Friday, March 23, 2012

Virginia Women Writers at Home #4

Rita Mae Brown (1944 - )

Our fifth Virginia author brings us to the late 20th century as into the past. Though born in the Hanover, Pa horse country, Rita Mae Brown, through her father, claims Virginia roots, all the way back to “when the earth was cooling.”[i] Currently she owns a farm in Nelson County where she writes about Virginia history and indulges in her animals and in the very Virginian sport of fox hunting. Both appear in her novels, especially a cat, “Sneaky Pie Brown,” who co-authored nineteen “cozy” mysteries. Another mystery series centers on Brown’s foxhunting club.

To this bibliography she has added screen plays, poetry, and nonfiction writings, many of which brought new themes to popular American literature. The theme of Brown’s first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) is a coming of age story of a lesbian and it was the ground breaking novel of that genre. This was not a passive interest. In the late 1960’s Brown was active in the many civil rights issues of the day. Some consider her the “Mother of the Gay Movement.” [ii]

Thirteen other novels explore in historical fiction nuances of American society in the past and in the present. Riding Shotgun (1996) [iii] opened at the end of the 20th century with the main character beset with contemporary situations. A struggling Pryor (Cig) Deyhle Blackwood, a widow for a year, has just learned that her husband was seducing her sister when he died and that her teenage daughter is a lesbian. These are distractions from her responsibilities as master of the hunt. Returning from the fox chase, Cig rides into a fog and emerges in 1699 living with her ancestors on a plantation along the James River. While learning to live in the past (she misses her phone and cola) Pryor tries to explain the 20th century to her uncomprehending sister-in-law, Margaret. Margaret coaches her in the ways of the past and in her relationships. A relationship Pryor questions is her commitment to a marriage to Lionel deVries a wealthy planter who wants to join the Deyle and deVries holdings. He does not act like a suitor who is looking for partner, as Pryor is. When Pryor expresss her views, her prospective mother-in-law responds:
Dear Pryor, a woman can never be a man’s partner. She must think for him and make him believe it was his idea She must plan for the future whilst he is crowing and displaying his tail feather to other shortsighted men. Men are children grown large… That is our destiny.

And they take credit for our labor. Cig flared….

The old woman shrugged. “What of it? What of the world? What matters is that we know what we have done.[iv]
A more reflective and more sagacious Cig, pursued by Indians, emerges from the forest to the present to deal with her problems.

Rita Mae Brown is still publishing novels, still riding to the hounds, still rescuing cats and still fixing chicken pens on her Tea Time Farm. She is the master of the Oak Ridge Foxhunt Club.


We have undertaken this effort to bring to the reader’s attention women authors who wrote about Virginia and about their women characters. Our writers wrote in and about periods when Virginia played a unique role on the American continent. The plantation of colonial and antebellum Virginia was as much a creation as the people who inhabited these writings. Descriptions of visits the characters took to Jamestown, Richmond, and Charlottesville illustrates the connective-ness that many people with roots in early Virginia still maintain today, especially south of northern Virginia. The one trip or thought to elsewhere that the authors took, or their characters took, was to New York City, but they always to return to Virginia.[v] Virginia as “the place” was central to the writer’s theme.

With their characters, these authors took care to bring to the forefront women’s underappreciated and subtly strong influence. The young women, perhaps reflective of these authors’ experiences, are allowed to rebel some, but, in general, none overstep the bounds of their society unless the circumstances dictate the change. The strength of their women characters are mirrored the courage and the uniqueness of these well received woman writers.

All the books were a good read. To be honest, the research for this blog was more fun than writing it. Letitia Burwell’s memoir and many of Amélie Rives books are available through Amazon. Many of the Johnson, Glasgow and Brown books are at the Massanutten Regional Library. All books mentioned are also available online and some can be downloaded onto e-readers.
[ii] April 9, 2010.
[iii] Rita Mae Brown. Riding Shotgun. Bantum Books. 1996.
[iv] Riding Shotgun. 186-7.
[v] Even the early settlers of Jamestown took comfort that it might be possible to go to the Dutch in Manhattan if the Indians rose up or a supply ship from England failed to arrive.

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