This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates.
If you were a reader of any kind in nineteenth-century America, you’d know who Rebecca Harding Davis was. Her first nationally published short story, “Life In the Iron-Mills,” appeared in The Atlantic, the premier “serious” literary magazine of the period, in 1861. It was an unprecedented success that garnered the young “back woods” (her own words – she was from a town called Wheeling in what is now West Virginia) writer lavish praise and even a visit to New England where she met with famous editors and writers like Emerson and Hawthorne. It is for this story that she is known today, if she is known at all. “Life in the Iron-Mills” is a realist account of the poor labor conditions in an Appalachian iron mill. At its center is a pair of brave, spirited cousins who attempt to defy their circumstances, challenging cultural assumptions about class and gender. Davis went on to write critiques of slavery and the mental health industry as well as stories, novels, and articles that addressed gender inequality in education and the professional world. For nearly half a century, she enjoyed a solid income from her work and earned a reputation as a writer of hard-hitting social criticism. By all accounts, she was a strong-minded (stubborn, even) iconoclast devoted to her literary ambitions.
I’ve studied Davis for the better part of a decade and, unsurprisingly, began to form some idea of her in my mind over the years: smart and opinionated—this was a woman who said of the dinner table conversation at Emerson’s place that “their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child’s pipe, floating overhead . . . in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted” and called Charles Dickens “shallow and metallic.” She could be cold and conservative in some ways (she and her son joke around about “shrieking suffragettes” in their letters), but creative (she told the same son stories about the fictional characters who lived in their cupboards when he was a boy) and definitely a feminist. She had to be, to sustain a career of such force and longevity, to marry a man who was a diehard fan of her work (that’s how they met!) and continued to support her career throughout their marriage, to write of women artists and writers frustrated by the sexism of the culture industry. But then, I read A Second Life, a novel Davis published serially in 1863.
The narrator of “A Second Life” is John Lashley—a super rich asshole living in the Bay Area. (Initially this may sound like the plot of “The Social Network,” but I assure you we depart significantly from any resemblance to that narrative post-haste.) At the time of the story, Lashley is in his sixties, having made his fortune in trading. His life is “full of the clink of dollars” but the one who got away still haunts him: Esther Lashley, his sister (adopted, technically a cousin). Like many nineteenth-century heroines, she was “brought up like a boy: used to go out in her linsey dress with her cousins . . . fishing and rabbit snaring.” Fun! But her disability, “she was a trifle lame, one foot shorter than the other,” and her general physical disposition, “Esther wasn’t strong,” made it necessary for young John Lashley to constantly aid her. Sure, “she’d keep from him in that cold, indifferent way women have, until she got in trouble, tumbled down, or came across a snake, and then it was ‘John Lashley—help!” It’s this kind of talk that initially started to nag at me. You know women, pretending to be independent but then constantly showing how weak they are, right? John even says “I had a whim that if [Esther] chose . . . she could overcome her woman’s weakness, and share my masculine strength.” What a whim! Of course, this is him—not Davis—talking but, across the board, the female characters in A Second Life are pretty terrible. The Lashley mother is perhaps the worst of the lot. She comes from a “flinty race” and John reflects that, while typically, “the old touch of the mother-hand leaves a blessing on a man’s life that goes down to the grave with him. It was not so with me.” John has an evil brother, Clayton, who is the villain of this story, but even his villainy is blamed on a woman. Their mother “pampered his soul by selfish pleasures, just as she pampered his body with gross food: soul and body grew diseased, rotten. As he gained strength by manhood, he forced the disease out of sight, whitewashed the foulness under a smooth, gracious manner; but the thick lip, the thicker eyelid, the tigerish sensual eye betrayed him.” Unfortunately his manhood couldn’t defeat the womanish poisons of the mother.
Anyhow, the plot is much worse than these misogynistic trifles. We find out through gradual reveals that John and Esther were all set to get married back in the day, when John left town for awhile to earn some money for their new home. While he was gone, Clayton “forced his presence, his embraces on [Esther], holding her with his pale, snaky eye, his whisky-poisoned breath on her lips.” John’s take on this rape when he returns? “and so—the end.” It’s best to leave her to him. John departs for the gold in them thar hills and Esther bears the child of her rapist, now husband. This utter self-sacrifice is rewarded with repeated exclamations of her goodness. She tries to make the marriage work, but it doesn’t. Among other things, he drives her mad with “his incessant flute-playing,” which is a strange way for Davis to emphasize the clear implication that she is repeatedly raped for several years. Long story short, she tries to kill herself down by the river with a knife but Clayton intervenes, and then Clayton goes missing, and then she’s found covered in blood, and then everyone assumes she killed Clayton, and then she’s tried but found innocent for lack of a body but everyone thinks she did it anyway, which maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, and then she goes missing too. Still with me?
So now, flash forward to the present (1863) and John Lashley trying to find Esther Lashley who may at this point be dead. He’s on a boat headed to Virginia when he coincidentally (this sort of thing is actually par for the course in nineteenth-century sensation fiction) runs into a dashing young man who is none other than Pressley Lashley—Clayton and Esther’s son. Pressley is everything you want a dashing young man to be: strong, heroic, handsome, well spoken. But there’s something a bit strange about him that John notices right off the bat: he’s traveling with a shrouded figure moaning “like a horse in agony” with “a bony arm—whether ape or human being I know not, but whose claws were overgrown with hair.” Politely, John doesn’t bring it up, assuming that if one were traveling with such a companion one might not be disposed to talk freely about who—or what—it was. So who is the hairy moaner? That’s the big mystery here. With all of my Freudian buttons pushed already by this disgusting poisonous mother stuff, I couldn’t help but assume that this was Pressley’s mother gone to rot. John is looking for Esther and he doesn’t know that she’s right there the whole time! Under the shroud, John! But why is she covered in hair? It was this question that haunted me through the next several installments: just how did Esther get so hairy? And what kind of narrative resolution can we expect to have if John finds his beloved but she’s somehow gone horse-ape?
In the meantime, Pressley falls in love with his cousin, I-forget-her-name. She’s pretty and girlish and nice and never says or does anything interesting at all. Pressley and I-forget-her-name are desperate to get married but I-forget-her-name’s parents (actually just her dad, her mother isn’t even a mentioned character for god’s sake) won’t allow it because Pressley’s mother is maybe a murderer, a secret everyone has struggled to hide from him. (I remind you that his father is a rapist, but that is not the issue here.) John searches high and low for Esther and eventually finds her. (So she’s not the horse-ape thing) living a miserable life as an itinerant seamstress. Her only pleasure is secretly following her son around the country and mending his collars for free. She’s so sick from starvation and exhaustion she’s nearly dead. In fact, one of the only things she actually says in the novel is “am I dead now?” Poor, confused Esther, you’re not dead. There’s far more suffering to come. John takes her back to the family home in Virginia to revive. He’s excited because, if she lives, he can fulfill his life-long dream of making her his wife. But when they tell Pressley why he can never marry I-forget-her-name, Pressley immediately proves his mother’s innocence by revealing the identity of the horse-ape: it’s his father! So, she couldn’t have murdered him. Hurray!
Then the absolute worst thing ever to have happened in fiction happens. Practically-dead-already Esther has to live with and care for the horse-ape who raped her because he’s still her husband. And John & co. just go on and on about how great of her this is. Clayton eventually kills himself for unspecified reasons. (Total madness? There’s definitely a case to be made for his potential syphilis.) And then A Second Life can proceed to its joyful dénouement: satisfied old John and what remains of Esther get to live together happily ever after at the very end of their lives. If you find this ending distasteful, perhaps these cheerful remarks from John will be a balm unto you: “Passing through the lonely paths at my side was a woman, more weary, footsore with her pilgrimage than I: to whom the years had been slow torture, pressing, urging her, closer, closer to her God.”
Now in many ways this rhetoric resembles the “cult of true womanhood” that we are told nineteenth-century women were urged to follow: a strict regimen of purity, domesticity, submissiveness, and—above all—piety. But so many nineteenth-century fictions, including Davis’s own, honor women who radically depart from these ideals. So what do we make of this unabashedly misogynistic novel? A few things to consider. A Second Life was published serially in Peterson’s Magazine, a popular periodical aimed at a female readership that featured fiction alongside articles on fashion, cookery and pinteresty stuff. This was a shadow career that Davis carried on anonymously while she published more highbrow work elsewhere. There are quite a few popular women’s fictions—see nineteen-seventies era romance novels, in particular those that feature Scottish highlanders—that indulge in sexualized fantasies of female submission and male dominance. So we have to consider the possibility that there’s a pleasure to be found in reading about Esther’s rape, her suffering, and John’s undying desire to rescue her. “Help me, John Lashley, help me!” is a constant refrain here. There’s actually a certain subversiveness to this reading because the characters are in their sixties and seventies—a subversiveness that may be backed up by the biographical detail that Davis was an older bride whose marriage appears to have been a very satisfying one.
Another possibility, and one I find more tempting, is that Davis intentionally exaggerates the misogynistic tendencies of the genre fictions she clearly imitates here. This novel could almost be parodying the melodramatic style of works like The Woman in White or Lady Audley’s Secret and the ways in which these fictions represent women. Lastly, we might think of A Second Life as almost inexplicably realist. By depicting Esther’s sexual violation and her family’s choice that she stick by her abuser, Davis may be protesting marital rape, a hotly debated issue at the time. If so, its double-voice is a whisper, hard to hear over the horse moans and flute-playing. But I think of what Gloria Steinem has called the “Mad Men Effect”– how some viewers of the AMC drama “Mad Men” take pleasure in stepping back to a time when men were men and women protected their rapists, while others see the show as a scathing indictment of that history and its present incarnations. We cannot ask Davis what she thinks nor would I really want us to. I prefer to offer A Second Life as an opportunity to discuss what we want our fictions to do and how we might reconcile our pleasures with our politics.