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A Woman Called Fancy

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Frank Yerby's 1951 novel, A Woman Called Fancy, is his first to have a female protagonist. Set in Augusta, Georgia, the novel covers the period from 1880 to 1894 and races the rise of the heroine, a beautiful South Carolina woman, from poverty to prominence among Augusta's artisto-crats. Seeking to escape marriage to an old man to whom her father is indebted, Fancy Williamson leaves South Carolina for Augusta. She begins as a dance girl on a show wagon and eventually marries into a bankrupt aristocratic family of Georgia. Her marriage to Courtland Brantley of the Hiberion Plantation, however, provokes the scorn of aristocrats and begins her downfall.

Three–fourths of A Woman Called Fancy chronicles Fancy's efforts to earn respectability in society. Although she cannot escape her sordid past, her background gives her a different set of values. She socializes with African Americans and poor whites, she ignores aristocratic conventions, and she befriends the town's most notorious prostitute. Yerby's characterization of Fancy is, therefore, ironic, emphasizing the ignoble origins of most Southerners. Not only does Fancy contradict southern ideals but in her saintlike manner, she possesses qualities nobler than those of the aristocrats with whom she seeks to identify.

Like all Yerby's novels, A Woman Called Fancy presents a protagonist who is an outcast but achieves success in an alien culture, it adheres to his proven formula for historical romance, and it continues his string of best–sellers. A Woman Called Fancy is significant, however, in at least one other way: It contains Yerby's most definitive statement about race relations in America before his expatriation. Employing a minor character as a mouthpiece, Yerby declares that African Americans and whites cannot live together in dignity in America. A year later, he quietly left America, and like African American expatriates before him, sought refuge from American racism in Europe.

Wilbur Watson, “Cloth of Purest Brass,” New York Times, 6 May 1951,16.Edward Fitzgerald, “A Woman Called Fancy,” Saturday Review of Literature, 23 June 1951, 39.

James L. Hill

Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

Frank Yerby (1916—1991)