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Unearthing Author Margery Latimer’s Body of Work

Margery Latimer’s 20th-century feminist literature is sympathetic and even empathetic toward her women characters–and implicitly judgmental.

We Are Incredible
Margery Latimer
J. H. Sears
This Is My Body
Margery Latimer
J. H. Sears

Modernist Ambiguities

If autobiographical, the book’s also a surprisingly brutal and objective portrait of an immature pretentious ninny, forever feeling miserable and lost, saying the opposite of what she feels, being unconsciously contradictory to self and perversely refractory to others, asserting vague bilge amid privileged confusion, wanting to be “herself” and demanding to be dominated. Forever “holding her hands between her breasts”, she knows she’s beautiful but only eventually discovers she has a body, and even this becomes an intellectually analyzed discovery.

Her values are partly revolutionary, as appropriate for a woman convinced she’s a great writer with a great destiny, and partly show her brain as colonized (as we say now) by destructive values internalized from society, as when she longs to be submissive to a man (as Dora in the previous novel), her violent jealousy and disdain of other women, and her wanting everyone to “tell her what they know” and “prove her wrong.” As Castro points out, the presence of a Red Riding Hood picture on the wall suggests how Megan has internalized traditional fairy tale values.

A typical morsel she’s ingested: “Wayward evil girls fall in the street when they are pregnant and vomit. Everyone spits at them and kicks them.” This reflects her justified social fears. She would have the baby if her lover did the “noble” thing and wanted it too and married her, though he agrees to marriage only in misery while hoping to convince her of an abortion. This event is foreshadowed by another abortion that happens off-stage and is reported in dialogue by a sort of alter ego.

Megan’s convinced while walking home from the procedure, that now her lover Ronald will be happy and they’ll be blissful together. He’s relieved, but because he’s no different in how she wishes him to behave (in mutual spiritual devotion to their mismatch), she finally dumps him while hoping this woefully problematic person (to put it politely) will magically change and persuade her to stay.

One of the last things she says is to beg him to be her Guardian Angel. That remark resonates with Latimer’s story of that name, another Zona-inspired tale with an ironically destructive connotation. So I’ve heard, not yet having read it. It’s the title piece in Guardian Angel and Other Stories (1984, The Feminist Press), now sitting in my stack.

In one of the endless, credible, painful arguments Megan’s constantly having with Ronald, at one point we get: “‘Teach me,’ she cried. ‘Lead me. I want to worship you. I want to be less than you. I want you for a master.'” Mind you, she contradicts herself from one breath and thought to the next, and mind you also, this desire for self-obliteration tallies with the Christ imagery that is never far away. That women are holy vessels and expected to sacrifice themselves are the era’s social conventions, so Christ metaphors are both subversive and collusive.

Consider this exchange from the same argument, which may be an iterative example of an endless series of such arguments, in which her relation to Ronald is like unto relation to God. Since he’s Jewish, that would be the Old Testament God, also as we see a socialist-materialist God. And the chapter’s called “Walpurgis-Night”, so unpack that:

She tried to feel something in him that she knew but he was strange and distant, something she must seek, travel toward, break all her self into particles for, giving them one by one, one and one, one by one. He was shadowy. ‘Oh, my Father in heaven, what does it mean? My flesh. My soul. Oh women, women, women in the world, loved by men, tell me how you get so empty–so soft–so sweet.’
Suddenly he began kissing her violently. ‘I told you the truth. I want your body. Give me your body and I’ll love you for ever. I won’t be able to ever leave you.’
‘I can’t!’
‘Your body is all I can hold to in the world. It is the only reality.’

The cool objectivity of this relentless presentation of Megan, with due space to all criticisms and perspectives from others, also recorded objectively, produces a tension between the author’s reportage and Megan’s boundless subjectivity enclosed within it. One implicit message of this tension is that the author, if we assume the personal nature of this portrait, has matured to a style and level beyond Megan, as we should hope.

Thus, this portrait is sympathetic and even empathetic while implicitly judgmental. The impassive author never instructs us what impulses and paradoxes are to be praised or deplored or explained as absorbing society’s propaganda and middle-class ignorance or rejecting it. She just lays out this specimen for anatomical study, or as a journey’s map with monsters abiding.

As an example of incorporating others’ judgments, the first literary critique Megan receives is quoted entire: “This stuff of yours sounds like the rattling of sticks and bones. There’s no sense of reality in it and no indication that you are alive intellectually. But you have a startling capacity for grotesque characterization, which, unfortunately, does not go beneath the surface.”

As we’ll learn, this turns out to be from the future lover already obsessing her without her having met him. She’ll use it as the occasion to chat him up a year later, leading to a scene in which he behaves absurdly (perhaps drunkenly) and proposes marriage. Yes, ironic foreshadowing.

In retrospect, we can see how, like her author, Megan predicts or brings everything about with virtual deliberation. Her “getting of wisdom” (the title of a sardonic 1910 girl’s education novel by Henry Handel Richardson aka Florence Richardson) proceeds as she’s yearned for it more or less, perhaps rather less than more. She asserts “Oh, I want to suffer, I want to know” etc., and all comes to pass. So it must be a happy ending.

Castro’s discussion focuses mainly and enlighteningly on the abortion episode as sociopolitical critique, though she also quotes Latimer’s statement of intention from a letter: “I thought of this girl as being wrapped in all the horror of fear, the darkness of inexperience, the death of hatreds, indifference, egoism. I meant her to slowly have her wrappings withdrawn and with each loss, a gain in understanding, so that at the end, completely revealed through love and defilement she faced a new world and faced the possibility of living a new life through effort.”

So yes, happy ending, kind of. She compares it to a snake sloughing its skin, or is that a serpent in the eternal Christian linkage to Eve? Henry Green’s portrait-of-an-author bildungsroman of 1926, Blindness, labels its sections with butterfly chrysalis metaphors, but I like the skin-shedding metaphor too.

Looking back to We Are Incredible, we see parallels between Megan’s and Hester’s tics of monitoring their thoughts and talking themselves into things, which might reframe that novel into more of a self-exposure than a Zona-exposure. It’s easy to perceive its three characters as aspects of one: the male and female anima struggling with the intellect. This reading may account for Hester’s lack of creativity.

The sheer length of This Is My Body is due to not wanting to leave anything out except what gets left out of all writers’ stories: the job of writing. We get two pages of our budding genius coming from another disappointing encounter to funnel her energy into a play she’ll cast and direct in class, and we see more of the class reactions than we do the play or the work of staging it. Later she’s stumping her manuscript all over town but we have no clue when or how she wrote it.

Writing is an internal drama that is difficult to convey. This may be why seemingly personal tales of writers often displace writing into another art, like music in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915) and acting in Mary Austin’s A Woman of Genius (1912), two rare female Künstlerroman to which Latimer might have had exposure.

Actually, the author does omit one other thing, strikingly: the abortion is skipped and apparently a quick and simple procedure. (In other novels of the era, women don’t or barely survive it.) Although she aches from the “scraping”, she also feels moments of intense pain where she explicitly doesn’t know (and neither can we) if this is psychological, in accordance with her drama-queen sensibility, or literal or both at once. Latimer clearly loves such modernist ambiguities. The most audacious metaphor: “It seemed again as if that spear thrust into her.” Wow! She even has a fugue vision of herself in hospital, presented magically with a baby while everyone comforts her, Madonna-like.

Castro notes the irony that reviewers didn’t get the religious implications, not even in the title, whereas Latimer apparently feared it might annoy people or make them laugh at her. If only someone had kicked up a fuss that the book was blasphemous or immoral and gotten it banned in Boston, more copies would have been sold, as with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) from the same publisher! What a thing to regret, that no swell of outrage called attention to a novel with an original approach and subject.

Megan’s Romantic-Transcendental tiresomeness is curbed by social comedy in the minutely observed encounters: frustrating parents, pretentious students (both “intellectual” and non), patronizing teachers, and the frightened poet/lover based on Fearing. (Should the book have been called Fearing and Loathing?) As with Megan, Ronald is presented without our seeing the work he’s supposedly good at. The “poetry reading” and “literary magazine” scenes are diabolically convincing satire, as are the table-breasted dean of women and the stiff bony landlady.

Again, the subjective/objective contrast is telling in these incidents and characters. If Megan and her project feel impractical and unsatisfying, so does everyone and everything else. Without her bewildered open struggle toward she knows not what, this would be entirely acid realism.

While the reader may find Megan as exasperating as the retrospective author perhaps does, we see that the given “reality” Megan is rejecting and struggling against, as with the Fry family in We Are Incredible, also merits our exasperation. As with much of the best comedy, Latimer knows that the source of humor is also the source of pain.

To me this is Latimer’s sharpest paradox: she feels “emotional” while, in fact, applying a stringent gimlet-eyed clarity toward her extravagantly “spiritual” characters and the mundanely ordered, dispiriting world in which they drift. Perhaps we too feel the spear and don’t know if it’s physical or psychological, or both.

Works Cited

Castro, Joy. “Margery Latimer”. Review of Contemporary Fiction. Fall2001. Vol. 21 Issue 3, p151. 45p.

Latimer, Margery. Unz Review. Various.