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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Charwoman's Daughter (1912) by James Stephens


Book Review
The Charwoman's Daughter (1912)
by James Stephens
Gill & MacMillan Press, 1972 edition
w/ Introduction  by Augustine Martin

    The Charwoman's Daughter is one of the few "to-read" books between 1900-1920 I have left on the 1001 Books list.  I ended up purchasing a copy on Amazon, but the book I got is a half century old paperback edition.  the introduction, by Augustine Martin, is a strong plus to reading this edition, but I had no idea that it was included based on the Amazon.com purchase link.

 James Stephens was a legitimately working class Irish writer.  He habitually claimed a kind of spiritual kinship with James Joyce (he claimed to have the same birthday) and that's not a fair comparison, but The Charwoman's Daughter is worthy of its status as a minor classic.  As the introduction points out, the tale of Mary Makebelieve is, properly speaking, a fairy tale, replete with a "story-book" fairy tale ending where Mary and her poor Mother receive an enormous bequest from a never-appearing American relative.

 Up to that point, The Charwoman's Daughter is notable for the working class world it sympathetically, and realistically depicts. The deeper question of whether The Charwoman's Daughter is supposed to mock the idea of such an elevataion, or whether it simply reflects "what the Audience wants" (which they did, in 1912) or whether it's some combination of the two,  is less important than Stephens "outsider" status as an Author.  The Novel, as an art-form has ALWAYS been about outsider looking in.

  The best example of this is the role of Scottish writers in the development of the novel as an Art Form- particularly the roll of Sir Walter Scott and his "Waverely Novels."  Specifically, you've got Rob Roy, published in 1817, and Ivanhoe, published in 1820.  I think you can argue that Sir Walter Scott is the writer who made the novel "fashionable" as an art form, with prior exponents being deeply unfashionable types like Daniel Defoe.

  Even before Scott, Jonathan Swift played a huge role in the pre-history of the Novel, A Modest Proposal was published in 1729, Gulliver's Travels in 1726.  And Maria Edgworth, publishing in 1800.  Henry MacKenzie- still in the 18th century, then the addition of Anglo-Irish writers in the 19th century: Charles Maturin, Somervile and Ross, all culminating in Joyce.  You can also include American literature in this discussion, though I won't.

  The point is that the outsider looking inward is an excellent place for works of art which purport to demonstrate the workings of society and a good place to make formal innovations in the art form itself. The fact that Stephens does none of these things, places him and The Charwoman's Daughter more with a hithero non-existent genre called "working class literature"- cutting across national boundaries and almost wholly absent prior to the 20th century.

  It's all in that fairy-tale ending- no "serious" Novelist of the 1910-1920 period would slap an ending like that onto a frank depiction of working class life from the narrative perspective of another working class individual.

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