Short Reading Lessons in Writing: The Spellbinding Alice French

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.

That staff member is me.

I’m learning a lot about how readers read—and when to duck.


The story this month was “The Spellbinder” by Octave Thanet, the pen name of Alice French.  It was first published in McClure’s in 1897.

A farming community has fallen on desperate, hopeless times and many are on the verge of starvation.  An offer has been made for the land by a farming conglomerate, but members of the community are afraid they will fare even worse if they become tenants on their own land—most expect to be forced off.  Fear and resentment builds and the anticipated visit from the conglomerate’s representative threatens to push the farmers into a mob.  But just before they turn violent, the visitor diffuses their anger by recognizing them as individuals with valuable knowledge and experiences.  The community calms down enough to understand that the young man is offering them equal stakes in a prosperous future.  They join the conglomerate and later reflect that if “the spellbinder” hadn’t handled that first meeting just right, they might have lost more than their land and livelihoods.

When I distribute the story for the next month, I give members of our group the option of reading a one-page biography of the author—some readers prefer not to know anything about the author before they read his or her work.  I’m not sure exactly how many read the bio sheet before today’s meeting, but this marks the first time the group talked more about the author than the story.

Alice French wrote under the male name Octave Thanet, though once her fame spread, her gender was an open secret.  Critics mentioned that she wrote “like a man,” and according to her biographies, she took this as the compliment it was meant to be—unlike many women of her time, she wrote more about labor and business practices, social responsibility, and religious issues than personal relationships.  The daughter of a wealthy family, she was also one of the highest paid authors in America at a time when Mark Twain was still self-publishing his work.  She lived a very lavish lifestyle for a long time, but her popularity decreased as her political and social views—and writing style—fell out of fashion.  The Great Depression finished off her fortune and she was dependent on relatives until her death in 1934.

The group found this fascinating—they were interested in knowing why an author would fall out of fashion, especially since they unanimously enjoyed the story.  They thought the description of the hard economic times was reminiscent of the Great Depression and the 1980s and the the motivations of the characters were true and universal—they even liked that the characters worked for their own happy ending.  Yet not one of them had ever heard of Octave Thanet or Alice French.

So, why hasn’t her stuff stood the test of time as well as some of the other stories we read?

By the end of our discussion, we decided we’d figured it out:

Politics change.  Alice French had strong political views.  She wasn’t, for example, in favor of organized labor—she believed good management was hands-on and paternal. and that loyalty to the business and its owners should be paramount and was always rewarded in the end.   Once the labor movement began to pick up speed, her readership dwindled.

She was also anti-communism a few decades too early, which we agreed would have lost her some of her younger readers at a time when the literary community was starting to experiment with politics.

And women, she felt, had better things to do than vote.

There was some laughter and one low whistle.  “Oh,” said one reader.  “I see.”

Society changes.  Two readers noticed that there were no women in this story—they thought it was odd for a woman writer to ignore women.

While Alice French did have a few strong female characters,  they were usually forced into leadership roles as placeholders before the right men returned to the fold to “save them.”  And they were often part of the heros’ prize for finally stepping up to his rightful place.

My readers—all women today—decided that while they could understand why Alice French might have thought that way at the time she wrote her more popular stuff, they could also see why that attitude might have put people off later.

And writing styles change.  The first two paragraphs of “The Spellbinder,” describe how lovely and prosperous the farming community is, remarks that it is interesting to know how hard the settlers of this land had to work for their bounty—and in the next sentence, the reader is plunged into the dispair of those desperate settlers.  This framing style wasn’t unusual back then, but although the readers in our group are familiar with prologues in novels, they’re used to having them clearly marked, as separate sections or flashbacks.  “Short stories are supposed to start where they start,” someone said.

Most readers had some character confusion at first and a little trouble untangling who was speaking in the opening conversation, as there weren’t enough dialogue tags to be sure and the person being described wasn’t always the person speaking.

The group also felt that the lessons were a bit heavy-handed.  “The author does such a great job showing us what’s going on, and then she tells us, too,” said one reader.  “She could have skipped that and trusted us to get it.”

We decided that if “The Spellbinder” was indicative of the uncompromisingly strong style of Alice French’s work, it wasn’t too much of a surprise that it was popular when it was written—and that its popularity didn’t quite make it to World War II.   Once a writer drops out of readers’ minds, it’s tough to return.

“But,” one reader said, to general agreement, “that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be read.

“We should have a forgotten stories club!” said someone else.

Everyone looked at me and grinned.

“I’m doing my best,” I said, holding up my photocopy of “The Spellbinder” like a shield.  But I ended up promising that I’d try to find others for next year’s list.

Maybe we can get some of these stories, and writers, back on the radar.

Any suggestions?


Image courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries