born in Australia in 1859 to Welsh and Irish parents, after her mother’s death, Egerton settled in Ireland with her father and younger siblings. The maternal death also ended Egerton’s ideas of becoming an artist, instead she was forced to train as a nurse. In 1880, Egerton eloped with a married man, Henry Higgins, to Norway, whom she married in 1888 and divorced two years later. Despite only living in Norway for a few years, Egerton learnt the language and was exposed to the work of Nietzsche, Ibsen and Knut Hamsun (to whom her first collection was dedicated) who were to have an important influence on her writing. After her divorce Egerton remarried and returned to Ireland. Her second husband Egerton Tertius Clairmonte was a failing author and their economic situation forced Egerton to take up her own pen for income. As her biographer and nephew Terence de Vere White wrote, ‘Her elopement with Higginson gave her the material for a book; her second husband, by his dependence on her, gave her the motive to employ it.’
Egerton’s first collection, Keynotes, was published by John Lane and Elkin Matthews of Bodley Head when she was 34, and sold 6,000 copies evidencing her contemporary popularity. However, Egerton also faced harsh criticism for her progressive portrayals of women and sometimes polemical narration, and was famously lampooned in Punch in the parodic piece ‘Borgia Smudgerton’. Subsequently, much of her later and perhaps more experimental work fell into obscurity and she died in 1945 aged 86.
Egerton mainly wrote short stories which were published in collections, including Keynotes (1893), Discords (1894), Symphonies (1897) and Flies in Amber (1905), and in the periodicals/little magazines of the day such as Henry Harland’s The Yellow Book. Egerton also published a collection of Nietzschean fables: Fantasias (1898), and two novels: The Wheel of God (1898) and Rosa Amorosa (1901) which is partly biographical, as well as several stage plays.
Egerton herself knew her formal comfort zone; ‘I was a short, at most a long story, writer. For years they came in droves and said themselves, leaving no scope for padding or altered endings; the long book was not my pigeon.’ Egerton describes her creative process as both spontaneous and informal, telling her nephew in 1930 that she had written the stories for Keynotes, ‘straight off […] ‘The Little Grey Glove’ on the back of an upturned tea-tray after supper in the gauger’s cottage near Millstreet, Co. Cork.’
Why is she interesting?
Egerton is often linked with the aestheticism of the 1890s and more specifically the ‘New Women’ movement, including authors such as Oscar Wilde, Henry Harland, Ella D’Arcy and Vernon Lee. Despite this connection, Egerton explicitly rejected any affiliation with women’s suffrage or feminist writers stating, ‘I had, contrary to opinion, no propaganda in view – no emancipation theory to propound, no equality to illumine.’ Ironically, I would argue that much of Egerton’s prose falls foul of just what she denies: her propaganda. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf accuses Charlotte Brontë of a rage that leaves her books ‘deformed and twisted’; she says Bronte was ‘at war with her lot’, full of an anger at her societal position that disrupted and undermined the genius of her writing. Egerton did not perhaps possess the genius of Brontë and her sometimes page-long ‘editorial’ digressions totally distract from the beauty of her prose. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, for example, the first person narrator turns from a description of events to an anger-fuelled rant that has far more of Egerton’s voice than her own:
What half creatures we are, we women! – hermaphrodite by force of circumstances, deformed results of a fight of centuries between physical suppression and natural impulses to fulfil our destiny.
Writing retrospectively in 1930, Egerton instead summarises her motivations for writing in the following words:
I realised that in literature, everything had been better done by man than woman could hold to emulate. There was only one small plot left for her to tell: the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man liked to imagine her – in a word, to give herself away, as man had given himself to writings.
The narrative forms Egerton employs are conducive to this desire for intimate self-expression, while her eschewal of linear plot in favour of temporally fragmented vignettes foregrounds the psychological interior of her characters. For example, the stories ‘A Psychological Moment’ and ‘Now Spring has Come’ are both constructed through a collection of disparate memories that have seemingly little connection; something which forces the reader to extrapolate meaning. This structural and formal experimentalism has led many critics to label her as a ‘protomodernist’; what Showalter refers to as the ‘missing link’ between the complex narratives of Victorian novelists and the self-conscious high modernism of the early 20th Century. Many of the stories included in Egerton’s first two collections Keynotes and Discords are constructed through oral narratives; spoken confidences, confessions or conversations that allow her female characters to ‘give herself away’, often (within the story) to a sympathetic audience in the form of another female character.
Egerton’s essentialist approach to gender isolated her from the suffrage movement and is perhaps what has made some of her work slightly distasteful to modern audiences, however her writing is undeniably an important lens through which to view the waning of Victorian norms and ideals about gender and society.
Translated Knut Hamsun’s first novel, Hunger, into English and was credited with the first reference to Nietzsche in English literature, 10 years before his work was first translated into English.
What kind of legacy did she leave?
- Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure, stated that Sue Bridgehead was influenced by Egerton’s writing and her own life.
- Similarities can be traced between the writing of Egerton and D.H. Lawrence, due to their mutual interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy.
- It’s been noted that The Wheel of God reads as a sort of rudimentary template for Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Much of Egerton’s work remains unpublished since it was first published in the 19th Century. There was a republication of Keynotes and Discords by Virago in 1995, edited by Martha Vicinus and another by Bloomsbury in 2003, with an introduction by Sally Ledger.
There is some academic interest in her work, with a recent two-day conference on her writing in the UK (April 2017), documented here and here. Academics including, Showalter, Gabriel Josopovici and Catherine Maxwell have also written on her work, while she often features in research on fin-de-siècle writing, New Women and Irish writing, and the history of the short story.
- A Leaf from The Yellow Book: The Correspondence of George Egerton, ed. by Terence de Vere White (London: Richards, 1958).
- Great summative article written by Eleanor Fitzsimmons about Egerton’s life.
Online Access to Works:
- The Yellow Book including ‘A Lost Masterpiece (Vol.1 p.189), ‘The Captain’s Book’ (Vol.6 p.103).
- The Wheel of God
- Rosa Amorosa