Southern California Quarterly
No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869. Edited by Ida Rae Egli. (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997. 344pp. $14.95 paper.)
Review by Raymund F. Wood
If the reader can overlook the awkwardness of this book's title, and concentrate on the subtitle, it will prove be a valuable addition to our knowledge of early-day women writers and their fascinating works. However, the title jars. It is a not-so-cute take-off from Virginia Woolf's title, A Room of One's Own, which every woman writer should have. A case might be made out for Dame Shirley, writing from her log cabin at Indian Bar, where things might have been a bit tight, and a spare room was probably not available, and certainly for poor Lucy Young, an Indian girl who was captured and sold into "apprenticeship" (slavery) by renegade whites, but who lived to dictate her memories later on in life. She certainly had no room of her own. But to imply that a professional writer (Frances Victor), a Head Librarian and head of her own household (Ina Coolbrith), or the wife of an Army officer, whose income for many years at Mariposa was about $39,000 a month (Jessie Fremont), or San Francisco's most popular, and aside from Lola Montez, most famous actress (Adah Isaacs Menken), did not have rooms of their own is to stretch credibility to the breaking point.
The meat of the book, however, is more wholesome. It consists of extracts, long or short, from the best writings of fifteen women of California, writing during the first twenty years following the Gold Rush. They are, in sequential order, Sarah Royce, Lucy Young, Dame Shirley (Louisa Clapp), Helen Carpenter, Frances Victor, Josephine McCrackin, Jessie Fremont, Gerogiana Kirby, Ina Coolbrith, Mary Foote, Charlotte Brown, Ella Mighels, Adah Menken, and Ada Clare. Each is supplemented by a portrait.
The extracts are as varied as the lives of the women who wrote them. Some are outright fiction, with an emphasis on Western scenery or events; others are reminiscent, chiefly those of Dame Shirley, which are essentially day-by-day narratives of life on the frontier. Only a few are in verse, notably three fine poems from Ina Coolbrith, and eight pages from the inspired pen of Adah Menken. Two were dictates: one, the recollections, at about age 90, of the Indian woman Lucy Young, who was born in the redwood forests near Garberville in Humboldt County; the other is the sworn testimony of Charlotte Brown, a Black girl of San Francisco who was summarily ejected from a street car of that city for the crime of not being white. Others are outright tales, sold to journals for money or for the pleasure they gave to readers. Such a one is "How Jack Hastings Sold His Mine," by Frances Victor; another is "Portrait of a California Girl," which despite its title is fictional in character, by Ella Mighels, who in 1919 was recognized by the State Legislature as "First Historian of Literary California."
There is little to criticize in the selections. They are there for the reader to enjoy, and it would be hard to select a favorite, though perhaps my choice would go to "A Talk of the Redwoods," a sad story of a man who loved too well, and of his beloved who drowned herself when she realized she could never be his wife, written by Gerogiana Kirby, with a location in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 1850's. It is only one selection out of more than a score. Buy and enjoy!