Alice French, author of dozens of "local color" short stories, as well as articles, essays and novels, was born in Andover, Massachusetts, on March 18, 1850. Her father, George Henry French, had amassed considerable wealth in Andover, and both he and his wife, Frances (Morton), were descendants of early and distinguished Massachusetts settlers. Because he began to suffer symptoms of tuberculosis, in 1856 George French with his wife, two sons, and six-year-old Alice left New England for the fresh prairie air of Davenport, Iowa, then a town of just 16,000. The French's also had a family connection in Davenport: Frances French's brother-in-law was the Bishop of the Davenport diocese of the Episcopal Church. The health of Alice's father soon improved, and he lived his final thirty-two years in Iowa.
Alice attended grade school and high school in Davenport before heading to the Hudson Valley to attend college at Vassar. She remained at Vassar less than one semester, however, before coming home to Davenport. The following fall she returned to Andover, the town of her birth and still the home of some extended family, to enroll in courses at the Abbot Academy. She completed her studies at the Abbot Academy in 1868, and her time there was fruitful. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Andover during Alice's college years, and her teachers at the Academy strongly encouraged their students to write. In addition, her roommate at Abbot, Octavia Putnam, later provided half the inspiration for French's pseudonym, Octave Thanet. (Octavia was later shortened to the more androgynous "Octave," and "Thanet" was derived from a name that Alice had seen several times on railroad cars. During her lifetime, it was by "Octave Thanet" that the general public knew Alice French.) After a stay in England Alice became interested in English social history and German philosophy, and because her father ran a factory, she gained some first-hand knowledge of the economic issues of the working class.
Her early articles were largely sociological pieces. Her first story appeared in the Davenport Gazette in 1871, under the pseudonym Frances Essex. "Communists and Capitalists--A Sketch from Life," her first major published article, appeared in Lippincott's Magazine in October 1878, earning forty-two dollars for the young writer. Later her stories appeared in the likes of Harper's Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Nation, Scribner's, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post. Her critical and financial success continued to grow toward the close of the nineteenth century; in 1905 a critic named her among the ten greatest women writers, and her net worth was once estimated at one-hundred thousand dollars. From 1883 to 1909, French spent her winters at her plantation at Clover Bend in northeastern Arkansas, often entertaining friends in grand, aristocratic fashion.
Clover Bend provided the inspiration for many of her local color pieces, as well as her 1910 novel, By Inheritance. Her leading works are: Knitters in the Sun (1887); the novella Expiation (1890); Otto the Knight and Other Trans-Mississippi Stories (1891); Stories of a Western Town (1893), a favorite of President Teddy Roosevelt; An Adventure in Photography (1893); The Missionary Sheriff (1897); The Heart of Toil (1898); A Slave to Duty and Other Women (1898); The Captured Dream (1899); The Man of the Hour (1905); The Lion's Share (1907); Stories that End Well (1911); A Step on the Stair (1913); and The Captain Answered (1917).
With the fading of the market for local color stories, the decline of paternalism and, later, failing health, Alice French published little after 1913. As a literary figure, Octave Thanet sank into obscurity. She did keep busy, however, working with several colonial societies, the Russian Relief, and the Woman's National Council for Defense of Iowa. She also gave a lecture that raised funds for the University of Iowa athletic department. In 1911 the State University of Iowa conferred upon her an honorary Litt.D., and an Octave Thanet literary prize continued to be given annually at the University through the mid-1950s. The Newberry Library in Chicago holds the bulk of French's manuscript material. The Newberry Library Bulletin in 1962 said of French's work, "her stories of the plain people of Iowa and Arkansas are frequently worthy of comparison with the best of local-color fiction and deserve more attention than they are given today." Economically ravaged by the depression, Alice French fell to influenza in Davenport in 1934, at the age of eighty-four.