Friday, 30 March 2018

Book Review: Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Atherton fire is a strong natural force that turns everything inflammable within its reach into ashes. Most of us see only its destructive power although clearing the ground it lays the foundations for renewal… or resurrection. Sometimes it smoulders beneath the surface unnoticed by us and sometimes it burns gently before our very eyes lulling us into a false sense of security, both literally as well as metaphorically. Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Atherton is the story of a young woman in San Francisco of the 1860s whose husband loves her as a beautiful and pleasant addition to his household, but can’t imagine her to have a mind worthwhile knowing. When a journalist from New York arrives, he brings her mental stimulation in the form of serious books and the opportunity for meaningful discussions that her husband refuses her. And almost unnoticed by themselves, they kindle the fire of forbidden love.

Gertrude Atherton was born Gertrude Franklin Horn in San Francisco, California, USA, in October 1857. At the age of nineteen, she eloped with George H.B. Atherton who had first been courting her mother. After her husband’s sudden death at sea, she turned to writing as a livelihood for herself and her daughter and brought out The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance (which she later reworked into the novel A Daughter of the Vine: 1899) under the pseudonym Asmodeus in serialisation in 1882. Her first novel appeared as What Dreams May Come under the pseudonym Frank Lin in 1888. Along with articles and essays for different periodicals, she published a great number of other novels, best remembered among them the books of the California series. The most notable of her works are The Doomswoman (1893), Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897), American Wives and English Husbands (1898), The Californians (1898), Senator North (1900), The Splendid, Idle Forties (1902), The Conqueror (1902), Sleeping Fires (1922), and above all Black Oxen (1923). Gertrude Atherton died in San Francisco, California, USA, in June 1948.

In the 1860s, barely twenty-year-old Madeleine first enters Society in San Francisco after her marriage with renowned doctor Howard Talbot, a man of forty who used to be known as confirmed bachelor. Although she is from Boston and therefore an outsider among the locals who take great pride in being Southerners, the girl wins all over at once and nobody suspects Sleeping Fires behind her beautiful face. She attends all important social events in the prospering city, at first, accompanied by her husband, but soon he resumes old habits and passes his free time with the men at the Club.
“[…] She was his heart’s delight, the prettiest wife in San Francisco; he worked the better because she was always lovely at the breakfast table and he could look forward to a brief dinner in her always radiant company. […] she was a model wife and he adored her unceasingly. But companionship? When she timidly uttered the word, he first stared uncomprehendingly, then burst into loud laughter.”
In three years, the naive love for her husband fades and she feels the emotional distance as well as the lack of intellectual challenge weigh on her ever more. Then a journalist from New York called Langdon Masters settles down in San Francisco to work for the local newspaper. The library in his rooms at the same hotel where Madeleine and her husband have been living all the while, makes her aware of what she lost when she gave up serious reading. Noticing her love for books, Masters offers to lend her some and before long they also discuss them.
“[…] If she paused to realize how dependent she had become on the constant society of Langdon Masters and that literature was now no more than the background of life, she would have shrugged her shoulders gaily and admitted that she was having a mental flirtation, and that, at least, was as original as became them both. They were safe. The code protected them. He was her husband's friend and they were married. What was, was.”
After the summer, the mere fact that Madeleine and Langdon pass time together daily and alone – although with her husband’s encouragement – gives rise to gossip in the salons of the society ladies just back in town. The two continue seeing each other despite all and as the months pass each finds it increasingly hard to fool herself and himself respectively. One day love overcomes them in a crumbling church and they kiss. Madeleine runs away and is seen. New gossip spreads and to save her from scandal her husband forces Langdon to leave and to give up his promising career…

From the perspective of an unconcerned observer and third-person narrator Sleeping Fires interweaves a social study of San Francisco’s upper class of the 1860s with the sentimental story of forbidden love awakening between soul mates. The author draws from her own experience as a native Californian which makes the scene as well as the social environment particularly authentic and colourful. The book is even said to be autobiographical although I see few parallels to Gertrude Atherton’s life. The characters, above all the protagonist who struggles with the female role model of her time and place, appear very realistic up to the point when the lovers are discovered and separated. I found the idea that a woman in love, moreover an intelligent and well-read one, would even think of willing herself to follow her loved one’s path into premature death through heavy drinking a bit hard to swallow. It may seem romantic to some, to me it’s girlish defiance and histrionics, though. The happy ending isn’t much to my liking, either, although it’s well prepared and therefore doesn’t feel too far-fetched after all. The novel’s language is precise and simple which makes it an easy as well as pleasant read altogether.

Despite me and my rather picky taste for love stories, I enjoyed reading Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Atherton quite a bit, especially because it portrays a decidedly more female and more refined side of San Francisco in the late 1800s than any of the books of Jack London that I devoured as a teenager. I particularly liked about the novel that it openly criticises male chauvinism and the implied female role model that reduce a woman to her husband’s pretty and docile appendage instead of allowing her to be his equal companion. And the author shows the possible, if not probable result: The society ladies all indulge in gossip mainly because they are bored and have little opportunity to make themselves useful outside their households for lack of both education and courage to act against social conventions. It’s also a very interesting time piece and therefore well worth my recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I have a taste for stories set in San Francisco. My husband and I have dreamed of living in or around that amazing city, but alas we will undoubtedly stay in Los Angeles. Thus, I read!


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