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.

Strange unrest was not of course restricted to marriage. Many women preferred to remain single, and Miller finds in descriptions of their lives a further Modernism of content: ‘spinsters, unwed mothers, adolescents and other women who had been invisible in British culture and society alike, were made visible through these novels, and the particular difficulties of their situations were rendered palpable and significant.’ Spinsters, unwed mothers and adolescents were surely by any reckoning visible enough in Victorian novels, and therefore in Victorian culture. But it is true that Edwardian writers made strenuous efforts to develop new narrative forms (even new genres, or sub-genres) appropriate to the shape of lives which were not headed towards marriage. Miller very justly draws attention, in this respect, to Mary and Jane Findlater’s Crossriggs (1908) and F.M. Mayor’s The Third Miss Symons (1913).

Strange unrest found a new focus with the advent of the suffrage campaigns, and the suffragette novel has played a minor part in histories of women’s writing since Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977). Miller’s account is authoritative, its emphasis falling on Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907), Evelyn Sharp’s Rebel Women (1910), Gertrude Colmore’s Suffragette Sally (1911) and, among the Antis, Mrs Humphry Ward’s Delia Blanch-flower (1914). The book concludes with another informative chapter contrasting the career of H.G. Wells, who ‘remained essentially an Edwardian all his life’, with that of May Sinclair, whose concern with literary form and the representation of consciousness identifies her as a forerunner of Woolf and Richardson. Miller gives an illuminating account of Wells’s The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914), which she quite rightly prefers to the chronically over-exposed Ann Veronica (1909); and she argues convincingly that the greater subtlety of the later novel was due in large measure to the influence of Reeves and von Arnim.

Miller’s is the best account we have, not only of Edwardian women novelists, but of early 20th-century women novelists; the measure of her achievement is that the distinction no longer seems workable. It’s a real pleasure to read a literary historian who is determined to find things out, rather than merely to recapitulate or add artificial flavour, and whose choice of exemplary texts is itself exemplary. Her argument disappoints only at those relatively rare places where it seems constricted by the very literary-historical paradigm it is intent on toppling. Miller sets out to define Edwardian fiction by and about women in its own terms; she ends up defining it as a precursor or variant of something else, of literary Modernism. Tactically, this makes sense. Modernism is such a powerful paradigm, particularly in America, that the only way to get people to read any kind of early 20th-century writing may well be to pass it off as Modernist. But I can’t help feeling that Miller’s argument is at its weakest when it most insists on genealogy. There are times when the whole Woolfian apparatus of luminous haloes and atoms falling upon the mind, so painstakingly reconstructed in recent years by feminist critics of female Modernism, appears to obscure whatever it is that might have made Edwardian fiction by and about women an alternative to rather than a precursor or variant of that Modernism.

Miller is clearly in pursuit of genealogy, for example, when she claims that the Late Victorian ‘George Egerton’ (Mary Chavelita Dunne), the Edwardian May Sinclair and the Modernist Virginia Woolf all strove ‘to find a new kind of realism – one which would allow them to move behind the surface of external reality to reveal the truth of modern women’s inner lives.’ This is realism seen from a Modernist perspective, with exposure of inner life the criterion of truth and value. But we might want to ask whether a novel like The Unlit Lamp really does mean to ‘move behind the surface of external reality’. For the one thing which unites Joan Ogden and her young detractors is the knowledge that femininity can be redefined by the conscious manipulation of social symbolism: dress, bodily styling, gesture. Joan’s first instinct, after the shock of humiliation has worn off, is to give the inner life a break: she buys herself some properly masculine neck-ties, a grey flannel suit and a soft felt hat. This recourse to symbolism does not make identity a fashion statement, because the code each symbolic act reproduces and varies is one devised over a considerable period of time by a collective effort of thought. Rather, it makes identity a form of social allegory: an act or utterance which is intended to convey, to those capable of understanding it, a specific message. Inner lives matter, but so does the means by which they might be communicated and made to count.

Neck-ties were a feminist issue. Cicely Hamilton appears in Rebel Women as a suffragette playwright and as the co-founder (with Bessie Hatton) of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. But Hamilton rapidly became disillusioned with the movement’s failure to undermine what she called ‘the tradition of the “normal woman” ’. Its leaders insisted too much for her taste on ‘the feminine note’: ‘in the Women’s Social and Political Union the coat-and-shirt effect was not favoured; all suggestion of the masculine was carefully avoided, and the outfit of a militant setting forth to smash windows would probably include a picture-hat.’ Hamilton believed that normality was to some extent an effect of ‘costume-code’, and that one could alter the inner life by altering the outer. So did Edwardian exponents of what might be called, for lack of a better term, ‘feminist realism’. These writers saw it as part of their business to record the alterations in ‘costume-code’, which expressed new identities. That the meanings encoded in costume and manner were by no means unequivocal only made the business seem all the more pressing. A character in Beatrice Harraden’s Interplay (1908), ensconced in a railway-carriage rather like the one Woolf was to imagine for Mrs Brown, mistakenly identifies a fellow passenger as a suffragette on the basis of her red tie and ‘severe hat’. The Pankhursts might not have been amused.

There are a number of minor characters in early 20th-century fiction, from Hilda Forester in Olive Birrell’s Love in a Mist (1900), through Jehane Bruce in Violet Hunt’s The Workaday Woman (1906), to Mary Datchet in Woolf’s Night and Day (1919) and Delia Vaughan in Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street (1924), whose function is to embody an unromantic and ‘unfeminine’ independence which the heroine admires but does not in the end want for herself, and about whom Miller has virtually nothing to say. These are, in narrative terms, superfluous women; they fade away as the wedlock plot sweeps hero and heroine on to resolution. Yet they often stay in the mind rather longer than the happy pair, even though what distinguishes them is sometimes little more than their violation of the costume code defining the ‘normal’ woman. In Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Advanced Lady’, straitlaced German feminists denounce women who smother their femininity under what one calls the ‘English tailor-made’ and another the ‘lying garb of false masculinity’. Discreetly masculine garb adorns a long line of fictional women from the heroine of Ménie Muriel Dowie’s A Girl in the Karpathians (1891) to Hester Cawthorn in Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected (1917) and Edith Haynes in Cicely Hamilton’s WilliamAn Englishman (1919). The wearing of English tailor-made does not immediately identify these women as ‘mannish lesbians’; it does not, that is, invoke the classificatory schemes of the new sexology. Rather, it hesitates subtly between categories, at once provoking and obstructing interpretation.

Other minor characters, such as Yvonne Irdwine in Margaret Legge’s The Rebellion of Esther (1914), or Beatrice Lesway in The Unlit Lamp, are distinguished by their discordant colourfulness. Beatrice Lesway’s appearance is ‘a mixed metaphor, a contradiction in style’. She, too, at once provokes and obstructs interpretation. Anne Yeo, in Ada Leverson’s Love’s Shadow (1908), is always seen in mackintosh, golf-cap and dogskin riding-gloves; she knows very well that her appearance creates a ‘singular effect’. We have no access to the inner lives of these women. That they stay in the mind is due not to their accommodation within new and more versatile narrative forms, but to the descriptive economy of realist technique. Feminist realism made a virtue out of the shortcomings Woolf was to discern in Bennett and other Edwardian writers. It suggested that women might define themselves by choosing an appearance to present. Realism’s solidity of specification acted as a guarantee that while the choice would never be easy or certain of success, it would at least be possible, and possible for women from a variety of backgrounds, because the means by which it was to be put into effect were no more than and no less than the ways of the world.

The choices which created identity were of environment as well as appearance. Miller claims that Edwardian fiction contains no more than the most occasional reference to the female communities (sisterhoods, women’s colleges, settlement houses) which have since been described in considerable detail by social historians. This is simply not true. Margaret L. Woods’s The Invader (1907), for example, is by no means the exception Miller suggests it is in its portrayal of the heroine’s college years. Nor need we accept the social historians’ restriction of the scope of the enquiry to institutionalised communities. The more loosely defined communities of the boarding-house and the informal club in fact feature quite largely in Edwardian fiction, because feminist realism gave women of singular effect not only a physical presence, but an address. Hilda Forester, Jehane Bruce, Beatrice Lesway and many other minor characters live with women like themselves in Bloomsbury flats or boarding-houses. Bloomsbury, at the turn of the century, was ‘freelance’ territory. That’s where Anne Yeo ends up when her adored employer marries a young man about town. Francis Gribble’s The Pillar of Cloud (1906) and Dolf Wyllarde’s Pathway of the Pioneer (1906) describe these freelance communities as fully as one could possibly wish. These novels are in effect collective biographies, their focus very much on the group rather than the individual. Of course, the collective biography can hardly be said to have flourished as a literary genre. But its very existence demonstrates that Edwardian fiction was sometimes at its most radical when on an entirely different tack from the Modernism of the Twenties.

The narrator of George Egerton’s late and neglected story ‘A Conjugal Episode’, visiting Paris, takes a room in a house owned by a woman separated from her husband, and so enters a female community consisting of the landlady, the landlady’s two sisters and her closest friend. In the husband’s absence, the women fantasise, momentarily, about becoming men, about dressing in men’s clothes. When he reappears, the community disperses. But this account of the triumph of heterosexuality is framed in an interesting way: the narrator tells her story, in London, to three friends, all working women, gathered (inevitably) in the Bloomsbury apartment belonging to one of them. The telling of the story itself reconstitutes a female community, and one which is of literary-historical as well as socio-historical significance. It recalls the many occasions in Fin-de-Siècle fiction in which male listeners assemble to hear a tale brought back from the unknown: Kipling’s soldiering stories, Wells’s The Time Machine, James’s The Turn of the Screw, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The uncanniness of these tales at once unsettles the men assembled and confirms them in their privileged access to a knowledge kept from women. By turning the tables so adroitly, ‘A Conjugal Episode’ challenges the male reader in his narrative rather than his sexual pride.

Such accounts of female community remain invisible, even to a critic as well-read as Miller, because they are antithetical to the Modernist paradigm. Equally invisible now is the occasional feminism of Edwardian popular fiction. Miller argues that popular novelists like Marie Belloc Lowndes, Beatrice Harraden, Flora Annie Steel and Margaret Woods, all of whom were sympathetic to the Cause, ‘would have risked alienating their large reading public if they had infused their romance novels with controversial politics’. But one of Lowndes’s most successful novels, The Lodger (1913), concerns a woman’s complicity with a serial killer; and the author intervenes in her own voice to explain that, because women are still ‘subjects’ rather than ‘citizens’, they cannot always be expected to live up to their responsibilities as a ‘component part of civilised society’. Edwardian popular fiction was by no means uniformly bland. Cicely Hamilton, for example, supported herself by writing sensational stories for the ‘cheap periodicals’. Whenever an editor suggested that she might try a ‘love-theme’, the ‘sugary treatment’ required of such stories – the ‘utter sloppiness’ of the ‘admired type of heroine’ – sent her back with relief to her bandits and detectives.

Aversion to sugary treatments requires a knowledge of them, and this Edwardian writers, unlike their modern critics, had in abundance. It is hard to recognise M.P. Willcocks’s Wings of Desire (1912) in Miller’s description of it as a dour ‘marriage problem’ novel inhibited by ‘conventional narrative structures’. The heroines are two sisters, one married, one single, who wish to pursue both the careers and the men of their choice. In order to get the chosen men out of the way while the women decide what to do, and in the process make them a little more interesting, Willcocks furnishes them with a yacht and the prospect (such a staple in contemporary adventure stories) of buried treasure in the South Seas. The men seem reluctant to cast off, but are firmly sent about their business by the mother of one of them, a formidable woman who prepares herself for an advisory capacity by reading up on ‘erotic morbidity’ at the local library. The novel contains a full complement of role models, including a talented painter who prefers to remain single rather than subordinate herself to the man she loves. But its feminism lies not so much in the futures it sketches for women as in the mischief it makes with genre. The gormless treasure-seekers are to Willcocks what bandits and detectives had been to Hamilton. No haloes on them, or on the women of singular effect, with their red ties, severe hats and dogskin riding-gloves.