New Women

Patricia Beer

  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
    Virago, 336 pp, £2.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 86068 140 8
  • The Beth Book by Sarah Grand
    Virago, 527 pp, £3.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 86068 088 6

George Gissing was convinced that the year 1900 would make all the difference. Writing his study of Charles Dickens in the late 1890s, he refers to his own generation as those ‘upon whom the new centurys breaking’. And one of the things the new century would bring was the New Woman.

To an extent, of course, as Gissing realised, she had already arrived. His chapter ‘Women and Children’ in the Dickens book is perhaps his most memorable statement on the subject. Nine-tenths of it is about women – the children come in for a few frail aperçus at the end – and his approach is wrong-headed, feverish and refreshingly outside the fold of traditional literary criticism. The table of contents would suggest that women are in themselves a feature of technique, parallel to ‘Humour and Pathos’ and ‘Art, Veracity and Moral Purpose’. But Gissing, in fact, goes to the opposite extreme, and discusses Dickens’s women characters as though they were living people: actually existing termagants, for example, of whom a much-tried man could say: ‘It is difficult to believe that death can stifle them; one imagines them on the threshold of some other world, sounding con fusion among unhappy spirits who hoped to have found peace.’

The tone is swashbuckling, and with reason. It would be inaccurate to say that Gissing’s married life was a failure. In a sense it was all too successful: he was looking for a neurotic woman and found three. But he was certainly not happy. He had inhibitions about punching the women in his own life, but he could lambaste Dickens’s imagined ones and their creator himself for providing such a set of harpies, imbeciles and bores. But his point was – and it fitted with the fact that he had just separated from his second wife – that all these evils were in the past. Even the imbeciles, even Mrs Nickleby, who is certainly a test case, would have been different in 1898. ‘Sixty years ago there was practically no provision in England for the mental training of women. Sent early to a good school, and kept there till the age, say, of one-and-twenty, Mrs Nickleby would have grown into a quite endurable gentlewoman, aware of her natural weakness, and a modest participant in general conversation.’ I doubt this very much, but the optimism is pleasing. The celibates, too, are looking up: ‘Nowadays things are so different; it is common to find spinsters who are such by choice, and not a few of them are doing good work in the world.’ It sounds dreary but is clearly meant to be cheerful.

A further tribute that Gissing makes to such progress is his statement that the women of his day did not read Dickens, feeling, in the modern way, that he was unjust to their sex. What they thought about Gissing’s portrayal of them in his own novels it is difficult to say. On this subject his work is a minefield of ambiguities. Nobody could accuse him of not knowing and understanding women, as he accused Dickens. (In his class-conscious way, he is scornful of Dickens’s early lack of experience of refined women: ‘the damsels of Dingley Dell were probably as like ladies as anything he had seen.’) But what are the readers to make of, say, Amy Reardon, the heroine or anti-heroine of New Grub Street (1891)? Every scene in which she appears implies both condemnation and justification. Is she a New Woman? She discusses such topics as the desirability of easy divorce, daringly exclaims ‘Love is the most insignificant thing in women’s lives,’ and replies with admirable spirit when her husband demands: ‘Granted that I am not of a very sanguine nature, and that I easily fall into gloomy ways of talk, what is Amy here for?’ Yet she gets her way by the methods of the harem. In the last chapter we see her reclining seductively on a settee, cajoling her second husband into referring to the girl he has jilted as an ink-stained schoolgirl.

By the time The Odd Women was published in 1893 the cliché of the old maid had been even more thoroughly dented in literature than in life. The New Woman could be unmarried. Whatever people really thought, the idea of perpetual celibacy voluntarily assumed by the good-looking heroine of a novel (Trollope’s Lily Dale, for example) had become quite chic. The shock was over; Gissing could be subtle.

The interesting thing is that he is not at all subtle. Rhoda Nunn, heroine of The Odd Women, is an amalgam of most of the stock elements which characterised the New Woman in fiction. She is healthy-looking rather than handsome; both her figure and her hands are ‘strong and shapely’. She has ‘a brisk movement’; she is no tomboy running about in her Bloomer, but she strides along in the Lake District (‘I could walk back again to Wastwater if it were necessary’) and thoroughly enjoys the chicken sandwiches provided by the hero, Everard Barfoot, on the same occasion. She is not mealy-mouthed: ‘What man lives in celibacy? Consider that unmentionable fact.’ She discusses prostitution and free unions.

But what the portrait of Rhoda may lack in subtlety it makes up for in ambivalence, which after all produces a similar effect. Gissing’s admiration appears to break down at several important points in the plot. He makes her show none of the female solidarity which should have animated a New Woman, or indeed a lower-case kindly woman, when one of her students, who has run off with a married man and then turned to prostitution, asks to be re-enrolled in her class. (Her hardness is represented as being of the head rather than of the heart, but all the same it drives the girl to suicide.) In love, she is jealous and highly unreasonable: just like everybody else, in fact, but the New Woman claims not to be just like everybody else. When Everard Barfoot declares his love she abandons her principles about free unions and stipulates marriage or nothing.

It turns out to be nothing. When, in a kind of epilogue, the couple part, one of the elements in Barfoot’s waning enthusiasm is a consideration of class. Through his eyes, and possibly Gissing’s, we suddenly see the New Woman as rather common. ‘He began to think: If this woman had enjoyed the social advantages to which Agnes Brissenden and those others were doubtless indebted for so much of their charm, would she not have been their equal or more? For the first time he compassionated Rhoda.’ It sounds like Fanny Knatchbull talking about her aunt, Jane Austen. Barfoot marries Agnes Brissenden.

There is no suggestion in The Odd Women that the New Woman is sexually unattractive. On the contrary: the worldly (as we are meant to think) Barfoot feels she might have very special attractions, and Gissing’s first description of Rhoda includes a forthright passage to this effect: ‘one became aware of a suggestiveness directed not solely to the intellect, of something like an unfamiliar sexual type, remote indeed from the voluptuous, but hinting a possibility of subtle feminine forces that might be released by circumstance.’

The apotheosis of the new sexual type had in fact taken place forty years earlier when, in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins offset his pretty, insipid, helpless heroine by a second heroine who was none of these things: the great Marian Halcombe, whose charm subdued not only the equally great Count Fosco in the book but also such men of the readership as Swinburne and Edward Fitzgerald, who named his new boat after her. It was difficult for the Rhoda Nunns of fiction to follow her.

But Marian Halcombe had no need to work. Though not rich herself, she was half-sister to an heiress. Rhoda Nunn has to work, and this gives Gissing’s portrait of her a particular tone. It also introduces us to other potential New Women, as she and her friend Mary Barfoot run a secretarial school. The pupils are strictly middle-class. (‘Miss Barfoot hasn’t much interest in the lower classes.’) The rakehelly tones in which Rhoda Nunn and her sympathisers speak about shorthand and typing make one half-suspect satire and certainly recall the comment of the S.J. Perelman character who on taking a wife feels guilty that he has robbed the world of a shorthand typist. But if Gissing is smiling at the women’s missionary exuberance he clearly realises that their world of work is sadly limited and that, even after the establishment of the Bureau of the Association for the Promotion of the Employment of Women in 1857, there was little range of choice for the educated woman. They could teach, but the pronouncement of Harriet Martineau earlier in the century that only one in a thousand was fit to teach still applied and was more widely recognised as a truth, so that, though the air of the Nineties was not as loud as formerly with the cries of governesses being trodden on, there must have been many a quietly crestfallen woman on whom it dawned that she was one of the nine hundred and ninety-nine.

Alice and Virginia Madden are two such. They are the oldest of a family of daughters left almost penniless by the premature death of their doctor father. It is with them that The Odd Women begins and ends. Rhoda Nunn is dismissive of them: ‘The eldest can’t teach seriously, but she can keep young children out of mischief and give them a nice way of speaking.’ Virginia she writes off as childish. There is no question of their being invited to join the secretarial classes. The case of the youngest sister, Monica, is a different matter. True, ‘it is a great absurdity to talk to her about business,’ but she has to escape from being a shop-girl. We gather what Gissing thinks about shop-girls when he is discussing the character of Fanny Dorrit in his book on Dickens. The shop-girl’s ‘sphere of action is extensive, for we meet her not only in shops, strictly speaking, but at liquor-bars, in workrooms, and, unfortunately, sometimes in the post-office, to say nothing of fifty other forms of employment open to the underbred, and more or less aggressive, young woman’.

It is at this point that we begin to see the secretarial college in something of the rosy light in which its founders view it. Gissing’s description of the draper’s shop where Monica works is so depressing that the acquisition of office skills seems to lead to quite a haven of independence, reasonable hours and professionalism. The day of the comic female clerk, like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Miss Galindo, is, of course, for the New Woman, in the dark past.

Monica does not finish the course; it was absurd to talk to her about business. She makes a rash marriage, which turns out disastrously. The moral of the Maddens is that not every woman can be a New Woman, any more than she can be a saint or a creative artist. Many are called but few are chosen, and Gissing’s New Woman is not very sympathetic to the unchosen:

‘Rhoda, what comfort have you for the poor in spirit?’
‘None whatever, I’m afraid. My mission is not to them.’

Virago have recently reprinted, in their Modern Classics series, a number of novels dealing with the situation of women at the end of the 19th century. Gissing’s The Odd Women is one of them. Another is Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, published in 1897. One would expect the man’s treatment of the subject to differ from the woman’s, but though the two books are as dissimilar as they could be, the difference has little to do with gender.

From the point of view of late 19th-century feminists the great women novelists of earlier decades were lost leaders. Persuasively as they depicted the exploitation of women, they tended to be in two minds about the Woman Question as such. Christianity confused two of them. Neither Charlotte Brontë nor Elizabeth Gaskell – devoutly religious themselves and members of clerical households – could rid herself of the debilitating idea that adversity was beneficial, especially for others. Much as Brontë and her sisters had suffered as governesses, she was capable of writing to Mr Williams, her publisher, when he consulted her about careers for his daughters: ‘A governess’s experience is frequently indeed bitter, but its results are precious; the mind, feeling, temper are there subjected to a discipline equally painful and priceless.’ Elizabeth Gaskell appears to have felt much the same – if we can take at all seriously her startling remark that Effie Ruskin would have been a nicer women if she had ever had smallpox. Furthermore, the respect of both Brontë and Gaskell for-the Divine Will was absolute, and in their day it favoured the exclusive domesticity of women. George Eliot was in more than two minds about feminism. Unhampered by religion, she was, fortunately for the English novel, at the mercy of her own subtlety of perception, and felt the complications of the Woman Question far too keenly for simple commitment. ‘It seems to me to overhang abysses of which even prostitution is not the worst.’

It is as though the New Woman was waiting for Sarah Grand. (She is said to have invented the expression, which may or may not be true.) Here is single-mindedness at last, but how much less persuasive it turns out to be than ambivalence. The Beth Book should be read alongside The Odd Women by anyone wanting a demonstration of the difference between a tract and a novel.

In Sarah Grand (Frances Elisabeth McFall, née Clarke) we have a writer of total conviction and limited imagination, who depicts in this book a heroine, Elizabeth Maclure, née Caldwell, of whom the same might be said. It is indeed an autobiographical novel. Grand makes no attempt to hide the partisanship she feels for her own image of herself, and this blatancy is bound to alienate the sympathy of many readers, particularly when it comes to her portrait of the young Beth, whom she clearly thinks of as cute, lovable, sensitive and misunderstood but who emerges as a tiresome, rather stupid child. The book is a compilation, almost a manual, of stock feminist grievances, so predictable that it is not necessary to enumerate them; and as the story hangs on, or rather consists of, them, there can be no surprises: when Beth as a girl inherits a little money from an aunt, we know she will be coerced into spending it on her worthless brother’s education. The characters are similarly tendentious. The husband is a brute, but he is not just any brute; he is arch-enemy in the feminist war, being director of a hospital set up under the Contagious Diseases Act, against which Josephine Butler campaigned. He likewise practises vivisection, and it is typical of Betch’s inability to connect that her righteous horror when she discovers what he is doing is not tempered by any recollection of her own record of wanton beetle-squashing and rabbit-stoning.

But though Grand lacks imagination, she has enough fancy to keep the book going, at considerable length, and to give it an appearance of vitality. It is one long daydream, the universal daydream that anyone can display instant genius without practice, technique, forethought or likelihood; as if, for example, a galumphing woman were suddenly to see herself dancing with a poetry and passion that made Dame Ninette de Valois bow her head in wordless homage. After a repressed childhood, a sketchy education, a degrading marriage and an abortive career as a writer. Beth suddenly realises herself, from one minute to the next, in public speaking. A great crowd rises with deafening shouts of applause and forces her to recognise her vocation. ‘A woman of genius,’ cry the newspapers next day. What she actually said and to what specific audience is not stated.

In The Beth Book Grand may have done harm at the time, for she conned women in the same way that Samuel Smiles conned men when in Self-Help he persuaded them that any man could, say, build the Scott Monument or discover vaccination. In blustering across ravines, neither Grand nor Smiles seemed to see that as long as ravines were there many people would fall into them. Grand would certainly not have appreciated the content of a poem I came across recently, by Margaret Bevan, in which a husband replies to his wife’s lament:

But in forbidding you your dream career
And binding you to stove and sink in Slough
I’m helping you avoid what you most fear,
Trying, and finding out you don’t know how.

George Eliot acknowledged and respected that fear, and its cause. So did George Gissing.