The Story of Avis
APPEARING A YEAR AFTER DANIEL DERONDA, THE PUBLICATION AND RECEPTION of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis serves as a culminating case study of the historical, political, economic, and aesthetic trends encountered by Stowe, Eliot, and Phelps throughout the 1870s. Where Eliot had repudiated false professional strictures, Phelps amalgamated the market role of the professional within her own aesthetic vision. Where Stowe had tried to claim an aesthetic and specifically feminine sensibility akin to, but decidedly removed from, Woman's Rights, Phelps saw her art as intimately bound up with the suffrage and worker's rights movements, going one step further than Stowe's representation of Lady Byron to articulate, in Avis, both a blatant artist-heroine as well as a mythological country of womanhood-a country symbolized by the metaphorical concept of an all-encompassing Sphinx. And where both Stowe and Eliot had resisted commercial trends (even when employing them), Phelps had less difficulty commodifying her artistry and selling it to the group of readers she most hoped to influence: those "helpless, outnumbering, unconsulted" women.
Like Lady Byron Vindicated and Daniel Deronda, The Story of Avis appeared after Phelps had secured a prominent position as a well-known writer. A little less than a decade before Avis, Phelps published The Gates Ajar, a novel she claims to have written to ameliorate suffering from women who had lost husbands, sons, and fiancés in the Civil War. Because Gates depicted heaven as a domestic idyll-replete with hearths and puppies and ginger snap cookies-many in America and England found the books message blasphemous. Yet American sales neared 100,000 before the end of the century, and British sales exceeded even that. 1 Prior to this success, Phelps had been an obscure writer from Andover, Massachusetts. 2 Afterward, however, she became an important part of the New England literary community-as well as a member of the elite circle of Harper's contributors-thus participating as a full-fledged professional in the transatlantic literary marketplace.