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literature

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French, Alice (Octave Thanet) (1850-1934)  

Lesbian local colorist Alice French wrote coded stories that celebrate independent, financially self-sufficient, women-centered women.

French, born in Andover, Massachusetts, moved with her family in 1856 to Davenport, Iowa, where her mother continued her staunch advocacy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her father became a wealthy manufacturer.

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The oldest of six children from a financially and academically privileged background, a member of the Davenport Unitarian Church's founding family, Alice French's interest in club work led to the Presidency of the Iowa Society of Colonial Dames.

She is described by George McMichael, her only biographer, as embracing conservative political views to protect traditional American values. He describes her as antilabor union, a xenophobe who portrayed foreigners as sinister figures, and a racist caricaturist. She also allegedly opposed prohibition and helped organize against the suffragists.

This view of French contradicts the writer who satirized snobbery, class pride, and piously embraced martyrdoms of women to abusive husbands in her 1906 collection of stories, A Slave to Duty and Other Women.

She promoted images of emotionally independent, financially self-sufficient, and women-centered women in her 1911 collection Stories That End Well, and embraced with enthusiasm the early writer and advocate of feminism, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, whose letters French edited and published. The tie that Alice French shared with Mary Wortley was that love for a woman was central to each of their lives.

By the time she was forty, French, publishing as "Octave Thanet," with nineteen years of increasing popular and financial success as an essayist and short story writer behind her, was working on her first novel, We All. She wrote six more books in the new century.

Her pseudonym combines the first name of her beloved school roommate Octavia Putman, with whom she shared a twelve-by-twelve room and a double bed during their year at Andover Academy, with a word she had seen painted on the side of a freight train car. McMichael writes that she adopted the pen name "to avoid the bias of anti-feminist magazine editors."

By 1890, she had been settled in her comfortable life-long partnership with Jane Allen Crawford for close to a decade, dividing their year between their home in Davenport, Iowa, and their plantation in Arkansas. The two women shared their lives, except for Jane's four-year marriage (the ending of which is mysterious) and Jane's European tour.

French/Thanet remains a mysterious figure because of the apparent conflict between her recorded opinions and her literary portrayals. The mystery will be solved only with more basic research on primary French materials to develop an integrated vision of this woman.

Alice French has been remembered as the first regionalist to write realistically about the two areas in which she lived (Iowa and Arkansas). As a consummate local color artist, she achieved great fin de siècle popularity and consequent prosperity.

Contemporary critics such as Lillian Faderman, Paula Bennett, and Susan Koppelman, in unraveling the coded writings of nineteenth-century lesbians, have sparked new interest in her women-loving stories, which have been revealed as woman-loving stories only as a result of the new readings. French's subtle, almost sly portrayals of ties between women who love each other are now being appreciated.

Susan Koppelman

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

McMichael, George. Journey to Obscurity: The Life of Octave Thanet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Thanet, Octave. "My Lorelei--A Heidleberg Romance" and "Max--or His Picture," in "Two Friends" and Other Nineteenth Century Lesbian Stories by U.S. Women Writers. Susan Koppelman, ed. New York: Meridian, 1994.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Koppelman, Susan  
    Entry Title: French, Alice (Octave Thanet)  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 19, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/french_a.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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