Friday, March 28, 2014

An Itinerant House

Emma Frances Dawson (c. 1850–1926)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In the late 1890s Ambrose Bierce described the stories of Emma Frances Dawson, a fellow San Franciscan whose fiction he greatly admired:
The scene of all Miss Dawson’s stories is San Francisco—her San Francisco—San Francisco as she sees it from her eyrie atop of “Russian Hill.” To her it is a dream city—a city of wraiths and things forbidden to the senses—of half-heard whispers from tombs of men long dead and damned—of winds that sing dirges, clouds that are signs and portents, fogs peopled with fantastic existences pranking like mad, as is the habit of all sea folk on shore leave—a city where it is never morning, where the birds never sing, where children are unknown, and where at night the streetlights at the summits of the hills “flare as if out of the sky,” signaling mysterious messages from another world.
Very little is known about Dawson. Shortly after 1870 she moved from New England to San Francisco, where she worked as a music teacher and cared for her mother, an invalid. A few years after her arrival she began publishing short stories and also wrote patriotic verse, one of which won a national poetry contest in 1883. After the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, she moved to Palo Alto, where she lived with her two parrots for the last twenty years of her life. An obituary by Helen Throop Purdy published soon after her death reported that the circumstances of her death “might have been the subject of one of her own weird tales.” When neighbors had not noticed any sign of the reclusive writer for several days, they broke into her bungalow and found her unconscious. Although a rumor circulated that she had been found dying of starvation, Purdy pointedly countered, “There was food in the house, but she had evidently suffered a stroke of paralysis two or three days before.” Dawson died a week later.

“An Itinerant House,” the title story of Dawson’s only book-length collection of fiction, features one of the portable iron homes then popular in northern California; many Bay Area structures were designed in England or imported from New York and occasionally moved around from place to place. Throughout the story Dawson scatters literary allusions and exhibits a vast knowledge of music, theater, and poetry. Some of the more important or obscure references are itemized below:

  • Page 238: The epigraph is from “The Wanderer” (1857) by Owen Meredith (pseudonym of Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, son of the novelist), whose poetry is quoted frequently in the story. The Niantic was originally a ship that transported many prospectors to San Francisco during the Gold Rush; it was converted to a shoreline hotel. English author Frederick Marryat wrote popular novels of the sea, including Peter Simple (1833).
  • 240:East of the sun, west of the moon” is a reference to the title of a Norwegian fairy tale about a young peasant girl who rescues a bewitched prince.
  • 242:The Bells” (1871) is a play by Leopold Lewis, featuring the conscience-racked murderer Mathias. In Dawson’s story, the actor Wynne quotes lines from the play (and other sources) as he descends into madness.
  • 243: Dawson paraphrases and quotes a letter written by German writer Heinrich Heine in Livorno, Italy, in 1828. Kent’s threat is from King Lear. The Edgar Allan Poe quote is from “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833). The poetry excerpt is from Tannhäuser; or, The Battle of the Bards (1861), co-written by Neville Temple (another pseudonym used by E. R. Bulwer-Lytton) and Julian Fane (Edward Trevor). “And tell quaint lies” is from The Merchant of Venice.
  • 244: Poor Jo is the chimney sweep in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53); he was a principal character in American stage adaptations of the novel. Io-like refers to the priestess Io of Greek mythology, loved by Zeus, who changed her into a heifer to elude the jealousy of Hera; eventually Hera sent a gadfly to torment her and keep her wandering until she reached Egypt. Nathaniel Hawthorne applied unsuccessfully for the position of historian on Charles Wilkes’s expedition (1838–42) along Antarctica and up the Pacific. The German theologian Johann Karl Passavant wrote Animal Magnetism (1821). The drama excerpt is from The Spanish Student (1843), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • 245: Heine’s Reisebilder (Travel Pictures) is a four-volume series of sketches published between 1826 and 1831.
  • 246: François-Joseph Talma was an actor who dominated the French stage from the 1780s to the 1820s. Originally titled The King’s Rival, Court and Stage (1854) was a play by Charles Reade.
  • 248: The Wandering Jew is a play adapted from Eugène Sue’s novel Le Juif Errant (1844).
  • 249: The lines of poetry are from “The Shore,” by Owen Meredith (E. R. Bulwer-Lytton). Thomas Adolphus Trollope’s “Artist’s Tragedy,” about the Italian painter Andrea del Sarto, appeared in The Temple Bar Magazine in 1870.
  • 250: Scientist and philosopher John William Draper included the following “theory” in Human Physiology (1856): “A shadow never falls upon a wall without leaving thereupon its permanent trace.” The quote about mesmerism is from short story, “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859) by the elder Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The George Macdonald quote is from The Portent (1864). The queen of panthers is a reference to Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “At a Month’s End.”
  • 253: Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers (b. 1630), was beheaded and burned at the stake for poisoning her father, brother, and two sisters.
*   *   *
“His wife?” cried Felipa.

“Yes,” I answered, unwillingly; for until the steamer brought Mrs. Anson I believed in this Mexican woman’s right to that name. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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