Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart  (1844-1911)

   Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was the author of fifty-seven volumes of fiction, poetry and essays. Personal experience led her to write about the problems and treatment of women. She gained popularity through the publication of The Gates Ajar (1868), a novel offering a comforting view of the afterlife to women who had lost loved ones in the Civil War.
   When one considers the manner of her retelling of the Arthurian tales, particularly in her fiction, they seem to coalesce with her other work about social injustice. Her approach is to translate the inhabitants of Camelot into a nineteenth-century setting. Her Lady of Shalott is a sickly seventeen year old girl living in a slum and supported by her sister who earns a poverty wage doing piece-work. When the mirror through which she views the world is broken by street urchins throwing rocks, she succumbs and dies. Her Galahad is a man in love with another woman that remains faithful to his wife even though she is "crazy" and "takes opium". Not until after her death does he marry the woman he loves on Christmas Day. And her Arthur, Guenever, and Launcelot in "The True Story of Guenever" are a carpenter, his wife, and a boarder they take in. The story of their relationship is an exploration of the position of a woman in marriage in the nineteenth century. Phelps makes it clear that the story is told from a woman's perspective and that is why it is "the true story of Guenever."
   Her traditional Arthurian poems, "The Terrible Test," "Elaine and Elaine," and "Guinevere," were reprinted in her collection Songs of the Silent World (1891). Even in the tradional, she confronts the standard images evoked by Tennyson, strengthening the role of the women and crying for the loss of humanity in the men.

Poetry Section