Commentary Magazine

The Dream Life of the New Woman:
As Mirrored in Current “Historical” Heroines

The enormous success of the popular historical novel, in the Forever Amber vein, with their sexually rampaging heroines, is one of the most intriguing facts of American popular culture. Here David T. Bazelon analyzes this genre in terms of what it may signify about the hopes and aspirations of 20th-century women.



The avowed purpose of our popular culture—the Hollywood film, the current best-selling “historical novels,” the radio soap operas—is to afford its avid consumers a quick momentary satisfaction of their fantasies; and the box-office returns sufficiently attest to their sensational success in their chosen role. By that same token, such “escapist” culture, being wish-fulfilment, should tell us a good deal about the unfulfilled wishes—the dreams, the desires, the aspirations—that currently stir the hearts of the millions, as well as throw light on the hidden ideals and thwarted ambitions in our modern society. For wishes change with the changing conditions of life; our “wish-fulfilments” are not the same as our fathers’ or grandfathers’, except in the most generalized sense: the wishes expressed on the screen, over the radio, in our novels, are the wishes generated by the problems of present-day life, as lived by real people.

The fact that people might wish for other things if they had the power to construct their own wish-fantasies, or if other kinds were presented to them, is beside the point; these are the wishes they accept and act on. And even when it is granted that the consumer of popular culture may to some extent be two people—the one who goes to the movies or listens to the soap operas and the one who leads the rest of his life—still no one can really escape from himself altogether; and indeed the value of escape through fantasy—of “escape” as we know it—would be negligible if the total “loss of oneself” were possible. Fantasies are in essence passive, quick, and easy fulfilments of one’s present self.



The “historical novel” is a typical product of this popular culture. It has had a long and varied career, giving expression to many different kinds of fantasies. In its modern and popular form the historical novel has been little employed as a genuine instrument for understanding history, which in part was the effort of its founder, Sir Walter Scott, who recreated the medieval world in his novels not only because he preferred it to his own, but also because he wished to fructify the experience of his day with the values of medieval or aristocratic society. Instead, the form in our time has been used as a paper-house of historical facts in which current fantasies could be lodged.

Most recently, beginning with Gone With the Wind, a new type of fantasy took up its quarters in the “historical” novel; with Forever Amber it had its greatest glorification.

Called in the trade the “breast” novel, because there is usually a very bosomy picture of the heroine on the dust-jacket, the current historical novel is often written by a woman and is always about a woman. The heroine is endowed with unbelievably strong “sex appeal.” (As of the famous Amber: “There was about her a kind of warm luxuriance, something immediately suggestive to men of pleasurable fulfilment—something for which she was not responsible but of which she was acutely conscious.”) She is very independent-minded; she has a great deal of trouble controlling her turbulent instincts; she is profoundly amoral; and she is “on the make” not only sexually but in her career (of this more later) with what at times amounts to religious frenzy. These heroines go at men and the world with such abandon and with such concentrated self-interest that their activity can only be compared with our great Western Expansion, the rape of the American continent. And, in truth, these Amazons of fiction are engaged in conquering an area which can justly be compared to the virginal American continent, nothing less than what used to be known as “a man’s world.”

Let us take three recent examples1 of this new use of the historical novel as a vehicle for the fantasy projections of the “new woman” and—always keeping in mind the magnum opus of the tradition, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber—try to discover the typical patterns of meaning they may contain. If we succeed, we should gain some genuine insight into “what women want,” those actual women all about us today who are willing and eager to dream this dream of the “new woman.”



The wind leaves no shadow is about a woman named Dona Tules, an actual figure in the history of the Southwest in the 1820’s. Dona Tules was a poor Mexican girl who rose to be the mistress of the governor and the greatest gambling queen in Santa Fé. She also came to exercise considerable political and financial influence in the Territory. Her story, while presumably true, is altogether similar in emotional pattern to those of the heroines of our other two novels. Her original capital in life is simply an exceptional degree of sex appeal. At first this causes her trouble, for early in her career she is threatened by an intense, criminal-type male, who kills her husband and rapes her, and whom she in turn kills. The husband was a “nice guy” who gave her love and tenderness, but was unable to make his way in the world. After his death Dona Tules fights her way to success all alone, relying heavily on her original capital.

On the dust-jacket of Mistress Glory (our second example), one reads: “Someone was found to look after the children and the author did nothing but live in a sort of fevered dream until the entire manuscript was completed.” The book does have a hot, fevered quality. And it differs from the others in that it is not primarily a fantasy of sexual freedom or a get-ahead-in-the-world fantasy (although it is also these): its basic emotional theme is the total intertwining of sex and aggression. It contains more of purely perverse and pornographic emotion, and there are many more bizarre plot elements than is usual. For instance, the book opens with the heroine being conceived on her mother’s wedding night, but by someone other than the husband. And she is born and raised in a bawdy house. Her entrance into the haut monde of early 19th-century London takes place under equally unusual circumstances: she is engaged to breed an heir for her aristocratic grandfather. At the end of the book the author kills her off: she jumps, in flames, from the burning house of disrepute, dying “with a last unearthly surge of joy, transcending all things . . . .” For the rest, the book has all the usual elements.

The third and final book. The Furies, was written by a man, Niven Busch, who wrote Duel in the Sun, later made into the great movie flop of the same name. While The Furies, like the others, is devoted to the grand-scale trials and tribulations of an independent woman, it differs from them in being a father-daughter story as well. And so it is more a novel, less a pure fantasy—“closer to home,” figuratively as well as actually. The heroine, Vance Jefford, is enamored of her father because her dead mother had ignored her and favored her brothers. She becomes like her father, who prefers her to his sons, when he offers her a share in managing his huge ranch. But this male role requires, for one reason and another, that she give up sex, which she more or less willingly does—until her father makes known his decision to marry again. Then she turns on him, and the rest of the story concerns her struggle with her father and her eventual triumph over him. Unlike our other heroines, Vance is not much of a sexual meanderer. She achieves success by more masculine means—through shrewd, cut-throat business practices. Vance Jefford, like Dona Tules, is supposed to have been an actual historical personage; the story begins in the 1870’s and is set in the Southwest.

T. C. Jefford, Vance’s father, is the only character in all of the three books who is, strictly speaking, a character at all. The rest are never realized as persons; one never forgets that the events that are supposed to happen to them really happen only in the mind of the author, and sometimes in the mind of the reader. But this is beside the point, since we are not engaged here in aesthetic criticism, but in an attempt to elucidate fantasies. It is only necessary to point out that the substance of these books consists not so much of characters and events as of occasions for emotional release. For example, the Restoration world of Forever Amber is important—is “there”—solely as an opportunity for the expression of the vague, disembodied feeling of licentiousness.



For the “new woman” of these novels, marriage is no longer the chief objective in life; she is not content to handcuff herself and her destiny to some man for realization. Like a man, she achieves happiness and success for and by herself, using members of the opposite sex in the achievement of this purpose just as men do. The fantasy of independence is, of course, not new; what is new is chiefly the intensity with which it is taken up, the turbulence, abandon, and amorality with which the girls pursue their independence. Judging from our material, the new woman is guilty of a profound unrealism in her excessive concentration on purely mental images of sex: she has “sex in the head” to such an extent that there could not be much of it elsewhere, not to speak of the distortion represented in this notion of how one achieves success in the world.

While marriage is no longer the dominant end-in-view for the new woman in this new pattern, it continues to play a significant role in her life: it now serves as the bridge between the family and the larger social world where one can be an individual; it is the easiest, most acceptable way of leaving home. At least the first marriage is this bridge (perhaps this fact can bring us closer to understanding the impressive rate of divorce in America). It serves this function for all three of our heroines. With Vance Jefïord as with Dona Tules, this first marriage has a spiritual sweetness not very strongly accented in their subsequent relations with men, as if the authors wished to prove that their heroines at least tried to do things according to the rules. But both husbands are economically inept, and both are killed by the strong, criminal “man in the background.” Glory’s husband is also killed by this dark figure. In each case, the death of the first husband is what really sets the novel going, by turning the heroine free to make her way in a world of free enterprise.

This first-marriage complex offers other opportunities: at a critical conjuncture the author reflects for Dona Tules—“Ramón had possessed her heart. Her body was no more important than the cornhusk around a tamale.” Women must go through a baptism by marriage.

Certainly in Forever Amber marriage is presented as something horrible, not merely bad: this attitude appears with special force in Amber’s case because she has no occasion to confuse first love with first marriage, which confusion is made by our other heroines. Later marriages are either business maneuvers, breathing spells for the hard-driven independent woman, or a kind of self-ironic regression to femininity after independent status has been attained.

At any rate, our new-woman novel undeniably reflects the changed meaning of marriage. Since we are dealing with a fantasy process, it is not necessary for the female reader to have put marriage to all of these uses in order to participate in the fantasy. It is enough that she has viewed—or has had the impulse to view—the successive periods of her own marriage in ways emotionally equivalent to those of our heroines. These novels let us see the way women have come to regard men, including their husbands.



Success for our heroines is essentially similar to success for a man, except that personally they must not be masculine—aggressive, but not masculine; instead, they function as extraordinary sexual objects—concentrated libidinal magnets. Just as in the old-style historical romances the young hero often advanced himself by attracting the favor of a countess or queen, so our heroines get ahead by shrewdly choosing the objects of their abandon. Dona Tules becomes the mistress of the Governor, Glory of the Prince of Wales of her day and Amber of Charles II. Otherwise, their success is that of a man. Dona Tules wants to set up her own gambling salon and “not share her bed or money with any man,” and she succeeds. Glory achieves success on the stage, and later as a partner in a crime syndicate. Vance Jefford wrests her father’s ranch from him—with the help of her lover, it is true, but even men must take on partners in order to conquer the world.

But on the deepest level, success, when it comes, is still felt to be important primarily for the relation it has to men. Success as such is really secondary. (Many male figures in fiction have also claimed to see the matter this way.) The woman who is successful as well as sexy can hardly be beaten: she is in a position to make as much of her independence as can be made of it, and to avoid as many of its terrors as possible. But it is important that this independence itself remains valuable for the variety and intensity it introduces into her relations with men.

We have now come to the heart of the matter. In her fantasies, the new woman is toying with all the possible relations she might have with men, from all-out Don Juanism to utter masochistic devotion. This is because, as D. H. Lawrence pointed out, men have themselves become so vacillating in their notions of what they want women to be that the women, out of pure disgust with trying to be six things at once, have taken the matter into their own hands. They are thinking of being what they themselves want to be, and of making the men like it. This, I suggest, is at present the real core of present-day female “independence.” Whatever the socio-economic causes, the new motivation toward independence is not so much a positive interest in freedom as a disgust with the ineptitude and indecision of men in dealing with their—the women’s—problems, and an effort to solve it by female initiative in the relation between the sexes, an initiative ending however in submission.

Let us look in these terms at some of the many relations our authors have dreamed up for their heroines. In the forest of bizarre emotions of Mistress Glory we have our heroine hired to produce babies and, instead, simply satisfying an appetite. Later she corrupts stalwart workers and students, and drives an elderly music-teacher into a helpless frenzy. At one point she forces the man who keeps her to understand “in his heart . . . that she was the master, not he . . . .” And finally she turns over to the police a man with whom she had this so auspicious beginning: “He uttered a moan, low and fierce . . . he ripped at the cloth of her costume with all his strength.” There is also a poetic playwright in the background who is distinguished by the fact that she doesn’t go to bed with him. One could take example after example from our three novels. But this would become tedious. Let us simply recognize that our heroines are explorers in the new-found land of female option. Forever Amber, the classic, is a veritable comic strip of a young lady’s possible relations to men.



Who are the male leads in these movies of the mind? What kind of man is the prevailing type? In The Wind Leaves No Shadow it is Don Manuel, last governor of the Southwest under Mexican rule—“He made other men seem puny and impotent.” T. C. Jefford, father of our heroine Vance, dominates the male landscape in The Furies. And in the fevered world of Mistress Glory we have Innocent Paradine, lord of London’s criminals, as the lodestone of Glory’s abiding interest. All three are strong, ruthless, and as self-sufficient as leaders of men should be. They are all men who will “stop at nothing” to gain their ends; and they exercise a kind of hypnotic charm over other men. All are engaged in big projects in the world of affairs. Each, in a sense, is an oversized male personalization of objective social and economic forces—a bit evil, a bit inhuman. But all end badly, being killed or losing their positions of power, or both.

In all three cases, however, the man is a major factor in the woman’s coming to power. The process by which the man serves this purpose takes up the first half of each of the books; the latter half is devoted to the struggle between the man and woman, with final victory going to the woman. Even when they are not present in person, these men serve as the dark forces in the background around which the mood and much of the action pivot. They are the very problem of maleness, mystically conceived.

Here again, Forever Amber gives us the whole thing in classical proportion. Amber’s relation to Lord Bruce Carlton expresses not only the pure essence of this male-female relation so typical of the whole genre, but also perhaps contains the final meaning of the new woman’s fantasy life. if we are inclined to view this life sympathetically—“sympathetically” from the male point of view, that is—then the emotion which generates the image of Lord Carlton can certainly be interpreted as a desire on the part of the women, despite everything else they do and don’t do, to give themselves submissively and devotedly to some “really male” man. On the other hand, the absurdly idealized image of “maleness” which our heroines have created might also be taken to suggest that they are interested in submitting to the male only in his “ideal” form. In any case, independence is seen only in masculine terms: female independence is clearly modeled on the ideal male, or it measures its rewards in its achieved relations to the male. For the new woman “independence” and “masculinity” seemed irrevocably tied together; there is no sign of any fantasy to be independent as a woman.



There are profound social causes, which need not be entered into here, for the breakdown of traditional female roles. It is a waste of time to try to resolve the predicament of modem women with a single grand gesture—“Back to the kitchen, home, and children!” A good number of women don’t want to go back to the kitchen (that is, to the life of the submissive homemaker); many women cannot go back; others try and are unable to stay there. Moreover, there is no metaphysical reason why they should go back. The home and the family are undergoing a profound process of readjustment to the overwhelming consequences of mass society, industrial economy, and planetary politics—especially here in America, which is in the vanguard of all these movements. To tell women to save themselves by re-identifying with the old forms is, to put it simply, reactionary—like telling men to return to the church, or the small town, or the farm. We are all, men and women, in the new world of big-city civilization up to our necks, and to hunger after the past is both dangerous and useless. Moreover, we built the cities; and they express something we want.

In our inspection of popular historical fiction, we have seen evidence that women are much concerned—even in their mechanized daydreaming—with this question of their new, more independent (“alienated,” if you like) condition. We have observed also that marriage for the new woman, or the woman in this new condition, is no longer an absolute value, but rather one instrument among others; and that a woman’s “original capital” is not her virginity, as in the conventional bourgeois view, but plainly and predominantly her “sex appeal.”

But most important of all, we have seen that women in their quest for freedom and a new self-expression have not escaped from the male ideal: they still hanker after male leadership, and when they assume control over their own lives, they tend either to take a man’s attitude toward themselves, or else to require that the world contain somewhere the real embodiment of their absurdly ideal notion of masculine power—toward which, however, they remain ambivalent.

Now, the matter of controlling one’s own life is all-important for the issue of independence, since that person is most independent who has the most secure control over himself. But self-control means to keep one’s instincts in hand as required by modern society; and this tends to work against the sexual interests of the individual. A system of control which does not permit the expression of sex is worse than useless: it is pernicious in every human sense. A woman’s pattern of psychic control must be different from that of a man if it is not to contradict her sexuality. A man, sexually, must be able to give through the barricade of his control; a woman must be able to receive, even to invite—after so many years of oversimple “feminism,” women themselves are coming to recognize this need.

How receive, how invite, how be independent as a woman—this is the basic issue for the modem independent woman. In emerging from her eternal night of submission into the daylight world of individuality, she has assumed male modes, has continued to identify with men, even though this identification is now active and aggressive. This is no good because it is not female—that can be said even if we are not prepared to say what is “female.” The problem for the modern woman is precisely to discover the “female,” to develop a mode of individuality and independence suitable to her own sex. The bosom novel gives us clues only as to the dimensions of the task, but none as to its solution.




1 The Wind Leaves No Shadow, by Ruth Laughlin (Whittlesey House); Mistress Glory, by Susan Morley (Dial Press); The Furies, by Niven Busch (Dial Press).

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