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Gertrude Franklin Atherton (1857-1948), American biographer, historian and author of the best-seller Black Oxen (1923). She also wrote under the pen names Asmodeus and Frank Lin. She wrote many novels, short stories, essays, and articles for magazines and newspapers on such contemporary issues as feminism, politics and war. She is oft said to have been difficult and strong-willed herself, writing before her time, but her scope and range of vision in her stories of remarkable and independent woman entering the 20th century are well-respected and still in print.
Gertrude Franklin Horn was born 30 October, 1857, in San Francisco, California, U.S.A. Her father was Thomas L. Horn, a businessman, and her mother Gertrude Franklin was a relative of Benjamin Franklin. At the age of two young Gertrude went to live with her maternal grandfather when her parents separated and her mother remarried. She attended St. Mary's Hall high school in Benecia, California, then went on to the Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky for a time but contracted tuberculosis and couldn't remain. She was an avid reader and early on started to craft short stories.
In 1876, at the age of nineteen, Gertrude eloped with George H. Bowen Atherton, a former suitor of her mother's and the son of Faxon Atherton, a wealthy merchant and namesake of the town of Atherton in California. They would have a daughter, Muriel. Their son George died at the age of six. George Sr., a somewhat lacklustre and impassive man, and Gertrude lived with his mother Dominga de Goñi Atherton at her vast estate called Valparaiso Park in San Francisco, which is said to now be haunted by their ghosts. It is claimed that because of both women's domineering ways, George decided to venture to Chile in 1887 to prove his mettle, but died of kidney failure on the way. Now free to pursue her life as an author, Gertrude moved to New York, though travelled extensively in France, Germany and England.
Defying conventions in 1882 Atherton had published anonymously the scandalous The Randolph’s of the Redwoods, said to be based on a local families troubles. It was first serialised in the San Francisco Argonaut (later published as A Daughter of the Vine in 1899). Her family, including her husband and mother-in-law, were not impressed with her pursuing a career in writing, and her female characters exuding independence and sexuality caused them embarrassment. What Dreams May Come (1888) was published under the pseudonym Frank Lin. Hermia Suydam (1889) was another of Atherton's controversial works, deemed immoral by London critics. Whilst in California, she finished Los Cerritos (1890). The Doomswoman (1893) and Before the Gringo Came (1894) followed.
Atherton moved to England in 1895 and wrote Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897) and American Wives and English Husbands (1898). Senator North (1900) is based on the life of Eugene Hall of Maine. The Conqueror (1902), about Alexander Hamilton, while presented as fiction, fulfills Atherton's painstaking attention to detail from documented and published facts about the man and his life and was widely acclaimed. She also wrote a gothic-supernatural work The Bell in the Fog (1905) and her biographical story of Nicolai Petrovich de Rezánov and Dona Concha was published in 1906. The Gorgeous Isle (1908) explores the West Indian romance of a poet based on Swinburne. Julia France and Her Times (1912) is about the women's suffrage movement in England. During World War I, 1914 Atherton's service in hospitals earned her the Legion d'Honneur. Her essays on women's role in the war effort, The Living Present were published in 1917.
Having lived in Germany for a number of years and becoming acquainted with the culture and status of women in society, her The White Morning (1918) is an apt prediction that the women of Germany, having suffered too many losses of fathers, husbands and sons to war and "driven to desperation by suffering and privation, and disillusion, would arise suddenly and overturn the dynasty."
"They will do nothing futile, nothing without the most secret and methodical preparation of which even the German mind is capable. It will be like turning over in bed in camp: they will all turn over together. They are damnably efficient." .. "No one knows what the future holds, or what unexpected event will suddenly end the war; but I should not have written The White Morning if I had not been firmly convinced that a Gisela might arise at any moment and deliver the world."
Black Oxen (1923) was her biggest seller, though controversial. It is based on her experience of undergoing the Steinach treatment, meant to rejuvenate the ovaries with X-rays to gain "renewed mental vitality and neural energy". She claimed to have written it in record time. She created another heavily researched series of historical books, one about the philosopher Aspasia The Immortal Marriage (1927); Alcibiades in The Jealous Gods (1928), and a story of Dido in Dido, Queen of Hearts (1929).
Atherton had moved back to San Francisco and published her autobiography The Adventures of a Novelist in 1932. She had become known as one of California's most distinguished women, and earned several honorary degrees in her lifetime. Her works are now appreciated for their romantic-realism, exploring themes of nature versus nurture, characters often changing their environments on their pursuit of happiness and success. The House of Lee (1940) and The Horn of Life (1942) were followed by My San Francisco (1946).
Gertrude Franklin Atherton died 14 June 1948 in San Francisco and her ashes are interred in a niche at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park columbarium in Colma, San Mateo County, California. California's Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times by Emily Wortis Leider was published in 1993.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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