review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Unpunished"


2125. "review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Unpunished""

- the complete version of my review

- credited to: tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE

- published on my "Critic" website October 23, 2022


review of

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Unpunished"

by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - October 22, 2022


Yet-another author I've known about for decades w/o having read anything by her - this being NOT one of the bks she was known for but, instead, one she cdn't get published in her lifetime. Gilman's well-known as an late 19th century / early 20th century feminist writer. Having recently also finished reading another more modern feminist detective story by Amanda Cross called "The Players Come Again" & having reviewed it ( ) it was interesting to compare the 2. Perhaps Cross's writing style struck me as well-done but a bit conventionally 'correct' in an academic sort of way while Gilman's seemed a bit more 'homespun' - the latter being more to my liking. I also found Cross to be sexist & somewhat humorless while Gilman didn't seem at all sexist & had plenty of humor. Unfortunately, what these writers shared, in addition to their feminism, is that they both committed suicide in their later yrs. That, for me, is very, very sad. "Unpunished" has various praising reviews on its 1st visible page, one of them by Cross:

""Anticipating 'domestic abuse' and 'battered women,' concepts that would not be formulated until our time, Gilman invented a 'Nick and Nora Charles' team of detectives, also avant le lettre. I'm glad that Gilman now joins all those women mystery writers who have revolutionized the genre."

"-Carolyn Heilbrun, author (as Amanda Cross)

of Death in a Tenured Position"

Nick & Nora Charles having been characters in Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Thin Man" (1934) wd put "Unpunished" (1929) before it as a novel featuring a wife & husband detective team. I don't know enuf about the genre to say whether any pre-existed "Unpunished". I suppose a case cd be made that Earl Derr Biggers's "7 Keys to Baldpate" (1913) ( ) is an earlier man & woman couple detective team novel b/c there's an undercover woman journalist on the case & a writer who stumbles across it. They work on it at the same time & in the same place & eventually get married.

As for Heilbrun's claim about there being "all those women mystery writers who have revolutionized the genre"? I've read work by the Detection Club (wch included Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Clemence Dane, & Margaret Cole - Cole having been part of a detective fiction writing married couple the husband part of wch was George Douglas Howard Cole - their 1st crime fiction novel appeared in 1923), Anna Katharine Green Rohlfs, Patricia Highsmith, P. D. James, Gypsy Rose Lee (Louise Hovick), Margaret Millar, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Louise Titchener, & Carolyn Wells (& I'm currently in the midst of reading something by Dorothy Cannell) - so I'm not the most ignorant of readers regarding crime fiction written by women.

W/ the above list in mind, I'm not sure that I'd say that any of them "revolutionized the genre" or, for that matter, that any male writter has revolutionized it either. Maybe I'm being too demanding, maybe I cd say that Edgar Allan Poe revolutionized it. I WILL say that the Detection Club's experiment in collaborative writing is historically important to me & that Patricia Highsmith strikes me as having written w/ greater psychological depth than most. Then again, Gypsy Rose Lee, Margaret Millar, & Yrsa Sigurdardóttir are also important to me for various reasons.

At any rate, I don't mean to detract from Gilman's claims-to-fame, I liked this novel very much. It's to no credit to the publishers of her time that none wd put it out - it's almost as outrageous as that no mainstream publisher w/ any money wd dare to publish something of mine in this day & age.

The editors of this edition, Catherine J. Golden & Denise D. Knight, admit to 'silent emendations', something I often wish editors wdn't feel so free to do:

"In cases of obvious typographical errors, missing punctuation (e.g., quotation marks to introduce dialogue), or absence of new paragraphing (e.g., when a new speaker is introduced), we have silently emended the text to enhance readability. For example, behing has been corrected to behind, bood to book, and so on. Some spellings have been regularized; for example, the name Flannigan appears in a variant form as Flanagan; likewise, aunty appears also as auntie and has been made consistent throughout. In addition, numerous comma splices have been silently corrected with semicolons and periods, and occasional fragments have been silently emended by changing semicolons to commas. Some dashes, particularly when used in conjunction with other punctuation, have been eliminated." - p x

Was all that really necessary?! According to dreary academic narrow-mindedness, yes; according to me, no. E.G.: Why do spellings 'have to be' regularized? Why not allow aunty and auntie to coexist? As for punctuation? Maybe Gilman liked the way she punctuated. I was reading an older bk recently in wch this punctuation: " :- " was used frequently. It was obviously an older device that I haven't seen in more recent txts & I liked it for that. I can agree w/ correcting obvious misspellings & variations in proper nouns. Imagine one of these academic editors getting ahold of my writing & 'correcting' it: they'd obviously remove all abbreviations 1st off. I choose to use the abbreviations, they're not an accident.

The author provides a prefatory statement that immediately shows her sense of humor:

"This story has murder enough to satisfy the most demanding, applied in a manner decidedly unusual. It has crime enough for our present day taste, but the criminals are all out of order. There is a pair of most amiable detectives, and another one far from amiable. The mystery involved is not merely in the usual question of who did it, but in the unusual one of who did it first. Some of the tale is amusing.

"Charlotte Perkins Gilman" - p 2

What exactly is "murder enough to satisfy the most demanding" & why is it that there must be "crime enough for our present day taste"? Right there, it seems that Perkins has a somewhat wry perception of what the readers of her time wanted in order to be engaged - & not much has changed since then except that the 'need' for violence has become even more escalated. As a moviemaker I've commented on that from time-to-time. My movies rarely have murder or even violence in them - as such, I find that most (v)audiences find them impossible to endure b/c of this 'lack' of conventional emotional entry points.

Gilman's detective couple are loving, for that matter so is Cross's relationship between her literary detective Kate Fansler & her fictional husband.

"He helped her put on the dishes, remarking for the hundreth time, "I'm so glad you don't set a tenement-house table, Bess," at which she smiled and solemnly producing a foot-rule measured from the edge of the table to each end of the platter. They sat in contented quiet for a time, and presently Bessie asked, "Is it a murder, Jim? A real mysterious detective kind of murder?"" - p 5

"["]We drew back the curtains, pulled up the shades, let in a glare of light, then went close to examine the body, not touching anything of course . . . There was a bullet hole in his right temple. There was a long bruise on his head from front to back; he was bald enough to show it. There was a knife stuck in his neck, inside the collar bone, sunk to the hilt. And, if you'll believe it there was a cord around his neck too . . ."

"Bessie sat staring at him, her eyes large with horror. "What's your possible five?" she breathed.

""That I'm not sure of. But there was a decanter on the table partly filled with whiskey, and a glass by his left hand with a few drops in it. Crasher looked at it, smelt it, wet a finger tip and tasted it. 'Thorough job!' he said. 'Poison!' Then Iris laughed."" - p 17

Yes, not everyone is upset about the victim's death. In fact, probably no-one is.

""'My brother-in-law was a blackmailer,' she plumped at us, hurrying to get it across before the police came. 'He took advantage of his professional position, clients' confidences and so on, and used that man Crasher to gather evidence for him.['"]" - p 20

Much is made by the reviewers & editors of this bk about its prescient emphasis on patriarchical abuse. I can agree w/ that - but at the same time I can imagine the despicable deceased being comparable to a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens villain - or, really, just about ANY villain. 1st, he's a lawyer - why lawyers aren't illegal is beyond me.

Here's something about Austen's character Mr. William Elliot from "Persuasion":

"The cousin of Anne Elliot and Sir Walter's heir, Mr. Elliot is a duplicitous and charming gentleman. After making his fortune from his first marriage, he seeks the baronetcy that he previously scorned by marrying Anne. Although he makes himself agreeable to everyone and is admired by Anne herself, she rightly suspects his past-one that involves considerable greed, callousness, and even cruelty." -

& what about Mr Tulkinghorn in Dickens's "Bleak House"? He's a lawyer absolutely lacking in any scruples whatsoever. The point is that Wade Vaughn, the murdered man in "Unpunished", is an abusive creep of the 1st order, one that wd be the villain in just about anyone's bks & his abuse of women & children (& adults of both sexes) isn't exactly just something that wd be condemned by feminist authors alone.

""What on earth's an ant-lion?" demanded Mrs. Hunt. "I've heard of ant-eaters; is it one of them?"

""Not at all, my attractive but ignorant young lady. It's a kind of spider. He digs a funnel-shaped hole in the sand and squats at the bottom of it, well covered up, waiting for the ants to fall in-which they do."

""I may be ignorant," she remarked with some acerbity, "but at least I know enough to not call a spider 'he,' not a working spider."

""Score one," said Tom." - p 43

This is one of those writerly touchs that I love: the introduction of a completely irrelevant tidbit snuck in under the guise of friendly banter. Besides, everyone knows it shd be "aunty-lion".

Bess decides to infiltrate the household where the murder occurred in order to keep it & its occupants under observation. This manifests her co-detective's role admirably.

"["]Do you realize that that distracted household has no servant? And is likely to have difficulty getting them? And that ingenious Mr. Crasher might have some up his sleeve to plant on 'em? That's where little sister gets in ahead of him! Please call up Dr. Akers right now, ask him to 'phone Mrs. Warner about the 'treasure' he has found for her. I guess he'll give me a good character. He can tell her I'll be there at seven tomorrow morning. I want to get an inside view of these people."

"Jim gazed upon his wife in profound admiration. He did more than gaze; he solemnly bowed from the hips and kissed her hand.

""Bess-you certainly are the elephant's howdah! I say nothing of your ruthlessly sacrificing a loving and dependent husband, but admire you unreservedly."" - pp 46-47

A howdah being a seat, usually w/ a canopy, on an elephant's or a camel's back, something that cd be bedecked w/ jewelry or otherwise decorated as a sign of wealth, I have to wonder about it as a metaphorical compliment. Mightn't it've been better to call Bess an 'auntie-lion's hole'?

The list of Wade Vaughn's victims includes more or less everyone around him. One of them, Mrs. Jacqueline "Jack" Warner is the sister of Vaughan's wife, the wife who commited suicide to get away from him. A long typescript of Mrs. Warner's is discovered by Bess & used as an excuse in the novel to provide a different POV & a different typeface as well as to provide important details previously hidden. Mrs. Warner, her son, & the daughter of her deceased sister all have the misfortune of living w/ Vaughn & depending on his patronage to survive.

"We can't get out. He's got us in a trap. I'm helpless to earn a living for myself and two children, helpless and hideous. And I could be cured, Dr. Akers tells me, my feet and my face too-almost, with this wonderful facial surgery they use now, but that would cost money, and Wade has it all. When I asked to have it done, humiliated myself and begged, urged that if I were straightened out I could earn enough to pay him back, he said I was sufficiently useful to him as I was, and more likely to stay! Like the Chinese women...

"And there he sits in my father's chair at the table, at my father's desk in the study, drinking my father's old whiskey, master of the house, and of all the money-and of us..." - pp 70-71

The plight of Mrs. Warner & the children dates back to a car accident in wch she was maimed & her husband & the husband of her sister were killed.

"It was Hal's tenth birthday, and all of us were celebrating by a long drive in Sydney's big car. I never knew what caused the accident." - p 74

Given the degree of Vaughn's infamy, it seems likely that he caused the accident. However, the novel doesn't pursue that possibility.

"So when he strolled in again and asked if I'd decided, I just told him that I had no choice, and I would be very glad to take the care of the house off my sister.

""I don't doubt you will make an excellent housekeepr, Jacqueline," he said. "But remember the condition, submissive and obedient."

""You and father seem of one mind as to obedience," I remarked.

""We are" he said, with that little chuckle I hate so. "We are both of us fond of it. He was not able to enforce it however, and I am." Then he came and sat down by me and put his arm around me.

""Give me a kiss, my dear sister," he said, "a nice crooked kiss."" - p 82

These "nice crooked kiss"es imply rapes to be perpetrated later.

The father, whose convenient death & will have enabled Vaughn's financial control, is eventually determined to've been murdered.

""You remember when old man Smith came home-paralyzed?"

"Bessie looked up sharply. "Yes?"

""Well he was paralyzed with a blackjack!["]" - p 131

One of the many things I like about Gilman's writing here is her use of slang. The endnote for p 134 explains one of these:

"Gilman is probably using the term forty-'leven as an informal expression of exaggeration. Such colloquial expressions are found frequently in her writings." - p 211

One of the people who are found to help out the potentially accused Mrs. Warner after Vaughn's death is thanked.

""Why I've done nothing at all; it's all my wife," protested Dr. Murdock, while that lady assured them that she wouldn't have missed it for worlds. "It's like a play," she delightedly explained, "like a novel, a nice novel. I never was in one before."" - p 193

Ha ha!

There's an "Afterword", presumably written by one or the other or both of the editors.

"In 1929, the year before her seventieth birthday, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) finished writing Unpunished, the last full-length fictional work of a long and highly productive career. Written during a time of waning sympathy for women's rights, Unpunished is a remarkable work. Gilman essentially follows the conventions of the popular detetctive novel of the 1920s but weaves in a thread of satire and a compelling message about the possible consequences of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Both the dark humor that punctuates the pages of Unpunished and the theme of social injustices suffered by women were familiar territory to Gilman. The oppression of women was a common topic in her writing, and satire was often the vehicle Gilman chose to trumpet her cause." - p 213

By today's standards, I don't think that the "dark humor" is very dark but I imagine that it might've been at the time. As for "satire"? I don't see much (or any) of that either. For me, it's just a detective novel w/ a sense of humor that calls attn to the crimes of patriarchy. Then again, maybe if I were more knowledgable about "the popular detective novel of the 1920s" it might seem more obviously satirical to me.

"Because her ideas were considered radical, Gilman frequently had difficulty placing her work. She founded the Forerunner after author and editor Theodore Dreiser suggested that if she wanted to sell her work, she should tailor her writing to more popular tastes. As she remarked in her autobiography, "[I]f one writes to express important truths, needed yet unpopular, the market is necessarily unlimited. As all my principal topics were in direct contravention of established views, beliefs and emotions, it is a wonder that so many editors took so much of my work for so long" (Living 304)." - p 215

Girl-o, Boy-o, can I relate to that. I'm 69 as I write this, Gilman was 69 when she finished Unpunished. I wdn't quite express it this way but I still think that my work "express[es] important truths [that're] needed yet unpopular" & that "all my principal topics" [are] "in direct contravention of established views, beliefs and emotions" - & that seems to be less & less tolerated the older I get. Fortunately for me, I live in an era where self-publishing is easier than it wd've been in Gilman's day. Even w/ that advantage I find myself blocked by a variety of subterfuges.

"The writing of Unpunished in the late 1920s coincided with the decline in the women's movement. No longer able to secure a following, Gilman resented her fallen popularity. Moreover, she lamented the turn of events for women, who, in her opinion, had made little progress toward gaining equality, particularly compared to the widespread transformation she had envisioned for her society and advanced through her theoretical works.

"Still eager to reach a wide audience in her later years, Gilman turned to the popular genre of detective fiction, completing Unpunished in 1929, during a post-feminist era not unlike our own." - p 216

I'm more than a little perplexed by the above - wch cd be easily attributed to ignorance on my part. For one thing, the 19th amendment, passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, gave women the right to vote - something agitated for for a long time &, therefore, hypothetically, at least, a major victory. As for 1929 being "a post-feminist era not unlike our own", ie: 1997, I find that even harder to acknowledge as true. How was 1997 "a post-feminist era"? According to my own observations, all liberal society by 1997 wd've been deeply entrenched in feminist positionings. E.G.: it seems to me that any woman professor at a liberal university wd've been committing career suicide by taking a non-feminist position.

"Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer. As the disease advanced, she planned her suicide; on August 17, 1935, at the age of seventy-five, she inhaled choloroform and died peacefully at home." - pp 217-218

Hhmmm, I wonder how peacefully death by inhalation of chloroform wd actually be? "Acute inhalation of chloroform can cause systemic effects such as excitement, nausea, vomiting followed by dizziness, ataxia and drowsiness." ( ) Wd death by breast cancer have really been worse? In this situation, I have to wonder how much the medical industry exacerbated her bad health & her perception of it.

All in all, this is an important bk to me & I'm very glad I finally read something by Gilman. I'm thankful to The Feminist Press at the City University of New York for making it available after entirely too much neglect.




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