They Become Her

By Rebbecca Brown


What Books
October 2014

Reviewed by Paul Fess


"What difference does it make," Michel Foucault asks following Samuel Beckett, "who is speaking?" Questions like this, though deceptively simple, have haunted the world of contemporary literary criticism because they challenge the very ideas about authorship and authority many of us rely on as readers. In raising this question, Foucault focuses our attention away from the person named on a title page and toward the relations of power within which texts—and other discursive acts—are ensconced. In this light, we should ask, whence does one speak?

Such questions about authorship and its relation to structures of power lie at the heart of Rebbecca Brown's fine debut novel They Become Her. In this novel, Brown deftly explores these issues and their effect on four women writers. She shows the writer's process to be one of negotiating textual authority, portraying how "we are books of our own making." The novel explores this motif on two fronts: first by layering and shifting representations of authorship in multiple ways—Brown even implicates herself in the game; and second, through the novel's representations of the limits of her characters' engagement with archival research as a means of gaining authority.

They Become Her centers on the story of Delia Bacon, a 19th-century American writer most famous for being the first to assert that Shakespeare's plays were actually produced by the covert efforts of a group of early modern politicians. As Delia's story unfolds, we simultaneously follow three contemporary, but fictional, writers who share our own author's name, a technique that produces a kaleidoscopic, doubling effect, bringing these characters subtly and intriguingly into contact with Bacon and her concerns about authorship and authenticity. We meet the first Rebbecca Brown in the preface. She is a budding writer with a formalist bent who has learned that a "successful story has a beginning, middle, and end." Another Rebecca Brown channels the voice of God, which sounds like Ted Koppel, and writes religious books "about damnation." Yet another Rebecca Brown is an academic who pines for her lover Elaine, coincidentally also the name of Delia Bacon's nurse.

In Brown's adept hands, Delia Bacon's quixotic mission to unseat the bard yields to an investigation into the very nature of authorship itself. A project such as Delia's, in its search for secret authorial origins, was somewhat fashionable in the mid-19th century—see, for example, Friedrich August Wolf's work on the identity of Homer—and Bacon's theories eventually led to the 1857 publication of her literary study The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded through the help of friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth Peabody. Still, Brown picks up on the incredulity such a project would have met with, especially on the other side of the pond. For instance, in They Become Her Thomas Carlyle initially characterizes the endeavor as "quite a wallop."

They Become Her, however, takes Delia's efforts seriously. Brown makes the point that, in adopting the prison rules of taking on such a respected writer as Shakespeare, Bacon was actually after a place at the 19th-century intellectual table. Authorship for 19th-century women was a fraught concept. Complaining of sentimentalist women writers, for instance, Nathanial Hawthorne lamented, "America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women."

In They Become Her, the exclusion Delia experiences manifests in her thoughts about her brother Leonard's secret club, the newly formed Skull and Bones society at Yale. These feelings of being left out cause Delia to search for ways in which "the past was not merely past but alive and knocking around." She masters her fears of being an outsider and develops her ideas on the lecture circuit, gaining a talismanic purchase on her audiences and their literary tastes. She writes, they "admired the way I spoke pasts into future […] They heeded my advice to read what interested them." Delia's prophetic qualities jibed well with the zeitgeist of the 1840s and 50s, a period that saw the rise of Young America, a movement that sought authors that were "plant[s] of our own raising," as William Gilmore Simms describes it. The moment was well suited to defrock Shakespeare.

The author's development of Bacon's role as an intellectual, as a writer, and as an interpreter of the secret histories that perhaps all writers seek, bleeds into the mirror work of the three fictional Reb(b)ecca Browns. Over the course of the novel, their lives intersect with Delia's, and they all come to embark on writing projects dealing with her. Rebbecca Brown, the novice writer, leaves us in the New Haven graveyard where Delia is buried. Here, she looks for the end of her book in a scene that conflates the ending we anticipate with Rebbecca's desire to exhume Delia's body, an act that refuses endings. Rebecca Brown, the Arkansas revivalist, finds herself wanting to write about Delia, "who lived a life less righteous" than her brother Leonard, after struggling throughout They Become Her with her own sense of religiosity and the confinement it comes to represent. Rebecca Brown, the academic, reconnects with her lover through microfiche from Bacon's archive. Intriguingly, this affirmation of Rebecca and Elaine's love is undercut by the first sentence from the document Rebecca reads, Delia's own: "when my father left I found myself in a fitful fire for Jesus."

At these moments, our author seems to suggest that the excavation of Delia's secret history is intimately tied to the ways these three contemporary characters surmount limitations similar to those experienced by Delia herself. In bringing these characters together, Brown also depicts the process of gaining authorial agency to be a shell game that in reality is dependent upon the intricate web of discourse that actually structures texts and, in the terms of They Become Her, the lives of the characters she has drawn for us. In these respects, They Become Her serves as a probing philosophical novel of the self as well as the relationships between authors and their books.