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White Magic, Black Humour: Ella D’Arcy’s Narrative Strategies

Magie blanche, humour noir : les stratégies narratives d’Ella D’Arcy
Heather Marcovitch


De toutes les écrivaines « New Woman », Ella D’Arcy est sans doute la plus insaisissable. Son humour prend la forme d’une satire qui repose sur une lecture double. De prime abord, ses récits invitent le lecteur à sympathiser avec des personnages masculins engagés dans des amours scandaleuses et des mariages désastreux, tandis qu’une lecture à contre-courant, ou lecture résistante, laisse entrevoir des personnages masculins sots et égotistes qui échouent à imposer leurs normes du jeu amoureux. Ce double encodage, qui dépend pour sa bonne compréhension de la coopération de son lectorat, a rarement été perçu par les critiques victoriens (masculins le plus souvent) de l’œuvre de D’Arcy. En outre, l’étude de la correspondance de D’Arcy révèle que ce double discours est aussi à l’œuvre dans ses relations avec son éditeur John Lane et avec son employeur et ami Henry Harland, rédacteur en chef de The Yellow Book. De fait, chez D’Arcy, l’humour n’est pas seulement un mode d’écriture. C’est une véritable stratégie professionnelle. Ainsi que le montrent ses lettres à Lane et Harland, conservées à la Clark Library de l’université de Californie à Los Angeles, D’Arcy use d’un humour à la Jane Austen, adoptant une posture ironique tantôt afin de se protéger des caprices des hommes de son entourage professionnel, tantôt pour tenir les délais de publication des volumes de The Yellow Book (notamment après l’arrestation d’Oscar Wilde). Cet article propose une lecture double de plusieurs nouvelles de D’Arcy en lien avec son travail pour The Yellow Book.

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1Determining if a New Woman writer is funny is a lot like the old joke asking if the glass is half full or half empty. (The answer: it depends on whether you like what is in the glass.) While many New Woman writers used their pens to write seriously about the inequalities between the sexes and call for social and political reforms, readers can also find humorous rebuffs, satirical asides, and parodic characters in even the most polemical writing. Many women writers of the period were funny, using political humour to advocate for women’s suffrage, mocking the sexual double standard in the workplace and in the home or, in the case of Ella D’Arcy, using humour to satirize the masculinized discourse of aesthetics.

2D’Arcy is one of the writers most closely associated with the 1890s periodical The Yellow Book, both as its sub-editor and, after Henry Harland, its most frequent contributor. Like many of the women writers of The Yellow Book and its publishing house, The Bodley Head, D’Arcy benefited from publisher John Lane’s and editor Henry Harland’s interest in publishing New Woman stories, but she also felt pressured to keep these men interested in her and her work. D’Arcy had the added burden of being employed directly by Harland as his sub-editor, reading manuscripts, writing his correspondence, translating French stories into English, working on the layout for the periodical, and making sure issues went to press. For several years in the 1890s, The Bodley Head and The Yellow Book were her sole source of revenue, and Harland especially could be mercurial and difficult to work for.

3Whether one considers D’Arcy’s work is funny is connected to whether one considers her a New Woman writer. As far as the latter label is concerned, D’Arcy is often categorized as a New Woman with qualifications. Many critics have called her unkind to her female characters and to women in general, noting her dislike of some of the women contributing to The Yellow Book and her suppression of one woman’s work that got her fired as sub-editor. Osbert Burdett, who among the early historians of the 1890s devoted the most attention to D’Arcy’s work, gave her what was high praise at the time when he wrote that she ‘saw all the world through masculine eyes’ (Burdett 252). Katherine Mix, whose influential book A Study in Yellow owed much to her interviews with an elderly D’Arcy, read her presumed hostility towards women as a subversion of popular narratives. ‘Unlike many men authors of the period,’ she writes, ‘who portrayed gentle femininity trampled by the male’s unprincipled brutality, Miss D’Arcy showed the superior and well-intentioned man caught in the snare of a designing or stupid woman’ (Mix 234). It is possible that Mix had Hardy’s Tess in mind when she offered this criticism and she hints at D’Arcy engaging in a pointed form of satire, but she does not challenge the opinion that D’Arcy was a severe critic of women.

4Benjamin Fisher IV, the critic who has worked the most extensively on D’Arcy’s writings, reinforces this idea when he observes that D’Arcy stories show an ‘evident bent toward satire’ (Fisher 247) but still wonders about her female characters ‘who are portrayed with little sympathy in her fiction—a striking characteristic in an age when women’s causes were being championed and when the New Woman was much in the limelight’ (Fisher 240). These critics demonstrate a willingness to take her writing at face value. Neither they, nor later critics, take into account her awareness that interpretation can be gendered. A critical blind spot occurs because missing from D’Arcy’s writing are polemics about double standards or the need for greater social and political freedoms. This, however, is D’Arcy’s social realism. Not all women were trying to disrupt the status quo, nor were all women inclined towards political activism. D’Arcy once wrote to Lane that she was moving (‘alas!’ she wrote) to an all-female boarding house where the ladies ‘have all been dragged up at Newnham or Girton and are earnest advocates of Women’s Rights’ (Letter to Lane, 20 August 1895). She understood that many women wanted only to navigate a society in transition, where a desire for a more equitable relationship between the sexes was in conflict with old-fashioned chauvinistic attitudes towards women. The strategies taken by some of her women characters reflect the ones she had to adopt while working at The Yellow Book, where her independent nature sometimes clashed with the patronizing attitudes of her employers.

5D’Arcy’s satirical tendencies—what Fisher calls her ‘bluff Irish humor’ (Fisher 242)—were not much removed from the more popular women comic writers of her time. Often these women were employing tropes that are still familiar to readers. They poked fun, for example, at the negative stereotypes visited upon women as gossips or nags, or their inability to keep their house neat and serene. Nancy A. Walker points out that ‘a dominant theme in women’s humour is . . . what it is like to try to meet standards for behaviour that are based on stereotypes rather than on human beings’ (Walker x). Walker further argues that there are two points to women’s humour—subversion of these standards and communion with other women frustrated by them. Both subversion and bonding are points of resistance for women humorists. If men’s humour about women has been to complain about their inadequacies as romantic partners or domestic workers, then women’s humour has tended to embrace these inadequacies as proof of an unattainable ideal they are forced to aspire to. Kathryn Kein calls this act of subversion an emotional habitus, which for women privately identifying with these failures, generates an emotional release that Kein sees as having ‘feminist potential’ (Kein 78). This release relies on a double reading even in modern stand-up comedy, where female comics, as Regina Barreca notes, have toned down their criticisms just enough that they do not make their male audience members uncomfortable, while assuming the women in the audience can secretly amplify the barbs (Barreca 12).

6D’Arcy’s humour is revealed most effectively in a double reading, one reading that seems to align with the middle-class male readership that set the cultural tone, and one whose meaning is accessed through a more subversive reading. This is not an uncommon strategy among women writers: ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness’, Judith Fetterley explains (xiii), and the act of reading literature tends to reinforce the non-universality of women’s experience. For women, Fetterley argues (and this is true for other marginalized groups), a strategy of resisting reading is a way to speak against the absence of their subjectivity from a text. If the high forms of literature tend to objectify and isolate women and not coincidentally also tend to be literature of great seriousness, then resisting readings often take the road of the less serious, of the parody or satirical comment.

7The doubleness in D’Arcy’s stories has often been overlooked, although the praise she received from other New Woman writers such as George Egerton, who articulates, if not a double narrative, then a gendered double consciousness in her story ‘A Cross Line’, and Netta Syrett, whose story ‘Thy Heart’s Desire’ also describes a separate, hidden consciousness for women, indicates that women reading her stories were getting the joke. Women expressing a different lived experience or understanding of an event is a common feature of New Woman writing, but D’Arcy adds another level of complexity by focalizing her stories through a masculine point of view. By working within the male-centred aesthetic literature of the period, and especially of The Yellow Book, D’Arcy makes a double reading available to those able to see the artifice of the male aesthete (as Egerton did in her story ‘A Lost Masterpiece’, about an aesthete whose lofty ruminations are repeatedly interrupted by a woman).

8D’Arcy’s work resonates with modern feminist reconsiderations of gendered writing and is indicative of Hélène Cixous’s assertion that a feminine text ‘brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments’ that can ‘break up the “truth” with laughter’ (Cixous 252). Like Cixous’s laughing Medusa, D’Arcy’s writing mocks the male audience who see themselves in her protagonists, reducing them, as Cixous sardonically notes, ‘to a single idol with clay balls’ (Cixous 249). D’Arcy, it should be pointed out, trained as an artist. Her dwindling eyesight forced her to give it up, yet she incorporates a narrative trompe l’œil in her stories, one which portrays men as suffering from unsuitable women, but, from another perspective, places the blame on their square shoulders.

9‘Irremediable’ was the story that introduced D’Arcy to Henry Harland, who touted her as a ‘remarkable’ discovery (Beckson 60) and was so impressed with her talent that he seemed to measure other women’s manuscripts against hers (Beckson 73). Harland, most likely, partly celebrated D’Arcy’s writing as proof of his avant-garde sensibility in accepting a story that had been rejected by other prominent London magazines for its harsh depiction of a bad marriage. The story is about an unsuitable romance between Willoughby, a clerk with aesthetic pretensions, and Esther, a seamstress. Willoughby is nursing a broken heart and he sees in Esther a refreshing change from the artfulness of girls of his own class. They begin to keep company, and, by the end of the summer, Esther jumps at a marriage proposal Willoughby utters on a whim. The story jumps forward in time three months, where Willoughby, full of dread, comes home to an untidy home, an uncooked dinner, and a nagging wife who dislikes his job, his salary, and especially the books of literature he loves so much. (This scenario sounds like it could be a setup for a more modern joke about housewives.)

10If the critical acclaim of ‘Irremediable’ is any indication, the story problematizes the idea of D’Arcy as an advocate for women, since the story is focalized through Willoughby and he seems so innocent and refined, and Esther so coarse by comparison, that it is difficult not to sympathize with him. There are, however, many cues in the story that open up the possibility of another reading, one that casts Willoughby as, if not an outright fool, then at least caught up in a masculinist discourse where aesthetics and literature inform his desire. Willoughby’s description of Esther checks every box available for a middle-class man’s fantasy of seducing an innocent country girl. He finds her physically attractive, but this attraction, masked by high-minded rhapsodies about the simplicity of the country, is due to the thrill he finds in slumming. Esther is, in his words, the ‘working daughter of the people’, because ‘[l]ike many intelligent young men he had dabbled a little in Socialism and at one time had wandered among the dispossessed; but since then, had caught up and held loosely to the new doctrine—It is a good and fitting thing that woman also should earn her bread by the sweat of her brow’ (D’Arcy 1894a, 89). D’Arcy had a well-developed scepticism about earnestness and pedantry; she once wryly remarked upon her dread that the other ladies in her all-female boarding house would have ‘serious Saturday evening discussions on George Eliot’s works, and the Autocrat of the Breakfast table’ (Letter to John Lane, 20 August 1895). Willoughby dabbles, he slums ‘like many intelligent young men’, which lets the reader know what D’Arcy thinks of these seemingly intelligent young men. His pretentious pronouncements about women working sound like he is advocating for a more equitable society, but the formality of his statement and his schoolboy translation of the Latin phrase Dulce et decorum est in the context of labour add up to him seeming like a clueless tourist as far as the working class and women are concerned.

11To underscore his silliness, Willoughby is aroused by Esther as part of a scenic composition that fits into his aesthetic vision: ‘Perhaps she guessed how becoming the light was, for she took off her hat and let it touch to gold the ends and fringes of her rough abundant hair. Thus and at this moment she made an agreeable picture, to which stood as background all the beautiful wooded Southshire view’ (D’Arcy 1894a, 89–90). The centre of this romance is himself, as Esther’s appearance and gestures are there to arouse pleasure or anxiety in him. More than a description of Esther, however, Willoughby’s impressions reveal his ego and how his fantasies create a fiction of Esther. His initial intent is to mistreat her; Willoughby sees her as no more than a summer dalliance. Because he does not consider her to be marriageable, he is free to entertain his sexual desires to augment his own life experience without much thought to hers, and he hides his intent under aestheticized discourse.

12The natural country girl is a stock character of idyllic romances, but D’Arcy constructs Esther as the satirical reality that the male imagination obscures. Esther has other plans, since Willoughby represents the security that every girl is told she requires. Her story, as she tells Willoughby, involves a brutal father and an abusive childhood. Esther knows the sympathies her story might arouse, and it is this unladylike awareness of how it is received that gives Willoughby a momentary pause. Still, even his suspicions cannot stop him from his elevated musings, where ‘[h]e had suffered himself at the hands of a woman and severely, but this, instead of hardening his heart, had only rendered it the more supple’ (D’Arcy 1894a, 98). In short, Esther is relating a brutal childhood and he equates it with pain and sorrow—his own. Furthermore, he congratulates himself for becoming more compassionate since his heartbreak. If Esther falls short of an idealized ingénue, Willoughby fails as a romantic hero. When they become engaged, it is because Esther wants the same respect that he would give to any middle-class woman he would romance, respect which he initially wants to deny her.

13The woman who suddenly transforms from sweet innocent to shrew upon marriage was a well-worn cautionary tale among men, but an established comedic trope among women, and it underscores the idea that the development of women’s humour runs a critical and subversive parallel course to men’s humour. One of the most popular narratives in women’s humour is the disjuncture between male expectations of women’s behaviour as wives and women’s ‘failure’ to meet these expectations. Regina Barreca notes that ‘much of the material done by professional women comics is still very reminiscent of women’s everyday conversation’ (Barreca 34), which suggests that, in D’Arcy’s case, women readers would have recognized the impossible struggle of being the perfect Angel in the House. One can surmise that Willoughby knew she was not the ideal candidate for a middle-class wife but, as Sarah Maier notes, the story ‘not only exemplifies man’s misguided ideal of womanhood, but it also demonstrates the desire of the male to change a woman once he can no longer control her’ (Maier 43). Willoughby spends as much time away from home as he dares. Esther’s failure may not be because she is an unsuitable woman, but that she is married to a selfish and distant man, and every dirty dish or uncooked supper is an expression of defiance. D’Arcy writes Esther as a mocking rebuke to Willoughby. He had his head full of idealized girls and thought that a woman’s purpose was to enhance his aesthetic sensibilities. Ignoring his own behaviour and hers, he ends up with Esther.

14The critical success of ‘Irremediable’ in The Yellow Book not only gave D’Arcy a reliable publishing venue for her other stories but also tied her literary fortunes to the magazine and its editors to a greater extent than other women contributors. Because of her dependency, D’Arcy’s correspondence with her publisher has a different tone from her fiction. In her letters to Lane, she cultivated a lightly flirtatious tone but an ironic distance. Doing so allowed her to emphasize her role to Lane at the periodical where she had many tasks but no formal or secure role. These letters position her at the centre of The Yellow Book; she hints, at times, that she knows where more than one body is buried. At one point as sub-editor, she was enough of a fixture at the periodical that she had to write a letter explaining her absence from England. In the letter, she chides Lane: ‘So you were really angry with me, my dear Publisher? How very quaint! For I thought that on the contrary you would have been pleased with my independence of spirit, with my courage in coming alone, and so far’ (Letter to John Lane, 30 December 1895). D’Arcy follows this statement with a more pointed observation: ‘But the truth is, that where I am concerned you let yourself be completely influenced by the Chief [Harland]; and when he declares in his vehement way that my conduct is scandalous, disgraceful, unparalleled in the annals of iniquity, you begin to think I’m a most scandalous and disgraceful person, too. Not so?’ (Letter to John Lane, 30 December 1895). Harland and Lane were likely taking D’Arcy for granted (the date of the letter may indicate a begrudged Christmas holiday), but their anger is also an admission that her work was vital to the running of the periodical. The letter shows D’Arcy having to negotiate Harland’s feelings of possessiveness as well as his tendency to exploit his relationship with her by having her perform duties, including reading manuscripts, writing correspondence in his name, and translating with him, that were not commensurate with her pay. In addition, she has to mollify the publisher and protect herself from the two men possibly joining forces against her. Anne Windholz suggests that ‘Both Harland and Lane were adept at using the discourse of romance to control relations with their female contributors and . . . with their female sub-editor’ (Windholz 119). D’Arcy countered this discourse with flirtatious playfulness and a framing of her relationships with them, the practical and sedate Lane and the temperamental but brilliant Harland, as a workplace comedy of manners. Decades later, this would be the formula for many television sitcoms.

15Nowhere is it more evident that D’Arcy used her comedic tone strategically than in the letters that referred to the events following Oscar Wilde’s arrest. When the news broke that Oscar Wilde had been holding a copy of a yellow book, many assumed it to be The Yellow Book (it was not) and blamed the periodical as a material symbol of the loucheness that Wilde represented. The offices of the Bodley Head were vandalized, and a group of Bodley Head writers petitioned Lane to fire art editor Aubrey Beardsley, whose artwork was most closely associated with The Yellow Book’s decadence. Both Lane and Harland were out of the country at the time, and D’Arcy and Frederick Chapman, the office manager for The Bodley Head, were preparing Volume V for print.

16D’Arcy’s anxiety about the sudden changes, with Lane cabling Chapman to remove immediately all of Beardsley’s artwork from the volume, was exacerbated by her poor treatment. Chapman shut her out, barking orders without giving reasons, only telling her that the volume was being pulled from the printers so that these changes could be made. But her letter constructs the events as a comedy, with D’Arcy calmly getting the work done despite Chapman’s gloomy soliloquies and lack of communication with her.

17For D’Arcy, the crisis at The Yellow Book mirrored many of the concerns she raises in her stories, such as the woman who is at the mercy of men’s decisions, who is not given much agency but is expected to submit, who toils quietly and in partial obscurity. She mentions Chapman several times in the letter, as ‘a really charming and excellent person, but of a most engrained melancholy, not only resigned to the worst in every occasion, but ready to go forth and meet it half way’ (Letter to John Lane, 20 April 1895). She presents Chapman breaking the news of the volume’s delay as two loyal servants commiserating in tears, but then stresses that ‘Chapman would give me no reasons, would shed no light at all upon the meaning of such a course’ and then, expressing what must have been considerable frustration, ‘Mr. Chapman tells me as little as he possibly can; I’m afraid he doesn’t recognize my status on the Y. B. at all, or else maybe it’s his excessive modesty?’ (Letter to John Lane, 20 April 1895). Once the crisis was managed, she playfully writes that Harland, although he rushed back to smooth over the situation, preferred to fictionalize the whole affair and warns Lane, ‘So that when [Harland] tells you I thought that Chapman, in his emotion . . . was endeavouring to make me an offer of marriage, and that I took him by the hand, and promised to be a sister to him, you may accept this with a very large salt’s cellar full of salt’ (Letter to John Lane, 20 April 1895).

18D’Arcy’s self-portrait is a reminder that, despite the heightened circumstances of preparing Volume V for press, her experience is still representative of her job at The Yellow Book. She works calmly while her male colleague mopes and emotes. If Chapman is not ignoring her, Harland is imperiously giving orders and concocting fictions, or Lane is trying to improve her taste in art. We see echoes of Esther being left in the dark while Willoughby gives her no indication he will be home late—here, whatever D’Arcy’s frustrations might be, she channels them into a light-hearted account. Walker, discussing the methodology of women’s humour, remarks that ‘women’s humorous expression is almost never purely comic or absurd. Even when, as is frequently the case, it points to the myriad absurdities that women have been forced to endure in this culture, it carries with it not the light-hearted feeling that is the privilege of the powerful, but instead a subtext of anguish and frustration’ (Walker xii). D’Arcy’s position at The Yellow Book is always precarious because she is working at the pleasure of Harland, and of Lane, who, despite his friendly relationship with her, favours the opinions of his male colleagues. Her humour masks this anxiety and frustration as she maintains both working and personal relationships with these men.

19Fortunately, whatever Harland and Lane’s opinions of her sub-editorship at a given moment, they continued to respect her as one of their writers consistently receiving critical acclaim. After ‘Irremediable,’ the story of D’Arcy’s that attracted the most attention by reviewers was ‘The Pleasure-Pilgrim,’ which appeared in Volume V of The Yellow Book. The story was compared unfavourably by some American critics to James’s ‘Daisy Miller’, despite the two having little in common outside of chronicling the adventures of an American girl in Europe. D’Arcy anticipated this criticism and wrote Lane a joking letter: ‘I’m so curious to know whether you’ve read the Pleasure-Pilgrim, and what you think of it? And I wonder if it will be appreciated by the Americans? Should they tell you that no young American girl ever behaved like Lulie Thayer, refer them to Mr. Le Gallienne, and his Paris experiences’ (Letter to John Lane, 5 April 1895). She does not elaborate what these experiences were, but Lane was Richard Le Gallienne’s close friend and needed no explanation.

20In ‘The Pleasure-Pilgrim’, a shy English writer named Campbell meets a bold American tourist named Lulie, who is immediately besotted with him. Campbell is physically attracted to Lulie, but his friend Mayne confides that he knows her to be an incorrigible flirt and likely promiscuous as well. Campbell, horrified, tries to distance himself from her. She declares her love for him. Campbell argues that this sort of love at first sight is impossible, especially coming from a girl with a past, but she insists that her feelings, regardless of her past brief romances, are genuine. He dares her to shoot herself, arguing that if she genuinely loved him and realized that her past made it impossible for him to return her affections, she would not want to live. To his horror, that is what she does. The shocking ending of the story veers out of realism into absurdist territory, which some readers have found jarring, but D’Arcy sets up the ending as a radical protest to Campbell and Mayne’s misogynist idealism.

21The title of the story is ambiguous, since, as Fisher has noted, every one of the main characters can be said to be a pleasure-pilgrim (Fisher 247). There is the strange conflation of pilgrimage with imperialist exploration, where women’s sexuality is the new and strange land. There is the element of connoisseurship that Sally Ledger attributes to Lulie (Ledger 20). Moreover, female pleasure-pilgrimage, as Lulie defines it, is a search for self-knowledge; she is a follower of Walter Pater’s exhortation ‘to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame’ (Pater 154), something that is usually addressed to men only. Of the three characters, Lulie’s pleasure-pilgrimage is the truest to the aesthetic ideal that pleasure is an experience that strengthens the development of the self.

22Campbell is described as ‘a true Briton’ and ‘intolerably shy’ and there is a certain hilarity in putting him in the same carriage as the outspoken Lulie and her companion, the sharply observant Nannie (D’Arcy 1895, 36). It is D’Arcy’s humorous interpretation of cultural differences: the women do not mind Campbell’s awkward silences because, as Americans, they are talkative and direct and ascribe his behaviour to British reserve, while Campbell is silently alarmed at their American forwardness. Cultural differences become sexual differences. Campbell admits to a ‘high ideal of Woman’ (capitalized, of course) which becomes an obstacle to knowing a real one (D’Arcy 1895, 42). His way of navigating his attraction to Lulie is to fancy himself ‘the discoverer of her possibilities’ (D’Arcy 1895, 40). The use of the word ‘discovery’ suggests that Campbell wants to think of himself as Columbus to Lulie’s America and his ego markedly deflates when Mayne informs him that Lulie already has been ‘discovered’ by other men.

23In fact, Mayne’s knowledge of Lulie is a product of some research and considerable observation; although he downplays his study of her as an idle pursuit by a married man ‘out of the running,’ as he says, he has taken some ‘opportunities of studying her’ and his extensive knowledge of her whereabouts and her past point to a man who is obsessed with her (D’Arcy 1895, 42). He claims to have rebuffed Lulie’s advances out of ‘bashfulness’ (D’Arcy 1895, 44) but his true pleasure with Lulie is scopophilic. His not-so-casual mention to Campbell that ‘you should see her in her cycling costume’ (D’Arcy 1895, 43) is followed by an attempt to conceal his lust through snobbery; she is an ‘admirable shot, by the way, an accomplishment learned, I suppose, from some American cow-boy’ (D’Arcy 1895, 43). Mayne’s sexual interest is piqued by imagining a crude Annie Oakley-type character crossing both national borders and class boundaries in trying to seduce a proper British gentleman.

24In addition to Mayne failing to conceal his attraction to Lulie, D’Arcy brings up the possibility that it is not just in Lulie where Mayne’s desire lies. He takes his pleasure in playing with Campbell, first by delivering an extensive appreciation of Lulie’s charms and then undercutting it by declaring her an egregious flirt, which he then further complicates by qualifying his assessment: ‘And yet, she’s not exactly a flirt, either’. By that, he explains, ‘I mean she doesn’t flirt in the ordinary way. She doesn’t talk much, or laugh, or apparently make the least claims on masculine attention’ (D’Arcy 1895, 42). Lulie’s elusiveness at being defined is a common sign of sexual attraction in fiction. After Mayne’s eroticized account of Lulie, it is possible that what really makes Campbell uneasy is that Mayne is the one who, through his narrative, is arousing Campbell’s desire.

25There is an echo of Wilde’s Lord Henry in Mayne’s behaviour, in that he seems to enjoy disrupting expectations and placing people in situations as if he were conducting social experiments. He seems to not want Campbell to distance himself from Lulie, nor is he encouraging a romance; rather, he is enjoying seeing the effect Lulie has on Campbell and cultivating a need for Campbell to further confide in him. His language about her becomes more and more hyperbolic, a sign, perhaps, that his is not the clinical, objective perspective he would have Campbell believe. Mayne parrots every conservative fearmonger about the New Woman: ‘Yes, I believe she’s the American edition, and so new that she hasn’t found her way into fiction. She’s the pioneer of the army coming out of the West, that’s going to destroy the existing scheme of things and rebuild it nearer to the heart’s desires’ (D’Arcy 1895, 46). It is rather amusing that Mayne suggests that following one’s heart’s desire is a horrific outcome. D’Arcy may be indicating that what this New Woman is really disrupting is the homosocial, and possibly homoerotic bond between these men.

26But what of Lulie, this Lamia that Mayne constructs, of whom Campbell ‘asked himself with horror, what had she not already known, seen, permitted?’ (D’Arcy 1895, 47) She is one of D’Arcy’s most intelligent and self-aware characters, and she is the character with whom D’Arcy may have identified with. Like Lulie, D’Arcy also had ‘a past’. Rumours about her previous relationships with M. P. Shiel, and with Harland and Lane persisted. D’Arcy often undertook a form of ‘pleasure-pilgrimage,’ albeit on a severely limited income, by frequently leaving England to live in Jersey, in France, or in Germany.

27D’Arcy grounds Lulie’s outlook on men and romance in a reality shared between women, but rarely with would-be suitors. She horrifies Campbell with her modern assertion: ‘But, after all, what is there in a kiss? . . . It means nothing, absolutely nothing. Why, one has to kiss all sorts of people one doesn’t care about’ (D’Arcy 1895, 52). The people ‘one doesn’t care about’ might mean the expedient marriages some women are forced into, or it could refer to Lulie’s hint that a friend of her father’s had made unwanted sexual advances towards her when she was young. This is where D’Arcy again writes a romantic hero failing to respond to a woman’s experience of abuse. He misses the implication and instead resorts to a vision of women’s sexuality as sentimental and out-of-touch as if he were channelling John Ruskin’s ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’: ‘To all right-thinking people, a young girl’s kisses are something pure, something sacred, not to be offered indiscriminately to every fellow she meets’ (D’Arcy 1895, 52). Campbell’s use of the words ‘pure’ and ‘sacred’, when set against Mayne’s and Lulie’s worldliness, makes him seem like the most sheltered young man in England. It is a far-fetched portrayal, but not as much when one considers that it is the stock description of a female ingénue.

28Lulie furthers this gender reversal by asserting her will despite Campbell’s discouragements. She loves Campbell, she says, despite it being inexplicable in its suddenness and its intensity. In other words, she does not demur, and she admits to her own desire. Her argument that having enjoyed male company in the past does not negate her capacity to love is not only logical, but in keeping with a generation of women in the 1890s who wanted to explore relationships with men outside of expectations of marriage. She also points out, in a moment of profundity, that love is something that is oriented towards the self, since Lulie can love Campbell without reciprocity and, to her, the meaning of love depends on acknowledging its authenticity. ‘If I love you, what business is it of yours?’ she asks him, quoting Goethe’s Werther, the book that was the catalyst for a number of suicides by young men disappointed in love (D’Arcy 1895, 55). Unlike the tangled web of consequences that comprise Campbell’s view of women’s desire, for Lulie, love is a state where her past is a preparation, not a punishment. In fact, what is shocking to Campbell is that Lulie does approach love as a series of experiences, like a man would, if that man were not as timid and naive as Campbell.

29The ending can elicit an involuntary nervous laugh because it seems so incompatible with the realist mode of the story. Moreover, Lulie’s suicide is masculinized. She does not die of a lingering disease or places herself in the way of an oncoming train. Her suicide is aggressive, by gunshot, and she appropriates the character of Werther, who also commits suicide in this manner. There is no way of dying for love, D’Arcy seems to say, that is not absurd. And in this case, Lulie’s suicide is also a parody of an idealized submissive woman. She commits suicide as calling Campbell’s bluff, when he rashly claims that if she truly loved him, she would not want to live without his return of her affections. In her death, she then becomes the passive, now likely literal, angel in the house, when Campbell cradles her protectively. The story, though, ends on an ambiguous note, where the reader is left with two contrasting summaries of the suicide. Did Lulie, as Nannie stated, kill herself because she could not live without Campbell’s love or, is she the artificial actress Mayne makes her out to be? Neither of these accounts is given by a disinterested character and the final judgment is implicitly left up to Campbell, a man who is possibly the least qualified to peer into Lulie’s soul.

30The necessity of a double reading, and the satire of seemingly refined men, is a recurring motif in D’Arcy’s other stories as well. ‘At Twickenham’ describes a man who breaks an engagement because he foresees an incompatible marriage; namely, his fiancée is not acting enough like a romantic heroine. Lest a reader sympathize with his clear-headedness, his declaration is put into a context of even greater pompousness; his friend Corbett cheats on his taxes and lives in an ‘imitation high art villa’ named Braemar, in a location which seems to be neither on a hill nor by the sea (D’Arcy 1897, 313). ‘The Villa Lucienne’ is a parody of a horror story, where two women trying to rent a haunted house collapse into hysterics when they tour the house but leave unscathed. ‘The Web of Maya’ is a story about an old misanthrope who believes he has murdered his wife’s presumed lover, who had seduced her away from him with talk of radicalism, agnosticism, and vegetarianism. Even in the 1890s, when these ideas were seen as terribly radical by some, D’Arcy emphasizes Le Mesurier’s absurd conviction that, while murder may be frowned upon, not eating meat nor attending church nor ministering to a thoroughly unpleasant husband is a much graver sin.

31Her lightest story, ‘White Magic’ takes place on Jersey in the Channel Islands, which D’Arcy considered to be her second home. Jersey is a perfect setting for Ella’s double meanings, since the island crosses borders in its location, its history, and its language. It is a dependency of England, but claims an affinity with the Norman French, and as a Channel Island is located between the two countries. D’Arcy in her Island stories points out the alternate pronunciations of her characters’ names, where none are pronounced as they appear on the page; Jersey, she explains is ‘where you spell a man’s name Verulam . . . . and pronounce it Bacon’ (D’Arcy 1894b, 59). The named characters in her Island stories include Mrs Poidevin (pronounced Pedvinn) in ‘Poor Cousin Louis’, and Mauger (Major) and Toumes (Thomas) in ‘White Magic’. D’Arcy is drawing attention to the British tendency to mispronounce and anglicize names of foreign origin but also to the fact that the Channel Islands, to her, represent that double meaning where the worst of English masculinist rationalism is confronted by Island culture, which is both emotional and coded feminine. In ‘White Magic,’ Mauger and his friends observe a young couple, and Mauger, a chemist, laughingly discloses that the young woman, Elsie, had come to him in despair, after having visited a local witch, for a love potion. The witch has sold her a potion; Mauger sells her baking soda for five shillings and gleefully comments about the country women’s ignorance and gullibility. But Elsie’s beau Toumes comes to her with an older magic ritual, ‘kiss in the ring’, which has been diminished to a party game (D’Arcy 1894b, 64). As Mauger continues his diatribe about women’s irrational need for love, he and his friend fall silent as they watch Elsie and Toumes taking a romantic walk together. So much for the chemist’s superior knowledge.

32It is this strategy of doubleness in D’Arcy’s writing that allowed her to negotiate a career as a writer with one as a sub-editor, to smile and jest with overbearing men while allowing for some catharsis in writing her fiction. Despite the purported seriousness of many of her stories, the strategy she used is shared by women humourists well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. D’Arcy can be read as an unsung precursor to modernist realism and that is a fair assessment, but she also sets out the possibility for women to satirize subversively. This marks her as a New Woman writer as much as any outward profession or polemic about women’s emancipation could.

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Heather Marcovitch, « White Magic, Black Humour: Ella D’Arcy’s Narrative Strategies »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Heather Marcovitch

Heather Marcovitch teaches Victorian Literature, Children’s Literature, and Literary Theory at Red Deer Polytechnic in Alberta, Canada. She received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Florida. She is the author of The Art of the Pose: Oscar Wilde’s Performance Theory (Peter Lang, 2010) and essays on Wilde’s works, including Salome and the fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Soul,” on dramatic performances of his plays, as well as on the afterlives of Wilde in contemporary drama and film. She has published essays on topics of the fin de siècle such as The Yellow Book, decadent poet Arthur Symons, and other late Victorian and modernist writers. Her book Oscar Wilde: A Companion is currently under contract for publication at McFarland Press, and she is writing an article about George Egerton’s relationship with John Lane. Outside of Victorian studies, she has co-edited two volumes on television studies.
Heather Marcovitch enseigne la littérature victorienne, la littérature pour enfants et la théorie littéraire à l’université Red Deer Polytechnic en Alberta, au Canada. Sa thèse, soutenue à l’Université de Floride, a été suivie de la publication de The Art of the Pose: Oscar Wilde’s Performance Theory (Peter Lang, 2010). Ses articles portent sur l’œuvre d’Oscar Wilde, notamment Salome et ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, sur les représentations de ses pièces, ainsi que sur son héritage dans le cinéma et le théâtre contemporains. Elle a co-dirigé deux volumes sur les études télévisuelles et a publié des articles sur la culture fin de siècle, le périodique The Yellow Book, le poète décadent Arthur Symons et les auteurs victoriens et modernistes du tournant du siècle. Son ouvrage Oscar Wilde: A Companion est en cours de publication chez McFarland Press, et elle travaille actuellement sur les liens entre George Egerton et John Lane. En plus de ses recherches sur la période victorienne, elle a co-dirigé deux volumes en études télévisuelles.

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