Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Forgotten Daughter of Bohemia: Gertrude Christian Fosdick's out of Bohemia and the Artists' Novel of the 1890s

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Forgotten Daughter of Bohemia: Gertrude Christian Fosdick's out of Bohemia and the Artists' Novel of the 1890s

Article excerpt

In October 1859, George William Curtis, editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, attempted to define for his readers the concept of Bohemia. Alluding to both the freedom that Bohemia embodied and anxiety about the threat it posed to bourgeois life, he pronounced that "Bohemia is the realm of vagabondage[,] ... a fairy land upon the hard earth. ... Hereabouts you may find it in painters' studios, and in the rooms of authors. ... [I]ts denizens are clad loosely--seedily, in the vulgate--and they are shaggy as to the head, with abounding hair. Whatever is not 'respectable' they are" (705). This idea of Bohemia as an imagined site for artists mapped onto an actual urban terrain of lower-class neighborhoods began with Henri Murger's La Vie de Boheme, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the term "Bohemia" had wide currency as a signifier of unconventional living. For example, Christian Reid's A Daughter of Bohemia is set in the South but uses the term "Bohemia" as a kind of shorthand for its spirited heroine's irregular and travel-filled upbringing. Earlier works such as Thomas Janvier's Color Studies and Puccini's La Boheme popularized the idea of an artistic Bohemia, but it was George Du Maurier's Trilby that defined the term for the 1890s. Du Maurier's eponymous heroine, Trilby O'Farrell, is a free-spirited artists' model who enchants three English art students living in Paris. She is mesmerized into becoming a singing sensation through the hypnotic gaze of Svengali, whose name still evokes the figure of a male mentor exploiting a female artist. Trilby sold 300,000 copies in the first year, Richard Michael Kelly notes (87), and it captured the imagination in part because of its fetishized view of the female body under male power, a simultaneous representation of the body's innocent display and the gaze that controls it. (1)

The gaze as a master trope is particularly significant in this period because, for one of the first times in history, the particular power relations that it signified--male gaze and female model--had been significantly and officially disrupted. The establishment of the influential Academie Julian in Paris in 1868 challenged the traditions of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, not only by admitting women students but also by allowing them to take classes with men, including lite drawing from nude models. (2) Significantly, the Academie Julian also served as a training ground for such painters-turned-writers as Robert W. Chambers (Outsiders: An Outline), George Moore (Mildred Lawson), and Frank Norris (Vandover and the Brute), who studied there, according to biographers Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Jesse S. Crisler, from 1887-89 (94). Like the prostitution and working-girl narratives of the 1890s, the Bohemian artists' novel was a powerful draw for writers, in part because, as in narratives of prostitution, its objectification of the female figure provided an ideal mode for examining spec-tatorship and sexuality.-' Other Bohemian artists' novels written by men, such as Emile Zola's The Masterpiece, William Dean Howells's The Coast of Bohemia, Stephen Crane's The Third Violet, and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, reveal anxiety about the permeability of class and gender boundaries, most clearly in their treatment of women's positions as artists as well as models. By contrast, earlier novels about women artists, such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis, examine the conflict between artistic aspirations and domestic life, with Phelps illustrating the obstacles to blending the two. But one novel of this later generation, Gertrude Christian Fosdick's Out of Bohemia, focuses on a different set of issues, exploring how nationalism and an imperial American innocence disrupt the power dynamic of male gaze and female subject. As a brief overview of Fosdick's life followed by an analysis of the novel demonstrates, Out of Bohemia is valuable both as a recovered text by an unknown woman author and as a work that moves the figure of the woman in the Bohemian artists' novel from object to autonomous subject, a transformation effected through the discourses of nationalism that Fosdick invokes on behalf of her protagonist. …

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