Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright (14 December 1859 – 12 August 1945), better known by her pen name George Egerton, (pronounced Edg'er-ton) was a "New Woman" writer and feminist. Widely considered to be one of the most important of the "New Woman" writers of the nineteenth century fin de siecle, she was a friend of George Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry and J. M. Barrie.
George Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Australia in 1859, to a Welsh Protestant mother, Isabel George, and an Irish Catholic father, Captain John J. Dunne. The earliest years of her life were marked by migration between Australia, New Zealand and Chile, but most of her formative years were spent in and around Dublin, and Egerton was to refer to herself throughout her life as "intensely Irish". Raised Catholic, she was schooled for two years in Germany as a teenager. There, she demonstrated a talent for art and linguistics. Her ambitions to become an artist had to be shelved after the death of her mother when she was fourteen, and she trained as a nurse.
As a young adult, Egerton spent two years in New York. She later spent two years in Norway with Henry Higginson, a married man with whom she had eloped, whom she married in 1888. The marriage lasted only one year. These were formative years for her in terms of her intellectual growth and artistic development. While in Norway she immersed herself in the work of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Ola Hansson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Knut Hamsun. Her brief romance with Hamsun served as the inspiration for her 1893 short story "Now Spring Has Come". Hamsun went on to win the Nobel prize for literature, and Egerton was the first to make Hamsun's work accessible to an English readership, with her translation of his first novel Hunger (Sult), published in 1899. A second marriage (in 1891) to minor novelist Egerton Tertius Clairmonte was the impetus for her first attempts at writing fiction – instigated by his penniless status and her desire to alleviate the boredom she felt upon her return to rural Ireland. She chose the pseudonym "George Egerton" as a tribute to both her mother, whose maiden name was "George", and to Clairmonte. Asked how to say her pen name, she told The Literary Digest it was pronounced edg'er-ton, adding "This name is pronounced this way, as far as I know by all bearers of the name in England."
Egerton's first book of short stories, Keynotes, was published by John Lane and Elkin Mathews of the Bodley Head in 1893. This volume was so successful (and notorious) on both sides of the Atlantic that Egerton was soon being interviewed in the leading magazines of the day, and was famously lampooned in Punch. This and subsequent works had the same thematic preoccupation: a dismissal of female purity as a male construct that denies women the right to expect and experience sexual freedom and fulfilment. Keynotes was the high-water mark of Egerton's literary career. A subsequent volume of short stories, Discords, and her later efforts – including two additional short story volumes (Symphonies and Flies in Amber); two novels (Rosa Amorosa and The Wheel of God); and a book of Nietzschean parables (Fantasias) – met largely with failure. Her later incarnation as a playwright (Camilla States Her Case, 1925) and translator of plays (most notably from the French) generated only a few moderately successful productions.
Egerton's stylistic innovations, often termed "proto-modernist" by literary scholars, and her often radical and feminist subject matter have ensured that her fiction continues to generate academic interest in America and Britain. Egerton's experimentation with form and content anticipated the high modernism of writers like James Joyce and D H Lawrence, and Egerton's The Wheel of God often reads as a sort of rudimentary template for Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thomas Hardy acknowledged the influence of Egerton's work on his own, in particular on the construction of his "New Woman" character, Sue Bridehead, in Jude the Obscure. Perhaps most notably, Holbrook Jackson credits Egerton with the first mention of Friedrich Nietzsche in English literature (she refers to Nietzsche in Keynotes in 1893, three years before the first of Nietzsche's works was translated into English).
She divorced Egerton Clairmonte in 1901 and married the dramatic agent Reginald Golding Bright, fifteen years her junior. Her only child, her son George Clairmonte (born 1895), was killed in World War I.
Her cousin Terence de Vere White collected her letters and his reminiscences of her and published them in 1958 as A Leaf from the Yellow Book.
She died in London in 1945, aged 85.
Notes and references
- (Terence De Vere White, A Leaf from the Yellow Book, London: The Richards Press, 1958, p. 14
- RIA/Cambridge Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009) Vol. III, p. 596
- Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936
- Jusova, I. The New Woman and the Empire: Gender, Racial, and Colonial Issues in Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Elizabeth Robins, and Amy Levy. The Ohio State University Press, 2005.
- Carolyn Christensen Nelson: A New Woman Reader (2001)
- De Vere White, Terence. A Leaf from the Yellow Book. London: The Richards Press, 1958.
- Egerton, George. Keynotes and Discords. Ed. Martha Vicinus. London: Virago, 1995.
- Egerton, George. Symphonies. London and New York: John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1897.
- Egerton, George. The Wheel of God. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1898.
- Gawsworth, John. Ten Contemporaries: Notes Toward Their Definitive Bibliography. London: Ernest Benn, 1932.
- Hamsun, Knut. Hunger. Trans. George Egerton. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003.
- Hansson, Laura Marholm. Six Modern Women: Psychological Sketches. Trans. Hermione Ramsden. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896.
- Jusova, Iveta. The New Woman and the Empire. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
- McCracken, Scott. 'A Novel From/On the Margins: George Egerton's The Wheel of God. Gender and Colonialism. Eds. L. Pilkington et al. Galway: Galway University Press, 1995. 139–157.
- O'Toole, Tina. 'Keynotes from Millstreet, Co.Cork: George Egerton's Transgressive Fictions;. Colby Library Quarterly 36.2(2000): 145–156.
- Selected Papers of Mary Chavelita Bright. Reference C0105. Manuscripts Division. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library.
- Standlee, Whitney. 'Displaced Identities in the Short Stories of George Egerton'. Unpulbished M.A. Thesis. Humanities Department. University of Central Lancashire: Preston, United Kingdom, 2006.
- Stetz, Margaret Diane. '"George Egerton": Woman and Writer of the Eighteen Nineties'. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. The Department of English and American Language and Literature. Harvard University: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.
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