Helen Humphreys likes to give her female protagonists plenty of gender battles to contend with. In her two works to date, characters are placed in settings well before their time; and forced to struggle in male-dominated arenas in which gender-defined difficulties both hold them back and drive them.
In Leaving Earth, Humphreys' first novel, Grace O'Gorman and Willa Briggs are two aviatrixes in 1930s Toronto trying to win an endurance race by circling Toronto harbour for 25 days straight.
Humphreys' sophomore effort, Afterimage, is set in 1865 England. The protagonist Isabelle Dashell is loosely based on Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian photographer who defied the propriety codes of the time by creating romantic images of her servants.
In Afterimage Humphreys explores the turning point between the old world and the new, from the exploration of land to its exploitation; the move from the traditional art of painting to photography, the art of modernity.
As Isabelle and her husband Eldon deal with the era's repression of sexuality and the restrains on the search for knowledge, they defy the puritanism of the time. They represent the dawning of the New World; a world more liberated and more explorative than the one they are trapped in. Both Isabelle and Eldon question the thinking of their day. They don't believe in God, are excited about evolution, and they believe in equality of the sexes.
When Annie Phelan becomes the Dashells' servant, she not only becomes intertwined in their lives, but in their work and their love as well. Isabelle finds her muse in Annie, whom she models and photographs in the Romantic tradition. Using Annie, Isabelle creates portraits of Guinevere, Ophelia, Sappho, the three Virtues (Grace, Humility and Faith), and Mary Madonna, both mortal and divine.
Both novels deal with women's strugges to shatter the glass ceilings that keep them from fully reaching their professional potential.
In Afterimage, Isabelle yearns to be accepted into the society of male painters. Robert Hill, an old-world painter, is convinced that it is inappropriate for women to photograph live models, and that women in general don't have the souls to be great artists. He is a man who depends on muses¨he finds a beautiful young woman, sleeps with her, paints her and then dumps her along with the trash in the morning.
The sexism that the women in Leaving Earth have to contend with is more insidious. Willa's mother insists that her daughter's interest in flying is abnormal and that it isn't a career but a sickening obsession. Both Willa and Grace learn to fly in a time when the common belief was that flying wasn't for women.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the characters in the novels comes from Humphreys' ability to capture the underlying love between them. The underlying sexual desire and tension between Isabelle, Eldon and Annie, as well as that between Grace and Willa, is masterfully insinuated into the their thoughts, actions and words. It is palpable in almost every word. It is not merely the events in the lives of her characters that are intertwined¨it is their very thoughts and emotions.
Part of what makes Afterimage in my mind superior to Leaving Earth is Humphreys' shedding of the poetic Oondatjeeian vagueness that often creeps into her first novel. The writing style of Leaving Earth is indicative of the fact that it was written by a poet writing her first novel, and while it is infused with Humphreys' poetics, Afterimage is a sign that she has become a novelist who can write confidently in prose.
With Afterimage, Humphreys, a Canadian, has written a book that reads like a British nineteenth century classic, but in the contemporary style of the twenty-first century. Like any classic, it is a book that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.. ˛