Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Books That Time Forgot (feminist prototype edition)

So. How about that Project Gutenberg? All sorts of free etexts, there for the downloading. Of course, the tradeoff for free literary goodness is that a lot of it is stuff you can't imagine wanting to read (and Little Women, a book that alternately makes me a) very irritated and b) teary).

But it's kind of fun, getting to read these weird little turn of the century novels, like this one:

The Judgement of Eve, by May Sinclair, certainly sounds rather racy. It's not. Published in 1907, Judgement is a cautionary tale, although exactly what Sinclair is cautioning us is rather murky.

Anyway, Aggie Purcell is Sinclair's Eve, a sweet, pretty Englishwoman who is in all ways rather conventional except for her longing for "beautiful pictures and poetry," which are in rather short supply in her tiny town of Queningford. Being rather pretty, Aggie has her choice of suitors, and eventually narrows it down to well-to-do but provincial sheep farmer John Hurst and less-well-to-do but charmingly intellectual clerk Arthur Gatty. Aggie is attracted by Gatty's gentle, introspective nature and dedication to what he calls the "intellectual life," and she accepts his proposal, leaving John to marry her younger, less attractive sister (the early version of sloppy seconds?).

Aggie and Arthur move to the city and spend their free time attending debates, discussing the nature of reality, and otherwise convincing each other that their dedication to immateriality makes their rather penurious circumstances bearable. The two solemnly swear to 'keep up' their intellectual life, but, sadly, reliable birth control still being some ways away, in seven years the Gattys have six children and are poorer than ever, while Aggie is far too busy and worn out running after them to maintain her lofty ambitions.

Arthur, fed up with the demands of his growing brood and rather disgusted with how Aggie's let herself go, becomes a first-rate douche. Meanwhile, Aggie's sister (whose one child has rather conveniently, and as I understand it rather commonly in the way of children of that time period, died) is happily married to the even-wealthier John Hurst. The two sisters have a tense visit together, in which Susan confesses that she's been told that she's too weak to have another child but is, actually, totally okay with that.

Since I doubt anyone is going to hie themselves to Gutenberg to read this, I'll go ahead and spoil the ending - Aggie gets pregnant again and promptly dies. See, it IS like that coach in Mean Girls. If you have sex, you'll get pregnant and die!

Which brings us back to what, exactly, Sinclair was getting at. That Aggie's devotion to the idea of the 'intellectual life' is ridiculous? That having six kids is probably not the best idea if you'd really rather be spending your time debating the nature of reality?

Anyway, this weird little novel is sort of like a prototype of a feminist manifesto (I smell a thesis!). If you do want to read it, you can find it on Gutenberg here.

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