Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Calamity Jane

On finding that her fiance, Deadwood Dick, appears to have drowned in quicksand, Calamity Jane is described as follows: "When he had told her to come to Death Notch to become his wife, all the bitterness of her strange young life had seemingly melted into glorious sunshine, and she was happy. Little wonder, then, that bitter grief now returned to torture her, when they told her that the famous brave-knight had met so terrible a fate, after so many years of safe passage through constant peril"  (Chapter VI).

We've talked a lot about how the damsel-in-distress is the dominant narrative regarding female characters in 19th century texts.  (We'll ignore the Becky Sharpes of the world for now.)  Deadwood Dick opens with three such ladies: Vergie Verner, Siska, and Calamity Jane.  Of these, only Jane seems at first to be able to hold her own in the rough company of Death Notch.  It's ironic then that she, of all the characters, is the one whose narrative specifically references "brave-knights" who promise to rescue damsels.

I keep having the sense that these damsels in their various states of distress are offered to challenge the old, potent mythology of chivalry.  Already, by chapter 5, the most feminine of the bunch, Vergie Verner, has pulled a gun on a man offering to marry her, telling him, "I comprehend your magnanimous offer, but emphatically decline. When in need of a husband, I shall select a man-not a wolf in the guise of a man. You may inform Carrol Carner of my presence here, if you like, and tell him, also, that I have been taking daily practice with the revolver, lately, and I shall take advantage of the first opportunity to blow his brains out. Now, or I'll open up practice on you. Go! I mean biz!"

In some ways, she's a typical Romantic heroine, fending off the evil-intentions of unworthy men, but with a very important difference: this girl fights for herself.  In fact, in each of the three dime novels we have read, we find guns in the hands of women--often, these damsels are saving the knights-in-distress.

Ultimately, I don't know if dime novels are ever fully able to offer a fully independent woman, but the steps they take towards this strike me as fairly radical for the time.

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