The recent discovery of a lost San Antonio novel prompted Trinity University Press to publish its first ever work of fiction. The Duchess of Angus, written in the mid-1950s by artist and writer Margaret Brown Kilik, offers a rarely seen picture of the city in the postwar, pre-feminist era from a female point of view.
“It was a way to see San Antonio through a lens that we haven’t really seen, and in a manner we haven’t really seen in any other book project,” said Trinity University Press Director Tom Payton. “We thought it would lead to some interesting and productive discussions and decided to jump at it.”
Read Excerpts from duchess of Angus
Excerpts from the novel, a rarely seen picture of San Antonio in the post-WWII, pre-feminist era from a female point of view, will appear daily this week.
Set in 1943, the novel tells the story of a young Jane Davis, a clerk at Joske’s department store, as she befriends an affluent colleague, dates military men, and observes the adventurous life of her mother, Agnes, owner of the run-down Angus Hotel on South Alamo Street. Davis is called “the Duchess” by her stepbrother Jess, a military veteran who returns with a war injury.
Notable in the characterization of the lead protagonist is Kilik’s sexual frankness, unusual at the time in fictional representations of young women written by female authors, and her attitudes toward class and the role of women in American society.
Kilik, described by husband Gene as shy, did not reveal the existence of the novel during her lifetime. After her death in 2001, the work stayed in storage until Gene’s death in 2017, when it was finally discovered by stepgranddaughter Jenny Davidson in early 2018. Davidson, herself a novelist and literature scholar in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, at once recognized the quality of Kilik’s writing.
“I really had no expectations when I opened the cover,” Davidson said, “and just after reading the first probably two or three pages, my heart was pounding.” She realized the book was “a genuine original.”
In her introduction to the novel, Davidson compares Kilik’s writing style to other noted authors: “a first-person voice inflected with some of the flat affect and disturbing candor found in the fiction of J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath.”
Once the autobiographical nature of the story and characters became apparent, along with the rich description of a particular time and place, Davidson suspected she had found a publishable book.
A university press in Austin declined the book because it doesn’t publish fiction but sent Davidson to Trinity University’s press, where staff members understood within a day they had an exciting project in their hands, she said.
Though at that point Trinity had never published a work of fiction, Payton said, “we could not resist this opportunity.”
The Duchess of Angus will be released on March 17 and available through Trinity and various bookstores, including The Twig Book Shop, Payton said. The work and its discoverer also will appear at the San Antonio Book Festival on April 4.
Tim Daniels, nephew of Kilik and a native San Antonian, also plans to be in attendance with his family. Daniels fondly recalls his “tough” grandmother Agnes Daniels, on whom the character of Jane Davis’s mother is based. As a youngster, Daniels spent time in his grandmother’s “flophouse” American Hotel, the real-life version of the Angus near the old International & Great Northern Railroad station on Frio St., now VIA offices.
The hallways of the rundown hotel were dimly lit, and Kilik had to be careful walking down the hallways to avoid potential trouble with the railroad workers and other rough men who frequently stayed there, Daniels said. He said several characters in the book are based on composites of real-life relatives, and descriptions of old San Antonio stir memories.
“It makes you very happy that she wrote the book about her experiences here and the people, and her mother’s life. I feel very good about it,” he said.
Kilik’s time in San Antonio was fairly brief, as she and her husband, a military veteran, moved to the East Coast for work. Kilik became a collage artist and ran a gallery in their loft in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, just as artists were beginning to colonize and transform the neighborhood in the 1960s. Just as Kilik declined to reveal her writing, she rarely showed her collages, except for one prominent piece based on the alphabet.
It’s not known exactly how Kilik felt about her colorful mother, who often left her daughter in the care of others as she moved to different parts of the country, opening and leaving behind other flophouses.
“While Margaret was living with other relatives, Agnes was leading an interesting, somewhat rackety life, whose exact details are lost to history,” Davidson writes in her introduction, continuing with the detail that Kilik’s husband considered his mother-in-law “the strangest woman you might ever meet.”
Both Davidson and Payton acknowledge the anachronistic qualities of the narrative, including unfortunate characterizations of non-whites common to the time.
The book contains an essay by author Laura Hernández-Ehrisman, associate professor and chair of the Department of University Studies at St. Edwards University in Austin, that examines racial perspectives present in the narrative.
Hernández-Ehrisman asks, “What value … is there in reading a novel that holds so many of these painfully familiar prejudices?” She concludes that the book might help create awareness of the history of racism and its continuing presence. “As we cringe at the dated language in these works, we may become more critical of the contemporary prejudices that distance us from one another today.”