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Alice French: A Writing Career Forgotten
By Rebekah Wilken '19, Forreston, Ill., English; Senior Inquiry project
Alice French, better known in the literary world as Octave Thanet, was born on March 19, 1850 in Andover Massachusetts. The French family moved to Davenport, Iowa, in 1856 when Alice was six years old. From the moment she was born, Alice lived a well to do life, growing up in a family that had both money and connections. Later in life, these connections would help to further both Alice’s education and career, allowing her to become both the person and the author that Davenport knew her to be. Alice grew up in a life of sophistication, power, and knowledge that allowed her to become a successful writer. Though she was a female writer in a predominantly masculine time, Alice was able to dominate the literary world and became one of the most revered authors of her time. Alice’s fame can be contributed to her ability to connect with a wide variety of readers by writing sentimental stories as well as ones that dealt with social issues of the time. Many of her stories also challenged the typical gender roles of the time. Because her stories were able to encompass many different topics, they appealed to a larger audience, which made Alice French one of the most popular writers of her time not only in Davenport, but across the United States.
Alice French was one of the most esteemed authors of her time. While women were struggling to establish their role in society, Alice had no trouble climbing to the top of the literary world and making a name for herself. Her pen name, Octave Thanet, was a derivation of her college roommate’s name Octavia and some graffiti that she saw on the side of a train car. Although the name she used was not her own and the name Octave is seen as a masculine name, it was widely known that the author of the popular stories was, in fact, a female. Though there were many women writers of the time, very few were as popular or as well known at the time as French. Females had not yet been given rights, and the women's suffrage movement had not yet influenced the nation. So how did a female manage to become so popular in a predominantly masculine time?
Though Alice French was very outspokenly against the women’s suffrage movement, her novels did not always portray this. Throughout many of her novels, Octave Thanet, seems to continually write her female characters in ways that were not typical of the time period and that seemed to agree with the ways of feminism. Aside from this, she was able to appeal to such a wide range of readers because she was able to write many of her stories with sentimental aspects while still addressing social issues of the time. Her father, George French, became involved in the politics of Davenport very quickly after moving to the area, becoming the treasurer of both the school board and the Episcopal church, as well as being the president of the First National Bank, president of the Davenport and St. Paul Railroad, and founder of the Eagle Plow Manufacturing Company (“French, Alice Virginia” 2009) and was eventually elected mayor in 1861. Because of his involvement, Alice was well acquainted with issues that were occuring and was able to address them in her work.
For her first official literary work, Alice did a rewrite of Hugo’s Waiting, a short story that she wrote in college that received a lot of praise from her peers. The story was published in the Davenport Gazette under her first pen name, Frances Essex. The story was one of sentimentality, following the puzzling lives of the rich and the poor. From this story, we get the first glimpse of Alice’s untraditional female characters in her stories. In the story, the female character gives money to the male character. Having a female character that took a lead role in the story as well as one that had a great deal of money and was aiding the male character instead of the other way around was very strange indeed. In fact, the female heroine is expected to be an idealized version of Alice herself. Despite the oddity of her story, it was well received and Alice’s writing career took off. While her first story leaned toward sentimentality and friendship like many of her short stories did, her next big literary work was titled Communists and Capitalists, A Sketch from Life, which took on a much more political view. The story was based off of a railway worker strike. Her father had left his ownership position at the lumber mill and became president of the railway, so Alice knew a great deal about the workings of the railroad and the struggles that were going on pertaining to it.
While some of her stories like Hugo’s Waiting and Communists and Capitalists, A Sketch from Life only contain one or two of the different story-lines, some contain all three. In her short story The Besetment of Kurt Lieders, Octave Thanet covers both the sentimental content and an important social issue, as well as disregarding typical gender roles in her characters. In the story, Kurt Lieders, who was recently fired from his job of thirty seven years as head cabinet maker, had had a quarrel with his new boss after his old boss had died. Kurt was very set in his ways, and when he disagreed with his new boss and refused to do the work his way, he was fired. This left him extremely distraught, and his wife was left to deal with his suicidal tendencies. His wife reaches out to a friend who’s husband worked with hers for help because she is distraught over her husband continual attempts to commit suicide. Overcome with sadness at her husbands continued actions, Mrs. Lieders takes care of him and gets him his job back so he will promise her to no longer attempt to commit suicide.
Sentimentality in early American novels is defined as an “overindulgence in emotion especially for the pleasure that this feeling provides” (“Early American Novel”, 2013). Throughout the short story there are multiple instances where we can see a very sentimental side in the characters. In the very beginning of the story, Thekla Lieders runs next door to her neighbors very early in the morning and she was sobbing because Kurt had tried to kill himself again. Page 1 of the story it says that “One near would have heard her sob, in too distracted agitation to heed the motorneer in the passing street-car who stared after her at the risk of his car…”. Thekla is so overcome with emotion at her husband’s attempted suicide that she does not even heed the car that is in the streets. Without even knowing what is wrong, we feel sorry for her because of the overwhelming emotion that she is feeling. We later get another sense of sentimentality when Kurt is longing to have his job back: “...he missed the feeling of being part of a great whole...He got into the habit of walking around the shops at night, prowling about his old haunts like a cat.” (6) Kurt so greatly missed his job that he visited it at night to feel close to it again. Here we feel sorry for Kurt and the profound sadness he is feeling over the loss of his job and the comfort that he felt working at the job he was good at and loved. We also see sentimentality when Thekla begs Kurt to promise her that he will no longer try to commit suicide if she is able to get him his old job back. She loved and cared for her husband so much that she waited for the perfect opportunity to ask his old boss for his job back. We feel the emotion from Mrs. Lieder and feel both sympathy for her and her husband as well as sadness for the situation that the couple is in. Alice French is able to emotionally tie her readers to the characters with the open display of emotion and reel them in by making them emotionally invested in finding out what will happen to the couple and whether Mr. Lieder will get his job back.
In the story we also see Alice French addressing the problem of depression related to being fired from a job. According to the study Trends of Suicide in the United States During the 20th Century, in the time that the short story was written in 1893, unemployment was one of the main reasons for suicide, with the most common way being by hanging, which was attempted by Kurt Lieders in the story. The study also claims that the people who are most commonly linked to suicide by hanging were aging Caucasian men, and the further into aging they were the higher the suicide rate. Kurt Lieders follows this description perfectly. Alice French was able to address a problem that was occuring by putting it in a story that was not only about the problem, making it more enjoyable for readers than if they were reading statistics. Her ability to write in this way was one of the reasons that made her so popular with readers of the time.
Throughout the story we can also see Alice French pushing the boundaries of what is typically expected of women of the time period, something that helped her stories appeal to an even larger number of people - those who were fighting for a change in the role of women in a household. In the story, the husband is the one who needs help, and his wife is the one who helps him. Typically the man would be seen as the strong one and they would come to the aid of a woman, but in this particular story that is not the case. Thekla repeatedly comes to the aid of her husband and stops his suicide attempts. Three times she comes to his aid right when he is on the brink of death and saves his life, despite the fact that he clearly does not want help. She also defies his wishes regularly. He obviously does not want her interfering with his plans, but she keeps stopping him. When he tried to hang himself, she tackled him down from the rope and tied him up with it. After her neighbors help get him in to bed while he is still tied up, Thekla tries to serve him breakfast. “Aint you going to take off them ropes?” (3) Kurt asks her, but Thekla tells him she won’t until he promises to no longer try to off himself. When she tries to feed him breakfast, he refuses to eat, trying to starve himself to make her untie him. “I won’t touch it if you stand till doomsday, lessen you untie me!” (4). Thekla continues to refuse his wishes without a promise, and Kurt will not give her a promise. Kurt goes on to explain his unhappiness with his wife, saying that he “married Thekla to have someone to keep a warm fireside for him, but she was an ignorant creature who never could be made to understand...it made him angry to have that stupid Thekla keep him in a world where he did not wish to stay” (5). He is clearly very angry with his wife’s actions, and she constantly defies him and does not listen. This is something very uncommon, as women of the time were to do as they were told, especially when it came to their husbands. Thekla is also the hero of the story. Where in most cases the men are the ones who create the happy outcome of the book and restore everything back to the way it was, in this particular story that honor goes to a woman. Kurt’s boss told him it would be a cold day before he ever hired him back, so Thekla waits until the coldest day of the year and goes to see his old boss, and asks him for Kurt’s job back. Mr. Lossing laughs at her wit and commended her for walking all the way in the cold to get her husbands job back, and decides to give Kurt his job back. Kurt in turn promises her to no longer try to off himself, creating the happy ending that Thekla has strived for the entire story.
Throughout The Besetment of Kurt Lieders we can see Alice French bringing in all three aspects of her writing, with the sentimentality between Thekla and Kurt, as well as addressing the social issue of suicide due to job loss while switching gender roles by having Thekla take charge. While a story containing one of these aspects would have appealed to certain groups of readers, her inclusion of multiple of these topics in one story was what grabbed her reader’s attention and increased her number of readers, driving up her popularity and increasing her fan base further than just Davenport.
Another short story that we can see French including untypical roles of women as well as addressing a social issue is The Stout Miss Hopkins’s Bicycle. The story is about two overweight women who bond in their friendship while they attempt to learn to ride a bike. The story opens with an introduction to the two main characters, Mrs. Margaret Ellis and Miss Lorania Hopkins and expresses their worries about their growing stoutness. As it is today, the issue of a woman’s body image was a problem. Right away we see the deviation from the typical storyline, with female characters at the opening as the main characters of the story. The story goes on to depict the women as charitable women who are involved in the church and give often to the poor. The story goes on to explain that Miss Hopkins, a single woman has a much bigger salary than Mrs. Ellis, despite Mrs. Ellis being married and Miss Hopkins being single. The two women go on to decide that riding a bicycle will be the best way to lose their extra weight, but neither one knows how to actually ride a bike. The women go on to learn how to ride a bike from their trainer, Shuey, to try to get rid of their unwanted weight. At the end of the short story, Miss Hopkins goes through a rather scary biking incident and decides to give it up because her stout figure isn’t so bad after all, because Mr. Winslow seems to like her despite her extra poundage. While there are male characters in the story, it is predominantly about the two women and their friendship together. The men are background characters that help aid the women, either in learning to do something or in helping them gain a better self image. The social issue that is addressed is the ever present worry of being unattractive because of weight and thinking little of yourself because of your size, something that is more commonly worried about in women rather than in men.
While one of the most typical aspects of Alice French’s stories was the non traditional roles of her female characters, this seems to be the most controversial one. Based on the life-style that Alice lived and the content of her literary works, her position on women’s suffrage seems a strange one. What was common and expected of women in the time period was clear: they got married, were submissive to their husbands, did the household chores, and did what they were told. Alice French did not follow this in the slightest. Though there was no shortage of suitors who came trying to vie for the attention of Alice, she did not show the slightest interest in them. She often found excuses to not go on dates with men or she found reasons to dislike them and ended any relationship that may have started. This deeply troubled her parents, and they often wrote about it in their family diary. Alice was very aware of her parents’ concerns in her love life, but she was not interested in getting married, and she never did.
Alice’s personal life was not the only aspect about her character that seems strange when compared to her personal views of women’s suffrage. As it was deduced from her first short story that was printed in the Davenport Gazette, Octave Thanet seemed to write her female characters in a way that did not follow the societal norms set for women of the time period. As her career grew and Alice became more well known for her writing, her stories that leaned towards the sentimental side of her writing continued to not follow a character role that was typically seen in women characters throughout literature of the time. Many of the women characters weren’t married, and many carried lead roles in the novel, where as in most literature the females were background characters that catered to the men’s needs. Because Alice did not follow the beliefs of women’s suffrage activists, the fact that her writing tended to lean much more towards their cause than her outspoken beliefs was and is very strange. Many of her novels and short stories carried a sentimentality for women’s relationships together, and many of them have female friendships rather than the main female character having a male spouse. This component in her stories is most likely a direct reflection of her companionship with Jenny.
Instead of marrying, Alice had a life long partnership with a woman named Jane “Jenny” Crawford. The exact nature of the pair’s relationship is never confirmed. Some believe that they were lovers, while others believe that they were just two women who found a comfortable companionship together that they weren’t able to find with any man. Whatever the nature of the relationship may have been, Alice chose a life that was very different than what was expected of her. She continued to deny relationships with men until she was far past the normal marrying age, and chose to live the rest of her life out with Jenny, whom she truly loved. Alice made much more money than many men of her time period, including other male writers. Alice’s stories were making five cents per word, where as other writers of her time, including male writers, were only making about half a cent per word. Her reputable career as a writer continued to grow, and made her one of the most famous writers of the time period. Her career allowed her and Jenny to live very comfortably in both their home in Davenport as well as their plantation in Arkansas that they named Thanford, a combination of Alice’s literary pen name Thanet and Jenny’s last name Crawford. The two lived together for a large portion of their lives, hosting fancy dinner parties for their many guests, many of whom were famous. Cooking seemed to be the one aspect of womanhood that Alice seemed willing to accept, as she loved to cook elaborate meals for her guests. One of the most famous guests to ever visit Alice and Jenny’s home in Davenport was President Teddy Roosevelt, who was a big fan of one of Alice’s most famous political literary novels, The Man of the Hour, which discussed the labor problem and the measures that socialists were taking to solve it. The book was written in in 1905 and was exceptionally well received across the country, focusing on conflicts of labor and business, as well as portraying Alice’s true view of where women belonged in society (McQuin 35).
The Man of the Hour is in three parts, the first being an explanation of the childhood of the main character, Johnny Winslow, the second being a synopsis of his adult life and how he gets involved in the labor forces of Chicago and gives away his riches to support the labor strikers, and the final section being his role as the leader of the Negro strikebreakers to save the plant he is working at. In her article titled Alice French’s View on Women, Susan McQuin states that she believes this book is Alice French’s first step into what made her an obscure writer in the end of her career. “...it resulted from distrust of immigrants, stereotyping of Negros, and identification with benevolent capitalism” (36). McQuin also says the story points towards French’s “outdated views of women”, all of which lead to her eventually obscure career despite her previous successes. “The absence of women during most of the significant action in the book and the description of the actions in which they are involved suggest who women are in the world of Octave Thanet’s stories.” While this may be the case in this story in particular, as we can see from the previously analyzed stories, this is not the case. Women were very prevalent characters in the stories. While The Man of the Hour may not have very prevalent female characters, as the title suggests, the story will be about a man rather than a woman. How can this one story that doesn’t pertain as much to women have ruined her career as a writer? If The Man of the Hour was so well received, how did it lead to Alice French’s eventual obscurity? It is clear that Alice French’s beliefs did not seem to line up with the way that she wrote in her literature. As her career furthered on, society was changing and becoming more progressive, but her beliefs about women’s rights and their place in society remained the same. How can her writing continually be different from her beliefs? How did she come about her beliefs?
Alice’s family had always been well-to-do, even before they moved to Davenport. When they left Massachusetts, they had about thirty thousand dollars, but the move to Davenport made them even more rich. At the time, there was no national currency, and the Davenport area was having problems with disreputable money, so when the French’s came with their very reputable Massachusetts money, they gained a bonus of 10 to 25 percent from the banks, making them even more rich than they were before. As the family became more involved and even opened their own lumber mill in Davenport, their wealth and power increased. “Alice French never had to escape from deprivation or seek a usable past...as she grew older, Alice escaped many of the restraints imposed on little girls in New England.” (McMichael 19-20). Her life was one of ease, and her family’s money helped her and her siblings along in life. Growing up, Alice did not have to conform to the dainty lives that many little girls her age had to, and she grew up in more masculine world than most. Much of this has to do with her beliefs. Her family’s wealth allowed Alice to get a college education, something that not all women of the time were able to do.
Though Alice was among the most educated women of her time, she was deeply against the idea of women becoming more involved in the political world. Being surrounded by politics for much of her life and having a deep understanding for political issues because of her education, Alice believed that men were handling politics just fine and women had no reason to become involved. Alice, along with her mother, believed that women had responsibilities to men and natural rights that came along with womanhood, and that they did not need any more rights than they already had. Alice began to openly speak out about her beliefs, leading anti-feminist rallies and fought against women gaining the right to vote.
There is such a wide divide between what Alice French put in the vast majority of her literary works compared to what she spoke out against in her anti-feminist rallies. Her lifestyle and writing style did not match up with what she believed. While perhaps few of her literary works did not seem to be progressing along with the times, the work was still well received by people as high up as Teddy Roosevelt. The vast majority of her literature seemed to be in agreeance with the progression of the time. Her literature was not the problem in her eventual downfall into obscurity; her outspoken beliefs were what turned many away from her writing and eventually lead to the crippling end of her fame and fortune. Her readers were no longer interested in what she had to say because her views were so outdated. Her command over the literary world began to dwindle. Because of her love to cook and throw dinner parties, she had become extremely overweight and became diabetic, eventually losing a leg because of it. Alice and Jenny were no longer able to keep up with their lifestyle or maintain their elegant home now that Alice was confined to a wheelchair, and so the two women moved into the Blackhawk hotel, which still stands in Davenport today. After the Great Depression hit, her bank failed and Alice lost all of the money that she had obtained throughout her life, becoming virtually broke for the first time in her entire life. Alice’s life was slowly disheveling, and came completely unraveled when Jenny died, leaving Alice alone and quite unhealthy, left to be taken care of by relatives in Bettendorf until she became ill with a respiratory infection and died on January 9, 1934.
Though the tail end of Alice’s life was not one to boast about and the knowledge of her fame and literary work is virtually nonexistent today, the name Octave Thanet was one that was known by so many during the time of her career. Though her beliefs did not always match up with her writing and life styles, she was able to write in a way that drew in many different people to her literary work. Her ability to encompass so many different kinds of writing allowed her work to appeal to a wide variety of readers. Not only was she able to pull in readers with her sentimental stories of love and friendship, she was also able to catch the attention of those who were looking for the progression of women’s rights and other social issues of the time. Alice French did not necessarily write in a way that signified her beliefs, but the way in which she did write was one that her readers loved. Towards the end of her writing career as she began to be more outspoken about her political beliefs, her career started to dwindle not because of her inability to write great literature, but because of her refusal to shy from her beliefs in a time of progression and change.
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Horton, Loren N. "French, Alice Virginia" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 24 April 2019.
MacMichael, George. Journey to Obscurity: the Life of Octave Thanet, by George McMichael. University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
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