- The Single Architecture of Contending Forces:Lodging Independent Women in Pauline E. Hopkins’s “Little Romance”
Late nineteenth-century African American communities claimed and defended an image of respectable black womanhood tied to accounts of marital home ownership and anchored in a familiar sentimental marriage plot. Such advocacy, however, left unmarried black women vulnerable in the face of disapproval from progressive reformers, the popular press, and their own communities. With the publication of Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South in 1900, Pauline E. Hopkins entered this debate by portraying a respectable Boston lodging community and advancing an alternative narrative for urban working women. In the novel’s central lodging house, a widowed proprietress and her tenants build a sustainable home. Hopkins’s literary architecture1 provides single women with private rental rooms and a shared parlor—sanctioning narrative and material spaces outside the family. Hopkins’s architecture of singleness presents a celebratory portrait of the turn-of-century lodging house as a new home in which unmarried black women could explore friendship, independence, and their own political capital.2
In Hopkins’s Boston social world, black clubwomen and civic leaders were busy establishing black “True Womanhood”3 with images of married women in domestic roles. The broader fin-de-siècle literary history suggests that a narrative built explicitly on an architecture of singleness was a racial and social privilege, a luxury that the black novel could not afford. Indeed, critics count Hopkins among the many black writers who strategically adopted white Victorian models of womanhood and marriage. But although she employed a familiar sentimental plot, Hopkins added to it portraits of independent women living and working outside of marital and maternal imperatives. In Contending Forces, she writes, “after all, our surroundings influence our lives and characters as much as fate, destiny, or any supernatural agency” (282). She plots a single rental space at the heart of the novel, and the private rooms and shared parlors of the lodging house provide space for Hopkins’s careful navigation between single advocacy and the novel’s other political imperatives. Hopkins thus mounts a sentimental marriage-plot [End Page 196] defense of black womanhood even as she celebrates a progressive sphere of single independence lodged at the center of her “little romance” (13).
By the time she published this first novel (just after her fortieth birthday), Hopkins was no stranger to practices of single occupancy. Biographer Lois Brown notes that her mother kept boarders in the 1870s to help support the family. As a teenager, Hopkins shared space with two young shop clerks and a dressmaker (65-66). She spent most of her life as a single woman in Boston and eventually purchased a home in which she lived with her mother and stepfather. After her parents’ deaths, she began to rent out rooms in her Cambridge home, which she sold in 1916. She spent her last years boarding with a local widow and working as a stenographer and bookkeeper until her death in a fire in 1930. Hopkins had experienced firsthand the communal, familial, and individual benefits of boarding and lodging and the contingency of single women’s spatial independence. She portrays the recuperative promise of lodging friendships in Contending Forces and foregrounds the costs paid by diverse single women suffering sexual and racial exploitation in her later fiction.4 Her Contending Forces account depicts the often untold history of independent black women in the fin de siècle. As we will see, the novel counters contemporary criticisms of Boston’s female-run lodging community. The stakes of reading Hopkins’s little romance against the grain are therefore high; they include reclaiming her defense of self-supporting single black women and her portrayal of the lodging house as the home for women’s progressive social proposals.
Boston’s South End at the Turn of the Century
My exploration of Hopkins’s architecture of singleness begins at the very center of Contending Forces, that is, with a view into a carefully locked private bedroom on the second floor of an African American lodging house in Boston’s South End at the turn of the...