Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright (14 December 1859 – 12 August 1945), better known by her pen name George Egerton (pronounced Edg'er-ton), was a writer of short stories, noted for her psychological probing, innovative narrative techniques, and outspokenness about women's need for freedom, including sexual freedom. Egerton is widely considered to be one of the most important writers in the late nineteenth century New Woman movement, and a key exponent of early modernism in English-language literature. Born in Melbourne, Australia, she spent her childhood in Ireland, where she settled for a time, and considered herself to be "intensely Irish".
George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright)
Cover of Egerton's first short story collection with cover art by Aubrey Beardsley.
|Born||14 December 1859|
|Died||12 August 1945 (aged 85)|
Sussex, United Kingdom
George Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Melbourne, Australia, in 1859, to a Welsh Protestant mother, Isabel George Bynon, 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, but her ambitions to become an artist had to be shelved after the death of her mother when she was fourteen, at which time she became the caretaker for her younger siblings. She subsequently trained as a nurse.
As a young adult, Egerton spent two years in New York in an abortive attempt to earn money to support her father, brothers and sisters. Failing at this endeavour (though some of her experiences in the USA would serve as inspiration for her 1898 novel The Wheel of God), she returned to live in England. In 1888, in events which were notorious enough to be widely published in leading newspapers in the UK and Ireland, Egerton eloped with the then-married Henry Peter Whyte-Melville (born Henry Peter Higginson). In retaliation, Whyte-Melville's wife accused her estranged husband of being a bigamist, claiming he was already married at the time that she wed him. This allegation was later proved to be untrue. During the period of the elopement, Egerton's father pursued the couple and, newspaper reports confirm, shot at Whyte-Melville in a hansom cab. Whyte-Melville was divorced later that year and he and Egerton married in Detroit in the summer of 1888. The marriage lasted until his death a year later.
With Whyte-Melville, Egerton moved to Norway, where she lived for two years. This time spent in Norway was formative to 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 romantic connection to 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 the minor adventurer and author 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 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 and illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Like other Bodley Head and Beardsley-illustrated publications, it is associated with both the literary fin de siècle and "Decadent" movements. Keynotes was phenomenally successful (and notorious) on both sides of the Atlantic and as a result of this Egerton became a celebrity, was interviewed in the leading magazines of the day, and was famously lampooned in Punch.
Keynotes and her subsequent fiction often 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. Commentators long felt that Keynotes was the high-water mark of Egerton's literary career, but a renewed interest in her later work gained momentum in the first decade of the twenty-first century and has continued apace. As a result, recent academic scholarship has increasingly focused on her 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). 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. She was a friend of George Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry and J. M. Barrie.
Egerton's work is among the most forthrightly outspoken in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century English-language literature in terms of a demand for women's education, financial independence, and sexual freedom. Yet, while she was firmly associated with the New Woman movement, Egerton claimed to be "embarrassed" by this reduction of her work. Interestingly, like Emily Lawless, Egerton was one of the major feminist writers of the period who chose to distance herself from the female suffrage movement, although in her private letters she could be forthrightly pro-suffrage. For instance, she wrote in a letter to her father in 1908: 'H. Gladstone that mediocre son of an overrated father is a feeble thing at the head of any department. The women won’t be beaten in the long run. -- In every class they have a greater average of intelligence than the men...It isn't a question of Rights. It is a question of Economic change. A Surplus population of women who must work, outside home life...means: if I pay the tax -- I must get the vote!' 
Some critics see an anti-authoritarian impulse in her work. Her feminism can be read as a feminism of difference, or as an individualist feminism. Egerton's short stories are typically critical of organised religion, and include many discussions of atheism. She was scathing of marriage as an institution, and many of her protagonists overtly defy Victorian and Christian morality by advocating free unions, same sex parenting partnerships and single parenthood.
Egerton's stylistic innovations and her often radical and feminist subject matter have ensured that her fiction continues to generate academic interest in America and Britain. 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, and Tina O'Toole has described New Woman writers in general, and Egerton in particular, as the "missing link" to the sexually transgressive work of later writers such as Kate O'Brien (novelist). Holbrook Jackson credited 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). Her experimentation with form and content has also been described as anticipating the modernism of writers like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, and D. H. Lawrence, and her 1898 novel The Wheel of God, in particular, has been posited as a rudimentary template for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and as a potential influence on segments of Ulysses.
List of worksEdit
- Keynotes. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893. https://archive.org/details/b29012612/page/n5
- Discords. London: John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1894. https://archive.org/details/discordsbygeorg00egergoog/page/n8
- "A Lost Masterpiece." The Yellow Book Vol. 1 (April 1894): 189–96. https://archive.org/details/yellowapril189401uoft/page/n205
- "The Captain's Book." The Yellow Book Vol. 6 (July 1895): 103–16. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.41184/page/n115
- Symphonies. London: John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1897. https://archive.org/details/symphonies00egergoog/page/n4
- Fantasias. London: John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1898. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.45969/page/n5
- The Wheel of God. London: Grant Richards, 1898. https://archive.org/details/wheelgod00egergoog/page/n11
- Rosa Amorosa. The Love Letters of a Woman. London: Grant Richards, 1901. https://archive.org/details/cu31924013248129
- Flies in Amber. London: Hutchinson, 1905.
- "A Keynote to Keynotes." Ten Contemporaries: Notes Toward Their Definitive Bibliography. Ed. John Gawsworth. London: Ernest Benn, 1932.
- A Leaf from The Yellow Book: The Correspondence of George Egerton. Ed. Terence de Vere White. London: Richards, 1958.
- Alison Charlton, Dunne, Mary Chavelita (1859-1945), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/38648. Accessed 20 March 2015.
- Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936
- Eleanor Fitzsimons, "The Irish Identity of George Egerton". Irish Women's Writing Network, 4 August 2017: "In a letter to her cousin Ethel de Vere White, written in 1926, Egerton declared herself ‘Intensely Irish’".
- (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.
- See ‘Ireland’, The Times (London) (24 January 1888), p. 10. ‘Ireland’, The Times (London) (28 August 1888), p. 6, and Divorce Certificate dated 6 March 1886 declaring Whyte-Melville’s first marriage legally dissolved, Dunne/Egerton Papers, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, P9022/MS10946.
- Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.
- ‘She-Notes by Borgia Smudgiton’, Punch (10 March 1894), p. 109 and ‘She-Notes by Borgia Smudgiton’, Punch (17 March 1894), p. 130.
- Letter from Egerton to John J. Dunne (29 February 1908), Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University, Selected Papers of Mary Chavelita Bright, Box 2 Folder 17
- 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.
- Jackson suggests that ‘[t]he earliest reference to Nietzsche in the literature of the period is to be found in George Egerton’s Keynotes’, Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties, London: Grant Richards, 1922, p. 129)
- Whitney Standlee (2010) 'George Egerton, James Joyce and the Irish Künstlerroman', Irish Studies Review, 18:4, 439-452, DOI: 10.1080/09670882.2010.515850
- 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". Unpublished 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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