(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The subtitle of this biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman reflects Ann I Lane’s twin focus on the life and work of her subject, but Lane’s approach is hardly conventional. From her perspective, Gilman’s life is also a “work,” a product “created,” consciously and unconsciously (for Lane is Freudian in her reading of Gilman’s life and art), by an early feminist. Moreover, Lane does not narrowly define Gilman’s “work” as literary, though she was a prolific writer, but as the total contribution of a woman whose life and work were one. Lane departs from biographical norms in her style; rather than simply relating Gilman’s life, she forces her readers to participate in what she calls “dialogues” between the author and the subject, between the subject’s life and the subject’s work—usually glossed with biographical data—and between the reader and the biographer, who periodically queries or “chats” with her audience. In fact, while many of her beliefs about Gilman are implicit, Lane does raise questions (such as the nature of her subject’s sexuality) without attempting to resolve them.

Primarily because Gilman’s life and work were so intertwined, Lane wisely rejects a strict chronological approach that would involve rapid switching from one focus to another. Instead, she uses a biographical account of Gilman’s life until 1900, when Gilman was married to her first cousin, Houghton “Ho” Gilman. Lane then devotes two chapters to “Work” (Gilman’s journals, books, and lectures), and then resumes the biographical narrative with chapters on Gilman and her daughter, Katharine. Though Lane’s title implies that she regards Herland (serialized in 1915) as the pivotal point in Gilman’s career, the turning point actually occurred in 1900, when Gilman succeeded in resolving the domestic and familial problems that plagued her early life.

Lane has structured her biography “around the central relationships in Charlotte Gilman’s life,” those with her parents, three intimate women friends, two husbands, the neurologist who treated her, and her daughter. Rather than being separate relationships, they reflect recurrent psychological and behavioral patterns in Gilman’s life. Lane seems particularly intent on stressing how her parents’ individual behaviors shaped not only her own parenting behavior, but also her relationships with her husbands, doctor, and women friends, as well as her work habits.

The primary influence on Gilman’s life, according to Lane, was her father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, whom Lane describes as “talented but undisciplined, erratic, and unfocused.” Despite her father’s ties to the famous Beecher family, he had little money and provided little stability for his own family, which he regularly deposited with various relatives: Charlotte, her brother, and her mother moved nineteen times in eighteen years. After Charlotte’s birth, her father left the family, perhaps because the attending physician said that the birth of another child might cause the mother’s death. From that point on, Gilman had little contact with her father, whom she depicts as an occasional visitor. Lane’s analysis of Fredrick Perkins’ short stories stresses his contradictory views of home and family, views with which Gilman herself contended throughout her life; but the similarity between daughter and father is, for Lane, more extensive: Gilman also “abandoned” her daughter to her spouse, and both father and daughter were more comfortable dealing with their personal problems at a distance, whether in letters, books, or in thinly veiled fiction.

Perhaps because of her tenuous relationship with her father, Gilman’s fictional fathers are usually, according to Lane, “explosive, tyrannical, self-centered, suffocating, arrogant, and unloving.” Those characters modeled on her mother, Mary Perkins, were similarly treated with contempt. Both parents were distant, emotionally stunted people, who were unable to communicate affection. Perhaps because of her emotionally isolated situation—her mother refused to allow her to have intimate friends—Gilman escaped into imaginative literature. Lane’s psychoanalytic reading of Gilman’s early fictional fairy tales reveals Gilman’s methods of “coping with despair, danger, sexuality, and separation” and “establishing a world of hope and success with the support of a powerful woman who befriends her.” In a sense, the fairy tales explain her mother’s failure and her later attachments to women friends. The options for the adolescent Gilman were unappealing: Her mother’s restrictive private world of women or her father’s irresponsible public world of men. Mary Perkins was the easier parent to defy, and Lane supports Gilman’s notion that her confrontation (at the age of fifteen) with her mother “opened up an entire new world” to her.

Before her unsuccessful marriage to Walter Stetson, Gilman became close friends with Martha Luther, and Lane uses their relationship to introduce and...

(The entire section is 2049 words.)