A bad girl abroad: The first American travel novel

It’s not every day that one leans back in one’s chair after finishing an academic article printed 15 years ago in the scintillating Henry James Review and says “Holy shit.” But today is indeed such a day, dear readers. Because hot damn, I found some history.

Sarah Wadsworth is an English professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and waaaay back in 2001 she wrote an article tracing the roots of Henry James’s interest in American women getting into trouble in Europe. Among his many accolades, James gets the credit for “inventing” the literary trope of the American ingenue abroad.

But get this: The first “travel novel” featuring an American woman as its protagonist is actually Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden: A Story, about a young woman’s love triangle in Rome. Wadsworth argues that Mae Madden was probably the inspiration for James’s Daisy Miller, which more or less put him on the map. Daisy Miller is about “an impossibly well-dressed American girl” and her romantic entanglements in Rome, and the plots of the two books track pretty closely. Mae Madden was first published in 1875 and again in 1876. Daisy Miller appeared in 1878.

Mason’s novel is significant because she broke with the popular trend of writing about one’s real travels in painstaking detail. “The concern that ‘there is nothing new to tell’ was evidently a common one in the 1870s, when the popularity of American women’s travel writing was at its peak,” wrote Wadsworth. So instead of just publishing a diary about her time in Italy like her peers did, Mason turned her experiences into a fictional story!

I cannot emphasize enough how big of a shift this was for American travel writing.

Unfortunately, Mason got scooped on the idea of fictionalizing her travels by another American literary giant: Louisa May Alcott, who published a short parody of her own European travels in 1872 (maybe 1871?). “Shawl-Straps” is a collection of sketches that appears in Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, a smorgasbord of short stories that Alcott’s publisher threw together as a cash grab in the wake of Little Women.

Here’s Alcott’s preface to “Shawl-Straps”:

There is a sort of fate about writing books of travel which it is impossible to escape. It is vain to declare that no inducement will bribe one to do it, that there is nothing new to tell, and that nobody wants to read the worn-out story: sooner or later the deed is done, and not till the book is safely shelved does peace descend upon the victim of this mysterious doom.

The only way in which this affliction may be lightened to a long-suffering public is to make the work as cheerful and as short as possible. With this hope the undersigned bore has abstained from giving the dimensions of any church, the population of any city, or description of famous places, as far as in her lay; but confined herself to the personal haps and mishaps, adventures and experiences, of her wanderers.

Alcott modeled “Shawl-Straps” closely on her contemporaries’ travel diaries. The piece starts off with a bit about the annoyance of sailing to Europe from Boston, and her chapters are organized by location: Brittany, France, Switzerland, Italy, London. But unlike the diarists, who all wrote in first person, Alcott wrote in third and recounted the “adventures” of an old spinster named Miss Lavinia.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the innovativeness of “Shawl-Straps,” because it’s not a breezy read. Sure, you don’t suffer through Alcott’s personal travel details, but you do endure Miss Lavinia’s fake ones. And guess what? Alcott misled us in her preface: the word “church” appears THIRTY TIMES.

Anyway, Alcott may technically get the “first” award here, but Mason’s novel is the more significant work, so let’s get back to that.

Mason is a historical enigma despite the fact that one of the most famous American authors of all time essentially lifted her script. Wadsworth managed to come up with some biographical information, which she included in a footnote. In 1872, Mary Murdoch married a Chicago Tribune writer (Alfred Bishop Mason), who subsequently went to work for railroad companies. The Masons lived in Florida from 1883 through 1889, possibly longer. Then they moved to Mexico, where Mason’s husband worked as president of the Vera Cruz & Pacific Railroad from 1898 through 1902. In 1905, he became president of the Cauca Railroad, and the Masons lived in Colombia through 1907.

It’s not clear whether Mason went to Europe before or during her marriage, and I’m hesitant to guess. She appears to have visited Rome, Paris, and perhaps Switzerland, probably as part of a “grand tour” route followed by many of her contemporaries.

We know that Mason died in 1912. However, her husband was buried with his second wife in Florence, Italy, which means we don’t know where Mason died or how old she was. She does not appear to have had any children.

Mae Madden was Mason’s only substantive project. Wadsworth wrote: “Apart from Mae Madden, the only published works of Mary Murdoch Mason’s that I have been able to discover are three sketches in Harper’s Weekly (“Three Christmases,” “Joke of the Gemini,” and “The Flying Man”); a history of New York co-authored with her husband (“The Fourteen Miles Round”); two poems in The Century Magazine (“O Brothers Blind!” and “The Surgeon’s Hand”); and a review entitled “The Fourth Art.””

Okay, so let’s take a peek at the book itself. Here’s the opening of Mae Madden: 

It’s something like dying, I do declare,” said Mae, and as she spoke, a suspicious-looking drop slid softly across her cheek, down over the deck-railing, to join its original briny fellows in the deep below.

“What is like dying?” asked Eric.

“Why, leaving the only world you know. There, you see, papa and mamma are fast fading away, and here we are traveling off at the rate of ever so many miles an hour.”

“Knots, Mae; do be nautical at sea.”

Like the diarists, we begin our story onboard a steamer ship headed across the Atlantic. We’re introduced to our main traveling companions, and our protagonist purposefully demonstrates her naiveté in various ways so that we’ll appreciate her hard-won maturity by the end. There’s also a dialogue about women’s rights and some complaints about modern American men, because apparently no one talked about anything else onboard steamer ships.

Then the narrative shifts to take the form of letters from Mae to Mama, which allows Mason to mimic the structure of real travelogues, which were often just collections of letters. (A good example of this is Nettie Fowler Dietz’s account of her trip to Italy, told through letters to her sister.) We shift back and forth from letters to straight narrative throughout the story.

But what makes Mae Madden so special is that Mason doesn’t just the scenery that Mae encounters — though there’s plenty of that. There’s also an actual plot! Stuff happens! And it’s scandalous stuff!

Mae is traveling with her two brothers, a female chaperone, and a friend of her brothers named Norman Mann. (Mm hm.) She meets an older Italian officer named Bero and finds herself torn between him and Mann. Bero is dashing, exotic, and very forward. There’s a bunch of back and forth between her and the two guys, and both make big gestures at various points.

Spoiler alert: Ultimately, Mae opts for the safer choice, mostly because she’s ready to go home.

“No, Italy is not my home, although I love it so well. There is a certain wide old doorway not many miles from New York, and the hills around it, and the great river before it, and the people in it, all belong together, too. That’s where we belong, Norman, in America, our home,” and Mae struck a grand final pose with her hands clasped ecstatically, and her eyes flashing in the true Goddess of Liberty style.

This isn’t exactly a Jane Austen novel. We don’t end with a wedding or a presumed happily ever after. Instead, we end with a frank if unsettling conversation between Mae and Norman about what it means for her to settle down:

“I’ve said good-bye to my dreams of life—the floating and waving and singing and dancing life that was like iced champagne. I’d rather have cold water, thank you, sir, for a steady drink, morning, noon and night. I’m going to be good, to read and study and grow restful,” –and Mae folded her hands and looked off toward the sea.

“She’s a witching child,” thought Norman.

Then she raised her head. “I said it lightly because I felt it deeply,” she added, as if in reply to his thought. “I am going to grow, if I can, unselfish and sympathetic, and perhaps, who knows, wise, and any way good.”

Noble Norman tries to tell Mae that there will also be a little champagne in her life, with a dinner party here and there. Then he proposes by writing her name in the sand with his last name at the end of it. The book ends with him consoling her as she laments how she’s no longer interesting.

After reading Mae Madden, I’m left with the same taste in my mouth I got after finishing Ella Thompson’s diary, a witty account of her travels with six other women through Europe. Thompson’s diary ends melancholically as she disembarks from the ship and returns to her married life, which she describes at the opening of the book as a sort of walled prison. (She died shortly after her trip; her diary was published posthumously.)

Wadsworth comes right out with it: “Mae, like other American women who left Italy for the United States, must become reconciled to the loss of her recent freedom and the exchange of art and imagination for familiar ‘domestic’ pleasures: those of her own country as well as those of hearth and home.”

Ug.

When I started this post, I was seriously euphoric about being able to pin down such a crucial moment in American writing — the first “travel fictions” by women — but I’m ending a little more soberly. I think sometimes we really do forget how far we’ve come as a culture in terms of women’s empowerment and equality in marriage. Sure, we’re not perfect, but at least marriage proposals are now reasons to celebrate, not cry.

So next time I start to take my own free-thinking husband for granted, I’ll just re-read Mae Madden and say to myself, “At least I didn’t marry Norman.”

(P.S. In case you’re curious: The first woman to ever write a travel novel appears to be Frenchwoman Madame de Staël, who published the tragic love story Corinne, or Italy in 1807. “Both Corinne and its author came to symbolize, in the popular imagination, the struggle of the woman of genius for honor and love,” said Wadsworth.)

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