Unveiling a Parallel

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Robinson Merchant

Cover of Unveiling a Parallel

…the planet’s pink envelope interposed its soft resistance to prevent a destructive landing. I settled down as gently as a dove alights, and the sensation was the most ecstatic I have ever experienced.

**fans self**

This joyfully sex-positive novel is a rare collaboration between two 19th century women, and is welcome cleanse from the the eugenic, morally dour utopias of other women’s works of the period.

Unveiling a Parallel begins with very little preamble: an unnamed male narrator decides on a whim to fly to Mars in his “aeroplane” (one of the earliest uses of the word in fiction). He finds two societies there, which the novel contrasts with each other and with contemporary American values.

Paleveria, the utopia of equality

He spends most of the book in the first society, Paleveria, where he meets Severnius, the helpful guide obligatory in all utopian novels. The narrator immediately falls for Severnius’s beautiful sister, Elodia, despite his shock (“She is a banker!”) that she is an independent career woman.

His passion is repeatedly tested by her scandalous but perfectly normal “Marsian” behavior (edited for clarity):

“Women have a substitute for tobacc though,” Severnius added, removing the fragrant weed from his lips to explain. “They vaporize.”

“They what?”

“They have a small cup, a little larger than a common tobacco pipe, which they fill with alcohol and pulverized valerian root. This mixture when lighted diffuses a kind of vapor, a portion of which they inhale through the cup-stem, a slender, tortuous tube attached to the cup.”

Palevarian women vape, get drunk, visit brothels staffed by “handsome young men,” and even bare-knuckle fight. This is one half of the Parallel of the title: the women of this community have achieved equality with men by adopting “masculine” customs and pleasures.

Palevaria is not lacking in social norms. Selfish or dishonest behavior is frowned upon. But this punishment is metted out equally between the sexes. Elodia has a secret child out of wedlock, and her contemporaries view this with distaste. Critically, in both Palevarian society and the novel itself, she’s chastised, but not grandly punished. In the ubiquitous “sentimental” novels of the 19th century, including other novels that Alice Ilgenfritz Jones wrote, such a woman would inevitably end up despondant or outcast or even experience a tragic but morally-redemptive death. The narrator of Parallel is distraught that his idealized love is on no such redemptive trajectory.

It’s clear that once the narrator decamps for the more chaste Martian society of Caskia, Elodia will forget him in a moment, and when he offers his arm on an outing, she shrugs it off, noting that she already has two of her own. “I do not wish to impose new conditions upon myself. I simply accept my life as it comes to me.”

In one of the sharper points of the novel, Elodia, after having endured hours of hectoring from the narrator, posits an origin story about American society (edited for clarity):

In the Beginning, there was a great heap of Qualities stacked in a pyramid upon the Earth. And the human creatures were requested to step up and help themselves to such as suited their tastes. There was a great scramble, and your male sex, having some advantages in the way of muscle and limb pressed forward and took first choice. Naturally you selected the things which were agreeable to possess in themselves, and the exercise of which would most redound to your glory; such virtues as chastity, temperance, patience, modesty, piety, and some minor graces, were thrust aside and eventually forced upon the weaker sex.

Jones and Merchant understand the distinction between equality and equity. Caskia, the second Martian civilization, defines a world in which the social order bends towards collective benefit, rather than individual pleasure.

Caskia, the utopia of equity

The much shorter Caskian section of the book doesn’t have the same charms as the naughty and satirical Palevarian chapters, and on my first read I found it to be a dull and conformist ending. But I’ve come to appreciate its measured position and the way in which it is in conversation with the entire utopian canon.

19th century utopian thinkers were often enthusiastic eugenicists, and in fairness these authors may well have been in real life. Nevertheless it’s remarkable that when the unfortunate topic of human breeding inevitably does arise, it’s in recognition of the value of diversity, at the expense of a certain othering tone:

We crave variety in people, as we crave condiments in food. For me, this craving was never so satisfied—and at the same time so thoroughly stimulated—as in Caskian society, which had a spiciness of flavor impossible to describe.

Paleveria has chosen masculine-coded pursuit of pleasure and material wealth, and Caskia a looser anarchist model based on “mutual pleasure, mutual sympathy, mutual helpfulness.” Le Guin’s The Disposessed explores a similar parallel, in which two adjacent societies in another planetary system grapple with prioritizing personal comfort against collective benefit.

The Caskians conclude:

“Mars was rich enough to maintain all his children in comfort and even luxury,—that none need hunger, or thirst, or go naked or houseless, and that more than this was vanity and vain-glory. And just as they, with intense assiduity, sought out and cultivated nature’s resources—for the reduction of labor and the increase of wealth—so they sought out and cultivated within themselves corresponding resources, those fit to meet the new era of material prosperity; namely, generosity and brotherly love.”

About the authors

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones (1846–1906) wrote a number of other works that were typical of the era, and her biography is well-covered in the introduction to the critical edition by Carol A. Kolmerten. (Don’t try to buy this book from Amazon; it’s impossible to select the correct edition and some of them are just repackaged copies of online editions which you can read or download for free.)

I focused my research on her co-author, who was little known even to Kolmerten.

Ella Merchant, née Mary Ella Robinson, was born on September 26, 1857 in Des Moines, Iowa. Her father was a prominent doctor in the region and she lived with her family in Cedar Falls until she married Lorenzo Stoddard Merchant on November 12, 1877. She was remembered by the Merchant family as a memorable force of nature:

No one who ever witnessed it can forget the pleasing sight of the fearless young high school girl with her striking beauty driving through the streets of the city the fiery black horse of her father, Dr. William Robinson.

She travelled extensively throughout her life, first with her husband on trips to Montana and North Dakota to manage his newspaper holdings. In 1892 the pair was in Mississippi, part of a research trip for a travel guide promoting the Illinois Central railroad.

Stoddard died unexpectedly on October 18, 1894, and Ella inherited control of his majority stake in the Cedar Rapids Republican newspaper and its associated printing company. The Quad-City Times (Nov 1894) had this lauditory if condescending comment on her new role:

Cedar Rapids has a number of ladies who manage extensive business interests, and do it successfully, without in the least detracting from their sweet womanliness. Their ranks have been added to this week by the accession of Mrs. L. S. Merchant, who has been elected president of the Republican Printing company, taking the place of her husband, the late L. S. Merchant. Mrs. Merchant has taken possession of Mr. Merchant’s private office, where she may be found a portion of each day, and she is taking an active personal interest in the conduct of the plant of which she is chief owner. Mrs. Merchant has a rare talent for business affairs, and surprises even though who know her best by her comprehensive and practical knowledge of even the details of the plant and its workings. Mrs. Merchant is the only lady in the state who as at the head of a daily paper, and one of the few in the United States. That she will be successful in her new position there can be no doubt, and one and all unite in wishing her success, because of her pluck, if for no other reason.

Newspaper clipping about Ella Merchant, transcribed in the page

Ella received a reciprical visit from a Mississippi journalist who she’d met on her earlier research trip for the travel guide. He reported that she was “managing the business quite successfully.”

Masthead of Republican Printing Company featuring Ella Merchant's name

She was formally elected president of the printing company and her name appeared on the masthead for the four years in which she ran the business. She sold her majority share in 1898 and undertook an active retirement. Newspapers recount her trips throughout the region to visit family (including the Merchants, with whom she remained close), to catch a 10-pound lake pickerel, and to undertake an extensive tour of Europe from her latter-day home base of Washington, DC at age 56.

Merchant and Jones remained close and continued to visit between the period of 1902 and 1905, after Merchant’s tour of Europe. Alice Jones died in March of 1906, on a trip to Havana. Ella died at her sister’s home in June of 1916, and was buried with Stoddard in Oak Hills cemetery in Cedar Falls.

Reception

Jones and Merchant published their book initially under the anonymous byline “Two Women of the West”, but they were open about their authorship in their home town of Cedar Rapids:

A Book Shortly to Appear from an Eastern Press, Which is the Join Production of Two Talented Women of this City

The ladies referred to are Mrs. H. E. Jones and Mrs. L. S. Merchant, both of whom are well known in the social and literary circles of this city. […] Mrs. Jones is a native of Ohio, but has spent the greater part of her life in Iowa and it is with this state that her literary work has been identified. […] The Lipponcotts’ published her first novel, “High Water Mark,” her first serious attempt at literature, under the nom de plume “Ferris Jerome.” In 1883 Miss Ilgenfritz became Mrs. Jones, the wife of a prominent business man of Cedar Rapids, since which time her literary work has been chiefly of a social character, her friends regarding “conversation” as her principle gift.

Mrs. Merchant has never done any independent literary work, but she is known as an exceedingly clever woman. Mrs. Merchant is the wife of L. S. Merchant, editor of the Cedar Rapids Republican.

Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 30, 1893

Contemporary reviews were mostly positive and the book is referenced in passing in the context of women’s rights. The Bismark Tribune, writing in 1893 about the birth of Esther Cleveland, the only child ever to be born during a presidential term of office:

President Cleveland’s baby may be all that is claimed for it and still it can never be persident of the United States unless we reach that state of absolute equality of the sexes existing on the planet Mars so admirably portrayed in “Unveiling a Parallel.”

Bismark Tribune, 15 September 1893

One notable exception is the Chicago Inter Ocean, which published a review in August 1893 in which the critic took exception to their choice to leave the narrator unnamed and decided to just call him “Peter” (and consistently mangle details of the plot):

The reader of the first chapter is easily misled to believe the hero is a woman [ed. — they are not], and does not arise to see the blunder until he has reached Mars, and the polite Servetus [ed. — Severnius] begins to help him disrobe and change his tress.

The reviewer complains that “Peter’s” trip to the Caskian city of “Sunismar” (it’s Lunismar) is unnecessary, and that the ending is anticlimactic. Having quite literally mansplained the novel to its authors, he concludes:

Some of the customs of Mars recited are very nice, but in the main it is doubtful whether they are any improvement of the good old sparkling days they have enjoyed on this planet, and especially out West, for generations past.

In a rare review by a woman, Kate Buffington Davis of the Home Record of Leavenworth Kansas wrote in November 1893:

As a story it is fascinating; as a satire upon existing social and moral codes, it is masterful.

Davis was herself an author of short works—Practical Vegetarian Cookery (1897) recommends a vegetarian diet because “astral bodies feed on the subtle emanations of the foods supplying nutriment to the physical encasement.”

Legacy

The novel is less well known than other women’s utopian fiction such as Herland. It should be better recognized—it is funny, absent of overt racism and ableism, and generous in its optimism.

Selfish Elodia is not punished; chaste Ariadne (the narrator’s lightly-sketched love interest in Caskia) does not marry him or anyone else. The quiet conclusion brings together the narrator and his host family to watch a dramatic storm pass through the mountains of Caskia. He attempts to convert their leader to Christianity, but is gently rebuffed:

“Don’t you believe in the Fall of Man?”

“No, I think I believe in the Rise of Man,” he answered, smiling.

And the book ends with the narrator simply returning home. Life for all goes on. As Elodia says, “I simply accept my life as it comes to me.”

References and further exploration

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Originally published January 13, 2022.