in Victorian and Edwardian novels
The role of women in society is a huge subject. This learning package provides a starting point for this subject, and focuses on the roles of women in Victorian and Edwardian novels.
The novels referred to are by writers of the West Midlands, and cover a range of period, style and genre, but the roles of women characters within them transcend these differences. For example, Mrs. Fairchild in The history of the Fairchild family (1818) and Mrs. Rathbone in Helen of the high hand (1901) have little in common except that they are both mothers, but in that parental role they influence the development and characters of their very different children. This can be extended right up to the present day: the characters, background, and ways of thought in contemporary novels may be very different from those of the 1800's, but most of the generic roles played by women would be as familiar to readers then as now.
The young girl was reliant on her parents or other adults for her physical and moral upbringing. But she was not always simply a passive recipient of nurture and education, and the raising of an acceptable adult was not always as straightforward as the authors of certain books would imply.
"The plan I have explained to you," said Miss Judith, in conclusion, "because, in order to fully pursue it, it is necessary that you should understand it in detail as well as generally. But my 'system' I shall not unfold; that is not needful. All you have to do is to obey implicitly and without question, exercising no will of your own, and forming no opinions save such as you receive from me. I trust to see you in a few years' time a learned, accomplished, useful, graceful woman, healthy in mind and body, animated in conversation, religious and conscientious, and far above all vulgar prejudices and feminine weaknesses."
I shuddered! Would she drop burning sealing-wax on my bare arms, or fire pistols in my ears? I had read the preface to "Sandford and Merton," and had no mind to rival the experiences of Sabrina--who, after all, was not a success! Miss Judith went away for a short time, and left me with the hated "plan" staring me in the face.Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 8.
Not all parents, of course, had either the will or the ability to do as much for their daughter. Among the poor, a child would be expected to be self-sufficient and if possible productive as early as possible, rather than be a drain on the family resources. Childhood as such would scarcely exist for such a girl.
Everything that could be pawned had disappeared long ago, and Jessica's mother often lamented that she could not thus dispose of her child. Yet Jessica was hardly a burden to her. It was a long time since she had taken any care to provide her with food or clothing, and the girl had to earn or beg for herself the meat which kept a scanty life within her. Jess was the drudge and errand-girl of the court; and what with being cuffed and beaten by her mother, and over-worked and ill-used by her numerous employers, her life was a hard one.Jessica's first prayer by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 3.
Whatever their upbringing, children could in return be a major influence--usually positive--on the adults who had raised them. Miss Judith--whose "plan" for Chrystabel's education had been shortlived and disastrous--was generous in her acceptance of Chrystabel's role in their relationship, and Chrystabel, for her part, willingly accepted the responsibilities of a daughter.
"I am glad of that, Chryssie; and do you know Matthew and I often say how greatly your coming among us changed us for the better. Not just at first, you know, but soon afterwards; a child in our house was a softening, expanding influence; in caring for your welfare and happiness we found happiness ourselves; long cherished selfishness gave way, and self-conceit gradually disappeared. Our great failure taught us to doubt the infallibility of our judgment, and to question the hitherto unquestioned wisdom of our own plans. But let all that go; you have been a blessing to us, Chryssie; that is what I wish you to know; and now, if you think you owe me anything, my child, promise me that you will never forsake my brother."
"Come what may, auntie, I do not think I shall ever feel any care of him who has been and is my second father to be a burden! I hope, and feel sure, it will be my joy and my privilege to love him and serve him in every way as the most devoted of daughters. Be easy about my uncle, Aunt Judith!"Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 28.
Despite her very different childhood, Jessica too was able to be a source of comfort and even spiritual guidance to the adult in her life:
"Well," resumed Daniel, "the questions this poor little creature has asked me have gone quicker and deeper down to my conscience than all your sermons, if I may make so free as to say it. She's come often and often of a morning, and looked into my face with those dear eyes of hers, and said, 'Don't you love Jesus Christ, Mr. Dan'el?' 'Doesn't it make you very glad that God is your Father, Mr. Dan'el?' 'Are we getting nearer heaven every day, Mr. Dan'el?' And one day says she, 'Are you going to give all your money to God, Mr. Dan'el?' Ah, that question made me think indeed, and it's never been answered till this day. While I've been sitting beside the bed here, I've counted up all my savings: 397l. 17s. it is; and I've said, Lord, it's all thine; and I'd give every penny of it rather than lose the child, if it be thy blessed will to spare her life.'"Jessica's first prayer by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 10.
The concept of the child protecting and nurturing the parent in their turn is common. Arnold Bennett exploits the idea to comic effect when the delightful Helen Rathbone describes the relationship between herself and her mother to James Ollerenshaw.
"The idea!" she continued. "As if I hadn't looked after mother and kept her in order, and myself, too, for several years! No. She wouldn't marry him and go out there! And she wouldn't marry him and stay here! She actually began to talk all the usual conventional sort of stuff, you know--about how she had no right to marry again, and she didn't believe in second marriages, and about her duty to me. And so on. You know. I reasoned with her--I explained to her that probably she had another thirty years to live. I told her she was quite young. She is. And why should she make herself permanently miserable, and Mr. Bratt, and me, merely out of a quite mistaken sense of duty? No use! I tried everything I could. No use!"
"She was too much for ye?"
"Oh, no!" said Helen, condescendingly. "I'd made up my mind. I arranged things with Mr. Bratt. He quite agreed with me. He took out a licence at the registrar's, and one Saturday morning--it had to be a Saturday, because I'm busy all the other days--I went out with mother to buy the meat and things for Sunday's dinner, and I got her into the registrar's office--and, well, there she was! Now, what do you think?"Helen with the high hand by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 3.
The child-parent relationship was not the only convention Bennett overturned in describing Helen's management of her mother's affairs. One of the main aims of any middle-class parent with a daughter was to see her suitably married to a man of suitable status and wealth. A good marriage would not only bring prestige to the family, but also wealth and good connections, so courtship was not simply a matter of the preferences of the people concerned. A marriageable daughter could be a great asset, as well as a responsibility, and, sadly, sometimes a liability.
"There were five Miss Phipsons, the eldest twenty-five, the youngest in her eighteenth year.... These girls went to fashionable and expensive schools, and they learned to dance, to enter a room properly, to sit or lounge gracefully, and to play and sing tolerably, for amateurs. And of course they were taught grammar and geography, and sundry scraps of ologies, and they read histories, ancient and modern, which they forgot as fast as possible, but of all those things in which a woman, whose sphere is home, should be instructed, they were profoundly ignorant. They could dress elegantly, if not economically; they knew the exact limits to which they might carry an innocent flirtation--if there be such a thing, which I doubt --and they were careful never to outrage the proprieties. They had beaux many and admirers many, but not one good, honest lover among them....
Mr. Phipson began to be afraid that his five handsome and expensive daughters were going to be left upon his hands; he felt that he would give anything to see any one of them married Perhaps it was too well known that the Misses Phipson had been brought up in habits of careless extravagance, that they were far more ornamental than useful."Husbands and wives by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 1.
The responsibility of finding a good match could sometimes be left in the capable hands of someone outside the family.
Mrs. Westbury....was particularly fond of the society of young people, to whom she was invariably kind and indulgent, and it was whispered that some of the "best matches" of her set were of her making. She had no children of her own, but she had satisfactorily married her husband's only daughter some years before, though report affirmed that Adelaide Westbury had refused to profit by her stepmother's scheming, and had chosen for herself. However this might be, she was Mrs. Kingscote, and Mrs. Westbury, being free from even the shadow of maternal responsibilities, was both able and willing to devote herself to the establishment of such young ladies as she might deem worthy of her notice.Husbands and wives by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 1.
Adelaide Westbury was doubtless not the only young lady who chose for herself. Many others, like Diane Tempest, must have been uneasy at the prospect before them of a "good" marriage which still had something missing.
"Well, granny, I won't say I feel sure I shall never marry, because all girls say that, and it generally means nothing. But, still, that is what I feel without saying it... I don't want a kind indulgent husband, and a large income, and good horses, and pretty little frilled children with their mother's eyes, that one shows to people and is proud of. It is all very nice. I am glad when I see other people happy like that. I should like to see you pleased; but for myself--really--I think I should find them rather in the way. I dare say I might make a good wife, as you say. I believe I could be rather a cheerful companion, and affectionate if it were not exacted of me. But somehow all that does not hit the mark. The men who have cared for me have never seemed to like me for myself, or to understand the something behind the chatter and the fun which is the real part of me--which, if I married one of them, would never be brought into play, and would die of starvation. The only kind of marriage I have ever had a chance of seems to me like a sort of suicide--seems as if it would be one's best self that would be killed, while the other self, the well-dressed, society-loving, ball-going, easy-going self, would be all that was left of me, and would dance upon my grave.'
Mrs. Courtenay was silent....
'There are such things as happy marriages,' she said.
'Yes, granny; but I think it is the happy marriages I see which make me afraid of marrying. I know it is foolish to expect to meet with anything better than the ordinary happy marriage, and one ought to be thankful if one met with that, for half the world does not. But when I see what is called a happy marriage, I always think, Is that all? ....Can't love be real, like hate? Can't people ever look at each other, and see each other as they are, and love each other for what they are?'Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley. Chapter 14.
While a middle-class daughter's marriage could benefit her family in all sorts of ways, the main benefit among the poor was likely to be financial. Cornelius Rea perhaps took this to extremes when disposing of his daughter Bladys.
"....Cornelius Rea at the inn is going to marry again, and wants be rid of his daughter first. It's an ockard affair altogether, and not altogether what it ort to be; and so it has been settled as a mutual accommodation that there shall be a bowling match on the green--and she's to go to the winner. That's about it. O yes! O yes! O yes!"
Then the crier went forward clanging his bell, and as he progressed more faces appeared at windows and figures at doors, and children swarmed thicker in the street.
Phalanxes of boys formed before and behind, yelling,
"O yes! O yes! O yes! Stewponey Bla is for sale to the highest bidder. Who'll stand another 'apenny and have her? Going, going for tuppence three farthings."
Bladys' natural objections were dealt with matter-of-factly and logically.
"It's an honour to any woman to be bowled for. 'Taint every wench can boast she's been an object of contest. My grandmother used to say that in Spain swords were often crossed before a woman could be wed, and that a lady never deemed herself properly married till blood had flowed on her account. Now folk will pay their shillings and half-crowns to see which is the best man. Bless you! There came round a caravan with a giraffe and a laughing hyena, and a roaring lion. Hundreds of people paid sixpence to see these beasts all the way from Africa. Just you think of that. A roaring lion, the king of beasts, only sixpence, let alone the giraffe and the hyena: and shilling and half-a-crown to see you. There's honour and glory, if you like it. I didn't think I'd have lived to see the day and feel such a father's pride, but I do--and I bless you for it. I bet you a spade guinea we shall take the money up in shovels."Bladys of the Stewponey by Sabine Baring Gould. Chapters 1 and 2.
Few girls would voluntarily avoid marriage. The alternatives, whatever social class you were in, were unappealing (see next section, "Single"), and a home of your own, a husband, and eventually a family would be an attractive prospect.
"It was not that Selina, poor girl, was in love with Mr. Radcliffe--one could as well have fancied her in love with the grizzly old bear, just then exhibiting himself at Church Dykely in a travelling caravan. But it was her position. Without money, without a home, without a resource of any kind for the future, save that of teaching for her bread, the prospect of becoming mistress of Sandstone Torr was something fascinating".Johnny Ludlow Series 4 by Mrs. Henry Wood. Sandstone Torr
Even in the twentieth century Prue Sarn, whose own love story was to be so passionate and romantic, had very prosaic expectations of married life.
"My heart beat soft and sad. It seemed such a terrible thing never to marry. All girls got married. Jancis would. Tivvy would. Even Miller's Polly, that always had a rash or a hoost or the ringworm or summat, would get married. And when girls got married, they had a cottage, and a lamp, maybe, to light when their man came home, or if it was only candles it was all one, for they could put them in the window, and he'd think 'There's my missus now, lit the candles!' And then one day Mrs. Beguildy would be making a cot of rushes for 'em, and one day there'd be a babe in it, grand and solemn, and bidding letters sent round for the christening, and the neighbours coming round the babe's mother like bees round the queen. Often when things went wrong, I'd say to myself, 'Ne'er mind, Prue Sarn! There'll come a day when you'll be queen in your own skep.'"Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Chapter 5.
The life of a single woman was not to be envied, whatever her status. She might have to work at an uncongenial job, or might have nothing at all to do. She would miss out on the joys of family life (thought these were obviously not unmixed), and would have little social standing as an unsupported female.
"I do so dislike the thought of spending my whole life in teaching!" she pleaded in apology, the bitter tears streaming down her face. "You cannot tell what it is to feel dependent."Johnny Ludlow series 4 by Mrs. Henry Wood. Sandstone Torr.
Even the most dynamic and resourceful woman could be overwhelmed at the thought of having to cope alone.
"Mrs. Arb found herself with an income but no home, no habit of home life, and no masculine guidance or protection. She was heart-stricken, and--what was worse--she was thoroughly disorganized. Her immense vitality had no outlet. Time helped her, but she lived in suspense, undecided what to do and not quite confident in her own unaided wisdom."Riceyman steps by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 6
For the young, the uneducated and the vulnerable, there was an even bleaker outlook.
"The mother was buried; and what was to become of Bess? No one was bound to take any care of her. She was old enough to see after herself. There was the workhouse open to her, if she chose to apply for admission; but if she entered it, it would be to be sent out to service as a workhouse girl, in the course of a few weeks or months, untrained and untaught, fit only for the miserable drudgery of the lowest service. There was not strength enough in her slight ill-fed frame to enable her to keep body and soul together at laundry-work, which was the only work she knew anything of. There was no home, however wretched, to give her shelter, if she continued to sell water-cresses in the streets."In prison and out by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 10.
But the single woman was not always seen as an inferior being. The unmarried friend, confidante and adviser is a common figure, though not often as touchingly and lovingly described as by Florence L. Barclay:
"The baby's godmother was a perfectly beautiful woman, in an absolutely plain shell; but, unfortunately, no man had as yet looked beneath the shell and seen the woman herself in her perfection. She would have made earth heaven for a blind lover who, not having eyes for the plainness of her face or the massiveness of her figure, might have drawn nearer and apprehended the wonder of her as a woman; experiencing the wealth of tenderness of which she was capable, the blessed comfort of the shelter of her love, the perfect comprehension of her sympathy, the marvellous joy of winning and wedding her. But as yet no blind man with far-seeing vision had come her way, and it always seemed to be her lot to take a second place on occasions when she would have filled the first to infinite perfection.
She had been bridesmaid at the doctor's wedding, to whom she would have made a wife such as Flower, develop as she might, could never be. She was godmother to the baby--she whose arms ached for motherhood itself, and whose motherliness would have been a thing for men to kneel down and worship. She found her duties as godmother to various babies consisted chiefly in praying that the foolish mistakes made by their parents might be overruled by an all-wise Providence and work out somehow to their ultimate good."The wheels of time by Florence L. Barclay.
Then her face grew firm and purposeful. "I must lay in a stock of buttons," she said. "His clothes will want a lot of seeing to." A proud, shy light was in her eyes. "That's a thing the great ladies couldn't do for my Jim; no, nor even the Queen herself! A man turns to his own wife when it's a matter of buttons."My heart's right there by Florence L. Barclay.
For many married women and their husbands "a matter of buttons" was enough to satisfy them. Other men expected more of their wives, and some women expected to have more demanded of them.
"I find plenty to do, and then I have the evening to look forward to, and Arthur reads to me. I am almost sorry the evenings are so light. It was so nice to sit by the fire and sew, and get a good way on with a really nice book. I find I must read, or get mental exercise of some sort, or I shall fall too far behind my husband. Men want a companion when they marry; they want some one to talk to, to share their pursuits, to look forward with them, to enter into their schemes. A mere doll or a mere drudge is not sufficient."Husbands and wives by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 7.
What astounding good fortune! How proud of her he would be when the time arrived to exhibit her as his wife? The contrast between the tired, weeping--you might almost say deliquescent--girl of the later night, between the racing-motorist, between the author of her amazing book, between the fiery fierce fury, and this prim adorable feminine wife, this clever wise housewife, this helpmeet! She was five girls in one. Bewildering! There she stood, chattering in a manner original and charming about the weather, and about his shirts. She seemed to be learned in the lore of his shirts. She must have been exploring them in secret while at some time or other he was out of the room.
"I think you might wear the black and white stripe," she said. Naturally her choice was his law. "Do let me change the studs. Anyhow I will." She laughed, hummed a tune.
Why worry about getting to heaven, when you were there already? Damn the Palace! And the Orcham Merger! And every hotel in the Merger!Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 61.
Unfortunately, not all wives were supportive or trustworthy.
"Oh, Margaret, you women don't know your own power! you don't know what a man feels when the woman he has loved and trusted, and upon whom he has lavished his utmost tenderness, proves false to him. It is a sort of moral earthquake, the solid ground crumbling away beneath his feet, an anguish worse than death. Oh! it is one of the greatest sins a woman can commit, to play fast and loose, or trifle with a good man's faithful heart. If you had served me so, Peggy, I might have become--nay, I feel sure I should have become for years, perhaps for life, the veriest wretch that ever breathed."Husbands and wives by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 12.
A home and family of one's own seems to have been as attractive a prospect as a husband. Many women must have found fulfilment in the practicalities of housekeeping, cooking, and decorating that they could not easily find elsewhere.
"They went in. Lily was genuinely pleased; after the rambling ruin at home, impossible to keep in order even for more industrious hands than hers, the compact, neat little home was delightful. She thought how easy the work would be. She was not meant for the hardy magnificence of manual labour. She should have belonged to the professional or tradesman's class, had a small 'general' to bully, and been able to say with pride to her friends, 'Oh, no, I never do any work, but I know how it should be done.' But here she felt a decided impetus in the direction of domesticity, because for the first time it was picturesque; for the first time she saw herself in a romantic setting of shelves, cupboards, clean paint and flowers. She had a vision of the vicar's wife alluding to her as 'Joe Arden's pretty wife who makes such good jelly.'"Golden arrow by Mary Webb. Chapter 12.
"I was baking, a thing I dearly liked. Most of the work I did was men's work, and baking seemed so light and pleasant after it. I liked to see the dough rising afore the big red fire, and to get the oven ready with burning wood, raking out the ash after, and setting the loaves in rows. It was pleasant to be in the warm, glowing kitchen, full of the good smell of bread, and to look out at the grey-white fields and woods, cold and lonesome, and then to draw the curtain, and kindle the rushlight, setting the table and putting the tater pie to get hot on the gledes, and knowing that in a little while all those I cared for would be comfortable for the night. The fowl had been shut up since the first dusk, the cows and sheep were folded, Bendigo littered-up, Pussy by hearth, Mother with a bit of fire in her room and the warming-pan in the bed, and now Gideon was on the way back to his supper. The oven being still hot, I put in a batch of mince-pies, for Gideon liked a bit of good fare as well as anybody, though he'd growl times, and talk about ruination, and where'd our house be and the silver plate and all. ....I was singing to myself a bit, and talking to Pussy, who was almost too comfortable to purr, only if I spoke she'd partly get up, and arch herself very polite, and open her mouth to mew, and then be too bone-idle to make any sound. But she looked at me as much as to say, 'I know you made this nice gledy fire to warm me, missus, and I know you've got summat in larder for I, and thank you kindly.'"Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Book 3, chapter 4.
"And yet they were very poor. No one knew on how small a number of hundreds that little home was kept together, how narrow was the margin which allowed of those occasional little dinner-parties of eight to which people were so glad to come. Who was likely to divine that the two black satin chairs had been covered by Di's strong hands--that the pale Oriental coverings on the settees and sofas that harmonized so well with the subdued colouring of the room were the result of her powers of upholstery--that it was Di who mounted boldly on high steps and painted her own room and her grandmother's an elegant pink distemper, inciting the servants to go and do likewise for themselves?"Diana Temple by Mary Cholmondeley. Chapter 6.
Sometimes the choices available to the marriageable young woman, whatever her status, were not particularly appealing. Sometimes a very high price had to be paid for financial security or a home and family.
"Disparity be hanged!" growled the incensed Nabob. "What's disparity on the husband's side, I should like to know? What's forty or fifty years between man and wife, when the marriage settlements are all that can be wished? Dear me! the girls come out to India on purpose to marry money, and they don't mind about age, or any such nonsense. Better be an old man's darling, Miss Chryssie, than a young man's snarling!"Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 47.
'Do I show want of feeling?' she said, in her low, even voice. 'I know I have none for that man; but why should I have any? If he wanted to marry me, why did he want it? He knew I did not like him--I made that sufficiently plain. Did he care one single straw for anything about me except my looks? If he had liked me ever so little, it would have been different; but why am I to be grateful because he wanted me to sit at the head of his table and wear his diamonds?'Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley. Chapter 6.
"Except Elsie, the adult inhabitants of the house were always unhappy save when drinking alcohol or making love. Although they had studied Holy Scripture in youth, and there were at least three Bibles in the house, they had failed to cultivate the virtue of Christian resignation. They permitted trifles to annoy them. On the previous day the wife of the meat-salesman had been upset because her "copper" leaked, and because she could never for a moment be free of her own children, and because it was rather difficult to turn her perambulator through the kitchen doorway into an entrance-hall three feet wide, and because she had to take all three children with her to market, and because the eldest child, cleanly clad, had fallen into a puddle and done as much damage to her clothes as would take a whole day to put right, and because another child, teething, would persistently cry, and because the landlord of the house was too poor to do necessary repairs, and because she could not buy a shilling's worth of goods with sixpence, and because her payments to the Provident Club were in arrear, and because the sunshine made her hat look shabby, and for many other equally inadequate reasons.
As for the french-polisher's wife, she moped and grew neurotic because only three years ago she had been a pretty girl earning an independent income, and because she was now about to bear another pledge of the french-polisher's affection, and because she felt sick and frequently was sick, and because she had no money for approaching needs, and because she hated cooking and washing, and because her husband spent his evenings and the purchase-money of his children's and his wife's food at a political club whose aim was to overthrow the structure of society, and because she hated her husband's cough and his affection, and because she could see no end to her misery, and because she had prophetic visions of herself as a hag with five hundred insatiable children everlastingly in tears for something impossible to obtain for them.
The spinster on the second floor was profoundly and bitterly dissatisfied for the mere reason that she was a spinster; whereas the other two women would have sold their souls to be spinsters.Riceyman steps by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 11.
While motherhood brought awesome responsibilities, hard work and often grief, it was still the ambition of most girls to achieve it, whatever their views and experiences of family life might be.
"I am afraid none of us can say much of our children; there is no child that can be said to have a good heart....I am your own mamma, and love you dearly, although I know that you are sinful creatures...."History of the Fairchild family by Mrs Sherwood. "Story of ambition".
"I am so glad, baby, that He said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto Me.' One must be a mother before one can feel all the fulness and blessing of those sweet words,--the Saviour's own words, my pretty little one! I will tell you all about Him when you are old enough to understand, and to love Him just a little. Oh, my God, how good Thou art to us poor, weak women, thus to give us the mother-rapture, which is like no other happiness in the world.Husbands and wives by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 25.
This was her son, her first-born. He was the baby who had first lain on her bosom, now so tortured with ceaseless pain, and who had filled her whole heart with love and joy. She could recollect how his father had looked down upon them both, with mingled pride and shyness. She almost forgot her pain in the rapture of fondling him once again. Her shrivelled, wasted hand, whose fingers were drawn up with long years of toil, stroked his poor head, with its prison crop of hair, where the baby's flaxen curls had grown; and her lips were pressed again and again to his face. She could not let him go.In prison and out by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 8.
Arnold Bennett again gives a rather more light-hearted view of the mother's relationship with her daughter.
"You see, mother is a very simple creature. And she's only forty-four."
"She's above forty-four," James corrected.
"She told me she was thirty-nine five years ago," Helen protested.
"Did she tell ye she was forty, four years ago?"
"No. At least, I don't remember."
"Did she ever tell ye she was forty?"
"Happen she's not such a simple creature as ye thought for, my lass," observed James Ollerenshaw.
"You don't mean to infer," said Helen, with cold dignity, "that my mother would tell me a lie?
"All as I mean is that Susan was above thirty-nine five years ago, and I can prove it. I had to get her birth certificate when her father died, and I fancy I've got it by me yet." And his eyes added: "So much for that point. One to me."Helen of the high hand by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 3.
Years of experience of life often qualify the older woman to act as an adviser or figure of authority. No longer busy with their own family responsibilities, they were able to pass their wisdom on to the next generation.
"Mrs. Courtenay had been one of the four beautiful Miss Digbys of Ebberstone, about whom society had gone wild fifty years ago; and in her old age she was beautiful still, with the dignified and gracious manner of one who has been worshipped in her day. Her calm keen face bore the marks of much suffering, but of suffering that had been outlived....Mrs. Courtenay had loved and had suffered and had presented a brave front to the world, and had known wealth, as she now knew poverty. The pain was past; the experience remained; therein lay the secret of her power and her popularity, for she had both. She seemed to have reached a quiet backwater in the river of life where the pressure of the current could no longer reach her, would never reach her again."Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley. Chapter 6.
"And, Chryssie, this is Aunt Rachel; you need not be afraid of her, though she is so old."
Afraid, indeed! I liked the looks of the old lady better than aught else I had seen since Mrs. Hamilton left me in the train. In spite of her wrinkles she was a beautiful old woman, for her features, though worn by time and sickness, were still fine, and her expression was truly lovely; and then that snowy hair, gleaming like pure silver in the shaded lamplight; and those sweet, deep, serious eyes, that seemed to say a thousand things as they kindly regarded me! I sat down, as she bade me, on the stool at her feet, and I felt with pleasure her withered but delicate fingers passing gently over my thick curls.Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 6.
Mrs. Prockter (who by reason of the rare "k" in her name regarded herself as the sole genuine in a district full of Proctors) may be described as the dowager of Bursley, the custodian of its respectability, and the summit of its social ladder. You could not climb higher than Mrs. Prockter. She lived at Hillport, and even in that haughty suburb there was none who dared palter with an invitation from Mrs. Prockter. She was stout and deliberate. She had waving flowers in her bonnet and pictures of flowers on her silken gown, and a grey mantle. Much of her figure preceded her as she walkedHelen of the high hand by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 5.
Some, however, were unwilling to accept this new role in life.
"Mona Louisa felt herself to be eighteen, though in reality she had counted half a century of years. She was very sprightly, very gay. She was quite a gushing young thing, and she quickly folded me in an enthusiastic embrace, and exclaimed, "Oh, you darling! you treasure! Oh, what eyes! Are they not lovely, Matthew?"
The bloom on her cheeks was lovely. Altogether Mona Louisa had a marvellous complexion, if, indeed, she were, as her sister asserted, fifty years of age. I had, of course, no idea that her roses and lilies were her own simply because she had paid for them."Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapters 3 and 7.
And others refused to conform with the conventions of aged wisdom and dignity.
"There is, they inform me, a sweet creature to be tried for not loving her husband, and for setting her fancy upon another; and she gave her husband a drop of nightshade that sent him below. Ho, ho; if she had but consulted me, I could have better advised her. They assure me that for this they will burn her."
The old woman rubbed her palms over the fire.
"I have never seen a woman at the stake. Ecod, I should prodigiously like to see that. But this kind gentleman will not deny me such a trifle if I ask him to take me with him. And she to be burnt alive! That's pure. I should enjoy myself extravagantly."Bladys of the Stewponey by Sabine Baring-Gould. Chapter 8.
Nor was all the advice they gave to the younger generation good.
'Now that'll be five shillings, my pretty,' she said, 'and that's counting the stuff you'll take whome. And now for you, my dear?'....
'Oh, aye,' said Nancy, when Deborah had talked a while, 'it's as plain as sin--the family way.'
Deborah thanked her, radiant, and rose to go immediately, very much to Nancy's dissatisfaction.
'The one downstairs is a sensible girl,' she said, 'and you're a softie.'
She whispered in Deborah's ear.
'No,' said Deborah flatly....
Nancy was much annoyed.
'It'll be five shilling for you, without the stuff, and you'll be worser and worser and worser afore you're better, and you'll wish you'd come to old Nancy,' she remarked.Golden Arrow by Mary Webb. Chapter 38.
Working for a living for confined largely to women at the lower end of the economic scale, the truly poor and the "unfortunate" middle-class. For the latter, there were few alternatives.
"I am afraid I am about the worst person in the world to advise you; I really have no notion what you could do unless, indeed, you turn governess--that is what young ladies in novels mostly do, I believe."Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 30.
Work undertaken solely for economic reasons was unlikely to be fulfilling or pleasurable: the concept of "job satisfaction" is a modern one.
"You must be same as them hospital nurses," he said, aloud. "You do it because ye like it--for love on it, as they say."
"Like it! I hate it. I hate any sort of work. What fun do you suppose there is in teaching endless stupid children, and stuffing in classrooms all day, and correcting exercises and preparing sewing all night? Of course, they can't help being stupid. It's that that's so amazing. You can't help being kind to them--they're so stupid."
"If ye didn't do that, what should ye do?" James inquired.
"I shouldn't do anything unless I was forced," said she. "I don't want to do anything, except enjoy myself--read, play the piano, pay visits, and have plenty of really nice clothes. Why should I want to do anything? I can tell you this--if I didn't need the money I'd never go inside that school again, or any other!"Helen of the high hand by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 3.
The sheer drudgery of much of the work undertaken by women is often described as deadening their spirits and themselves to an almost animal level of existence.
"Elsie was a strongly-built wench, plump, fairly tall, with the striking free, powerful carriage of one bred to various and hard manual labour....Her clothes were cheap, dirty, slatternly and dilapidated. Over a soiled white apron she wore a terribly coarse apron of sacking. This apron was an offence; it was an outrage. But not to her; she regarded it as part of a uniform, and such an apron was, in fact, part of the regular uniform of thousands of women in Clerkenwell. If Elsie was slatternly, dirty, and without any grace of adornment, the reason was that she had absolutely no inducement or example to be otherwise. It was her natural, respectable state to be so."Riceyman steps by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 4.
Some women must have been able to combine such mind-numbing physical work with an inner emotional life, but Prue Sarn was probably an exception:
"It was strange to think that while I went about my housework and out-door work to-morrow, slaving like a man, at men's jobs, I should be in my own soul the bride of the weaver. While I ploughed with Gideon, turning up the frosty earth, while I cleaned the shippen in my sacking and clogs, while I stood in the mucky fold giving the ducks and fowls their meat, looking more like a man than a woman, and more like a mawkin than a man, all this time I should be woman to him, dwelling beneath the light of his eyes, warmed by his smile, his banner over me being love."Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Book 2, chapter 8.
The idea of a working wife and mother was unacceptable to many even in the lower social strata. If the family could manage on the husband's money, the wife's place was in the home, fulfilling her role as mother and helpmeet.
"Jim had, from the first, put down his foot quite firmly on the question of any going out to work on Polly's part.
"No, my girl," he had said; "I shouldn't have married you, if I hadn't known I could keep you, without you lending a hand. Your work's in the home....suppose I came home from work and up the garden path, tired and glad, and found the house dark, the door locked, and the key gone. And suppose the neighbours called to me: 'Your wife ain't back from work yet.' What sort of a 'no place like home' would that be, d'you think? That's the kind of thing which drives a man to turn and look for lights and welcome, where they keep open house. And if once he starts doing that, bad times begin."My heart's right there by Florence L Barclay.
The concept of an independent, fulfilled single woman working to build a career for herself only appears right at the end of the period: again, she is an Arnold Bennett creation.
"The time was about half-past eleven--nearing the end of a full day. She had toiled for five hours in the Palace--but nothing was toil for her--and after lunch, and a French lesson from the assiduous Perosi, she had paid a visit to Renshaw Street and spent several interminable hours with her parents, who had a parental fore-vision of their daughter as the star housekeeper of the whole European world of hotels. Then swiftly by a pre-ordered taxi from Renshaw Street to the Duncannon; and finally to her boudoir-parlour-office in the Palace.
She was perfectly happy, loving her work, and aware that she was doing it pretty well. She never felt fatigue, nor boredom, nor any of the qualms which trouble those who are not fairly sure of themselves. She went to bed with reluctance, and arose joyous and eager to start the new, long day."Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 71.
The concept of "body fascism" is hardly a new one. Heroines are invariably beautiful, or at least striking looking. The ugly, stout or heavily made-up are villains or comic characters.
"When her face was in repose one could judge of her age; but when she smiled, all her wrinkles--and there were a good many of them--melted into the smile, and her face looked almost girlishly young and innocent. She owned that look of youth and freshness, in spite of the fact that she was rouged and powdered and painted as if she had been ready for the stage. It was pretty easy to see that she had not been quite as much affected by the "noble occasion" as she pretended to have been, for the slightest shower of tears would have ruined that admirable and artistic make-up."In direst peril by David Christie Murray. Chapter 8.
"Miss Dobbs was a spinster of uncertain age. She was trim and upright, and wore an old-fashioned, shabby silk dress, and a cap of very peculiar construction. She had a thin, long face, high cheekbones, with a round red spot on each, cruel red-brown eyes, treacherous lips, and a general expression of cunning. She had on a front of dark, sleek, shining hair; and her high-hooked nose was bestridden by a pair of heavy tortoise-shell spectacles. I cannot say I fell in love with Miss Dobbs at first sight. On the contrary, I felt a strange repulsion as I approached her. Some unaccountable instinct told me that she was to be my enemy."Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 6.
"Although the part played by Mrs. Butt in the drama was vehement and momentous, it was nevertheless so brief that a description of Mrs. Butt is hardly called for. Suffice it to say that she had so much waist as to have no waist, and that she possessed both a beard and a moustache. This curt catalogue of her charms is unfair to her; but Mrs. Butt was ever the victim of unfairness."Helen of the high hand by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 6.
Pragmatic and practical as many seem to have been when choosing their marriage partners, there was still scope for romance, though David Murray's hero seems slightly apologetic for his feelings.
"All this, I dare say, is romantic and old-fashioned to the verge of absurdity, but it is so true that all the other truths I have known, excepting those I have no right to speak of here, seem to fall into insignificance beside it. I fell in love with my wife there and then, and without even knowing it I was vowed to her service as truly as I have been in the forty-two years that have gone by since then. I thank Heaven for it humbly, for there is nothing which can so help a man in his struggles against what is base and unworthy in himself as his love for a good woman. If that has grown to be an oldfashioned doctrine in these days, I am sorry for the world. It is true, it has been true, and will be true again."In direst peril by David Christie Murray. Chapter 1.
But Chrystabel--who is to marry for love--mocks the conventions of the "romantic heroine" of literature.
"How it would have been with us had I been really delicate, or of an hysterical temperament, I scarcely dare to think, even now. In the article of food itself, I resolved that so long as we had it I would not stint myself, since I needed strength and unbroken health, as much for my uncle's sake as for my own; and one is sure to lose both on insufficient rations. So I went in for quantity rather than quality, and satisfied my appetite--which, save during my brief period of indisposition, was never squeamish--on great hunches of bread-and-cheese, a goodly allowance of potatoes, and beef and mutton at discretion.
I am afraid some of my readers will lose all interest in me; these confessions are so extremely unromantic. Doubtless it would have sounded more sentimental had I half-starved myself, or had my appetite failed me, on such coarse, or rather on such very plain fare, or had I pined away, and had a hacking cough, and looked frailer, and of course lovelier day by day, till recovery seemed hopeless, and I resigned myself to an early grave.Chrystabel by Emma Jane Worboise. Chapter 35.
While the "fallen woman" was a regularly occurring character, the nature of her wrongdoings was usually implied rather than explicitly described, but some authors were willing to point a parallel between them and more "respectable" women.
"He opened the door. She drew a long cloak over her shoulders and passed him without speaking, looking like what she was--one of that class whose very existence she professed to ignore, but whose ranks she had virtually joined when she announced her engagement to Sir Henry in the Morning Post. Perhaps, inasmuch as that, untempted, she had sold herself for diamonds and position, instead of, under strong temptation, for the bare necessaries of life like her poorer sisters, she was more degraded than they; but fortunately for her, and many others in our midst, society upheld her."Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley. Chapter 39.
It isn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that Mary Webb is able to refer openly to the sexual nature of the women in her novels.
Lily watched with veiled eagerness; leaning out to this new force of manhood with no thought of it, but with the complete absorption in her own small, superficial ego in face of great primeval powers which makes a certain type of woman the slave of sex instead of the handmaid of love. She was what is called a good girl, thinking no worse thoughts than the crude ones of most farm women. She was insatiably curious, and was willing to face the usual life of the women among whom she lived in order to unravel the mysteries of the Old Testament and other Sunday meat of the congregation at her place of worship. She was full of tremors and flushes--the livery of passion--yet incapable of understanding passion's warm self. She was ready to give herself as a woman for the sake of various material benefits, with a pathetic ignorance of her own unthinkable worth as a human being. She was rapacious for the small-change of sex, yet she would never be even stirred by the agony of absence from the beloved.The golden arrow by Mary Webb. Chapter 1.
Deborah was in despair. She had her code, she had summed up life; marriage and all its cares, griefs and joys came into her sum of things. But passion was new, terrible. She had not realized the feelings involved in it. She had thought of herself as a wife, with the same emotions, the same poise, as she had in her maidenhood. To many women marriage is only this. It is merely a physical change impinging on their ordinary nature, leaving their mentality untouched, their self-possession intact. They are not burnt by even the red fire of physical passion--far less by the white fire of love. For this last Deborah was prepared; she had felt its touch without shrinking. But when Stephen kissed her in the wood, a new self awoke in her. She was horrified; she needed time to fuse the two fires, to realize that in unity they were both pure.The golden arrow by Mary Webb. Chapter 18.
Some twenty years later, Bennett's Evelyn Orcham would only just have come to terms with the idea of a woman's sexual knowledge and experience.
"She had shocked his masculine sensitiveness by the calmness of the use of the words 'miscarriage' and 'six months gone.' What could or should she, unmarried, know of such things? Her sister had not been married either. Absurd! As manageress of a big laundry staff, as head-housekeeper of a big place like the Palace with its very mixed assortment of humanity, she must be familiar with all manner of strange and dubious phenomena. Indeed nothing could be hid from her. The contents of the minds of such women simply would not bear investigation. What could such women have to learn about the secret nature of mankind? He would bet that she knew far more than he did: she knew appalling things. And not a sign of the knowledge of them on her tranquil, virtuous face!"Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 48.
"She was marvellous, she was miraculous, and she was his. A virgin? He shook his head. No matter! These notions about the importance of virginity were obsolete. What was her sexual history? He had no right to enquire. Her experiments were her own business. One must be fair. Beyond doubt she was passionately in love with him. He thought of her with extreme tenderness. He could have forgiven her anything. A woman of her extraordinary qualities was entitled to a code of her own. He exulted in her."Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett. Chapter 57.
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