Stella: Unrepentant Madam
November 4, 2013
Review By Jenea Tallentire
Linda Eversole’s biography of Victoria madam Stella Carroll (1872-1946) is listed on the book cover as fitting into two genres: “creative non-fiction” and “history.” It’s an interesting division for an interesting book. Having spent more than twenty years researching the life of one person through news papers, correspondence, archives, and interviews in five states and one province, Eversole can cer tainly claim a greater academic credibility than the term “creative non-fiction” might suggest. Of course, the site where creative non-fiction and history divide, or merge, is biography. To my mind, this is the best way to characterize Eversole’s work because it partakes of the practices of creative non-fiction and history.
Eversole tracks Carroll’s life and career from her humble Missouri roots to the height of her career as one of Victoria’s high-class madams between 1899 and 1913. We follow Carroll through various legal, financial, and (ultimately ruinous) romantic ups and downs to her last twenty years as landlady, housewife, and penurious widow. Eversole sums up Carroll’s life as follows: “She was a survivor. In terms of material wealth, she achieved much more than would have been expected for a woman from a small, rural Missouri town, and despite the difficult years at the end, she lived the life she wanted” (177). It is quite important to Eversole, I believe, that Carroll was an unrepentant madam. Along with scores of other women, Carroll took up the management of a house of prostitution, seeing this as a viable but difficult business venture (one of the few that were truly open to women during this period). Eversole has sought not just to enumerate the various events and characters that moved through Carroll’s life but also to capture some of the subjectivity of a woman who lived – and lived grandly – on the margins of respectable society and gender prescriptions.
Eversole’s use of the subject’s perspective rather than that of the omniscient historian narrator is compelling and gives her work a wide popular appeal. But this does not mean that this work is not of use to historians. The embellishments of biography are, on the whole, anchored in solid sources. For example, the book begins with Carroll carefully dressing for another night as the madam of the finest brothel in Victoria, an intimate private moment that we think was surely not documented – until we see on the next page a picture of her in the outfit described in such detail. It is exactly this mix of the intimately biographical and the factual that makes Eversole’s work appealing.
Certainly, the author does take liberties with the narrative, bringing in the necessarily fictional aspects of biography. Several passages about Carroll’s attitudes, intentions, and actions seem to rely on thin threads of supposition, and many are apparently modelled only on Eversole’s understanding of Carroll’s likely reactions, based on correspondence and interviews. Yet, on the whole, most of the events and interactions between the various characters are grounded in research – Eversole’s carefully amassed collection of personal papers, interviews, and newspaper and police reports.
Eversole takes her narrative particulars from a variety of uncited sources; it is clear that many of the rich details that she includes, such as what a certain lady wore at a party, would have been culled from the society pages of Victoria’s newspapers. In fact, although she is obviously using material that would normally be cited in a historical monograph, she tends to reserve her citations mostly for direct quotes – a practice that may make the academic historian frown but that does serve to make the narrative more smooth and readable for the non-academic reader.
Eversole’s study does not claim to be, nor is it, a rigorous academic monograph on the history of the high-end sex trade in British Columbia before the Great War. Yet it does offer some important glimpses into the actual lives of women involved in the Victoria “parlour house” trade as well as insights into how that trade worked. She also seeks to tie Carroll’s business of pleasure with the business of politics in Victoria (and later in San Francisco), noting the careers made and broken on the wheel of vice-suppression campaigns. This is a much-needed British Columbian complement to Ruth Rosen’s discussions of madams in major American cities in her classic study The Lost Sisterhood (1982), and it is an urban counterpart to Charleen Smith’s recent work on life in the “boomtown brothels” in the Kootenays (in Jonathan Swainger and Constance Backhouse, eds., People and Place: Historical Influences on Legal Culture [Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003]).
In the end, this book is a good read – as any biography (or history, for that matter) should be. Eversole has struck an effective balance that will appeal to the general reading public while yielding useful material to academic historians.