Sunday, July 19, 2009

Reading Journal: "Crossriggs"

Jane and Mary Findlater, Crossriggs. Originally published in 1908. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

Mary Findlater (1865-1963).

A hundred years ago, Scottish writers Jane and Mary Findlater were bestselling novelists. Their novel Crossriggs was published in 1908, and the Findlater sisters were the toast of literary society on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry James was an admirer and correspondent. On a tour of the United States in 1906, the sisters had been entertained by Mrs. William James, Andrew Carnegie, and the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Between Jane's first novel in 1896 and their last co-written novel in 1923, the sisters produced twenty-two books, either separately or in collaboration. Several of their books, including Crossriggs, were bestsellers. A hundred years later, Jane and Mary Findlater are virtually unknown.

In 1923, after their last book was published, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. She survived, but she and her sister never wrote another book. Their time had passed. Their novels were distinctly late Victorian, closer in style and spirit to Mrs. Oliphant than to Virginia Woolf. "The present age must make its own books," one of the sisters said. But Virginia Woolf, whose literary star was rising as the Findlaters' set, was an admirer of their work. Responding to a letter from Mary in 1927, Woolf wrote: "I am particularly glad to think that writers whose work I admire should find anything to please them in mine."

In the middle of Crossriggs, the children of one of the characters are given a treat and taken in a sailboat to a little island off the coast of Scotland, where they visit a lighthouse. Talia Schaffer, one of the few current scholars to write about the Findlaters, suggests that this scene "surely influenced Woolf's To the Lighthouse." Crossriggs itself shows the influence of Jane Austen (especially Emma), George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Oliphant, and represents a kind of missing link between the English women novelists of the nineteenth century and modernists like Woolf.

Jane Findlater (1866-1946) in her early twenties.

Along with writers like Rhoda Broughton and Mary Cholmondeley, the Findlaters were products of Victorian society, with all of its strictures and repressions, but reached maturity at a time when the traditional image of women was undergoing a change, as the "New Woman" of the 1890s reached for greater independence and self-fulfillment. Alexandra Hope, the heroine of Crossriggs, is intelligent, free-spirited, sharp-tongued, and opinionated. At thirty, Alex is still resolutely unmarried. But she still observes the essential decorum of Victorian society, and is shocked by those who don't. She's also conflicted about her own independence. She works for a living, but would prefer not to. If the right man were available, she would undoubtedly marry him. But he would have to be her intellectual, moral, and spiritual equal.

When Alex's widowed sister Matilda returns from Canada to Scotland with her five children, Alex becomes the breadwinner for the family. It's significant that she earns a living from her voice—first as a reader for blind Admiral Cassilis, and then as a teacher of elocution. One of her male admirers starts to write a poem to her that begins, "Your voice—." Alex is a reader, a voice, an intellect. She strives for independence, but finds that it comes at a cost. How can a woman be find fulfillment without a family of her own? How can she be both independent and poor? How can she support herself and still have time to be herself? Alex is filled with the strivings of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke and the questions that Virginia Woolf addresses in A Room of One's Own.

Near the end of Crossriggs, the scholarly Mr. Maitland quotes a poem to Mrs. Scott, the shallow wife of the local minister whose husband is briefly away on business:
The village seems asleep or dead
Now Lubin is away.
The Findlaters comment: "Mrs. Scott probably did not recognize the quotation..." It's from a poem by Anne Hunter (1742-1821), a Scottish poet who published as Mrs. John Hunter and many of whose poems were set to music by Franz Joseph Haydn. The poem recalls absent friends, but it also recalls the forgotten poet—an independent woman's voice from a bygone age.

Perhaps the Findlaters were already envisioning their own obscurity, while celebrating their connection to the tradition of women's writing, that deep underground stream.

The Findlater sisters lived together in happy retirement in England until Jane's death in 1946. Mary, the elder sister, lived until 1963. All of their books are currently out of print.* Crossriggs was last reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. It's a fascinating piece of literary history, but it's also an entertaining and thought-provoking novel with a captivating heroine and an engaging plot. It deserves to be rediscovered.

Talia Schaffer writes about the Findlaters in The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (University Press of Virginia 2000), 64-72. For a biography of the Findlaters, see Eileen Mackenzie, The Findlater Sisters: Literature & Friendship
(London, John Murray, 1964).

*I was able to find two copies of their last novel, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1923), for sale online: one for $138 on and one for $170 on Alibris. com


Rachel said...

Fascinating. When I am allowed to buy books again (I have vowed not to buy any more until I have read the ones I have) I am definitely going to look out for this. I enjoy novels that explore the 'New Woman' question, especially those that were widely read and influential at the time. I wonder how novels such as this can have been so popular at one time and then fall so far out of fashion. Such a fate is not necessarily a sign of a lack of quality - some of my favourite authors are unfairly out of print (Dorothy Whipple, Dorothy Canfield, Susan Glaspell, etc).

Tiffin said...

I have had Crossriggs sitting here tbr for yonks now. One of these fine days! Thanks for the review, Rob.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .