Plain Bad Heroines - Emily M. Danforth Page 0,1


We know that the year was 1902, and the state the tiniest in the nation: Rhode Island. We know that the Brookhants fall term had been in session for six weeks. And we know that Clara took off into that section of woods, onto the orchard path, because several of her classmates watched her do it. She’d just been delivered back to campus after a weekend stay at her parents’ house across the water in Newport, a house that they were then readying to close for the season.

Cousin Charles had been the one tasked with driving Clara to campus. More than a few students had noted this because what he’d driven her in was still something of a loud and chugging novelty, even for the wealthy Brookhants population: a gas-powered automobile. And not just any automobile, but a Winton—same as the Vanderbilts—which is exactly why Charles had gone out and bought the damn thing, along with the even stupider driving goggles that went with it. And he was, of course, wearing them when they pulled through the Brookhants gates, and then, as he slowed, he pushed them up, which smooshed his hair back into a nest atop his horrible head. Maybe some of the girls had, in fact, later said that he looked rakish and fine, but for now let’s discount their certainly incorrect opinions.

The important thing to know is that Charles and Clara were arguing as they arrived. And they continued to argue, the onlookers said, as he parked his loud contraption in the circle drive before Main Hall. They seemed to say their goodbyes very unhappily, Charles lunging from the car before gathering Clara’s belongings only to dump them on the ground, all the while continuing to lecture her. Then he climbed back into the driver’s seat and pouted there, his arms folded tight across his chest, his dumb face bitter as a cranberry and nearly as red.

But whatever the commands she’d just been given, Clara did not stoop to gather her things and go inside her dormitory, as one might have expected of her.

As, it seems, Charles was expecting of her.

Instead, she left the pile of clothing and cases and walked a few yards to a cluster of her gape-mouthed fellow students. She then asked where she could find Flo. Several of those students, including a third-year, Eleanor Faderman,* told her to try the orchard. They told her that’s where Flo had been headed earlier.

With this news, Clara started her march across the wide lawn, which ended in a playing field rimmed with woods: where began the orchard path.

During these moments, stupid Charles still stewed behind the steering wheel, his great engine chugging. But he did not then pull down his goggles and drive away from campus. Instead, he watched Clara. Watched, disbelieving, each step she took away from him and toward the tree line.

And then she disappeared completely into the dark mouth that was the path’s entrance.

This is where the onlooking classmates begin to differ in their accounts. Some later insisted that Clara knew her knuckle-dragging cousin had left the car to chase after her. Those students claimed that she’d started to run even before reaching the woods, seeing or sensing Charles coming fast behind.

Others said she didn’t know, hadn’t seen.

And Clara herself could never say again.

Certainly, she would have been sweating, in the heavy afternoon heat of that bruised day, and this would have been part of the call to the first yellow jackets who found her. And unfortunately, everything about her clothing—the day dress with ruffled lace, the shoes more slipper than not—was most unsuited for an activity like running through the woods. Though it should be said that Clara often found her clothing unsuited for activities with Flo, usually just because she had too much of it on.

Flo herself solved the problem of unsuitable women’s clothing by wearing the castoffs of her older brother. Or sometimes Flo’s mother, when she hadn’t spent all of her monthly allowance from Flo’s grandparents, would even buy Flo a pair of pants or men’s boots. But then Flo’s mother was a sculptor, and her friends were all artists, most of them European. She liked to find ways to flout convention and usually supported the same instincts in her daughter. (When, Readers, she was remembering to remember that she had a daughter.)

Clara’s parents, on the other hand, were fourth-generation Americans shaped predominately by the conventions of their gilded social class. A few smart investments—steel and timber did the