Frances Newman (1883-1928)
Frances Newman was a novelist, translator, critic, book reviewer, and librarian.
Early Life and Education
Newman was born in 1883, the youngest daughter in a prominent Atlanta family. Her father, Judge William T. Newman, was a Confederate war hero who became a U.S. district judge. Her mother, Fanny Percy Alexander, was a direct descendant of the founder of Knoxville, Tennessee. Newman attended the Calhoun Street School and Washington Seminar in Atlanta and finishing schools in Washington, D.C., and New York City. She briefly enrolled in Agnes Scott College in Decatur and completed a library science degree at the Atlanta Carnegie Library in 1912.
Newman worked for a year as a librarian at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee but returned to Atlanta in 1914, after a Mediterranean tour, to work at the Atlanta Carnegie Library. Here she began her writing career with witty reviews for the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, attracting the attention of Virginia novelist James Branch Cabell and critic H. L. Mencken. She also wrote her first novel, The Gold-Fish Bowl (1921), but was unable to find a publisher. Newman continued at Carnegie Library until 1923, when she left to study at the Sorbonne and to complete The Short Story's Mutations, a collection of stories she translated from five languages. Upon her return in 1924 she accepted a position as librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Desiring more time to devote to writing, Newman took a year's leave of absence from Georgia Tech in August 1925. She was accepted at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for the next summer with recommendations from Sherwood Anderson and Mencken. There she was able to complete The Hard-Boiled Virgin in two months. An immediate best-seller, the novel enabled her to continue writing full-time. Newman returned to Peterborough the following summer and began work on Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers. Despite frequent illnesses, she completed the novel by the end of January 1928 and left for Europe before it was released.
In Europe, Newman's research for her work on a translation of Jules LaForgue's short fiction was interrupted by a serious eye problem. She returned to the United States for medical treatment but was unable to get relief from the intense pain or to see well enough to write. Nevertheless, by September she had finished her translation by dictation, while maintaining her characteristically good humor. Between scheduled appointments with neurologists in New York, she was found unconscious in her hotel room on October 19 and died three days later, apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage, although later reports blamed an overdose of a barbiturate. She was buried on October 24, 1928, in the Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.
In her novels Newman reveals, often hilariously, how the thoughts of her characters conflict with the socially imposed façade of behavior expected of the southern lady. The Gold-Fish Bowl is a lighthearted comedy of manners written in the style of her beloved Jane Austen. Although this book was not published in Newman's lifetime, it was edited as a dissertation by Margaret M. Duggan in 1985.
In Newman's epigrammatic novel The Hard-Boiled Virgin, Katharine Faraday must unlearn the rigid social codes of her upbringing to envision becoming a writer herself rather than being validated by the attention of celebrated male writers. Embedded in this novel are subtle references to sexual arousal, menstruation, and birth control, taboo topics that young Katharine ponders but cannot discuss openly.
Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers blurs distinctions between two literary stereotypes, the selfless angel of the house and the other woman, suggesting that actual women do not fit such limiting literary conventions. The novel also cleverly exposes the misogyny and racism underlying the image of the southern lady.
Newman's premature death at the height of her literary powers precluded the writing of several planned novels. Denounced by the influential Southern Agrarians because she unveiled the pervasive sexism and racism of the patriarchal South, Newman was excluded from the canon of southern literature and has only recently been rediscovered.
Emory Reginald Abbott, "A Southern Lady Still: A Reinterpretation of Frances Percy Newman's The Hard-Boiled Virgin," Southern Quarterly 27 (summer 1989).
Anne Goodwyn Jones, "Frances Newman: The World's Lessons," Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).
Barbara Ann Wade, Frances Newman: Southern Satirist and Literary Rebel (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998).
Barbara Ann Wade, Berea College, Kentucky
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