Costume Codes

David Trotter

  • Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism and the Edwardian Novel by Jane Eldridge Miller
    Virago, 241 pp, £15.99, October 1994, ISBN 1 85381 830 5

Towards the end of Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp (1924), the heroine, Joan Ogden, who has grown miserably old in a small provincial town, overhears two young women discussing her. She recognises them as women of the same ‘type’ as her: unattached, independent, sexually ambiguous. They dress like her, and wear their hair cut in a similar style. But they seem to inhabit a different world: their lamps have very definitely been lit. Unlike her, they are ‘not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair’. At once envious of and terrified by their success, Joan has to acknowledge that she belongs to another age: her place in the evolution of feminism is that of the ‘pioneer’ who ‘got left behind’. She is, as one of her tormentors puts it, ‘what they used to call a “New woman” ’.

The gap which had opened by the Twenties between the old New Women and the really new New Women, partly as a result of the transforming experiences of the First World War, was one of which writers were acutely aware. In 1926, Violet Hunt, who began to publish in the 1890s, described herself as the kind of New Woman people used to write about long ago, and her friend Rebecca West, who joined the staff of the Freewoman in 1911, as a prototype of the ‘Newest Woman’. The gap opens within The Unlit Lamp itself. For although the novel is radical in its acknowledgment of the Newest Woman, it is written from the point of view of a New Woman, and in a manner more like Violet Hunt’s than Rebecca West’s, or Dorothy Richardson’s, or Virginia Woolf’s. 1924 was the year of Woolf’s ground-breaking essay on ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, which urges the development of new narrative techniques and criticises Arnold Bennett and other Edwardian novelists for doing exactly what Hall does throughout The Unlit Lamp: deduce identity from a description of environment and appearance.

Literary scholars have tended to take Woolf’s word for it. They have on the whole been as dismissive of unlit Edwardian novelists, male and female, as the young women with cropped hair are of Joan Ogden. The most damaging consequence of such dismissiveness is the association, now generally if not always uncritically accepted, between formal innovation and social change: more specifically, between the ‘woman’s sentence’ that Woolf thought Dorothy Richardson had evolved and literary feminism. Jane Eldridge Miller’s wide-ranging and perceptive study of Edwardian fiction by and about women is at its formidable best when most conclusively laying this view to rest. Miller stops short of Radclyffe Hall, but her aim is to define the tradition in which Hall was writing, and to demonstrate that it played a greater part than has hitherto been recognised in the shaping of the new narrative techniques Woolf was to champion.

Miller argues that the degree of economic and sexual independence achieved by women during the Edwardian era outstripped and rendered obsolete the ‘traditional narrative forms’ which had on the whole consigned them to dependence, and that the result was a ‘Modernism of content’ which anticipated the ‘Modernism of form’ later developed by Woolf, Richardson and others. Modernism of content is certainly evident in the ‘marriage problem’ novels which to some extent dominated serious Edwardian fiction. Maud Churton Braby, a novelist and author of marital advice books, was not alone in observing a ‘spirit of strange unrest’ among married women. She advocated better sex education for girls, a ‘preliminary canter’ (of a chaste description) for women before marriage, and ‘wild oats for wives’ (wild but chaste, that is). Miller scrupulously records the tremors of strange unrest in novels by the well known (Bennett, Forster, Galsworthy) and the less well known (Ada Leverson, M.P. Willcocks). She points out that, while these novels exposed and tested particular marriages, they did not question the institution itself. In her view, three writers only – Amber Reeves, Olivia Shakespear and Elizabeth von Arnim – did that. I can’t quite share her enthusiasm for Reeves and Shakespear, but I think she is absolutely right to describe von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife (1914) as the ‘most remarkable’ of the Edwardian ‘marriage problem’ novels. The Pastor’s Wife is a marvellous novel about isolation within marriage, and the almost inhuman durability of human feeling. It does all that Miller asks it to do by way of subverting traditional narrative forms, and more. And this from the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden and Enchanted April.

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