Thursday, March 1, 2012

Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool (1888)

"Gefällt sie Ihnen?" Hermann Vogel (1856-1918)
Emma Ghent Curtis (1860-1918) sets this story in the mountains of Colorado, where an idealistic music teacher, new to the West, marries unwisely and quickly regrets her choice in husbands. He is not a wife-beater or an alcoholic, a poor provider, an adulterer, or an addict. Though a handsome, well-off rancher, he woos and wins her without first revealing a terrible secret.

Plot. Believing her husband, John Solomon, to be “pure” and virginal as she is, the tender, trusting Gessia is shocked to learn that as a single man he sought the company of prostitutes. Soiled by this experience, he has soiled their marriage and destroyed all hope of wedded bliss. She lives out the rest of her short life with him, giving birth to two sons and eventually dying of shame, exhaustion, and despair.

Solomon considers himself no worse and even better than other men and uses every argument in the book to persuade Gessia that she’s being unreasonable. But she’s got a counter-argument for each of his and is not about to be moved. Thus, much of the novel is devoted to long debates between them, until in the last chapters he begins to relent.

Even then, his sin is irreversible, thus unforgivable. He has not only made himself unfit to be the husband of a “pure” woman and neglected to reveal this ugly fact to her before trapping her in an unwholesome marriage. He has helped to perpetuate the social evil of prostitution, which robs unfortunate women of their honor and dignity and sends them to early graves, through disease, poverty, and suicide.

Dangerous amusements, dance hall entrance, 1910
Argument. Her argument is finally that of the supreme sanctity of home and motherhood. The fate of the nation finally depends on preserving the purity of women by marriage to “pure” men. Until that truth is universally accepted and put into practice, there will be all manner of social ills for both men and women—ills that are perpetuated by the influence of saloons, dancehalls, and brothels.

Rather than a hatchet-wielding activist in the Morality Wars, like Carrie Nation, Gessia is a suffering victim. She has been betrayed, her dreams of a happy life shattered. “Mine is a long, slow march to the grave,” she says, “where every step is fraught with pain.” That she does nothing but complain about her lot makes her a tiresome heroine. You keep wanting her to reach for that hatchet.

Corner in a dance hall, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892
Villainy. The villains are not just male sexual predators, but respectable women who have no sympathy for the “fallen” among them. They turn a blind eye to the social conditions that force women into abusive marriages and prostitution. Solomon’s mother is one of these, judging lesser women harshly and complacently believing in her own moral superiority.

The author attributes most social ills to the tyranny of the wealthy and powerful. Unwilling to see the need for society’s improvement, they treat proposals for reform with scorn and ridicule. In their eyes, the “unhappy, unfortunate, miserable and fallen” have only themselves to blame for their condition. Also at fault are the churches, which waste time fighting each other instead of fighting sin and saving souls.

Cowboys. One cowboy figures in the story, a “brute” as the author describes him. Physically strong and a bit coarse by polite standards, Frank Hatton redeems himself at first with the self-knowledge that he doesn’t deserve a good woman for a wife. “I cuss and drink and gamble and swear and carouse,” he admits, and is not proud of the fact.

He blames older friends for making a drinker of him at eighteen and a frequenter of brothels. Now 29 years old, he says his health has been so compromised by this lifestyle that he’s been ill with small pox and typhoid fever twice. He’s only good he says to marry a dance hall girl, who was pure once until “ruined” by “some dog with store clothes.”

Les deux amies, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895
And marry such a woman he does. He’s already fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman in the local brothel, Sallie Lentz. In a sentimental sequence, their wedding takes place there, attended by the other whores, “haggard and worn.” They seem “sad and lost” as they look on, “the paint upon their wasted cheeks” unable to “hide the lines of shame and sorrow.”

Officiating at the wedding is the only minister who will marry them, Rev. Blakesley, who outrages the church-going believers in town with his radical application of the social gospel. Not only does he marry Frank and Sallie, but he and his wife join the whores for a wedding dinner in the brothel.

Frank and Sallie turn out to be good, sensible parents, retrieving their four-year-old son from where he’s being raised, to come live with them. Trusting and good-hearted, he has to defend himself at school, out-fighting the son of one of the town’s upstanding citizens. If the novel has a hero, it’s surely Frank Hatton, who overcomes a checkered past to live as a decent father and husband.

Wrapping up. Emma Ghent Curtis followed this novel with a hard-to-find western, The Administratrix (1889) about a woman who disguises herself as a man and revenges the death of her rancher husband. During the author's life she was a suffragist living in Colorado, where she published a newspaper advocating voting rights for women and promoting the welfare of farmers and workers.

This novel is an argument for the civilizing influence that women are able to bring to the lives of men and women. The Fate of a Fool takes as its subject the condition of women and confronts the enemies of home and motherhood. Immersed in the world of this novel, it’s possible to feel the forces at work that eventually joined to produce both women’s suffrage and Prohibition.

Maternal Love, Carlo Facchinetti, c1900
It is not stridently suffragist in its politics, but you can see that the success of future reform efforts depends on access to the ballot box for women. One male character surmises that women exist in a kind of slavery and need to be freed like the “niggers.” Only then will they effectively pull together in each other’s interests. Until then, only a “fool” can expect social change that will make a difference. As an early document in the library of temperance agitation,

The Fate of a Fool is currently available online at Internet Archive. Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott, over at pattinase.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gunsmoke on radio (1952-1961)


  1. I've been looking for women authors of westerns. Suddenly they're coming out of the woodwork.

  2. Another fine effort, and the perfect set of illustrations to go with it.