- Jack London's Seafaring Women:Desire, Risk, and Savagery
There is no doubt that the positive attributes of Jack London's strong sea-faring female characters, Maud Brewster in The Sea-Wolf (1904), Joan Lackland in Adventure (1911), and Margaret West in The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1913), are inspired by his wife Charmian. London wrote Maud Brewster into the The Sea-Wolf during the initial throes of a passionate romance with Charmian, before he knew her as an intrepid sailor in her own right. Soon after, she would be an active crewmember on their fifty-seven-f oot ketch, the Snark, during their two-year voyage in the South Pacific: she kept watches, took her turn at the helm, and often steered the vessel into unfamiliar anchorages. Adventure was composed on the Snark after months of voyaging on the high seas and fresh from their adventures among the Solomon Island headhunters. The Mutiny of the Elsinore was inspired by Jack and Charmian's 1912 voyage around Cape Horn from Baltimore to Seattle on the Dirigo, one of the last working windjammers. The sea novels are apt texts for an examination of contradictions in London's fictional treatment of race, class, and gender, problems he explores through these three versions of Charmian-inspired characters.
As with his male protagonists, London immerses his female seafarers into a brutal, savage environment. They rise to the physical and strategic demands of survival with a spirit of adventure—whether, in the case of Maud Brewster in The Sea-Wolf, steering for hours in an open boat and clubbing seals for survival on Endeavor Island; of Joan Lackland in Adventure, captaining a "blackbirding" ship to recruit slave labor and coordinating the salvage of a ship hung up on a reef; or of Margaret West in The Mutiny of the Elsinore, climbing the rigging during a gale while rounding the Horn, just for the thrill of it, and instructing the male protagonist how to command the ship and trim the sails. Of these characters, Maud is the [End Page 186] most favorably idealized, in the romantic imagination of the protagonist, Humphrey Van Weyden, and in the strength demonstrated by her actions. Maud's character may seem weak as viewed through Humphrey's excessive sentimentalism, but regardless of the literary merits of her role in the novel, she is unquestionably an exemplar of moral conduct and a sympathetic corrective to the hyper-masculine brutality on Wolf Larsen's "hellship" (597), the Ghost. As Maud's character is recast as Joan and Margaret, their evolution of physical athleticism and glowing health is balanced by moral degeneration. The sea novels in which London provides the most problematic dramatization of race and class, Adventure and The Mutiny of the Elsinore, offer his strongest depiction of female characters. A strong, capable, healthy, and attractive woman functions as a thematic contrast to the savage, cannibal/headhunting Solomon natives in Adventure and the degenerative racialized crew in The Mutiny of the Elsinore.
London presents his seafaring heroines in the context of evolutionary thought of the time, making the most of popular interest in theories about race and exotic Others, including the sensational topic of cannibalism. It is within these highly marketable topics that London foregrounds his romance with Charmian and his fascination with the New Woman. He also follows the lead of Frank Norris, drawing on the Darwinian themes and details of plot from Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), whose "splendid, dominant, superb" (222) seafaring heroine embodies both the androgynous strength of a New Woman and the atavism of a mythical warrior, like "some Valkyrie of the legends" (261). Like Moran, London's seafaring heroines merge the primitive and the modern, with one major difference. Norris did not imagine a place for Moran in American society, whereas London envisioned a future society of new men and new women like Charmian. London depicts his seafaring heroines not as victims to be rescued from the savage Other by a white hero, but as intrepid adventurers seduced by the possibilities and terrors of boundless freedom represented by figures of social transgression and taboo. These characters embody Darwinian principles of sexual selection and...