Susan Glaspell was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, an actress, a director, and a bestselling novelist.
She was both popular and acclaimed in her lifetime, but her work soon fell out of print after her death.
Except for one short story: A Jury of Her Peers.
It’s a story that has appeared in countless anthologies, and it is not coincidence that it shares its name with Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: a vast and wonderful history of American women writers.
It’s not a book I own, but its one I visit in the library to look up authors and periods very often. I had intended to pay another visit this weekend but, alas, the library concerned is closed for a week for refurbishment and reorganisation. So I’m going to have to work from memory.
So let me just say that Elaine Showalter took inspiration from Susan Glaspell’s short story because it emphasised the importance of women’s voices being heard, and the importance of women listening to other women.
As a piece of crime fiction Susan Glaspell’s A Jury of Her Peers is unusual: the crime has been committed and the only suspect arrested, and neither that suspect nor the victim makes an appearance.
The story opens in a small American town early in the twentieth century, and it begins as the sheriff and his deputy call their wives away from their kitchens. To a house where, it seems, wife has murdered husband, The evidence is undeniable, but there is no clue at all to what the motive might be.
They knew the accused woman at school, but they have seen little of her in more recent years. Now though they are needed to put her house to rights, and to find the things that the accused woman might need in her prison cell.
The two talk as they work, and they notice things, small domestic details that would have passed their husbands by, that paint a picture of what happened in that house, of why a man lies dead.
They understand, and when they have a chance to take action, they seize it …
Yes, it’s that simple, and yet it is a story that says so much. One of those quiet tales with much more to say that a dozen high dramas.
Susan Glaspell’s words are clear, intelligent and compelling. She sets the scene so easily and naturally that I recognised the period and the small town community in without ever having to be told. And the conversation and actions of the two women felt natural and right, helping the story to flow beautifully.
She so cleverly laced her story with symbolism and gender politics, but she did so with a very careful hand, and so you could read A Jury of Her Peers for that, or you could read it as a clever piece of crime writing. Both work.
I’d love to say more, but it’s such a short story that I know I would give too much away.
So I’ll just say I can now understand why Elaine Showalter took inspiration from this story.
And that I am going to make reading the two of Susan Glaspell’s novels that have been reissued by Persephone Books a priority.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
So next week, H is for … ?