“While your story took place in the late 1800s, the women in the story for the most part were displaying a more modern profeminist attitude towards sexuality and some of the roles they played. Was there anything in your research that supported this position or in your view would it be a mistake to presume that this profeminist stance did not exist at the time?”
Women at that time period, late 1800’s, according to my research, were more free in their views then women were in the early 20th century. Sexology as a field of study developed in the 1890’s and, in part as a reaction to the growing freedom of the 1890’s “New Woman,” constrained women’s behaviour and relationships by a narrowing definition of normalcy.
In my research I found references to “women left sitting,” ie unmarried, who, between the lines, appeared to be lesbians. People were aware of it but turned a blind eye. For example, there is a 20th century Yiddish poem where the author wrote about her grandmother making reference to a lesbian relative who never married, while never using the word lesbian. At the time of The River Midnight, gay men and lesbian women were out and had clubs in Europe and it would not have been unusual in cultured society, such as in Warsaw, for two men (as they do in RM) to be obvious intimates.
Let me tell you about a play I found written by a Yiddish author in the 1890’s. God of Vengeance by Sholom Asch was a play about a brothel owner. It was really about his hypocrisy in running a brothel and wanting to donate a Torah to his synagogue. But as a side plot, his daughter was in love with one of the (female) prostitutes and they ran away together. This was all matter-of-fact and not a matter for expressing shock in the play. The father was upset about his daughter’s involvement with a prostitute, but no mention was made of his being shocked about her being a lesbian. The stage directions included a kiss between the women. This play was not only written, but published and performed. During my research I was personally very surprised to discover that attitudes toward homosexuality were more progressive in the 1890’s then in the 20th century. While this play was written in 1907 and successfully performed in Europe, the play was controversial when performed on Broadway in the 1920’s and resulted in obscenity charges. The play was similarly controversial when performed in 1992!
You have to remember that there is a different view of women’s roles in the west and in the shtetl. Jewish men’s business was Torah, ie study of religion. Women’s business was in the marketplace. That seems feminist to a western woman whose view of women’s roles comes from the British middle class ideal where, in the Victorian era, women in the middle class were “angels of the house.” British working class women also stayed home after marriage but did piece work in the home to earn money. By contrast, at the same time in the shtetl, most women were involved in the marketplace, in trade or in some small business. Poor men also did so; men whose wives could support them studied Torah. (Some wealthy families could obtain husbands for their daughters who were Torah scholars and then support them in their study so they didn’t work.)
In the 19th century wealthy shtetl families obtained secular education for their daughters, which, again seems feminist by western views of education. But their sons received a strictly religious education because that was considered more important. Daughters of wealthy families weren’t entitled to a religious education, so, ironically, they were by our standards better educated because they learned literature, languages, science, etc. In poor families sons received a basic religious education which would enable them to read Hebrew for prayer. Daughters were not entitled to have that, but got the basics which would enable them to conduct commerce (read and write in Yiddish and perhaps Polish or Russian). Women read whatever they could get their hands on. Book peddlers who brought Yiddish books to shtetls were very popular.
Faygela is based on real Yiddish women who were authors in late 19th century Europe. In fact, to make it more believable, she is not as accomplished as they were because she lives in a backwater and she doesn’t have many opportunities there. I went to great lengths to make sure that anything I wrote in RM was true to the time period in fact.
However having said all that, I would add that the purpose of writing historically is not only to bring a past time to light but also to view it through the lens of the author. That is the purpose of any sort of writing. I put my perspective of beauty, truth, justice, injustice and love into the story. So although everything in RM is factually correct, my guess is that what you sense in the writing as feminist is the gloss I put on it, which is different than how a conservative male writer would portray the shtetl.
Most writing about the shtetl was done post holocaust by men with the ethos of the mid 20th century influencing their portrayal of it, and that is one of the reasons I wrote RM. I felt that the other materials available on the shtetl were skewed to that particular perspective, rather than reflecting the vigour of women’s lives as I knew them to be.
At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulousse-Lautrec, 1892