The following review appeared 12 December 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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John Cooley has collected and placed together in one slim volume Mark Twain's short pieces about young women and girls who break the mold of Victorian female gender roles. Many of these tales have been published elsewhere: "Little Bessie" and "Saint Joan of Arc" have appeared in Louis Budd's Sketches and Tales (1991); "A Medieval Romance" has been reprinted in McCullough and McIntire-Strasburg's Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express (1999) and "Eve's Diary" has been collected in The Bible According to Mark Twain by Baetzhold and McCullough (1995). However, the value of this present collection does not rely upon publishing previously unavailable works. It lies in the ability to read several of Twain's short pieces dealing with young female protagonists, often written years apart, as a cohesive whole.
The text contains a Preface and a short Introduction in which Cooley briefly places Twain in the Victorian tradition, discusses his conflicting emotions toward women's suffrage/independence, and posits the stories about young women (teenaged or younger) as a space for Twain's examination of these conflicts. The Afterward contains a short analysis of each of the tales, relating them to biographical details about Clara and Suzy and Twain's "Aquarium," the young girls (Angelfish) that he kept in contact with in his last years. The selected bibliography and suggestions for further reading point readers toward the major scholarly work written about Twain and women, including works by Susan Harris, Shelley Fisher-Fishkin, Susan Gillman, and Laura Skandera-Trombley.
One of the collection's strengths is its extensive and carefully written head notes. The tales it contains span Twain's writing career, some written as early as the 1860s and the majority between 1895 and 1908. In them, Cooley gives a quick synopsis of the story line, places the individual story within Twain's biography and body of work, and attempts to draw from these sources Twain's conception of women. Several of the tales employ the devices of cross-dressing, transvestitism, or gender role switching, devices that Cooley discusses in both introduction and afterward as demonstrating Twain's equivocal stance on gender roles and the New Woman.
In his introduction, Cooley points out that "[u]ntil very recently, Mark Twain's portraits of female characters have been dismissed as stereotypical" and that this collection of stories, in which the (young) female protagonists are not "waiting at home, polishing their domestic arts and hoping for a marriage proposal" will cause scholars to "revise previous assessments that Twain was ineffective in representing women and unreceptive to women's rights." While the collection offers scholars a good cross-section of stories in which Twain uses female characters, in the end it probably will not change how they view Twain's treatment of women in his work. Wapping Alice, the protagonist in the story of the same name, is a man dressed as a woman, and thus doesn't qualify as a female character at all. Nancy Jackson's cross-dressing and masquerade as a man is a result of the revenge plot of a male character, and the duke's daughter in "A Medieval Romance" has dressed as a boy her entire life because of her father's desire to usurp the throne from his brother. Less problematic are the portrayals of Joan of Arc, Hellfire Hotchkiss, and Cathy of "A Horse's Tale," all three of which illustrate strong, intelligent young women who take on roles generally reserved to men and perform them as well or better than their male counterparts. Unfortunately two of these young girls die, and the third (Hellfire Hotchkiss) must conceal her "male" tendencies as she approaches adulthood in order to survive in a small-town male dominated world.
Rather than choose one sustained conceptual framework for the collection, Cooley has chosen to present several. On the one hand, he suggests that the stories about young girls Twain has written, particularly the ones written late in his life, are reflections of his nostalgia-his fond recollections of his daughters. He also suggests that they represent Twain's bifurcated thought concerning women's rights-his attempt to wrestle with Victorian traditions and his own inherent respect for the intelligence and strength of the women in his life. In addition, he attempts to tie the tales together with Twain's fascination with the Angelfish-the new generation of young women growing up in the shadow of the suffragette movement. While this approach does an excellent job of illustrating lines of inquiry for future scholarship on Twain and women, it tends to detract from the unity and rationale for the collection as a whole.
As a collected representation of female subjects, one obvious omission is "A
True Story." Outside of the characterizations of Roxy (Pudd'nhead Wilson)
and Joan of Arc, she is the strongest of Twain's women, and should be represented
here. Also missing is "The Death Disk," another tale in which a young girl plays
a major role The stories that are present are an enjoyable read, and
an analysis of them in conjunction with other, more fully developed characters
in more sustained works should generate research in this sometimes neglected
area of Twain scholarship.