Two didactic, at times sentimental novels (first serialized in Gilman’s magazine, The Forerunner) still prove fascinating in their explications of gender in turn-of-the-century New England.
A preeminent pioneer of contemporary feminism, tackling in her nonfiction the repressive economic and domestic life of women, Gilman (1860-1935) didn’t stray far at all in her fiction. Written only a few years before the publication of her significant Herland, both Mag-Marjorie and Won Over (1912 and 1913) present women confronted with the challenge of independence in a world of petticoats and social calls. Though the plot of the first is conventionally melodramatic, the solution to its “problem” is pure Gilman. Mag, a 16-year-old maid at her aunt’s inn, falls for Dr. Armstrong, becomes pregnant, and is tossed aside by the misogynistic Lothario. Luckily for Mag, the exceptional Mary Yale is visiting the inn and saves the girl: “He’s not going to be ruined by this summer’s sins – why should you?” The wealthy, unmarried older woman makes plans for Mag’s next ten years – a Henrietta Higgins transforming the country girl into an educated European surgeon. Won Over is more contemporary in its relevance and far more compelling. Stella Widfield, a happily married mother, discovers the emptiness of her life when her sons go off to boarding school. In a nice turn of paranoia à la “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Stella becomes obsessed with her husband’s safety until she discovers a world outside the stifling environs of her Manhattan apartment. Rediscovering her love of writing (thanks to another well-to-do lady and her broader circle of Socialist bohemians), Stella also discovers herself and in turn reignites her faltering marriage by changing from a frothing handmaid into an individual whom her husband can respect.
Though the tales are dated and at a glance have little import for the modern reader, Gilman’s sharp characters and her insights into gender traps provide enough appeal to interest those outside academic circles.