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Gertrude Atherton – Shocking Victorian California

I love discovering little-known novelists. The Californians, a gothic gem published in 1898, was my first introduction to Gertrude Atherton. Te novel was also utterly scandalous when first published.

You see, Gertrude wrote from life.

Gertrude was born on October 30, 1857, in San Francisco. Childhood finances were sketchy after her parents divorced. She shocked everyone by marrying at 19 into the wealthy Atherton family. What was so shocking? Her new husband had actually come to court her mother.

Gertrude Atherton

But Gertrude was known for shocking people, and developed a reputation for delightful nastiness. When her friend Ambrose Bierce tried to kiss her, she rebuffed him and then laughed about the incident at parties. Perhaps feeling some professional jealousy, she spread the rumor that Edith Wharton hadn’t actually written The House of Mirth. And she passed up a chance to meet Oscar Wilde; she didn’t like his looks.

Gertrude had two children by her husband, George – the son died at an early age. In 1882, Gertrude anonymously published The Randolph’s of the Redwoods, a scandalous tell-all based on local California families. Her own family was embarrassed – not only because of the exposure of their neighbors’ secrets, but because of the independence and sexuality of the heroine. Gertrude was an early feminist.

Her husband died in 1887 on a solo trip to Chile (rumor had it he was trying to escape Gertrude). But widowhood freed her. She moved to New York and pursued a writing career.

And she was a career writer, make no mistake. She networked, taught herself the publishing industry and wrote, wrote, wrote. Over the course of her life, she published dozens of novels, novellas, articles and short stories – mysteries, gothics, biographies and social commentaries.

Gertrude Franklin Atherton died 14 June 1948 in San Francisco. Her ashes are interred at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park columbarium in Colma, California.

About the Author

Kirsten Weiss writes genre-blending cozy mystery, urban fantasy, and steampunk suspense, mixing her experiences and imagination to create a vivid world of magic and mayhem.

Kirsten Weiss

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