Women Who Did
By Angelique Richardson
"But surely no woman would ever dare to do so," said my friend
"I know a woman who did," said I; "and this is her story."
(Grant Allen, The Woman who Did, 1895)
The first Woman Who Didthe best-seller of 1895scandalized Victorian Britain. Published in 1895, it was the work of the notorious Canadian-born Grant Allen, a biologist and writer of fiction whose output was prodigiouseven for a Victorian. It told the startling tale of Herminia Barton, Cambridge-educated daughter of the Dean of Dunwich, who is convinced that sex and marriage do not go together, and it caused a furor. Mrs Millicent Fawcett, Britain's leading suffragist, was about to begin her long reign (1897 - 1919) as President of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She seethed with incredulity in the churchy Contemporary Review: 'he really believes that chastity is "impossible, wicked, cruel"'; 'the social revolution sketched in The Woman Who Did would...reduce to anarchy the most momentous of human relationshipsthe relations between husband and wife and parents and children'. Mrs Margaret Oliphant, the veteran Victorian novelist and essayist, was similarly outraged. She declared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine the following year that Allen's novels 'were a shame to society and a most dangerous precedent', whose only mark of success was their alarming sales. A spate of counter-novels hit the streets in quick succession, with The Woman Who Didn't by Victoria Cross and The Woman Who Wouldn't by Lucas Cleeve delighting the critics.
Thomas Hardy was in the thick of the Woman Question debates. (Though whether his imaginative woman in this collection does or doesn't is left to the reader's imagination.) As early as 1878, in The Return of the Native, he spoke of 'the irrepressible New', and nothing was more irrepressible that the New Womanof whom Herminia is a striking emblem. The critic Mrs Morgan-Dockerell captured the spirit of the age in the Humanitarian:
..."That very word 'new', strikes as it were the dominant note in the trend of present-day thought, present day effort and aspiration. It sounds out from every quarter. The new art, the new literature, the new fiction, the new journalism, the new humour, the new criticism, the new hedonism, the new morality ... Lastly, more discussed, debated, newspaper paragraphed, caricatured, howled down and denied, or acknowledged and approved, as the case may be, than any of them, we have the new woman."
And in Sidney Grundy's West End hit, The New Woman (1894), Colonel Cazenove remarks: 'everything's New nowadays!' The term New Woman was popularized by the best-selling fin-de-siécle writer and activist Sarah Grand whose infamous novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), rivalled Tess of the D'Urbervilles in sales and media attention (Women Who Did includes four of her stories). As the Guardian reported on Grand's death in 1945, 'it is hard to realize now what a shock The Heavenly Twins gave the reading public of 1893 or how outraged were the nineties by her conception of the new womanone of whose characteristics was to be that she had learned about sex before marriage'. The sex reformer W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had a thing or two to say about it all. He had been at the centre of a huge sex scandal in the 1880s that led the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. He reported in his Gazette on the astonishing result Sarah Grand had achieved:
"...in breaking up the conspiracy of silence in society on the serious side of marriage... up to that barred and bolted door [of Mrs Grundy's prudish interdict] Sarah Grand stepped with the heroism of a forlorn hope, carrying with her a bomb of dynamite, which she exploded with wonderful results. The heavily-barred gate was blown to atoms, and the conspiracy of silence was at an end. In the last twelve-months, in drawing rooms and in smoking rooms, an astonished and somewhat bewildered society has been busily engaged in discussing the new demand of the new woman."
In the year that The Woman Who Did appeared, Hardy produced his own literary firework, Jude the Obscure. He later thought about turning it into a play called 'The New Woman'. It was a damning indictment of Victorian marriage, and also his first full treatmentas he remarked indirectly in a postscript of 1912of 'the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every yearthe woman of the feminist movementthe slight, pale, "bachelor" girlthe intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet'. As Irish booksellers were refusing to stock The Woman Who Did, the New York World was condemning Jude the Obscure and the bishop of Wakefield was burning it, to discourage others. And, in the same article in which she condemned The Woman Who Did, Millicent Fawcett declared Jude the Obscure: 'unfit for the eyes not of girls and young persons only, but of the ordinary reader' (140). The experience was enough to turn Hardy away from the novel, which he rejected as an ultimately compromised, and compromising, form; a vehicle for, as he put it in his autobiography, 'inert crystalized opinionhard as a rockwhich the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting'.
Looking back a hundred years, the Woman Question debates that raged on both sides of the Atlantic were complex, and points of view on the various issues of roles, rules and freedom cannot be predicted or explained absolutely along lines of sex. A new and radical uncertainty was emerging. What constituted the nature of woman? What was her status and role? What difference did class make? What was the relationship of women to men, to education, labour and citizenship? And what was her destiny? The defiant women in Allen's and Hardy's novels were not embraced by nineteenth-century feminists. George Egerton, the most notorious of the New Woman writers and a favourite target of Punch (Women Who Did includes three of her most sensational stories, and one of Punch's parodies), was more vociferous than men in her advocacy of motherhood as a woman's raison d'tre, writing in 1900: 'woman is, if she could only realize it, man's superior by reason of her maternitythe negation of that is her greatest cowardice. They have gone on wrong lines in trying to force themselves into man's place as an industrial worker.' And, as the sun set on Edwardian England, the social purist Mary Scharlieb warned against the effect of learning on the constitution of girls, fearing it would lead to nervous disorders.
By and large, women disapproved of the lifestyle of Allen's Herminia Barton. Marriage, as she conceives it, is:
"...part and parcel of a system of slavery...even though you go to a registry office and get rid as far as you can of every relic of the sacerdotal and sacramental idea, yet the marriage itself is still an assertion of man's supremacy over woman. It ties her to him for life; it ignores her individuality; it compels her to promise what no human heart can be sure of performing; for you can contract to do or not to do so, easily enough: but contract to feel or not to feelwhat transparent absurdity!
Punch was right when it parodied her eternal 'the truth had made the free' into 'the terewth had made them free and easy' as Mrs Fawcett's stinging response in the press.
However, The Woman Who Did has a less than radical subtextAllen dreamed of a society in which women would seek no goal beyond motherhood, which he figures as their natural, and only true function. In the Universal Review in 1890 he remarked that if the 'girl of the future' did not turn her hand to child production, and renounce ideas of equality, she would soon be 'as flat as a pancake and as dry as a broomstick'. The emancipation of woman might leave her 'a dulled and spiritless epicene automaton'; he observed that healthy girls who embarked upon higher education ('mannish training') became unattractive and unsexed; 'both in England and America, the women of the cultivated classes are becoming unfit to be wives or mothers. Their sexuality (which lies at the basis of everything) is enfeebled or destroyed.'
Perhaps it was no surprise that The Woman Who Did invoked the wrath of conservatives and radicals alike. Allen had powerful enemies, declaring with outspoken vigour in the Universal Review: 'Not all the Mona Cairds and Olive Schreiners that ever lisped Greek can fight against the force of natural selection. Survival of the fittest is stronger than Miss Buss, and Miss Pipe, and Miss Helen Gladstone, and the staff of the Girls' Public Day School Company, Limited, all put together.'
As it happens, Mona Caird, one of the most progressive thinkers of the century (she happened to be good friends with Thomas Hardy, who thought highly of her work and opinions, and her story 'The Yellow Drawing Room' is published in this collection for the first time since the nineteenth century), sparked the most famous newspaper controversy of the nineteenth century, declaring in 1888 in the Westminster Review that marriage in its present form was 'a vexatious failure'. In response, Edwin Arnold, editor of the Daily Telegraph, posed the question 'Is Marriage A Failure?'; the paper, with the widest daily circulation in Britain, received 27,000 letters in response to the question, from all corners of the world, and published as many as it could, carrying three columns for three months. The controversy even found its way into George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of A Nobody: Mr Pooter, who made his first appearance in Punch in the year of the marriage controversy, recorded: 'we had a most pleasant chat about the letters on "Is Marriage a Failure?" It has been no failure in our case.' Charles Whitby, the cousin of Olive Schreiner, who wrote the first New Woman novel in 1883Story of an African Farmand a number of short stories, remarked, looking back from the 1930s: 'The Feminist Movement, called in those ancient days the "Revolt of Women" was just beginning to express itself. Mona Caird had thrown a flaming bomb into the camp of the thoroughly smug and respectable ranks...Violent correspondence raged round that for months, even years, and she was banned and shunned like the plague in certain circles.'
It is no surprise that the short story triumphed at a time when sexual and social roles were in unprecedented confusion. It was easier to raise new subjects in a new form, and the short story became the dominant literary form in Britain and America at the close of the nineteenth century. Whatever their precise social and political agenda, women needed a new fiction if they were to break free from social, no less than literary, tradition. Women writers on both sides of the Atlantic were daringly experimenting with short stories, breaking out of tired literary codes, outgrowing happily-ever-after romances and questioning existing relationship patterns and sexualities. As Virginia Woolf would write in A Room of One's Own (1929):
"...The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women's books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be."
Men joined in. 'Short Stories broke out everywhere,' wrote H.G. Wells in 1911, looking back at the 1890s. What was said was almost as varied as the hundreds of stories in which new desires, hopes and anxieties jostled and vied. Women Who Did charts a rebellion that was social, sexual and literary. It tells the stories of competing voicesof the men and women who entered into the fray of the fin de siécle, and were not afraid to confront, challenge or delight in the irrepressible New, in an irrepressibly new form, the short story.
Angelique Richardson is Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter. She has published widely on nineteenth-century fiction and is the author of Love, Eugenics and the New Woman: Science, Fiction, Feminism and co-editor of The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Sicle Feminisms.
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