Jane S. Gabin, American Women in Gilded Age London (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006). 224 pp. $39.95 (hbk), ISBN: 978-0813029146
Wendy K. Kolmar
Jane S. Gabin’s American Women in Gilded Age London is a carefully researched and detailed account of the lives of some 15 American expatriate women who lived and worked in London between about 1870 and the end of the First World War. The best known among her subjects are Jennie Jerome Churchill, the mother of Winston, and the novelist Gertrude Atherton. Others include the journalist Elizabeth Banks, actresses Mary Anderson, Eleanor Calhoun, Edna May, Cora Potter, Elizabeth Robins and Genevieve Ward, writers Pearl Craigie (‘John Oliver Hobbes’) and Elizabeth Penell, the poet Louise Moulton Chandler, and singers Mary Frances Ronalds (also a composer) and Antoinette Sterling. Most of these women were of a generation, born in the United States in the 1850s and 1860s, arriving in London sometime in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and living several decades into the twentieth century. Most spent the majority of their active working lives in London; some knew each other or were even friends or collaborators, but many of them are unconnected to the others whose stories sit side by side with theirs in this eclectic book.
Gabin’s book is unabashedly a recovery project in the tradition of much feminist literary and historical scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s, which asks, ‘Where are the women?’ Here, Gabin sets out to fill in the gaps in the history of American expatriates in London explored in such works as Alex Zwerdling’s Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London (1998), the book she explicitly criticises for its utter lack of interest in female contemporaries of his four major subjects: Henry Adams, Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
In recovering the varied lives of these women, Gabin is most interested in understanding what women became expatiates, why they chose London, how their Americanness helped them and how that American identity alters over time as they either do or do not become Anglicised. The leading edge of the ‘transatlantic invaders’ (a phrase Gabin borrows from Edith Wharton) is made up of wealthy women whose riches buy them an entrée into London society and often also an English husband; the later wave of invaders is poorer and, for the most part, more independent women who come to London to find work and make a living.
Gabin sees the women who are her subjects as bringing with them from their native country a certain kind of Americanness, a ‘verve and independent spirit’ which ‘injected a new energy and dynamism into old London’. They all exhibited, in her reading, ‘a very distinctive American trait: the ability to reinvent oneself’ (3). These sweeping and relatively unexamined notions of what it means to be an American woman are deployed throughout the book and form the underpinnings of Gabin’s understanding of the women’s London experiences and of their success carving out places for themselves in London. A comment made by the protagonist of Atherton’s novel American Wives and English Husbands, which Gabin quotes, seems to summarise her view: ‘Englishwomen, she had been told, were very much of a pattern, the result of centuries of breeding in uninterrupted conditions. It was the very reverse that made up nine-tenths of the fascination of the American woman’ (p. 60).
Gabin’s chapters, all essentially smoothly written and engaging narrative accounts of her subjects’ London lives, trace a progression from the wealthy American socialites, like Jennie Churchill, who marry into the English aristocracy, their way paved by charm, beauty, money and social standing, to women like Elizabeth Banks, who comes to Britain with neither money nor social introductions but manages to establish herself as a successful journalist. The book closes with a chapter on the involvement of several American women in the British suffrage movement and in war relief work during the World War I. The strength of the book is the primary research through which Gabin constructs such detailed accounts of the life and work of these little known artists, writers, actresses and activists.
Particularly useful for those interested in London are the memoirs and travel books she uncovers and uses as her major sources; among these are such texts as Elizabeth Banks’s Campaigns of Curiosity: Journalistic Adventures of an American Girl in London (1896) and The Autobiography of a ‘Newspaper Girl’(1902), Mary Anderson’s A Few Memories (1896), Sara Duncan’s An American Girl in London (1891) and Elizabeth Pennell’s Our House and London out Our Windows (1912). What somewhat frustratingly does not emerge from her readings of these texts is any developed or consistent account of how London matters in these expatriate experiences.
Perhaps the best chapter on the city centres around the London outside the window of writer Elizabeth Pennell’s, and her illustrator husband, Joseph’s Buckingham Street flat in the Aldephi neighbourhood off the Strand. Here we get a picture of an expatriate artists’ community whose residents met each other weekly in the Pennell’s drawing room and who peopled the pieces Elizabeth sent back to an American newspaper. This chapter more than any other shows us how these Americans inhabited, read and reshaped their adopted city.
While Gabin seems primarily interested in inserting these individual narratives into the larger history of American expatriates in London, Gabin’s revisionist work does open the question of whether and in what ways the expatriate experience is gendered. ‘What’, she asks, ‘is special about expatriatism in women?’ She also poses the question of whether, given their insider/outsider status in London, American women, both the wealthy and the working woman, were less constrained by gendered expectations than their English sisters. Atherton’s comment quoted above suggests that the gender fluidity their Americanness allowed them gain access to professional and culture spaces which English women had a much harder time entering. The story of Elizabeth Banks’s entry into English journalism, clearly one of Gabin’s favourites, best exemplifies this claim.
But her most interesting look at the way engagement with gender norms structured these women’s experience comes in her juxtaposition of the careers of actresses Mary Anderson and Elizabeth Robins. George Bernard Shaw once wrote to Robins, ‘You would be a better actress if you were less taken up with being a lady’ (p. 79), defining the options available to women in the English theatre. Anderson achieved great popular success with London audiences with great beauty and limited skills; always maintaining her ladylike dignity, she retired early from the stage to marry and hold court with her husband in a country village in the Cotswolds. Robins, on the other hand, almost single-handedly introduced Ibsen to English audiences, starring as Hedda Gabler among other Ibsen heroines; disgusted by the male dominance of the ranks of actor/managers, she carved out a place for herself in that role and then went on to use the stage as platform for advocating women’s suffrage. Each, Gabin argues, in her way succeeded by manipulating gendered expectations but in quite different ways. One chose to be a lady, while the other became a New Woman. In certain places in the book, Gabin advances a parallel case with regard to the class fluidity and mobility that their Americanness allowed these women.
While various such interesting questions can be teased out of the accounts that Gabin offers us here, none is developed as fully as one might wish. Gabin’s use of primary documents in reconstructing these women’s lives is impressive, but a more theoretical secondary literature is for the most part conspicuous by its absence. The book would have benefited from a fuller engagement with the scholarship on gender and class in the nineteenth century city and with the scholarship on the New Woman. Such an engagement might have moved this book from the nicely executed recovery project that it is to one that offers us a more complex and nuanced understanding of expatriate lives in London in the latter art of the nineteenth century and of the multiple effects of gender, class and nation in shaping these lives and the life of the city itself.
To Cite This Article:
Wendy K. Kolmar, ‘Review: Jane S. Gabin, American Women in Gilded Age London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2010/september2007/kolmar.html. Accessed on [date of access]