- Lillie Devereux Blake: Retracing a Life Erased
If "well-behaved women seldom make history," as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's oft-quoted remark suggests, women touched by scandal do not fare much better. Grace Farrell's well-researched and carefully documented critical biography, Lillie Devereux Blake: Retracing a Life Erased, seeks a place in history for this feminist foremother, while revealing the processes that contributed to her "erasure." In a professional career spanning more than fifty years, Blake achieved an almost unprecedented degree of success, publishing nine novels, an essay and a short story collection, and numerous uncollected stories, articles, and poems. She played a [End Page 97] prominent role in the women's suffrage movement, lecturing and organizing with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. As President of the New York State Woman Suffrage Organization and the National Legislative League, she lobbied to change discriminatory family and labor laws. Yet, aside from the recognition of Blake's "complex artistry" in David Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance (1988) and the Feminist Press's re-publication of her classic woman's rights novel, Fettered for Life (edited and with an afterword by Farrell in 1996), she remains little more than a footnote in literary and women's history. Lillie Devereux Blake may well be the most important writer and women's rights activist most feminists have never heard of.
The biography is broadly divided into three sections in which Farrell pursues several theories about Blake's absence from history. The first section, "Erasures," provides a richly textured social history that shows how Blake's development was shaped by the major movements and attitudes of the mid-nineteenth century, centering on the young Lillie Devereux's alleged "disgraceful affair" with a Yale student. Raised by her mother in a well-to-do neighborhood near Yale, Lillie was surrounded by the "social and intellectual elite of New Haven" (11). In 1854, twenty-year-old Lillie broke off an engagement with the Yale student, who retaliated by claiming she had had "intimacies inconsistent with the character of a virtuous woman" with several men (17). Though the young man was expelled, the scandal irreparably damaged Lillie's reputation, Farrell argues, even to this day. At the same time, the scandal was a turning point for Blake, fueling her awareness of the sexual double standard and the penalties faced by women who violated Victorian notions of propriety, an awareness that would emerge in both her fiction and political work. Moving on to describe Blake's early career as a writer, wife, and mother, Farrell offers incisive close readings of Blake's fiction, tracing the development of what she sees as a "double-voiced" strategy in which Blake both critiques and upholds conventional values by creating strong feminist heroines whose rebellion is undercut by a disapproving narrator.
The second section, "Recoveries," offers several examples of this literary strategy, and identifies the theme of violence in everyday life that marks Blake's fiction as well as her Civil War journalism in the period after her first husband's death. Farrell also describes the development of Blake's political consciousness by reconstructing her involvement in the women's movement and by closely reading her published fiction and political essays. Farrell explains how Blake's rejection of the prevailing notion of sexual difference and female moral superiority, along with her gradual shift away from suffrage to a broader political agenda, including marriage and workplace legislation, led to her eventual alienation from the movement's mainstream. She argues that Blake's erasure from the history of feminism was the result of "exclusionary tactics" within the women's movement itself (149), and, in particular, of a rivalry between Blake and Susan B. Anthony resulting in Blake's marginalization within the National American Women's Suffrage Association and the omission of her contributions to the official History of Woman Suffrage (172). Though Farrell provides compelling evidence to support these ideas, this section of the book suffers somewhat by the author's over-identification with Blake. This is especially...