Susan Ertz’s Sisyphean Women

Image: “Personality Parade,” Daily Mirror, 18 November 1937, p. 11. Painting credited to Gluck.

The 36-year-old Anglo-American writer Susan Ertz began a late career as a novelist in 1923 with Madame Claire, but her seeming irritation with the artistic establishment emerges in even this first novel. In one section Madame Claire, Ertz details the backstory of a male character’s unnamed, widowed mother who, under duress of destitution, “tried her hand at novel writing,” only producing “sentimental novels” that one “would have hated”.[1] This theme of unappreciated women’s work also emerged in Ertz’s many public speeches to organizations and clubs; by 1929 (after the publication of five more novels), she was reported to have given a lecture entitled “The Dangerous Profession,” warning writers against novel-writing⁠, suggesting a frustrated relationship with her craft.[2] But why such frustration? After all, Ertz’s name was featured across the pages of popular newspapers, including advertisements for her fiction and mentions of her public comments and lectures. Newspapers expected such familiarity with Ertz’s face that the tabloid-adjacent Daily Mirror featured a painting of her by artist Gluck and asked readers to identify “famous novelist.”[3] Her first novel, Madame Claire, was one of the first ten of the new, and now famous, venture “Penguin Books.”[4] According to The Guardian, “The Gods were singularly good to Susan Ertz. They ordained that she should be always readable.”[5] But maybe being “readable” was not where Ertz’s real desire lay; maybe she wanted a gift from another type of “god.” H.G. Wells once wrote her a letter; on top of referencing a party she had hosted, he indicated he’d read her speculative novel Woman Alive. He wrote she was “not a very artful story teller” (ouch), but at least it was “a very well invented tale with directness and vigour.”⁠[6] That Ertz would invite Wells’s company and input perhaps suggests that she was hopeful for more aesthetic appreciation among the literary elite of her time. Though she was active on the lecture circuits, her books always demanded notice (over twenty of them), and she made political interventions (including participation with P.E.N.), it seems an ironic justification of her literary frustrations that so few scholars have examined her within literary studies of the twentieth century, or even in the history of modernist experimentation, with the cache such a term invites.[7] Ertz’s exclusion from the canon of the literary establishment acts as an ironic testament to the value of her fiction, which brings continual attention to the Sisyphean efforts of women to assert their aesthetic, professional, and romantic autonomy under threat of patriarchal systems which continually stymie any such independence.

Ertz’s life was punctuated by travel, adventure, war work, activism, a late entry into the life of the novelist, and a late marriage to a divorced man after she established herself as a novelist.[8] While one need not over-determine our reading of her fiction through a cursory understanding of Ertz’s life, it is noteworthy the extent to which themes of romantic dissatisfaction and upheaval dominate her fiction. Madame Claire (1923) features a story of the larger-than-life matron Claire, who observes with dissatisfaction the bumbling romantic affairs of the women in the younger generations, while also coming to terms with her own unsatisfactory love life. The Proselyte (1933), while noted as a rare sympathetic novel about the Mormon migration West, dramatizes a woman’s misery on the journey, worsened by a husband’s ambition. Laura Deverell in The Galaxy (1929) is subjugated by philandering husband Horace but finds late love and happiness after she is widowed, only to have it snatched away yet again. For so many of Ertz’s characters, fears of spinsterhood or destitution lead them to unsatisfactory matches that frustrate efforts towards fulfilling lives.

Scholarly attention towards Ertz’s work has centered on two of her works: Woman Alive (1935) and Anger in the Sky (1943), which were, by and large, among the most politically and narratively courageous of her writing endeavors.[9] The first, a speculative novel on the future after a man-made pandemic that has killed all but one woman, has captured the attention of scholars interested in the politics of reproduction. Alex Lothian argues that the novel features “moments of queered temporality that undermine its reduction of global futurity to one heterosexual, Anglo-American family.”[10] The second, set during World War II, has been attended to by scholars like Lola Serra, who convincingly argues that the novel complicates myths of the “Blitz Spirit.”[11] While these novels are by far the least domestic of Ertz’s novels, they are contiguous with her oeuvre in detailing increasingly unstable political situations, through the eyes of the vulnerable women who disproportionately suffer under patriarchy. The last woman alive in Woman Alive erupts with feminist rage, taking her own body hostage to force men to change their ways. In Anger in the Sky, the Blitz brings attention to the politics of domestic life, emphasizing the complex impact of wartime life on women’s lives: the billeting of children, varieties of war work, and the absence of male authority. 

Given that scholars have discussed these texts elsewhere, it seems useful to attend to some of Ertz’s lesser-known works, which carry with them a similar tone and sensibility to women’s struggles, but within more “conventional” settings: peacetime English and American society, though sometimes Europe. Even The Proselyte — Ertz’s excavation of a historical Mormon migration from London to the Great Salt Lake — is a tale of women’s desire for domestic stability alongside social autonomy. More than anything, protagonist Zillah, thinks she wants a respectable, independent home and family for herself and husband Joseph. But at all points, Zillah sacrifices her comfort and desires to those of her husband’s mission, leading to a still birth, another child killed by an arrow, and a painful experience with plural marriage. But we also gain further glimpses into Zillah’s repressed desires: she wants to act on stage, but it is only her daughter who can fulfill such dreams; she enjoys the piano, but her husband’s second wife refuses to let her play it. By the time of her husband’s death, when we imagine she might finally achieve independence, her father is too ill to appreciate her and her mother has rejected her for her abandoning England for Zion. Ertz repeatedly gestures to the snags that keep women disempowered and subordinate even as, in this case, she attempts to humanize the Mormons by dramatizing the horrors of their trials. Women take on plural marriage to avoid abuse and overwork; they suffer economically and physically for the sake of their children and husbands. And sometimes they even snap under the pressure, as happens with one couple, where the wife hog-ties her husband in her covered wagon due to his incessant demands.

Ertz’s female characters often parallel the position of Woolf’s Lily Briscoe; many strive to access their passions and talents, only to find their work relegated to the proverbial attic for a lifetime. The connection between Woolf and Ertz was also noted by contemporaries; in a 1939 review for Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937), American Professor Lodwick Hartley compares Woolf’s modernist “chronicle novel” to other “popular” writers in the genre. In this mix, including Galsworthy and Walpole, is trans-Atlantic writer Susan Ertz.[12] Ertz’s version of the chronicle novel, Madame Claire, features three generations of Claires investigated through the eyes of the widowed matron Madame Claire. The matron had foreclosed marriage with her young love Stephen and instead married for convenience and station decades before; the novel is smattered with letters between the two old flames who have reconnected after years of silence, and the reader waits with great anticipation for their reunion at the book’s end. It is this path not taken that lends the text its primary plot, and the belated revelation of her unhappy marriage and long-standing repressed passion for Stephen concludes it. While Claire repressed her desires as a young girl, she is guided in old age by a vicarious urge to better outcomes for her female relations. She encourages the unprofitable love match of granddaughter Judy with Major Crosby, a struggling, shy writer of obscure religious texts and dramas. It is here where Ertz tells us of Crosby’s mother, forced to toil away at ghastly sentimental novels to feed her son. Such allusions to women’s suffering epitomize the novel’s preoccupation with women who lack the full autonomy to make ideal decisions for themselves, and the legacies of their struggles beyond their graves. In tracing generations of women seeking freedom from their constraints, Ertz mourns the collective losses that result from women’s oppression, including the erasure of women from the cultural field. 

But suffering is not reserved for Ertz’s fictional artisans alone. The Galaxy’s Laura Deverell, like Madame Claire, represents the danger of marriage without love, as the willful young protagonist marries the rake Horace Leighton, only to suffer from a lifetime of his marital infidelities. She separates from him and she remarries the German Arnold Sendler after she is widowed. In this novel, like her others, joy is always chimerical; the passions of the heart are repeatedly downcast by the harsh, practical circumstances of women’s lives. In The Galaxy, the stars – with their promise of eternality and beauty – come to embody the danger inherent in such hope. Laura, having finally found love with the German Sendler, loses him to internment during World War I. After Laura receives a letter from her imprisoned husband, Ertz interjects a vivid passage describing the titular galaxy, typifying both Ertz’s descriptive chops and her sardonic worldview: 

She [Laura] extinguished her light and went to the window drawing up the blind. One night she had seen a group of them suddenly blotted out by the passing of one of those great, silent, bloated, gas-filled monsters of war, and a moment later the bombs had come crashing down, to blow to pieces some poor families living in poor little houses on the other side of the river. There was the Galaxy, flowing across the sky, a superb, breath-taking sight, a great star-river whose every bright drop was a world already made, or worlds in the making.[13]

The passage recalls a scene in the later Woman Alive, where protagonist Stella Marrow blames men for wanting to remake the world instead of realizing it has been in their making for generations. But the passage also stands as an exemplar of Ertz’s prose style, whose intermittent floridity produces a constant din of ominous energy. Allusions to transcendent sources of beauty and hope — whether a sea of stars or the alien landscape of the American southwest — are always checked by some proverbial Zepplin. This is made shockingly apparent when, in the final scene of The Galaxy, Laura — finally ready to live a peaceful life with her freed husband — looks up to the stars where, “blinded and dazzled,” she is struck and killed by a passing car.[14]

The Galaxy (1929) also demonstrates how Ertz’s fatalism transforms her literary form. Laura dies on the road, memories passing before the darkness sets in, but what follows in the novel is a final fragmentary chapter — a duplicate of the first paragraph of Chapter One, prefiguring other circular, mobius-like modernist works like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) or Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1939; 1967). The novel’s reduplicated start returns to the theme of stars and includes the phrase: “Those interested in that pseudo-science, astrology or astronomy, may trace her life character, if they wish, among the stars.”[15] Looking to the proverbial stars, for autonomy and freedom and happiness, women are always cast down again to their destined lives of punishment, servitude, and pain. Ertz renders the struggles of the modern woman as Sisyphean, both in her experimentation with imagery and in formal choices, making her a fit subject of inquiry for those who wish to expand and explore the contributions of predominantly middle-brow writers to experimental literary form.

 


Megan Faragher is an Associate Professor at Wright State University, Lake Campus. She is the author of Public Opinion Polling in Mid-Century British Literature: The Psychographic Turn (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021) and co-editor of the Modernism/modernity Print Plus “Modernist Institutions” cluster. She has also published articles in Textual Practice, Literature & History, and The Space Between Journal. Her next project, provisionally titled Feminist Futurologies, surveys mid-century speculative fiction and details how wartime crises inspired women writers to re-imagine bodies, minds, and spaces as means to reform cultural and political institutions.


References

  1. Madame Claire 141.“The Universities,” The Sunday Times November 3 1929, p. 22.
  2. “Personality Parade,” The Daily Mirror, 18 November 1947, p. 11.
  3. “The Original Ten.” https://www.penguin.com/penguin80/original-10/
    Ertz’s Madame Claire was published alongside Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.
  4. E. H.W. “The Galaxy by Susan Ertz.” The New Republic. 11 September 1929.
  5. H.G. Wells, Letter to Susan Ertz, 12 December 1936, in The Correspondence of H.G. Wells: Volume 4, 1935-1946, Edited by David C. Smith (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998), pp. 116.
  6. Susan Ertz is listed as a co-signatory and a Vice-President on a letter against fascism to The Living Age by the International P.E.N Club. Storm Jameson, et al. “Our Readers Say,” The Living Age, Aug. 1940, p. 358.
  7. Ertz’s husband is an interesting case. Major John McCrindle, WWI RAF commander, was once married to Odette Feder, socialite. The McCrindle-Feder child (who would become Ertz’s stepson, but was raised by his maternal grandparents) would be Joseph McCrindle, American art collector and publisher of a revival of Ford’s Transatlantic Review. Documentation of the McCrindle-Feder divorce is public via the Smithsonian’s digitized collection of the “Joseph F. McCrindle Papers.”
  8. Besides essays listed below, scholars might also read Phyllis Lassner, “Feminist Critique and Power Relations in British Anti-Utopian Literature of the 1930s,” Extrapolation 36, no. 6 (1995): 259-272.
  9. Alexis Lothian, “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire,” in Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility (NYU Scholarship Online, 2019), p. 17.
  10. Lola Serraf, “Supporting and Resisting the Myth of the Blitz: Susan Ertz’s Anger in the Sky (1943),” in British Women’s Writing, 1930-1960 (Liverpool, 2020), 91-108.
  11. Lodwick Hartley, “Of Time and Mrs. Woolf,” The Sewanee Review 27, no. 2, 1939: pp. 235.
  12. Susan Ertz. The Galaxy (London: Hodder & Stoughton, [1929] 1951), pp. 245-6.
  13. The Galaxy, p. 253.
  14. The Galaxy p. 255.

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