So I was cruising down the Information Superighway, doing about 75, when I ran across a blog that raised a cybereyebrow at seeing a woman described as “a hard-boiled virgin”. This is a modestly obscure literary reference, and as I deal in mildly obscure books, I can help out with that.
“The Hard-Boiled Virgin” was a novel published in 1926 by Frances Newman, It is a semi-autobiographical tale of a southern belle of the 1920s, when a southern belle was not “supposed to know she was a virgin until she had ceased to be one.” She decides not to get married, instead preferring to concentrate on proving herself as a writer, rather than simply rely on nice reviews from famous male writers. (The book was praised by famous male writers H.L. Mencken and James Branch Cabell.)
The book was pretty hot stuff (it also touches on birth control and racism) and many writers of the time thought Frances Newman was going to make a lasting name for herself. She followed up her triumph with another novel that had much the same attitude toward the world and how it regarded women, called “Dead Lovers Are Faithful”. Reviewers said it wasn’t as much fun as the first book, but they always say that when the first book is such a surprise. The second one doesn’t pack the same punch.
Assuming you haven’t heard of Frances Newman before this, I suppose you may be wondering “So why haven’t I heard of Frances Newman before this?”
Frances Newman was (wait for it) a librarian in Georgia, and first attracted the attention of the literary world with snappy and intelligent book reviews. She enhanced her reputation by translating a volume of short stories from Europe. (Anything brought over from Europe was of suspect morality, so this boosted not just her fame for writing and scholarship, but her association with potentially spicy literature.) Finally, she took a leave of absence from the library to work on her hard-boiled heroine, with references from Mencken and Sherwood Anderson.
It should have been the beginning of a line of bestsellers and bannings in Boston, but she suffered crippling headaches, which affected her eyesight, making writing more of a chore. She dictated her second novel in 1928, and headed to Europe to work on a big translation job. Three days after she finished that, she was found dead in her hotel room, either from a cerebral hemorrhage or an overdose of a painkiller, depending on which report your read. She was 45. A third novel, written before her Hard-Boiled Bestseller, was found among her papers and published in 1985. (It was an homage to Jane Austen, one of her favorite authors, and not nearly so hard-boiled.)
No, I’m afraid we can’t credit her with inventing “hard-boiled fiction”, used so often to refer to stories of tough, unsentimental detectives. “Hard-boiled” had been used as an adjective in that way since the late nineteenth century. So what does it all mean to you? I fear it also does not mean your copy of this lost classic will pay for champagne at a Great Gatsby theme party. Unless you have a signed copy (she didn’t have time to sign many) you have a twenty or thirty dollar novel.
Still, if you want to read a book that was supposed to herald a great career, or a book which suggested southern belles had a use for sex besides genteel motherhood (James Branch Cabell got into trouble for that idea himself), or even a book which has not yet launched a thousand dissertations, be sure to come hunt for this one in July. It comes with a license to toss around the phrase “hard-boiled virgin” and make your friends stare.