THE MADNESS OF A SEDUCED WOMAN by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer


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Impressive but uneven work from the author of Love and Time In Its Flight--who this time, basing her long novel on a factual murder case, seems undecided whether to write a case-study, social history, or a rhapsodic, twisted romance. All but about 150 pages here are narrated by the murderer herself--Agnes Dempster, now (circa 1945) the aged inmate of a mental hospital, secretly writing her memoirs. (""If I've had to stay alive so long, I want to know what my life has meant."") And, in the book's most distinctive chapters, Agnes first fills in her family history and childhood in 1880s rural Vermont: grandmother Eurydice (one of a famous line of local beauties), who reacted to her husband's declining health with fear and fury, moving her brass bed into the pigsty; mother Helen, who lost one daughter in a ghastly accident and thus could never love Agnes; and unloved, beautiful Agnes herself--oppressed by ancestral dread, burning to ""obliterate this life and replace it with another, a more perfect one."" So, like many another such heroine, Agnes escapes to the city at the first opportunity--to Montpelier, where her new boarding-house life brings a gentle courtship from stone-cutter Charlie. . . and then a psychosexual obsession with Charlie's moody, handsome friend Frank. But though Agnes sees talented sculptor Frank as her soulmate in escaping ""ordinary life,"" he inevitably will disappoint her: there's a wretched abortion; the alienated, practical Frank inches away, into an engagement with local rich girl Jane. And jealous Agnes--in a dreamlike state--shoots Jane to death, then turning the gun on herself, near-fatally. A third-person description of Agnes' trial follows--with interesting material on a pre-Freudian insanity defense, with a feminist tint in Agnes' emergence as a quasi-victim. Then Agnes returns to sketch in her last 40 years: 20 years in the asylum (dream therapy, an uncommonly touching relationship with a fellow inmate); brief attempts to live a normal life outside; voluntary re-admission. And there's a severe loss of momentum, shape, and tone through these shiftings. But, if incompletely convincing as a casestudy and without quite the sweep needed to justify its length, this is intelligent fiction throughout--occasionally flaring with Schaeffer's richly cumulative prose, her subtly resonant imagery (a network of references involving latin/jungle animals), and disturbing insights.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1983
Publisher: Dutton