Splendid ironies abound in literary studies. One of these, it seems to me, exists in the odd relationship between Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her sometime nemesis Dr. Weir Mitchell. On the surface, these two might appear poles apart, Mitchell prescribing the “rest cure” that Gilman so savagely and effectively exposed in her masterful short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman pioneered feminism in America; Mitchell might have appeared as one of Gilman’s clueless male characters. Yet the similarities are striking. Neither writer saw fiction as his or her primary contribution to the world. While her business card might have described her as a feminist agent provocateur, Gilman produced a steady stream of fiction through her career, just as Mitchell did while practicing medicine. Both of these writers allowed non-aesthetic matters to undermine the effectiveness of their narratives. Both produced workmanlike prose but neither showed true genius–with the exception, I think, of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Gilman’s novel, What Diantha Did, serialized in the Gilman-edited magazine The Forerunner in 1909-10, serves as a perfect example of the author’s competence but lack of brilliance. This novel is, indeed, nothing more than a feminist romance novel. The story begins with a fairly straight-forward romantic conceit. Diantha Bell is engaged to, and deeply in love with, Ross Ward; however, the couple’s marriage appears impossible as Ross finds himself saddled with the responsibility of running the family business as well as providing for the rather lavish appetites of his widowed mother and three sisters. These women, portrayed in any depth only in the novel’s opening pages, are laughably useless, completely incapable of and unwilling to perform any truly useful work in their world. Diantha, on the other hand, is the paragon of utility: sensible, industrious, and beautiful. What a shame that this loving couple cannot hope to marry until their dotage.
But then Diantha hatches a plan. She moves away from her home and becomes a domestic servant, a decided social step in the wrong direction. Her performance in this role is beyond any expectation. Eventually she is hired to manage a larger house before moving on, as she had planned all along, to provide out-sourced domestic work: cleaning, laundry, cooking, etc. Diantha meets some token resistance along the way, but its ineffectiveness allows her to brush each little obstacle aside with virtually no drama.
Eventually, Ross comes to announce that his circumstances have changed. They can marry immediately. However, Ross initially insists that Diantha give up her businesses, which are thriving spectacularly. In time, Ross relents and marries Diantha, but he never likes the fact that she continues to work. Only when he travels the world lecturing on his new discoveries regarding guinea pigs does he realize just how profound his wife’s accomplishments are. He writes her a marvelous letter proclaiming not only his never-dimming love but his newfound admiration for her work.
Honestly, to describe Diantha as a romance novel does a disservice to romance novels, which typically have real conflict and characters with a mix of good and bad qualities. Diantha is absurdly perfect. In the several-year course of the narrative she never once takes a false step. Not one of her endeavors performs in anything less than stellar terms. Even when her enemies seem to be getting the upper hand by spreading rumors that Diantha is running a brothel, she has the solution in hand before the accusation can be effectively made.
When a fiction writer attempts to use a story as a vehicle to advance a pet cause, in this case a number of causes including the efficacy of married women having careers and the restructuring of domestic service, the resulting story suffers. Such suffering can arise when a Christian author invests more effort in proclaiming the gospel than in creating art. In the case of Gilman’s first novel, the eagerness to portray a woman who can indeed have it all–wealth, an uninterruptedly successful career, a string of babies, fame, far-flung respect, and a loving marriage–the author indulges in feminist wish-fulfillment at a frankly silly level. Had Gilman only mined the resources of her own complicated, troubled, but ultimately successful life, she would have found far more interesting and believable material with which to construct her tale.