I had never even heard of Maud Jean Franc, a woman who moved to South Australia in the mid 19th century and produced a dozen or so novels generally described in condescending tones as "sentimental" and "religious". But my friend Cathy had written this book about her, and I was curious to know why. She says that she began the project with low expectations, and was surprised to find how much her opinion of Franc improved as she read through her oeuvre. In turn, I was also very sceptical when I began Cathy's book, but, by the time I had finished it, I wanted to read a Franc novel.
Cathy is an original thinker, and although the book's title includes the word "feminist", the philosophy it is based on is absolutely not your standard, mass-produced version of feminism. In fact, she takes pleasure in pointing out several passages from Franc's novels which are wildly at odds with conventional mainstream 21st century notions of what feminism should be; I was particularly struck by one in which a tough, independent, tomboyish girl teaches herself to become a weak, dependent woman. This is in no way described ironically, but rather presented as a positive step in her development.
Instead of mindlessly repeating modern feminist clichés, I was pleased to see that the author's treatment was empirical, and went back to first principles. Her starting point was a simple and honest observation. As already noted, the books have a poor reputation, and are not generally regarded as well-written. None the less, Cathy said that she often found them very moving. Rather than denying her emotional reaction, or dismissing it as uninteresting, she wanted to know why she responded in this way.
I liked her analysis, which I thought was yet another example of Nabokov's cardinal rule of critical reading: identify with the author, not the characters. First, Franc had a difficult and tragic life, and was writing, more than anything else, to put bread on the table for herself and her family. Second, she was a deeply Christian person, whose faith was extremely important to her. And third, the position of a woman in late 19th century Australia was quite different from the one she can expect today, in the early 21st century Western world. Cathy argues that the confluence of these circumstances dictated the form of Franc's output. It had to be written in a simple style which would be acceptable to the unsophisticated women who formed her potential market. Also, Christian faith was the only spiritual resource the author, and most of the people she was writing for, had to combat the horrors of their everyday world, and in particular to influence the men (fathers, husbands, sometimes brothers) on whom they were completely dependent.
Seen in this light, Cathy argues that the books are in fact psychologically plausible. They are not sentimental, escapist literature, but firmly grounded in the reality of Franc's experience, and this is exactly what makes them so moving. Franc's women do not have the luxury of being feminists, as we understand that word today. A tough, tomboyish woman would be ruining her chances of finding a husband, and dooming herself to a life of misery. She had to learn to be weak and "feminine". We may deplore this fact, but Franc was just reporting what she saw all around her.
I have to hand it to Cathy: she's made want to read an author I'd normally run away from. But, as usual, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I'll come back and say whether I still believe her arguments after I've checked out Franc at first hand.
I found a cheap 1915 edition of Marian, or, The Light of Someone's Home
at a British bookshop. Thank you Abebooks! It ought to be waiting for me when we get back from France.