“Alice had the means to pursue this craft,” Monger explains. “It wasn’t a profession, but she took it seriously and was very technically proficient—it was beyond a hobby.”
During a trip to the Catskills in 1899, Austen met Gertrude Tate, a kindergarten teacher who was recovering from typhoid at a hotel. A small photo album made by Austen documents the relationship that blossomed that summer. Tate, who lived in Brooklyn, began visiting Clear Comfort, accompanied Austen on holidays abroad, and in 1917, moved into the cottage. While Tate’s family objected to her “wrong devotion” to Austen, she lived there for three decades.
Personal photographs of Tate, Austen, and their female friends reveal further insight into Austen’s layered, playful personality. One iconic image, Trude & I (1891), features Austen and her childhood friend, Gertrude Eccleston, an Episcopalian minister’s daughter, wearing masks, corsets, and calf-length skirts, their arms intertwined. Both are smoking—an act women could be arrested for.
In The Darned Club (1891), taken in Clear Comfort’s garden, Austen and three female friends are framed as two embracing couples. Another photo, Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men (1891), features exactly that—she and her friends dressed up as men—complete with phony mustaches and cigarettes. Another picture from this series depicts one of the women with a closed umbrella between her legs, suggesting a phallus.
“Alice probably felt she had the freedom to take those photos, because they weren’t necessarily for distribution,” Monger says. “She mocked Victorian society and the restrictions it put on women. At the same time, she was thinking about gender roles and exploring her identity.”