Is it a satire? Is it brilliant? Is it both?
|Kelsey McKinney||May 14|| 5|
One day, in June of 1893, Lilian Lida Bell received a package. It had been forwarded from her publishers, who upon opening it, shipped it directly to their young author. “To the Author of ‘The Love Affairs of an Old Maid,” was inscribed on the band. It was a marquise ring built of a “gorgeous sapphire surrounded by diamonds.” From all the descriptions written of it (and there are many) it sounds exactly like Kate Middleton’s ring. No one ever confessed to having sent it to her. It was an anonymous gift.
This was the kind of world Lilian Bell created: a fandom sending her jewels.
Usually, the dedications to first novels are boring. “To my children,” they might read or “for my wife.” Lilian Lida Bell was 26 years old when her first novel was printed in 1893, but she was not there to play games. Her dedication begins normally but watch it take a turn:
There is a kind of cloying satire to Bell’s tone throughout the book and the rest of her canon. Take the first two page of the book:
“It is a pity that there is no prettier term to bestow upon a girl bachelor of any age than Old Maid. “Spinster” is equally uncomfortable, suggesting, as it does, corkscrew curls and immoderate attenuation of frame; while “maiden lady,” which the ultra-punctilious substitute, is entirely too mincing for sensible, whole-souled people to countenance.
I dare say that more women would have the courage to remain unmarried were there so euphonious a title awaiting them as that of “bachelor,” which, when shorn of its accompany adjective “old",” simply means unmarried.
The word “bachelor,” too, has somewhat of a jaunty sound, implying to the sensitive ear that its owner could have been married —oh, several times over — if he had wished. But both “spinster” and “old maid” have narrow, restricted attributes, which, to say the least, imply doubt as to past opportunity.”
EIGHTEEN NINETY THREE THIS BOOK WAS PUBLISHED. It tells the story in a very light tone of a woman whose life is “over.” She has reached the end of her opportunity. She has gone ahead and gotten a cat. We begin the story on the eve of her thirtieth birthday (*gasp*). The novel follows the rest of the woman’s life: how she is neither miserable nor brilliantly happy; How she manages to have relationships and be a person despite not being married. It is also extremely funny. The pacing is quick, the commentary witty, the fraught relationship with the cat extremely relatable.
It is, according to many newspaper stories I found from pre-1902, apparently written basically in Bell’s actual voice.
Lilian Lida Bell was a public figure the minute her first novel came out. “She is a bundle of brilliant contradictions— an opal, as it were, taking on sympathetic tints from a humanity which it is her greatest delight to study,” a monthly magazine for literary workers, The Writer, wrote in December of that year. “She is most eagerly sought as a dinner guest.” When asked if she was worried about criticism, she famously said: “What have I to fear from the public? Mamma has read it.”
She published 21 books in her lifetime. “Her works,” the Dayton Daily News wrote in October 1901, “stand pre—eminently in front of literature today. To see Lilian Bell however is to enjoy another treat, as her toilets are a distinctive feature of her personality. Not so much on account of their elaborateness but because of the exquisitely artistic conceptions.” (I have no real idea what this means visually, but it sounds like our girl loved to be campy.) She was the kind of woman who declared she would be teaching a course for men to teach them how to be better husbands because she thought men could be better.
She was so popular, such a figure of the public that the Chicago Sunday Tribune gave her the whole top of what was essentially the style section when she got married.
Her wedding was constantly talked about in the Chicago papers all Spring of 1900 because she was a celebrity. She was beloved. She was recognized in her lifetime as someone worthy of celebrating. She was in love she said, obsessed. Nothing had been better. How many invitations were sent, you ask? oh it was TWO THOUSAND INVITATIONS TO THE WEDDING. Because so many people were expected to attend Lilian Bell (truly that bitch) issued entry times for her guests. Some people got 8:00 entry times, some 9:30. It is unclear to me which time slot was favored.
Here is the INSANE spread from the Chicago Tribune when she had her first (and only) child in 1903:
On September 7, 1913 she sued for divorce. Her husband, he claimed, had spent $70,000 of the money she had made as a writer on his own extravagances. CAN YOU IMAGINE? As she aged, she became a philanthropist, and paid special attention and money to disabled war veterans. As happens to many women writers, as she got older, attention on her waned. She was no longer a hot young thing, and the new guard of gatekeepers did not induct her into any societies or offer her any awards.
She died in 1929 at 62 years old, and then she disappeared. I tried for months last year to find her papers. Someone as prolific as her, who lived in the same house for a long time, should have had them. Someone who was beloved by the city of Chicago and the literary community should have been catalogued. I reached out to the very helpful librarians at the Chicago Public Library and the Library of Congress. I became desperate and tried to follow her family line. Sometimes families keep papers knowing they are important but not knowing how to share them.
But Lilian Bell’s only daughter did not have any children, and she died alone in a mental hospital in her 40s. We have nothing of Bell’s left. No diaries. No drafts. No copies of the 2,000 wedding invites she sent.
This makes me very sad personally because I am certain this woman left a ton of gossip in her diaries, but also because who we archive matters. Whose papers get saved determines who we study and analyze, who gets taught in colleges and canonized. Bell won’t have that opportunity. All we have left of her is the hologram of her popularity, and the knife sharp wit of the books she left behind.
Because her books are so old, you can read most of them online for free. The Love Affairs of an Old Maid online for free here!
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