Research on the Cheap

Long time, no post. I was asked to contribute to a special issue of Women’s Studies journal devoted to Charmian Kittredge London, as in Mrs. Jack London. Having published two books about her, it should have been easy. Alas, over the years I either gave away of lost most of my original research notes and photographs. And I couldn’t get to the Huntington Library where I did all that work, several summers of full-time study. So I had to work around very limited resources.

Here’s the final result, which you can access for free. (Normally you’d need to have access through a university library that subscribes to the journal.)

Not being one to recycle old material in new form, I considered what I could use close by. One resource was Jack London State Historic Park, which holds a house Charmian built and the cottage she lived in with him and during widowhood.  Many of her belongings, including her clothing, are there as well. The state park district offices also had a report on her wardrobe, which turned out to be eight massive binders, well-illustrated. I still had extensive notes taken from her diaries. Little expense added a short subscription to, which included local area papers back to the late 1800s.

Given these materials, I decided to explore Charmian’s aesthetic development as expressed through her dress style, photography, architectural preferences, and writings. The newspaper articles led me to understand how her childhood guardians in Berkeley placed her in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Her attending Mills reinforced her independent nature and expression as a New Woman.  The report by a fashion historian on her wardrobe linked her clothing choices to the latest designs of the day, proving she was once again ahead of her time.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was from the Huntington Library Digital Collection, which has thousands of photographs from the Londons. I used them to select illustrations for the article as well as study Charmian’s clothing and decor. Among the many albums was one called A Dream of Fair Women Within were images of nude or semi-nude women from fine art and photography. Two photographs seemed to be of Charmian before marriage. The implicit eroticism complemented the belief in free love inculcated by her guardians. Though no evidence exists of Charmian within a lesbian relationship, she did write of brief encounters with women that included admiration for their bodies and  descriptions of petting.

As a result of limited resources, I was able to gain yet further understanding of Charmian, how she developed her artistic personality. Lacking skill to become a professional pianist (once a possibility), fine artist, or creative writer, she used her daily life as aesthetic expression. That unusual self-presentation also helped her in widowhood when she traveled abroad to publicize Jack London’s works. In the process she became a noted celebrity in her own right.










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