Alice French

The Life of Octave Thanet

Photograph of Octave Thanet

Artist Alice French began writing in her late 20s as Octave Thanet in order to disguise her sex. She was too busy before then with the Andover Academy, her boarding school, reading and traveling, which she did once with Andrew Carnegie on a European tour.  She wrote about her life which was split between Iowa and Arkansas. Between 1896 and 1900 she published many short stories and books. Some of her short stories were “My Lorelei” (1880), published in The Western, “The Bishop’s Vagabond,” “The Hay of the Cyclone,” and “Whitsun Harp, Regulator,” which initially appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and Scribner’s Magazine, and her short story anthologies include Stories of a Western Town (1893). The unmarried French wrote both female and male-centered stories. Despite her popularity, she died in obscurity in 1934. This may have been caused by her controversial and outdated beliefs on issues such as capitalism, race, and immigration. Her popularity had subdued by the 1960s.

(Heidelberg Castle pictured above)

French’s short story “My Lorelei” is a story comprised of journal entries written by Constance Lynde. It follows her adventures on an extended trip to Germany with her husband and extended family. Connie goes on to have a relationship with her cousin’s fiancé Undine. In Connie’s first description of Undine she refers to her as “My German Lorelei” (French 56). This is a reference to Heinrich Heine’s poem “Lorelei.” Heine’s iteration of “Lorelei”, which is poem based on a German legend, is a monologue narrated by an old man who is warning a young man in a boat about the treachery behind the beauty of the nymph sitting on a rock before him. The tagline of the story is “A Heidelberg Romance” and is set in a town that sits at the foot of the Heidelberg Castle. The castle represents the complexity of the relationships within the story as it is a large and complex structure.

Davent Leon’s depiction of a Water Nymph


Alice French, Iowa Women In the Great War.

“Alice French.” Wikipedia. Date accessed 12/12/19.

French, Alice (Octave Thanet). “My Lorelei: A Heidelberg Romance — From the Diary of Mrs. Louis Danton Lynde.” Two Friends and Other Nineteenth Century Lesbian Stories by American Women Writer edited by Susan Koppleman, Penguin, 1994, pp. 77-98. Also reprinted in “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” and Other Queer Nineteenth-Century Stories” edited by Christopher Looby, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, pp. 56-73.

Leon, Davent. “A Water-Nymph Watching a Heron, Une Nymphe de fontaine assise au pied d’un arbre d’ou elle regarde un héron volant.”  Italian Artists of the Sixteenth Century: School of Fontainebleau Vol. 33.

McQuin, Susan C. Alice French’s View of Women. Books at Iowa, no. 20, The University of Iowa, 1974.

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