The Newest Woman

IT was the late George Meredith, if I mistake not, who was credited with bringing women into their joint inheritance of wit and passion. He himself supposed himself to discard, first, of the novelists, the ‘veiled virginal doll.’ The jeune fille had, in the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, become somewhat dehumanized. She was far, indeed, from the frank heroines of Shakespeare, to whom every year was leap year. The heroine of the old-fashioned sentimental novel forsook her blushing, fainting, tear-shedding, letter-writing girlhood, only to become, on her wedding day, the British matron. There seems to have been no transition. Meredith apparently felt that the feminine share in romance was deplorably and inaccurately minimized. He exaggerated, perhaps. Scott gave us a few fine examples of the beautiful girl without frill or flutter, who was aware of her own mind. George Eliot knew a thing or two about her sex; and Jane Eyre, in her day, was notoriously explicit.

Not long since, indeed, having brought myself quite up to date with the fiction of the contemporary English school, — even to the last installments of its serial novels, — I sought out the most démodé of the English novelists. ‘Let me see,’ I murmured to myself, ‘just what it is that we have thought it worth while, at this expense, to escape.’ Accordingly, I procured all the volumes of Sir Charles Grandison. Nothing, it seemed, could be fairer than to go to Richardson; and, in all the work of Richardson, fairest, surely, to go to Sir Charles.

I have never known any one who was ashamed to confess that Sir Charles Grandison bored him. It is the last work which any defender of the old school of fiction would think of using as a basis for argument. And yet, even in that epic of priggery, the natural note is not wholly lacking. Harriet Byron loved Sir Charles while he was still bound to the Lady Clementina, and bore herself with dignity when her friends cautioned her against her own feeling. ‘If this should end at last in love’ (she writes), ‘and I should be entangled in a hopeless passion, the object of it would be Sir Charles Grandison: he could not insult me; and mean as the word pity in some cases sounds, I had rather have his pity than the love of any other man.’ Such a cry, even Richardson, with all his prurient prudishness, could give us.

Yet we must give Meredith his due; and Meredith, on the whole, honestly surpasses these others in the shining list of his adoring heroines — adoring with such dominance in meekness, such gayety in surrender. Rose Jocelyn, Henrietta Fakenham, Aminta Farrell, Clare Doria Forey (let us write it in full, for so she liked it best), Cecilia Halkett, Janet Ilchester — it would be hard to match, within the century, that group of girls.

All these names have been recalled simply as witnesses to the fact that there is — in spite of the contentions of the contemporary novelists —a perfectly consistent tradition, in English novels, of the frank young woman. It is of the first importance to establish this, for these contemporary authors are talking as if their Anns and Isabels and Hildas were the only jeunes filles who had ever dared, in literature, to love as spirited girls in life really do. Just here one quarrels with their pretensions. The Victorian convention may have given us Amelia Sedley, and Lucy Desborough, and Lily Dale; but the Victorian era gave us also Catherine Earnshaw, and Jane Eyre, and Eustacia Vye.1 Our contemporaries are doing nothing new when they show us the jeune fille falling in love before she is proposed to; they are doing nothing new when they show us the jeune fille wishing, quite specifically, to be a wife; they are not even doing anything new — rather, something quite dix-huitième and rococo — when they show us the jeune fille considering whether she will put up with being a mistress. The jeune fille glorying in her choice of the illicit relation is something, let us grant them, more nearly new. Yet how they gabble, upon their peak in Darien!

No; these authors have not broken with the Victorian convention — that simple acrobatic feat demanded of all beginners. But they have broken with the laboratory method. If they think that in Ann Veronica, in Hilda Lessways, in Isabel Rivers, they have been more accurate than their great predecessors, they are quite simply mistaken. I am not proposing to myself, or to any one else, to be shocked by these young women. Being shocked leaves one, in the world of criticism, with no retort. Whether or not one is shocked by them is quite another question, and one that does not come into this discussion. My own objection to the school of Mr. Shaw, Mr. Wells, and Mr. Bennett, is that their heroines are not convincing.

There is a great deal said and written, nowadays, about women as they are and as they ought to be; and very little of it is in the tone of Sesame and Lilies. We are told very contradictory things about our sex; and we are exhorted with unvarying earnestness to believe each contradiction. We are jeered at for being Nietzschean Anns, embodying the ruthless life-force, pursuing the man that we may have children by him. We are also preached at for causing race-suicide. We must want children more than anything else in the world; and we must want the state to take care of them for us after they are born. We must return to the Stone Age; and we must, at the same time, join the Fabian Society. We must submit to the intense conservatism of eugenics; but we must, on the other hand, insult Mrs. Grundy, whenever we find it convenient, by taking lovers instead of husbands. We ought not to marry without assurance that our children will be physically perfect; but we may not expose them on a mountaintop if by any chance they are not.

Only the pragmatist (be it said in passing),with his avowed power of sucking the truth simultaneously from two mutually exclusive hypotheses, could do all the things that, with authority, we are told to do. ‘Modern, indeed! She’ (Ann Veronica) ‘was going to be as primordial as chipped flint.’ Yet, if we accept the chronologies of history (which seems sane enough) nothing could be more ‘modern’ than Ann Veronica’s way of being prehistoric. Perhaps the solution is for all women to become pragmatists? Some of us are bewildered by all this; and we wonder a little if the heart-breaking medley of preachments is not the fruit of that antique and unpardonable sin — mêter les genres. In all this chaos, one thing seems to be generally agreed on: women are, contrary to fusty tradition, very like men — whether like them according to L’Age Dangereux, or like them according to the latest suffrage pamphlet. That is the only thing that we shall unfailingly be told.

There is something in it. We are more like men than Mrs. Radcliffe would have believed. But the method chosen by these modern heroines of being like men is chiefly, it would appear, to be more so. They will not go half-way, but three quarters. The oldfashioned man sometimes relented. The new-fashioned woman makes quick work of her lover’s virtue. There is hardly a villain in an old play but would have let the lady off, if she had pleaded with him as Capes pleads with Ann Veronica. The qualms, the scruples, the regrets, are all the man’s: the girl refuses utterly to indulge in anything so weak. Capes is unfortunate enough to say something to Ann Veronica about honor. ‘Only your queer code of honor — Honor! Once you begin with love you have to see it through.’ Away with inhibitions!

‘But,’ some one will object, ‘all this has been said before. And literature is full of women who prey passionately on the men they say they love. They are a recognized type.’ Granted; but until now, the passionate preying and the unsought soliciting have not been done by the young unmarried girl of respectable traditions. The type is represented, from Potiphar’s wife down, by the woman who is no longer jeune fille. One has not traversed either literature or life without hearing of exceptions. But they are exceptions. The point is, not that young women have hitherto been restrained by religion and convention, and that when they become free-thinkers and despise the existing order, they express themselves as they really are. The point is that they really are not, for the most part, like Ann Veronica and Hilda Lessways.

I and my friends do not object to Ann and Hilda because we are afraid that, if we do not, people will think that we are like that. We object to them because we are told that they are normal, healthy-minded young women who have led a perfectly respectable life on the borders, at least, of gentility; and because we know that normal, healthy-minded young women who have lived such lives do not approach their first love affairs in the temper of these heroines. If you wish to say that the authors are merely discussing pathological cases, you will to some extent be letting them out, but they will not thank you for it. What is perfectly clear is that they believe girls of eighteen or twenty are like that. The last thing that they think, evidently, is that these young ladies need any attention from physicians or alienists. They think — God save the mark! — that they have described, in each case, a really nice girl. Up to a certain point, Ann Veronica is nice. When she falls in love, her author goes back on her disgracefully. He does not go back on her by making her horrid: he goes back on her by destroying her actuality.

One is ready to grant, I say, that women are more like men than some — not all — of the old-fashioned novelists would have had us believe. Let us rail, by all means, at the ‘veiled virginal doll.’ Let us disagree with Tolstoy (it is always good to disagree with Tolstoy!) when he says, in the Sonate de Kreutzer, ‘une jeune fille pure ne veut pas un amant; elle veut des enfants.’ Let us admit that the modern girl really is frank with herself about her desire to marry the man she has chosen. Indeed, I cannot think who will deny it. But there our respect for realism bids us stop. It is a complex and misty matter, this probing of the young girl’s secret attitude to life and her lover.

Perhaps the greatest blunder of the new realists is that they do not see how complex and misty it is. The whole question is almost impossible of discussion, it is so difficult and delicate. Record the images in the girl’s mind, if you must — that is the exhaustive, exhausting rule of realism. But for God’s sake, record them as vague, since vague they are! These authors fail, precisely because they must, at each instant, be vivid. One is tempted to recall to them Mr. Chesterton’s difficulty with Browning’s biography: ‘One can make a map of a labyrinth, but who can make a map of a mist?’ Mr. Wells and Mr. Bennett are, apparent ly, the successful cabmen who can. They offer to take you anywhere you like in this London fog of the girl’s mind. Under their fitful guidance, you will get somewhere; but it may not be the address you gave them.

It is time to come to instances. Luckily for one’s contention, the frank young feminine thing is, in spite of a few sentimental aberrations of a century ago, in the great English literary tradition. (What the new novelists have given us, one might remark, is more like the frank young thing crossed with the highwayman.) No one need be more explicit than Juliet in desiring possession of the man she loves, but even Juliet does not find her passion for Romeo summing itself up in Ann Veronica’s desire to kiss her idol’s feet because she is sure that they must have the firm texture of his hands; nor is she overpowered at every turn, like Hilda, by his ‘faint, exciting, masculine odor.’ And, surely, if any one were to bring up an explicit heroine, it would be the Nurse! Romantic lovers have always prayed for union. Long since, Sir Thomas Browne said, ‘United souls are not satisfied with imbraces, but desire to be truly each other; which, being impossible, their desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.’ What lover has not known that hurt? What lover, man or woman, has not welcomed marriage, and, at the same time, thought it a pisaller ? The notion is not a new one. It has never been in the greatest tradition of poetry or of life for the woman who loves to hold back.

That is not our quarrel with these misrepresented heroines. Our quarrel with them is that, being misrepresented themselves, they misrepresent their prototypes. It is a matter chiefly, perhaps, of the actual content of their minds. The visions of experience are not the visions of inexperience; moreover, there is not one frank young thing in ten thousand who does not wrap her ardor in a blessed cloak of vagueness. She may laugh at her faint atavistic shiver; but she feels it. She may immensely like the feeling of her lover’s arms about her; but she does not instinctively set herself to imagining details that only the slow processes of intimacy will normally familiarize her with. She may glory in his total effect of physical perfection; but she does not go over his ‘points,’ as if she were buying a horse, or drawing an athlete in a life-class. Imagine Chaucer’s feelings, if any one had tried to confound Emilye with the Wife of Bath! Yet it is something very like that which Mr. Bennett has done in his analysis of Hilda’s psychology during the momentous half-hour before she becomes engaged to Cannon.

‘But at the same time she was in the small hot room, and both George Cannon’s hands were on her unresisting shoulders; and then they were round her, and she felt his physical nearness, the texture of his coat and of his skin; she could see in a mist the separate hairs of his tremendous moustache and the colors swimming in his eyes; her nostrils expanded in alarm to a faint exciting masculine odor. She was disconcerted, if not panicstruck, by the violence of his first kiss; but her consternation was delectable to her.’

Every woman and most men know, I fancy, that if Hilda’s first proximity to the man who dominated her imagination was of precisely that nature, her reaction was probably not precisely of that sort. Even the impersonal machinery of the psychological laboratory would have registered in her a distinct recoil. The microscope is not, and never has been, the lover’s favorite instrument. It is doubtful if even the man himself would have been allured by the accurate and intimate perception of the coarseness of his beloved’s skin. One thinks a little, in spite of one’s self, of Gulliver and Glumdalclitch. Certain it is — and rather amusing, all things considered— that none of the men in these novels indulges in the sensations that crowd the heroines’ hours; though it is written of all the heroes that they had experienced matrimony, at the least. May it not be that the authors know their own sex better than ours? Granted that women are very like men: can one justly, on that hypothesis, show them as more scornful of conventions, of codes of honor, of every reticence, moral, intellectual, and physical, than these men whom they consider their masters? It is in each case the man who has the bad quarters of an hour over their common breaches, real or fancied, of loyalty and decency and public opinion; the man who has, for his own peace, to find a philosophy that justifies them both.

These authors are not alone among contemporaries in recording such heightened moments of a girl’s life. One calls to mind, for the sheer similarity of the mental plight, Elizabeth, in The Iron Woman. Thus Elizabeth writes to David, —

‘“Dear” (she stopped to kiss the paper), “dear, I hope you won’t burn it up because I am tired of waiting, and I hope you are too; ” — when she wrote those last words, she was suddenly shy; “ Uncle is to give me the money on my birthday — let us be married that day. I want to be married. I am all yours, David, all my soul, and all my mind, and all my body. I have nothing that is not yours to take; so the money is yours. No, I will not even give it to you! it belongs to you already — as I do. Dear, come and take it — and me. I love you — love you — love you. I want you to take me. I want to be your wife. Do you understand? I want to belong to you. I am yours.”

‘So she tried, this untutored creature, to put her soul and body into words, to write the thing that cannot even be spoken, whose utterance is silence.’

There is no need to follow further Mrs. Deland’s analysis of the situation: the proud and practical reply from David, which the girl considers a rebuff; her sudden marrying of the man she does not love — as sheer expression of outraged modesty, and recoil from the man who had not known how to treat her confession. There would be no wisdom in comparing The Iron Woman, from any other point of view, with the novels we have been mentioning. This one episode is interesting simply as a different and more convincing record of the frank young thing’s relation to her own frankness, and of the fiery limits of that frankness; pages of racking accuracy, in which the girl nearly dies of the memory of her own explicitness. One has not even power to protest against Elizabeth’s tragic and foolish act in marrying Blair; it follows upon that mood with the raw inevitability of life.

Some adherents of the new school may think it indelicate to base a general accusation on the single point of the heroine’s psychology. In the first place, the accusation is not so general as to preclude very definite admiration of other aspects of the school’s achievement. There is much in Mr. Wells’s New Machiavelli besides the hero’s affair with Isabel Rivers; much that goes to the mind and heart of all of us. As for effectiveness of method and brilliancy of style — one simply does not see the need of adding one piping voice to the harmonious and already deafening chorus. Were there the need, one would do it.

But the contemporary school has set out to ‘do’ a new type of woman; a type which it considers important, if not dominant. It has even the air of saying: ‘This is the kind of girl with whom intelligent men in the immediate future will have overwhelmingly (and to their salvation!) to deal. Behold the Newest Woman.’

The crux in each book, for the average reader, is the maturing of the rela-. tion between the man and the girl. The girl exists only, in spite of her intellectual qualities, for the sake of that relation. In each case, she is the ideal mate, the high exponent of her sex. She deserves, and must bear, serious consideration from every point of view. One has chosen the realistic point of view because realism is the method these authors abide by. They aim at telling the truth as it is: therefore, they stand or fall by the accuracy of their vivid and multitudinous detail. We are not in the pulpit, but in the laboratory. One’s honest impression is that the scientific observers have mixed their slides.

It is one thing to make your heroine believe in free love—doubtless many women do. It is pardonable by science to exhibit exceptions to the feminine rule, in the person of the girl initially over-sexed or neurotic: such cases are known to other scientists than these. But it is quite another thing to insist on the niceness, the normality, the uninterruptedly respectable and uneventful breeding of a girl — to exhibit her as the type, in other words — and then credit her with reactions that do not belong to the type.

There is no point in preaching against a modern spirit that is going to develop Anns and Hildas and Isabels ad libitum. The conception of them as heroines may be a sign of the times; but they themselves are not yet numerous enough to be a sign of the times. It is even doubtful if novelists can do in a decade what Nature has never shown any sign of doing in all her lazy evolutionary progress: completely altering natural feminine instincts. ‘But the worst of Ann Veronica is that she’s there!' a friend complained to me, not long since. Everything has always been there, one fancies. All one insists on is that neither Ann Veronica nor Hilda Lessways is the normal representative of the sex. About the morality of Mr. Wells’s and Mr. Bennett’s books, there are probably a hundred opinions. One’s own present quarrel with them is not that they are bad morals, but that they are bad biology.

  1. Heroines, respectively, as most of our readers know, of Thackeray, Meredith, Trollope, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and Thomas Hardy. - THE EDITORS.