- Modern InstancesVanishing Women Writers and the Rise of Realism in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine
In 1882, if asked who the most prominent American writers of adult fiction were, a reader of the leading house magazines would most likely have mentioned W. D. Howells and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Indeed, running side by side in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine were serial installments of Howells' "A Modern Instance" (December 1881–October 1882) and Burnett's "Through One Administration" (November 1881–April 1883), two works dealing with the theme of unhappy marriage. In Howells' novel the central lesson is that young girls such as the impressionable Marcia Gaylord should listen to their fathers before choosing their mates, whereas the point of Burnett's work is that women should be more independent-minded and listen to their own hearts before prematurely accepting a marriage proposal. Whereas Howells has Marcia's husband run off on her, finally allowing her to file for divorce, Burnett's heroine, Bertha Amory—in a radical departure from feminine conventions of the time—is left contemplating an affair outside of her loveless home. Another sharp contrast worth noting is how quickly Howells' text came to be recognized as one of the first great classics of literary realism. He followed A Modern Instance with A Woman's Reason and The Rise of Silas Lapham—works also serialized in the Century—that garnered him enormous prestige and significant profits. Burnett's masterpiece, on the other hand, caused the female author to be excoriated by editors and readers alike and essentially to be driven out of the adult fiction market. Needless to say, it has long been out of print.
By 1882, Burnett had already been widely praised for her first four novels (That Lass O'Lowries, Haworth's, Louisiana, and A Fair Barbarian) [End Page 192] and a collection of short stories (Surly Tim and Other Stories) that had originally appeared in the Century under its earlier title Scribner's Monthly (1870–81). Today, however, Burnett's reputation rests almost entirely on three children's books: Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. On the basis of these works, she is often praised for writing some of the world's finest children's literature. Just as frequently, she has been skewered for the "Fauntleroy plague" responsible for putting countless Victorian-era boys in dark velvet suits with lace collars. Rarely has she been rightly acknowledged as a gifted author of both children and adult fiction. According to Francis J. Molson, at fault for the erosion of Burnett's reputation as a major literary figure is the male-dominated critical establishment of the twentieth century, which never "considered the possibility that the most important victim of the Fauntleroy curse may have been the author herself, who was never able to disassociate herself from the 'sweet Lord.'"1 Yet, as this essay will show, Burnett's present reputation can be traced back further to the period when she stopped writing "actual" fiction, as she called it, as a result of the scandal surrounding the serialization of "Through One Administration." Indeed, her entrée into children's literature speaks volumes about the male-controlled publishing world in the Victorian era, specifically the pressures put on women writers as literary realism began to emerge in the pages of the magazine that had once relied on her writings for its success.
In a letter to John Hay, who had just submitted "The Bread-winners," Century editor Richard Watson Gilder warned that what transpired during the serial publication of Burnett's Through One Administration would never be allowed again. As Gilder explained:
we made the not unusual mistake of beginning Mrs. Burnett's story before it was finished. It began to take on a distinctively immoral tendency.… [S]he gave up certain points, but … the evil was too deep-seated—& the consequence was that in the first year of my editorial independence on the Century, I brought upon the magazine the only serious, dangerous, and at the same time [correct] criticism it has ever had. After making a social & moral mistake in the opening chapters, Mrs. Burnett inflicted on us...