The Voice of a Young Woman
MODERN PSYCHOLOGISTS talk about young women's "loss of voice" in their teens. While growing up, young women too often grow down, learning to silence themselves and stifle their opinions. Faced with puberty and pressure to conform, they retreat from being individuals.
Kate O'Flaherty's coming of age was also bound up with the woes of war. She had lived in a cozy and secure world of women, with spirited widows and nuns, and her beloved friend Kitty. She was being raised under the "Victorian umbrella" of women who cherished and protected young girls.
All that was shattered when she lost her brilliant great-grandmother; her school was closed; her brother died; her best friend was wrenched away -- and Union soldiers abused her and her mother. She had reason to hide in the attic, reading -- and studying -- novels like Ivanhoe. Some three decades later, in The Awakening, the beautiful Madame Ratignolle resembles Scott's golden Rowena. But Adèle Ratignolle is also a mother-woman: she recognizes that Edna is a troubled soul, in need of friends.
After the war, though, Katie O'Flaherty was lucky. In two all-female schools, she had the cure most recommended for young women's loss of voice. Her teachers and role models and student leaders were all women and girls. She saw women doing everything, and not shying away from expressing their opinions. Kate was also, in her last years, something of a school celebrity, both as a scholar and a creative writer. Like most authors -- but without recognizing it -- she found her vocation very early.