Sedgwick, Anne Douglas

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SEDGWICK, Anne Douglas

Born 28 March 1873, Englewood, New Jersey; died 19 July 1935, Hampstead, England

Daughter of George S. and Mary Douglas Sedgwick; married Basil de Sélincourt, 1908

Born to gentility and wealth and descended from early settlers of Massachusetts, Anne Douglas Sedgwick developed a strong if idealistic sense of caste and tradition, which later expanded into a Jamesian preoccupation with the social and psychological relationships between people of different cultures. She was intrigued particularly by the confrontation of English and French cultures and by the American's encounter with the mores and values of the old world. Sedgwick's affluent and genteel background also generated a devotion to social manners, costume, and interior design.

As a child, Sedgwick lived in her parents' elegant home in Irvington-on-Hudson, near New York City, and was educated by a governess. Except for two happy years spent with grandparents in Ohio when she was a teenager, childhood provided Sedgwick with her only sustained exposure to her native America. During Sedgwick's tenth year, her father, an attorney, moved his wife and three daughters to London. There Sedgwick lived and studied until she was eighteen. Then she studied painting in Paris for five years.

It is not, however, as a painter but as a novelist that Sedgwick is best known. The Dull Miss Archinard (1898), a half-serious venture on Sedgwick's part, became a popular success and gave Sedgwick the impetus to continue writing stories about an existence devoid of emotions and barely touched by the daily vicissitudes of life.

Sedgwick married Basil de Sélincourt, an English essayist, in 1908. Except for the World War I years, when she and her husband worked in France as hospital volunteers, Sedgwick conducted her affairs from her home near the Cotswolds. She cultivated the image of the genteel lady of letters who tended her rosebushes, served tea to the prime minister's wife, and wrote pleasant fiction, and who was equally conversant with fashionable ladies and radical writers. The de Sélincourt "salon" admitted aristocrats, prominent politicians, and literary notables. Most of Sedgwick's "liberal thinking" and social consciousness was, however, something of a pose, common among the genteel class of her era and more the expression of sentimental idealism than real commitment.

In 1931 Sedgwick was elected to the (American) National Institute of Arts and Letters, having written 17 novels, two collections of short stories, and a rather charming account of the reminiscences of a friend, A Childhood in Brittany Eighty Years Ago (1919). She died in 1935 after a lengthy paralytic illness.

Tante (1911) was Sedgwick's most successful novel measured by American sales, but The Little French Girl (1924) is artistically better. Though as is characteristic of Sedgwick's fiction, the precocious child of the latter book is a little too precocious, the sensitive man a little too sensitive, and the mysterious lady a little too mysterious. Yet Sedgwick plays out her theme of the tensions created by cultural differences well, and gives the characters some fullness of personality missing in her other books. Also attractive is the juxtaposition of the vitality of the little French girl's promiscuous mother to the insipidness of the child's virginial friend, Toppie. The apparently selfless and saintly Toppie emerges as the character whose selflessness has been an effective cover for a fundamental egocentricity and martyr-complex that threatens to harm not only herself but others. Toppie is an example of Sedgwick's best efforts at irony and perceptive characterization.

Sedgwick's female characters are interesting combinations of conventionality and modernism. Generally the positive heroines are man-and-marriage (but not maternity) oriented. Yet, like Gillian in The Old Countess (1927) they reveal an independence of spirit, thought, and emotional reaction that makes the reader wish Sedgwick had devoted more time to character and less to plot.

As novels of manners, Sedgwick's novels are accurate and thorough representations of the social customs and attitudes of the cultures they analyze, but she never quite manages a sustained psychological realism. Invariably, Sedgwick is carried away by romantic plots, idealism, and the social mise en scene.

Other Works:

The Confounding of Camelia (1899). The Rescue (1902). Paths of Judgment (1904). The Shadow of Life (1906). A Fountain Sealed (English title, Valerie Upton, 1907). Annabel Channice (1908). Franklin Winslow Kane (1910). The Nest (1912). Short Stories (1913). The Encounter (1914). The Third Window (1920). Christmas Roses (English title, Autumn Crocuses, 1920). Christmas Roses, and Other Stories (1920). Adrienne Toner (1921). The Nest, and Other Stories (1926). Dark Hester (1929). Phillippa (1930).


de Sélincourt, B., ed., Anne Douglas Sedgwick: A Portrait in Letters (1936). Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1928). Overton, G., An Hour of the American Novel (1929). Quinn, A. H., American Fiction (1936). Swanson, G., "The Novels of Anne Douglas Sedgwick" (dissertation, 1956).

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