Delicious Sponge Cake

Dinah Birch

‘No one knows what a literary ambition I had, nor how my failure has broken me,’ Elizabeth Stoddard wrote in 1876. She was 53, and knew she was not going to be numbered among the great American writers of her generation. The gloomy and self-dramatising tone is characteristic. In fact she was exceptionally robust, and nothing could break her. She went on writing for years, and lived to see a flurry of interest in her work before she died in 1902. But she never earned the public recognition she wanted.

Born in Mattapoisett, a small coastal town in New England, she chafed against the quiet obscurity that satisfied Emily Dickinson, her near contemporary. She married Richard Stoddard, a fervent would-be poet who was never to falter in his support of her aspirations, moved to New York, and cultivated bookish acquaintances. Money was always short, largely because she spent more than she earned. Much of her writing was directed towards paying bills. She described her short stories as ‘bread articles’, but was not content with bread alone. In a journal entry she records feeling ‘ashamed of the little longings I sometimes have for diamonds and earrings, and the stepping-on-your-toes air which so many fine ladies possess.’ She never outgrew such cravings, and wrote ruefully about ‘the prestige which money gives’. Writing as ‘Our Lady Correspondent’ for the Daily Alta California, a San Francisco paper, she wonders why ‘writers, especially female writers, make their heroines so indifferent to good eating, so careless about taking cold, and so impervious to all the creature comforts?’ The uplifting tone of much 19th-century domestic fiction by women irritated Stoddard, who saw little merit in being hard on oneself. ‘In reading such books I am reminded of what I have thought my mission was: a crusade against Duty – not the duty that is revealed to every man and woman of us by the circumstances of daily life, but that which is cut and fashioned for us by minds totally ignorant of our idiosyncrasies and necessities.’

Idiosyncrasies and necessities – the product of confusions in her character – were the substance of her writing. Contemptuous of worldly expectations, she longed for the world’s approval. Insistent on the need for female independence, she created heroines inclined to go weak-kneed in the presence of dominant men. She was impatient with the stifling rural communities she had known in her youth, ‘whose simple annals and domestic ways did not interest me’, yet her strongest work is located in the remembered towns and villages of the New England seaboard. Dependent on the support of friends, she drove them away with fits of poisonous petulance. Her bad temper was legendary – ‘my father said once he never saw any human being with such a talent for the disagreeable,’ she recalled – yet she was proud of her tetchiness, for it defied the self-renunciation she thought the blight of women’s lives.

These paradoxes did not make for coherence in her work, though they account for much of its vitality. She developed a jagged and cryptic style that denied her readers the comforts of a smoothly managed plot, or consistent characterisation. Her protagonists are wilfully eccentric, wrapped in their own separate worlds, barely noticing the existence of others, let alone their needs. An observer notes of a typical Stoddard household: ‘The individual independence of the family first struck her. Apparently no member of it involved another in any pursuit, opinion, or interest.’ Only submerged currents of sexual desire, often shading into obsession, can shake these stubborn souls from their self-enclosure. Stoddard is at her most convincing when she writes about the inarticulacies of courtship, always a matter of contingent suffering and rarely conducted within the conventions of romance.

Despite a ‘great disinclination for study’, she was widely read both in English and in American literature. Traces of Emerson, Dickens, Thoreau and (especially) Tennyson run through her work. But Wuthering Heights coloured the fiction most deeply. Stoddard was an extravagant admirer: ‘that book made more impression upon me than any other book I ever read perhaps. The directness, truth & isolation and individuality are wonderful.’ Wuthering Heights’ version of the Gothic was irresistible, and lonely houses where a good deal of brooding and drinking contribute to the dissolution of family pride are a staple of Stoddard’s writing. Shades of Nelly Dean are everywhere – loyal but not always trustworthy family retainers, partly detached from the action and sometimes comically baffled by the unreasoning fervours of the central figures, yet also closely engaged with the resolution of the stories. Men appear and abruptly disappear in Heathcliffish ways, causing all manner of disorder. Early graves are common. There’s no tameless heath, but the equally tameless ocean is a serviceable substitute. Stoddard’s recalcitrant characters have no truck with feminine docility, political edification or religious consolation. Her work is a reminder that Emily Brontë has enjoyed a wider influence than is sometimes supposed.

Yet no one could mistake Stoddard’s work for Brontë’s. One reason is that she can’t shake off the female preoccupations Brontë tends to scorn. Good cooking matters. Stoddard had a healthy interest in comestibles: hot buttered biscuits, salt pork, clams, cream toast, stewed lobster, grilled swordfish and fried tomatoes. No matter how overwhelming her characters’ melancholy, it doesn’t obliterate an eager appetite for the next meal, and the most cantankerous can be mollified with the offer of ‘a huge piece of delicious sponge cake’. Wuthering Heights, too, is more interested in food than one might remember, but Stoddard takes the particularities of eating to un-Brontësque extremes. Furthermore, no one in these stories is oblivious to their clothes. Stoddard likes expensive things. We always know how her characters are dressed, and it is a bad sign if they turn out to be anything other than the picture of elegance. Her fond litany of fabrics – pink calico, bombazine, ‘a molasses-coloured silk, called Turk satin’, ‘heavy white silk, with a blue satin stripe’, a ‘light blue velvet bodice, and white silk shirt’, cambric, damask, grenadine – makes modern synthetic textiles seem very dispiriting. It’s hard to believe in the tragic destiny of a character dressed in ‘linen, with a cream-coloured ground, and a vivid yellow silk thread woven in stripes through it; each stripe had a cinnamon-coloured edge’, or in the Byronic torments of a hero with a taste for ‘silk stockings, pumps, and a white cravat’. ‘The stuff of which each day was woven was covered with an arabesque that pleased my fancy,’ Cassandra, the wayward heroine of The Morgesons (her first and most compelling novel, published in 1862), muses. ‘I missed nothing that the present unrolled for me, but looked neither to the past nor to the future. In truth there was little that was elevated in me.’

Stoddard wrote a profusion of poems, stories, children’s tales, essays, travel articles and memoirs, but her novels were the focus of her highest hopes and most concentrated labours. The Morgesons was respectfully received, but did not sell. She put its unpopularity down to bad timing – it came out just ten days before the catastrophic defeat of Union forces at Bull Run – but there may have been other reasons, for this sceptical tale makes uncomfortable reading. It is the story of two sisters’ entanglement with a glamorous family condemned to destroy themselves through drink and wilfulness. Violence and jealousy drive the action. The writing is vigorous and largely unreflective, with odd snatches of broken dialogue.

I looked at my aunt; her regards were still fixed upon me, but they did not interfere with her habit of chewing cloves, flagroot, or grains of rice. If these articles were not at hand, she chewed a small chip.

‘Aunt Merce, poor Hepburn chewed his shoes, when he was at Davis’s Straits.’

‘Mary, look at that child’s stockings.’

The disjointed speech is a foretaste of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Cassandra exploits peculiarity as a social accomplishment – ‘I became eccentric for eccentricity’s sake.’ But she grows up, and learns better. ‘Women do keep stupid a long time; but I think they are capable of growth, beyond the period when men cease to grow or change.’

Stoddard’s second novel, Two Men, appeared in 1865. Here the viewpoint is resolutely masculine, but it is the women who are best able to understand their own lives – ‘she is a woman who has been taught by her passion,’ the hero remarks of one characteristically robust example. Only a stoical acceptance of loss, together with the courage to accept moral responsibility, can allow such women to develop. ‘It is best for us to continue in the belief that Eve actually ate an apple, and immediately ruined Adam in consequence! I like this belief, too, it speaks so well for the progressive power of women.’

Such convictions did nothing to reassure conventionally minded readers, and the storms of misfortune that frequently assaulted her characters made the books still more unnerving. ‘There is something appalling behind the screen of everyday life, countenance, custom, clothes,’ Stoddard remarks in one of the bleaker moments in the generally cheerless Two Men. Only her steady confidence in the recuperative powers of stricken lives might have been taken as compensation. Stoddard had plenty of experience of such resilience. Her father had made a precarious living as a merchant and shipbuilder and was bankrupted several times, regaining his footing over and over again. Business failures are common in her fiction, but rarely seen as final. Her husband worked hard to make a name for himself with his sub-Keatsian poetry, but nothing came of it. The death of children was harder to accept. The Stoddards had three sons, losing one as a baby, and another at the age of six. The third boy, Lorimer, followed his parents into the literary profession and had some success as a playwright (he adapted Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the New York stage). But he died at the age of 38. Young people often don’t survive in Stoddard’s fiction, and even here she refuses the temptation to sentimentalise.

Temple House, the last of her three novels, was published in 1867. The ungovernable girl Tempe is involved in a railway accident with her husband, John Darke. Darke’s father brings the news to Tempe’s mother, Roxalana, and her dour friend Argus. But there has been a mistake: it turns out to be Darke who has been killed, not Tempe:

A bright smile burst over Roxalana’s face, and even the iron countenance of Argus lightened.

‘I say,’ cried Mr Darke, in a loud, angry, tearless voice, for he noticed the effect of his words, ‘to me it is dreadful!’

This is not meant to be a repellent moment: the exercise of sympathy counts for nothing in Stoddard’s scale of moral values. What she respected was ‘the wonderful talent of self-ownership which belonged to Argus and Roxalana’. Roxalana’s habitually ‘hard, rude speech’ is felt ‘like a salt breeze, wholesome because so utterly sincere’. But for a readership which had learned to revere Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot, the effect was chilling.

Stoddard’s power is more evident in her stories than the novels. Her pitiless strategies acquire an even sharper edge without the need to cope with the complexities of a sustained plot. First published in various New York journals between 1859 and the 1890s, notably Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, the Independent, the New York Saturday Press and Aldine, few have been reprinted since. Opfermann and Roth’s valuable new collection gives a broad sample of Stoddard’s regionalist tales, together with her deconstructions of romantic traditions (here unseductively entitled ‘“A Wonderful Promise of Misery”: Stories of Love and Other Disappointments’). She persistently and sometimes melodramatically questions the happy endings of most magazine stories of the period. ‘Our Christmas Party’ feels like a cosy reminiscence of childhood festivities, until one of the elderly guests is discovered dead: ‘her eyes were wide open, and her hands were clenched; her yarn was broken, the ball had rolled on the floor; the snuff-box had fallen from her lap, and the spilled snuff made me sneeze violently.’ ‘Uncle Zeb’ gives a matter-of-fact account of a family’s crash (‘So we were ruined’ – a representative Stoddard sentence) and subsequent recovery, alongside the spectacular disintegration of the dashing entrepreneur Zeb, whose penchant for experimental drinking takes several unfortunate turns: ‘Cloudy tumblers stood on the shelves with curious mixtures in them, – a sediment of rhubarb overlaid with brandy, or gin and senna, or pounded Brandreth’s pills in Jamaica rum.’ ‘Mrs Jed and the Evolution of our Shanghais’ is more cheerful, and describes two sisters’ determined and finally successful attempts to establish a pure white strain of poultry – ‘as white as the gulls which swooped over our harbour’. These dazzling hens provide the sisters with a livelihood. But they don’t really take to their fancy new birds: ‘We did not own that we missed the pleasant, gentle old brood, nor that we failed to feel any affectionate solicitude for the new; but it was true.’ In the unmerited status of the carefully bred fowls, Stoddard may be hinting her disapproval of contemporary assumptions about race.

These local tales have a whimsical flavour that is not usually a feature of her stories about love. Women are consumed by its feverish demands, but fulfilment is hard to come by. Their chosen men rarely emerge with much credit. ‘Lemorne versus Huell’ (one of the few examples of Stoddard’s work to have appeared in recent anthologies) seems at first to be an exception, but its hapless heroine is brought to realise that she has given her heart to a crook. Happy endings are won with difficulty, and can be reached only when early unhappiness has been shared. There are moments when Stoddard underlines this point too crudely (‘“So you have suffered?” “Long and bitterly.” She offered him her hand’). Her emphasis on the arbitrariness of romantic gratification is more persuasive. Those who find satisfaction might just as easily have missed their chance; those who don’t are often frustrated by nothing more substantial than a piece of bad luck. Virtue is not necessarily rewarded, nor vice always punished. Persistence might pay off, but could lead to a lifetime’s hopeless pining. Sometimes an older and wiser head can help out. In ‘Me and My Son’, a profoundly depressed young widow is nudged towards a healing second marriage by the shrewd machinations of Cousin Martha. Even here, though, the pact must be sealed by suffering, in this case a fever that almost carries off the formidable Martha. For all their self-determination, Stoddard’s spirited women are not able to direct their own lives. The boundaries of convention and uncertainties of fortune continue to enclose them.