Story of Her Own Life:
Two Historical Novels with Unitarian Heroines
By Tracy McCabe
World home page
|Unitarians and Universalists played major roles in much of the era's
alternative thinking and many of its social movements, including feminism,
abolition, and the critique of industrial capitalism.
Meditating in a Unitarian Church is the last posture in which one might expect to find Captain Ahab, the vengeful whaling ship captain from Herman Melville's famous 19th-century novel Moby-Dick. But that's where he's seen by Una Spenser, narrator of the 1999 historical novel Ahab's Wife: or, The Star-Gazer, who describes Ahab as sitting in "a pew across the sanctuary behind me . . . with his face uptilted and his eyes closed." Unitarian characters, settings, and themes mark the novel, by UU author Sena Jeter Naslund, as well as Robert J. Begiebing's The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton, also published in 1999.
Both novels, told in the voices of unconventional women, are set in antebellum America, a key period in the history of Unitarianism and Universalism. Each denomination was solidifying its identity during the period while undergoing internal turmoil as well. In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, Unitarianism was embroiled in "the Transcendentalist controversy," wherein Ralph Waldo Emerson and others stretched Unitarian skepticism to the point of questioning such central articles of Christian dogma as the divinity of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. For the Transcendentalists, the divine was not housed in a personalized God or codified in a book but expressed through nature and the continually evolving human soul.
Author Begiebing—a UU like Naslund—describes himself as long fascinated with this "incredible moment in our history," an "experimental, yeasty time." His fictional heroine, Allegra Fullerton, briefly stays at one of the era's utopian communities. At least 60 such places came into being in the northeastern US during the period, including the famous Brook Farm, which was led by Unitarian minister the Rev. George Ripley and run according to Transcendentalist ideals.
Indeed, Unitarians and Universalists played major roles in much of the era's alternative thinking and many of its social movements, including feminism, abolition, and the critique of industrial capitalism. Feminism—as promoted by such Unitarian and Universalist women as Lydia Maria Child, Julia Ward Howe, Olympia Brown, and most famously, Margaret Fuller, who appears in both Ahab's Wife and The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton—plays an especially important role in both novels. Inspired by antebellum feminism, the heroines of both live highly unconventional lives, breaking out of the narratives available to female characters in the typical 19th-century novel: a virtuous life rewarded with marriage or a life of moral error—usually sexual—punished by death. Instead, Ahab's Wife and Allegra Fullerton take their heroines—neither of whom ever marries in a conventional sense—on artistic, intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventures in a variety of colorful locations.
Una Spenser, the heroine of Ahab's Wife, begins life in Kentucky, where her fundamentalist Christian father is enraged when she refuses to profess the divinity of Jesus. Una goes to live with her mother's Unitarian sister Agatha on an island off New Bedford, Massachusetts, and at age 16 disguises herself as a boy to go to sea on a whaling ship. Back in Nantucket, she eventually marries Captain Ahab, whose tender side will be new to readers familiar with Moby-Dick. Returning to Kentucky to give birth, she forms a close bond with a runaway slave.
Like Ahab's Wife, Allegra Fullerton also begins with the heroine in the clutches of a patriarch. Allegra, a widow, is imprisoned in Boston by a wealthy man hoping she will become his lover. Once free, she continues her apprenticeship in the art of painting, which she had turned to in the hope of earning a living as a portrait painter. Her art-istic career eventually takes her to Florence, and a passionate romance.
The impulse to place a female figure at the center of their novels came early to both authors. Begiebing found the inspiration for his novel not only in the heady climate of antebellum America but in the literary tradition of the female picaresque, whose best-known example is Defoe's Moll Flanders. After deciding to make his protagonist female, the next step was, as Begiebing puts it, "figuring out how my heroine was going to get on the road." This problem was solved when he learned of the existence of itinerant portrait painters during the early 19th century, who traveled from town to town in search of people willing to pay to have a likeness painted. As it turned out, a handful of these traveling portrait painters were in fact women.
Begiebing's research included voluminous reading in women's writing from the early 19th century—diaries, letters, accounts of travels—in order to get all these "women's voices banging around in my head," as he puts it. He says he felt a special need to give his protagonist a convincing voice, since some contemporary readers raise their eyebrows when male writers create female protagonists. To help make sure Allegra rang true, he asked women to read drafts, he says. To his surprise, however, he hasn't been challenged by readers about the issue—but just in case, when he gives readings, he goes forearmed with a list of books by women authors writing in men's voices.
For her part, author Naslund describes Ahab's Wife as originating in "a vision and a voice." Driving around Boston, she recalls, she saw a house with a "widow's walk," a wooden walkway at the summit of the roof, on which she envisioned a woman gazing out to sea. At that moment she also imagined a voice speaking what would become the compelling first line of her novel: "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." This incident followed by several months the experience—also in a car, as it happens—of listening with her daughter to a recording of Moby-Dick. While her daughter was enraptured with the book—so often called one of the greatest American novels—Naslund found herself wishing that it had female characters as well as men. Soon, Naslund realized she had the idea for a novel and plunged into the biographies of famous figures like Melville and Emerson, as well as letters and diaries kept by virtually unknown women of the period, including some who sailed on whaling ships.
To write convincingly in the voices of women living over 150 years ago, both authors found themselves developing what Begiebing calls a "hybrid style," one "just alien enough to transport readers to the past yet still comprehensible and engaging." Naslund says her teenage addiction to classic first-person 19th-century novels like Dickens's David Copperfield and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre made it relatively easy to create Una's voice. Both Naslund and Begiebing, whose heroines allude to their sexual lives, faced the particular problem of making the allusions direct enough for contemporary readers yet believable coming from a 19th-century woman. Avoiding what Begiebing calls the "urological and gynecological" detail of some contemporary fiction, both writers invent delightful euphemisms. Una, for instance, remembers a time when she and Ahab were "taking our bliss on a sunny moor."
Many of the feminist ideas in the novels are given voice by the leading intellectual and feminist Margaret Fuller, who appears as a character in both. Raised in a Unitarian milieu, Fuller edited the Transcendentalist journal The Dial from 1840 to 1842. There she published the essay that she would later expand into her most famous work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), a central text of American feminism. In Ahab's Wife, Fuller tells Una of her plans to write it: "Someday I shall write a book about women. At the beginning, I shall say: ‘Let them be sea captains—if they will!''' Una comments: "I wanted to tell her that I knew we women could at least be sailors, for I had been one."Una attends one of Fuller's famous "conversations" for women in Boston, where the discussion ranges from art to religion to social justice. Recalling one, she says:
our leader mentioned that some of the oldest art was associated, perhaps, with religious expression. She mentioned cave drawings, and the idea that those people had worshiped animals.Fuller's passionate pursuit of her ideals inspires Allegra Fullerton as well. Allegra quotes approvingly Fuller's assertion that "very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow," which beautifully encapsulates the Transcendentalist ideal of self-cultivation, still so important in Unitarian Universalism today. Transcendentalists dispensed with religious and social authorities in order to listen to the impulses of the soul and devote their lives to a continual quest for its expansion.
Although Allegra's artistic career begins with her work as an itinerant portrait painter, her desire to grow leads eventually to an apprenticeship with a mentor, George Spooner, who encourages her to deepen her aesthetic vision and sharpen her technique. Many of the views about art expressed by Allegra and other characters in the novel share with Transcendentalism the commitment to explore realms of human experience beyond the superficial and the conventional. Spooner, for instance, thinks that portraits should convey "the body and soul of the being" and avoid naive and academic "formulae," "mere affectations [that] will soon be out of fashion."
While it is mainly the words of male mentors and critics that encourage Allegra's artistic growth, it's the example of Margaret Fuller that especially inspires her quest for life as an independent woman. Initially she avoids romantic attachments so as to concentrate on art and avoid scandal. But while in Florence, she falls into a passionate affair with a fellow artist, telling us: "Never, reader, have I felt happier, never so full of purpose and the excitement of mental discovery with another, never so vital in my life and work." Allegra's experience in Italy parallels that of Fuller, who finds emotional and erotic fulfillment in a relationship with Giovanni Angelo, the Marchese d'Ossoli. In Italy, Allegra and Fuller both escape what another character refers to as Christianity's "intellectual and spiritual aristocracy, dividing our animal from our divine nature, as evil from good."
Like Allegra, Una eventually identifies herself in part as an artist—in her case, a writer. But in Ahab's Wife the Transcendentalist theme of self-cultivation emerges most notably in Una's spiritual journey. Naslund says the American novel—unlike, for example, the Russian novel—has tended to neglect characters' spiritual quests, raising the subject of religion, if at all, in the context of exposing hypocrisy or critiquing fundamentalism. Una's spiritual journey begins, of course, with skepticism—her refusal to submit to her father's religious views. Later, with her Unitarian cousin Frannie, she playfully worships the lighthouse on the Massachusetts island where they live. Una's faith in the goodness of nature and humanity flourishes during the years she spends on the island with her aunt, uncle, and cousin.
As the novel continues, though, events challenge this faith. In Ahab, she finds a soul mate who seeks acknowledgement of the barbarism to be found in the natural world as well as the human soul. After their meeting in the Unitarian church, Ahab tells Una what he found lacking in the sermon—on Jesus as a "great teacher" who is divine in the same way all humans are divine:
I wish that [the minister] had preached on Judas . . . It may well be that in the heart of man there is a goodness that is divine, that we are Jesus-kin. But that is only half. The other half is the Betrayer, the Liar, the Murderer, the Fornicator, the Cannibal, the Prince of Darkness. And I know, by thunder, that I have kinship there. It's that half of me that wants to be called brother."So ready was his pain, so anguished his speech," Una remarks, "that a word leapt from me to him, as lightning might leap from one cloud to another: ‘Brother,' I said."
Another key moment in Una's spiritual development occurs in her relationship with Susan, the escaping slave, who passionately affirms that it was Jesus who led her out of the South. Una first identifies Susan's Christianity with her own father's fundamentalism. But when she realizes that her friend will not try to coerce her to believe, her love for Susan leads Una to decide that "Susan had lived her own story. If I lacked tolerance . . . then I was the smaller person for it."
Toward the book's end Una becomes the "star-gazer" of the subtitle, frequently standing on her widow's walk, contemplating the vastness of the universe. Naslund says she was inspired to adopt the starry sky as her central image of the "mystery and power of the universe" rather than the sea, as in Moby-Dick, by her reading, before ever conceiving this novel, in popular accounts of physics and astronomy. "As a child I used to end my day with my daily Bible reading," she says. "As an adult I found that I wanted the kind of shift in my spirit that was caused by knowing factually, observationally, about the heavens."
What Una comes to, finally, is a sense of her place in the universe. She asks:
Where is my place before this swirling ball of star mass, edgeless and expansive, without horizon? Where is my place, when I know that this is but one of ten billion? . . .That I can see their glory, that is my place. That I have these moments to be alive—and surely they are alive in some other ways. Perhaps it is only being that we share. But something is shared between me on this rooftop and them flung wide and myriad up there. What was the golden motto embroidered on the hem of my baby's silk dress? We are kin to stars.
Author Naslund sees the feminist and spiritual themes of her book coming together in this finale for Una, which differs so from that of Melville's novel. "Moby-Dick," she points out, "ends in death and destruction because of Ahab's fixation on revenge. My character ends up not as adversary of nature or the universe but as a person who feels at home in it."
Naslund notes a final theme of the novel that might especially appeal to UU readers, and that is the "embracing of imagination and of literature as a way of knowing." Just as most UUs freely draw spiritual sustenance and challenge from reading all kinds of writing, and not just religious texts, many of Una's profoundest insights and intimacies come from reading and discussing literature with others. During her first visit to a Unitarian church, she is startled when the minister ends his sermon with a quotation not from scripture but from Keats. She is also intrigued when the minister comments that "metaphor is a lens. Metaphor is a mirror, a magic glass by which we see what we would otherwise not see."
At one point, Una writes a letter to Margaret Fuller asking, "If one wrote for American men a modern epic, a quest, and it ended in death and destruction, should such a tale not have its redemptive features?" And was it possible, too, for an epic work for women, like a woman's life, to end in a sense of wholeness, of harmony with the universe? Of course, she ends up writing the American woman's epic she imagines: it is the story of her own life.
Tracy McCabe, a member of North Shore Unitarian Church, writes and teaches at Lake Forest College near Chicago.
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