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Freeman in Paris

International Conference, Université Paris Cité, Paris, September 30th – October 1st, 2022
Emma Thiébaut et Lise Chenal

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1The international conference “Freeman in Paris” was held between September 30th and October 1st, 2022 at Université Paris Cité. It was organized by Hannah Champion (Université Bordeaux Montaigne), Pauline Pilote (Université Bretagne Sud), and Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité), with the support of the research units LARCA (Université Paris Cité) and HCTI (Université Bretagne Sud), and the contribution of the CNRS. “Freeman in Paris” was the 2022 edition of the conference held yearly by the European Group on Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Made up of scholars from all over Europe, the Group seek to shed light on lesser-known texts written by nineteenth-century American women by analyzing them from various perspectives and engaging in enthusiastic discussions about them. The 2022 conference revolved around two of such lesser-known texts: the play Giles Corey, Yeoman (1893) and the collection of animal and floral short stories Understudies (1901), which were both authored by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), a regionalist writer often (mis)known for writing sketches of a declining New England with a strong element of pathos. This account aims to present the inspired and inspiring ideas put forward by all participants, to convey their eagerness to engage with the two texts, and to do justice to the thought-provoking exchanges that took place.

Recovering the Queerness of Freeman’s Oeuvre

2In her talk entitled “Colonial Past, White Feminist Future: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Giles Corey Yeoman,” keynote speaker Samaine Lockwood (George Mason University) first discussed the intersection of white feminism and colonialism in Giles Corey, a Yeoman. The play, Lockwood affirms, challenges the patriarchal and heteronormative order. First, it shifts the focus of the trial to explore the queer feelings of two young girls. It also explores how Olive’s trauma will shape her role as a wife, and tackles the possibility of women’s citizenship, which had become a burning issue after the Civil War. But parallelly, by erasing them or having them replaced by a character reminiscent of minstrel show stock characters, Freeman excludes Black and Irish women from her discussion about the future of American women, and imagines a citizenship reserved to white women.

3Panel 1 was dedicated to the presence of queerness in Freeman’s text. It opened with a presentation entitled “Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Understudies and the Queer Art of Failure” by Ralph Poole (Universität Salzburg). He compared the middle-aged bachelor of “Mountain Laurel” to the resisting spinster of “Peony” to illustrate a form of “queer temporality” which simply ignores the teleological temporality of heteronormativity. By never marrying or having children, the two characters would become fundamentally idle, non-productive members of the society, and would therefore fail at any American measure of success. But, Pool argues, this is never presented as a problem by Freeman. Quite the opposite: he insisted that she “celebrates” those characters’ failing.

4In her paper, “About ‘The Cat’: Feline America and the Humanimal Temporality of Domestication,” Emma Thiébaut (Université Paris Cité) delved into the two-fold domesticating dynamics of “The Cat,” that is, the domestication of cats by humans and of humans by cats. Thiébaut first dwelled on the differing temporalities associated with humans and cats, and explained how the cat’s evolving status in the text (wild cat versus pet) mirrors the text’s shifts in temporality. Thiébaut showed how Freeman, like Sarah Orne Jewett, tied the temporality of cats to the stories of marginalized members of the community. Using a “humanimal” critical lens, she then explored Freeman’s depiction of the relationships between the cat and the two male characters of the text. She eventually reflected on the queer and inter-species revival of the domestic by women regionalist writers of 19th-century New England.

5In “‘Miss Wilkins… cannot always be trusted:’ The Queer Poetics of Giles Corey, Yeoman,” Ilka Saal (Universität Erfurt) debated the way in which Giles Corey, Yeoman ought to be read. Saal wondered whether it is a historical play, a tragedy, or a melodrama, and defended the overall historical accuracy of the play, while pointing out Freeman’s invention of a romantic subplot in the trial of Giles Corey. To her, the invention of this romantic subplot appears as a means of heightening the emotional reaction to the play, and of helping Freeman’s contemporaries engage with their past. Saal ultimately called the play a “queer tragedy” in an attempt to reckon with Olive’s conflicted feelings about her marriage to Paul Bailey, and with the impossibility for Martha to become the heroine of the play, in spite of the fact that she constantly behaves like one.

6The first day ended with a group discussion of Giles Corey, Yeoman.

7The second day started with three shorter presentations, all given by Master’s students, as is tradition for the annual conference of the European Group on Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. In “Crown Symbolism in Understudies: The Path to Holiness,” Nathalie Lavigne (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) decided to analyze the double-sided crown symbolism that can be found in some of Freeman’s stories. While in “Morning Glory” the crown is synonymous with ambition, in “Mountain Laurel” it signifies spiritual elevation. Alycia Garbay (Université Bordeaux Montaigne), in “Nature and Marginal Beings: between Oppression and Liberation,” shed light on the female queerness of “Arethusa.” She underlined the many lesbian characteristics associated with the flower that the heroine seems to develop an intense relationship with. Venaïg Danhier (Université Bretagne Sud), in “Women’s Rebellious Passivity through the Motif of the Flower in ‘Peony,’ ‘Arethusa,’ and ‘Bouncing Bet,’” further highlighted the blurring of the boundary between flowers and women, to reveal that the passivity of the former might represent the rebelliousness of the latter.

Animal Freeman

8Panel 2 was inaugurated by Stephanie Palmer (Nottingham Trent University). She presented a paper entitled “Freeman and Some European Contemporaries: A Way In” in which she placed Freeman in the context of nineteenth-century transatlanticism. Although regionalism was rooted in the local, Palmer argued, this literary movement was international. Reading press clippings, she showed how 19th-century critics constantly compared Freeman to European writers such as Kipling. This led Palmer to call regionalism a “translocal” type of literature. But she also warned her audience against the dangers of comparisons, which tend to reinstate Europe as the center of literature and of history.

9Palmer was followed by Jelena Šesnić (University of Zagreb), who, in the paper “A Neo-Darwinist Reading of Freeman’s ‘The Monkey,’” compared the way Darwin and Freeman used analogy in their respective work, particularly in their description of relations between humans and animals. Darwin’s theory of evolution and “The Monkey” both revolve around the degree of likeness that unites humans and animals, the degree of humanity that can be found in animals, or the degree of non-humanity (if not inhumanity) that can be found in humans. Šesnić also pointed out the presence of the more controversial offspring’s of Darwin’s theories, namely Social Darwinism and phrenology.

10Next, Stéphanie Durrans (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) presented a paper on “Mary Wilkins Freeman’s ‘House of Rumor’: Voices, Sounds, and Cries in Understudies.” She shed light on the Ovidian influences of The Understudies by reading the collection through the lens of the Metamorphoses. First, she detailed how the protagonist of “Bouncing Bet” undergoes a birthing process of sorts resulting in her transformation into a birdlike creature. Durrans then used Ovid’s “House of Fama” as a critical tool to reflect on the multi-layered importance of human and natural sounds in the collection. She explored such elements as the “gabble” associated with gossiping women in “Bouncing Bet” or the patriarchal undertones of Mrs. Holding’s repetitive speech in “Prince’s-Feather.” Discussing rustling as a “limit noise” (Kári Driscoll), she eventually tackled the question of non-intelligible, yet disturbing and resisting languages in Freeman’s short stories.

11Panel 3 started with “The Cat, the Monkey and Societal Outsiders. Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Animal Stories,” a paper presented by Antonia Purk (Universität Erfurt). Purk first addressed the two-way transformation of the human and animal characters in “The Cat.” As she demonstrated, while the cat crosses the barrier between wild nature and man-made habitat in a way that is reminiscent of evolutionary progress, the man who briefly comes to share the cat’s humble abode conversely turns into an animalistic creature. Then, Purk focused on the visual dimension of Freeman’s animal stories. She read “The Monkey” alongside the illustrations that accompany the simian tale in the 1901 edition of the collection (published by Harper and Brothers, New York), showing how the monkey is initially obscured and then visually ubiquitous both in the images and in the text.

12Aušra Paulauskienė (LCC International University) presented a paper entitled “From a Symbol to a Soulmate: Animals in ‘A New England Nun’ and ‘The Parrot’” in which she also considered the linking of humans and animals by drawing our attention to the story of “The Parrot.” Paulauskienė argued that the short story completely rejects pure animal symbolism to present Martha’s parrot as the woman’s soulmate. Empathic, the parrot proves capable of feeling and expressing Martha’s repressed desires. Paulauskienė drew an engaging parallel between the parrot in Freeman’s short story and that of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Because both parrots develop the capacity to speak and feel a strong sense of kinship towards their human partners, Paulauskienė showed that there could be a form of intertextuality between the two works.

13The two fascinating days of discussion ended with Verena Laschinger’s (Universität Erfurt) talk, “‘mosquito against the solar system’: The (In-)Significance of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Understudies,” which tried to embrace the collection Understudies in its totality. She contended that the collection allows Freeman to multiply different local perspectives and scales, and to find what all the different perspectives share in spite of their variety. Laschinger also drew on Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays to approach the narrative form of Freeman’s stories, and inscribed them in a “non-heroic” form of literature, which refuses conflict resolution and teleological progress. This presentation helped tie together all the threads explored by the previous participants, as their presentations became, like Freeman’s stories, a multiplication of differently scaled perspectives on Freeman’s work.

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Emma Thiébaut et Lise Chenal, « Freeman in Paris »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/19659 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.19659

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Emma Thiébaut

Université Paris Cité, LARCA

Lise Chenal

Université Paris Cité, LARCA

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