Elizabeth Robins playing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891)
Dear friends and readers,
I must interrupt my series of blogs on the ASECS conference to recommend an excellent novel that I read this week: Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907), developed out of her popular play, Votes for Women! When I was told it was a suffragette novel, I expected an overtly didactic text whose central character would be a politically active suffragette, preferably lower middle class; instead I found myself in a subtle realistic novel whose central character is an enigmatic upper middle class woman, Vida Levering, much of whose life (and the action of the novel until its last quarter) takes place in Oscar Wilde like luxurious residences, elite parties, and dinners featuring witty and complex characters. We begin with her visit to a pair of wealthy children, in a lavish nursery whom Vida is visiting and move on to her servant problem: her lady’s maid, gaunt and middle-aged, wants to quit in order to leap at a chance of marriage with a widower, a market gardener she’s never met (who has children for her to care for too). The cover of the first Feminist Press edition conjures up an appropriate image for the heroine:
The image is a reproduction of Cecilia Beaux’s After the Meeting
After a few minutes this did make sense: the leaders of the suffragette movement were often women with connections, money they had some control of, and enough sense of self, of esteem, of their own rights to demand power. If nothing else, who else could find the time to proselytize, organize, work for the vote. Would a poorer woman see the importance of the vote?
We begin seemingly in the world of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, but as we listen on (the text is strongly dramatically imagined) we discover it’s more George Bernard Shaw whom Elizabeth knew fairly well at one point in her life. Interwoven with the upstairs nursery (and very snobbish stern nursery governess) and Vida’s private bedroom, we find ourselves in a political dinner party, on the surface an infinitely more intelligent, nuanced, detailed depiction of the world of Downton Abbey at a dinner, complete with (so much is missing from DA one does not know where to begin) connected politicians and semi-unacceptable people. Little is overtly explained so our curiosity is aroused. As they talk a subtle feminist and even egalitarian slant emerges. While Vida makes the point to the leading politician, Haycroft (probably intended to stand for a Tory prime minister) that the women at this function are enacting a Geisha form of life, amusing the men, there is also much in the scene that most women would want to be and to do: beautifully dressed, well-educated (Wollstonecraft would say they are mis-educated), admired, conversing, moneyed. Robins begins by bringing out the deep difficulty of reforming any society. These privileged women could not begin to see that anything but wealth and position matters, and if that is threatened in any way, it would be difficult to persuade them of the need for feminism — outside the sexual, there you might get them privately to admit to much misery. Every type of woman is gradually put before us in these first chapters. From hostess to guest, widow to a woman seeking a husband, to women trying to marry off daughters, to women seeking position in social pecking orders.
It’s the morning after and we see the home-life of Vida’s sister, Mrs Fox-Moore who was snubbed at the dinner party ad socially pathetic (acceptable only because she had made this good marriage), whom Vida is living with. They are at breakfast and the husband comes downstairs: he is a corrosive quiet tyrant over his wife and makes her life miserable. The point of the chapter is to dramatize how if someone is given full power over someone else he or she will usually use it and in unkind ways. Mrs F-M has a sickly daughter Doris whom the father dotes on — like last night’s company he despises his wife because she does not know how to manipulate others, and is overtly weak before him. We hear ofMrs F-M’s satisfaction from charity work which Vida objects to as what these poor people want is not sermons or entertainment uplifting or not, but real help: solid money to make their life different and opportunities for decent employment. That’s not said but it’s implied. Quite a difference from Dickens’s mockery of Lady Bountfiuls as bullies.
A visit to a Brideshead kind of house: Uland house and its mistress, Lady John — a full description of one of these rich houses and the people in them — some the same individuals we met at the dinner party. I could quite see Diana Quick as Lady Julia as one of these characters (from the 1981 film), as well as Jane Asher, the actress who played the upper class woman Charles Ryder marries, and Jeremy Sinden who played her brother though he is a caricature as Charles Keating, Rex, Julia’s philistine politician husband is not (and could be a characer in The Convert). Robins’s feminism continues by showing us Hermione Heriot who hides the least conventional thought, Lady Sophia who reminds me of Trollope’s Miss Dunstable but not a caricature, there’s a dog Joey, a Lord Borrodaile and Paul Filey presented as unusual and perhaps interesting. When all gather over tea we see Filey is absurd, flattering himself he is not conventional, he has written a useless book defending aesthetics as the basis of life. could this be Robins on Wilde? Filey does not seem Wilde like and is likened to Shelley. What happens is there erupts a discussion of the suffragettes which grates on Vida. Suffragettes are mocked as absurd lunatic disgusting and so on. Vida’s resistant reaction brings out a side of her publicly she had not before: she tells of a scene she saw of unemployed people protesting and a working man who was dragging a rich child on a toy horse on a string; he was the horse for the child. She escapes before she says any more to a garden and then hearing her cousin, Mary, very dull, is not well, hurries off on this excuse to get out of this luxurious set of self-indulgent people who conversation is deliberately mindless. The tone inimitable rich, ironic, it reminds me of Henry James (whom Robins also knew). Robins has one of her characters mention Rhoda Broughton whose I’ve not read but know Trollope recommended and others have. This is the kind of Victorian novel that academic critics sometimes try to turn earlier Victorian women’s novels into.
Well by the center of the novel our two heroines have shown they have social consciences, and their curiosity aroused, they attend a suffragette meeting. Mrs Fox-Moore does not return a second time, but allured and fascinated despite misgivings, Vida does — with her new lady’s maid. Apparently women of the upper or middling classes did not walk alone in the streets if they were conventional. The lead-in to the first meeting showed the police becoming belligerent, derisory, obstructionist to our heroines — who never experienced anything like this before.
The meetings seemed to me to function two ways. Directly the words the suffragettes speak are ways of speaking to the audience of the book. They make the suffragette argument: how miserable are most women’s lives (working long hours, for little pay, endless children) with no power to alter this, while they have to listen to absurd rhetoric about being on pedestals and the like. There are a strong socialist admixture: the speakers all bring out the poverty and abysmal conditions of the working and lower middle class and make the analogy with chartism and men’s movements to gain the vote, and say these were efficacious. There’s now a labor party. The strongest speaker is probably intended to be a mirror of a real women: Emmeline Blunt she’s called.
We are also to experience how hostile crowds were. Most of the time I’ve gone to any political rally the people attending were people for the party. The last time I went to rally with hostile people about were demonstrations against Vietnam. Robins does justice to the kind of withering and abusive rhetoric women were subjected to, how they were mortified by a complete lack of respect. We see how odd their dress: one woman speaking is a widow with four children. She points out when a set of children lose their father they are left with the mother to try to care for them, usually in desperate circumstances and the children have no opportunities. When they lose their mother, they are unless taken in by a family, put to workhouses. Men don’t take their responsibility, will not mother. Most effective is how the women strain, what an emotional strain it is to talk above and against such a crowd. That the women get some respect, are listened to some of the time is remarkable. You see that ridicule was tried against the suffragettes, but the cause, the misery and needs of half the population (and their children suffering with them) was too important so it didn’t work
The first part of the novel was a perspective which showed her ironic realization of the circumstances and realities of her powerless life against men’s desires, wants, needs, demands; children are just fitted in as what men want too. She is now being converted. Amusingly she shows the little daily routines that kept upper class family members in their place. I noticed in Downton Abbey that everyone obeyed the dinner gong. You had to give up so many hours a day to eat and dress for it too. The servants had to cook and serve the meal. The gong in emerges as a technique for repressing and controlling the behavior of the whole household.
A photo of a suffragette demonstration (ca. 1910)
The emphasis in this central and to near the end of the novel is on demonstrations — of course such scenes make for drama but you could have scenes of suffragettes talking together. There is one between a Miss Claxton and Vida Levering, but when it comes time for the woman to tell the story of her life, Robins punts. We get very few details about the misery of ordinary working women’s lives; what she does tell is how when in prison women were somehow treated in a sexually disgraceful, humiliating or mortifying manner. Probably made to endure public overt harassment — it does not sound like rape. They were kicked and heads banged — that’s mentioned. Women did not get the vote until after WW1 in 1918 and in 1828 universal suffrage included women. I know there was no other way to show and try to make your desire felt. Mass demonstrations of men in Ireland and again in London and around England indirectly led to the extension of the franchise — women can’t threaten implicitly in the same way. It’s indirect: men hated to be bothered by women demonstrating, being violent, starving themselves and/or felt embarrassed by the exposure of their own power? But it was not enough: the whole experience of WW1, the breakdown of so many conventions, the death of so many men, had to intervene.
Slowly Vera begins to helping Blunt at demonstrations; coming in with her carriage and helping Blunt or others to flee. She’s followed about by Lord Borrodaile who appears to worry for her physical safety. These scenes are used to make it an astute politically aware novel. The depictions of the speeches include dialogues between Vida and Ernestine Blunt where you see how Robins understood what makes people respond to a political figure and what brings out an effective active response and what people just don’t care about, or refuse to recognize can be changed. Especially good is the mockery of the men — what they say, how what they care about women is their looks and little else. One woman who presents a real intelligent case of how women workers suffer from lethal conditions fails to get any attention as she’s hitting emotions of indifference; another intuitively seeks political power in her speeches and appeals more; a third in ordinary life is fine but up on a bench and she’s perceived intuitively as a weak target and humiliated.
She begins to accompanied by younger upper class women who are idealistic (reminding me of Lady Sybil Crawley): one, Jean, comes with her protective suitor who she is eager not to offend by her behavior, but wants there as a protector as well as for moral support.
As Vida leaves her upper class life, people become willing to talk about her, and fissures open up so the enigmatic feel of the character is explained. It seems that as a young woman Vida “left her father’s house” (the language so reminiscent of Richardson’s Clarissa): was it an attempt at incest? did her father take a mistress openly? it matters. We are not told. A male friend who knew the family and had been kind, seduces and then takes her to live with him. The novel uses coincidence: it was Stonor himself. It seems he pushed her into having an abortion, and it is made plain that she didn’t want the abortion, she regrets it even now. I was surprised to discover that in the turn of the century a woman would talk about a fetus as a baby. I thought that was the result of recent anti-abortion rhetoric, Catholic beliefs that life and a soul start at conception; from the few mentions (but real enough) I have come across in the Renaissance (Veronica Gambara’s letters where she had miscarriages) and later 17th through 18th century, until quickening the pregnancy (not called that) was not thought to be a baby; after quickening few aborted, very dangerous. As I said, these 1890s novels bring out thoughts one never heard at the time (and often do not now). Vida think had she had a child, she’d have more to live for today.
In Daphne Phillips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005 she describes a 1960s type of women’s novel as the single mother novel. These are books where the heroine becomes pregnant outside marriage; in just about all the heroine chooses to have the child and the novel is about the burden and complications and rewards that ensue. Philips says an American survey in 1959 of documentable (middle-class) women who got pregnant outside marriage showed only 2% chose to carry the pregnancy through to birth. Novels described include Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (filmed 1962), Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (filmed 1969 as A Touch of Love), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (filmed 1967 as Poor Cow).
Well the crown or denouement of the book has Vida getting on the bench herself and speaking publicly. She holds her own. Not that she achieves much that we can see — but it’s an addition, however small; she is a lady getting up there. But its climax, final scene reverses the emphasis back to private life. The last chapter shows the novel’s origin in a play. It reads like some final confrontation in an Ibsen play or Shaw — Vida and Stonor engaged in ahn impassioned debate over their shared past. He feels guilty about what happened, but to him she has become an unacceptable woman; he wants the young woman, Jean, whom he is engaged to be as sheltered as possible and we see while at the demonstration, how she is by training and disposition heeding all he says and will obey him. Unlike Trollope, Stonor does not go on about purity and the “beauty of innocence;” that is the underlying demand, but the overt thing he wants is a dependent woman who does not know how to cope with hard realities alone. We have been told by some of the other upper class women how Vida’s sister made a good marriage; we have seen how she is bullied so the future before Jean may not be any different. Here is our Shavian happy ending. A remarkable book,
George Moore’s Esther Waters edited by David Skilton
I’ve read only few novels from this era about or by “new women” (emancipated in some way, women who worked for money outside the home) or presenting the realities of the time in new reformist ways: George Moore’s very great Esther Waters (and novella, Albert Nobbs); Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross, a pseudonym used by Anna Sophie Cory, sister to “Laurence Hope,” aka Adela Cory who married and lived in India (where she and Vivian and another sister were born) and wrote popular poetry depicting female sexuality, sensual desire through pseudo-Indian imagery. As I recall in Anna Lombard the heroine pressured into either having an abortion or giving up the baby to caretakers knowing that the baby may be let die — by the husband or man who deigns to marry her; the book seems to endorse the idea that a man is right to refuse to be father to another man’s child and it is somehow unmanly for him to have been involved with her while she was pregnant by another man. What is shameful is he thinks of her as owned by him and orders her to kill a child. Esther Waters in Moore’s novel saves her baby from this at great sacrifice to herself; the pressure is economic and socially; she is regarded as a social outcast. These are books that should be better known. Hence this blog.
These “new woman” novels bring out into the discussably open for the first time realities not discussed even today — or skewed when discussed. So the first time out you can see attitudes blurted out which the person has not learned to hide.
The cover photo for Suffragette Sally (ca. 1910 photo)
Elizabeth Robins’s book is a cross-over between novels which focus on the private sexual lives of women and novels retelling the public world and activities of the suffragettes. A good Broadview edition (with an introduction about the suffragette movement, explaining why they had to resort to violence), Gertrude Colmore’s Suffragette Sally, edited by Alison Lee. One that sounded interesting is “by Lillie Devereux Blake, an American suffragist who wrote a novel, Fettered for life or Lord and Master. Blake wrote this to educate– [as in Mary Wollstonecraft] the emphasis on education — women in how greatly the law was stacked against them in marriage. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Domestic abuse was exerted economically and legally. Blake wanted to show women that they were in great danger from husbands because the law worked from the premise that a husband would protect a wife — therefore, whatever a husband did, even hurting her physically, was seen through the lens of protecting her, keeping her line. Laws protected abuse, so there was no real justice. Also, men could easily circumvent laws as women didn’t know the law and lack finances to sue. To the 19th century suffragist movement, the vote equalled protection from domestic violence and hence from death’ (quoted from a posting by Diane Reynolds to WWTTA).
I’ve sent away (bought through Bookfinder.com) Blake’s novel. To be honest, I am more drawn to the novel of the era which focuses on women’s sexual exploitation.
From the cover of Harman’s Feminine Political Novel: upper class women caged upstairs watching Parliament: Trollope’s Madame Max refuses to go because she is locked out and in
One good book by a single author that studies women’s political novels as such, The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England by Barbara Leah Harman includes Gaskell’s North and South, Robins’s The Convert as well as Bronte’s Shirley. It bothers me that Harman choses to cover Gissing’s The Year of the Jubilee and Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads — were there no other women’s political novels in the 19th century? What about Henrietta Stanndard’s A Blameless Woman (about a women tricked into bigamy)? Harman with Susan Meyer has edited a collection called The New Nineteenth-Century: Feminist Reading of Underread Victorian Novels: this has good essays on Bronte’s Agnes Grey (a wonderfully bitter book), Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sister, Oliphant’s Miss Majoribanks, Eliza Lynn Lynton’s The Rebel of the Family, Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins, Mary (Mrs Humphry) Ward’s Marcella (about a home-visiting nurse) and Sir George Tressady, and Flora Anne Steele’s On The face of the Waters (Anglo-Indian, about rape). There is another essay on Elizabeth Robins’s fiction (she wrote 14 novels altogether, as well as plays), Angela John’s “Radical Reflections: Elizabeth Robins’s “The Making of Suffragette History and the Representation of working Class Women,” and on “Henrietta Stanndard and the Emancipation of Women, 190-1910″ by Owen Ashton in The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson (wife of E.J., she wrote The Outsiders), Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts. The volume includes “Who wrote The Northern Star?, essays on the experience of the workplace by women, on lunatic asylums (what class person was put in there?), rural resistence, poverty and the poor law, chartism (all suffragette topics).
A familiar photo of Robins at the height of her career and beauty
There are two biographies of Elizabeth Robins: one, Angela V. John, Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life, takes her long life into her later obscure years.
Elizabeth Robins in later life
The other by Joanne E. Gates, Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1852 which appears to center on her central active years as socialite, actress and woman of letters and the theater (her pseudonym was Claire Raymond), suffragette. See comments for Nina Auerbach’s review.
We are on Women Writers through the Ages@ Yahoo (WWTTA) embarked on reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. These are Wollstonecraft’s great-great-granddaughters.
Read Full Post »