“The grammar is often dreadful, but never mind that, it is a good strong book” (Mark Twain on The Heavenly Twins).
From the 1890s there was an upsurge of fiction written to explore the possibilities of greater social freedom for women. This ‘New Woman’ fiction ranged in tone from the serious in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) to the hysterical in such minor fiction as Mona Caird’s Daughters of Danaus (1894) or Emma Frances Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman (1894). Some of the major writing was experimental in form, while most of the work of lesser writers was old-fashioned in its methods. There were some novels at one extreme which encouraged the maximum licence in self-expression, as did George Egerton in Keynotes (1894), while at the other extreme there were those, like Mrs Humphry Ward at her most virulent in Delia Blanchflower (1913), who deplored any development away from the notion of woman’s traditional sphere, though it should be noted that notions of woman’s sphere had been quietly changing throughout the Victorian period.
Sarah Grand’s novels must be placed midway between all these extremes. Her tone verges on the strident at times when dealing with the failings of her male characters, but on the whole she is a perceptive and intelligently cool critic of the social scene. Formally her novels are unexceptional, liable only to the criticism that they lack coherence; The Heavenly Twins, in particular, is a Jamesian ‘baggy monster’. She was certainly no formal experimenter, being primarily concerned with the urgent interest of her subject matter. In each of her three most important novels, Ideala (1888), The Heavenly Twins (1893), and The Beth Book (1897), she forced social problems into the novel form, as a way of bringing the issues she dealt with into the hands of the women who might never go to a Pioneer Club lecture or to a W.S.P.U. meeting, but who might learn something to their advantage through the gentler medium of a novel, and who might take more notice of advice given by a novelist to them in the privacy of their own reading. Sarah Grand was a feminist, determined to break what she called ‘the conspiracy of silence’ on certain issues that affected women very strongly, but she was a modest feminist, with no revolutionary suggestions for the future social conduct of the sexes. She was in many ways old-fashioned in her views, for example she accepted that marriage was a girl’s main aim in life, and wanted only to ensure that the choice of marriage partner was made more intelligently than in the past and that women understood the higher standard they must require of their men. Her importance as a feminist writer lies in description rather than prescription. In Ideala she reveals vividly the way marriage to a loose-living man can affect a sensitive woman. Without melodrama she makes it clear that instability in the marital relationship can create not only unhappiness but can cause serious impedance to a woman’s development. In The Heavenly Twins she covers a good deal more ground.
The novel has three heroines, Evadne Colquhoun, Edith Beale and Angelica Kilroy. Through a study of Evadne’s youthful development Sarah Grand explores the dangers of adolescent sexual feelings confusing a girl’s judgment of men. She stresses the responsibility placed on parents in this situation, and in Evadne’s story and more particularly in Edith’s we see how even loving parents can fail to have high enough standards to ensure their daughters’ safety. Edith is allowed to marry a dissolute man and contracts venereal disease from him and dies. Evadne’s marriage shows the adverse psychological and physiological effects of repressing her sexual feelings as she agrees to keep up the appearance of marriage for the sake of her husband’s reputation. It is interesting that both Sarah Grand and George Egerton who are so very different in the advanced nature of their ideas should have produced books in the same year that acknowledged this aspect of woman’s nature. Angelica’s story, which is the weakest of the three, allows the author to demonstrate the part played by education and home training in creating roles for women to play. Angelica is one of the ‘heavenly’ twins and completely at one with her brother until society forced them into what it considered the only appropriate sexual patterns. The pattern for women involved few outlets for their emotional and mental abilities. In Angelica’s uncertain and awkward behaviour we have a very useful and detailed account of the harm this could result in. There is great sociological value in the book, particularly in Evadne’s and Angelica’s stories, because of the author’s recognition of the complexities in her heroines’ characters and in their responses to the situations they find themselves in. Only in Edith’s story does Sarah Grand descend to over-simplification and its resultant artificiality, but even here she covers new ground in showing the heated sexual emotionalism of the adolescent girl’s religious fervour and in mentioning, for perhaps the first time in the 19th century popular novel, the existence of venereal disease as something which could affect middle-class women. In The Beth Book she continues her studies of developing women, focussing on only one girl this time. In the early part of the book we are presented with a full and fascinating story of female adolescence and growing maturity. She fails to keep this up however, and the latter part of the book, concerning Beth’s marriage and escape to self-determination, is less subtle and, one feels, less carefully thought out.
On the whole Sarah Grand’s development is in the direction of greater detailing in her feminist studies as she provides for us vivid pictures of women as they faced their lonely struggles for self determination in the 1880s and 90s. As far as her men characters are concerned, there is an interesting change in her attitude from Ideala to The Beth Book. In Ideala the husband is a bad man, but hardly comes onto the scene at all. Then Ideala meets a doctor whom one would have to describe as a good man, though he is willing to put her into a position of social ostracism by proposing that she leave her husband for him. In The Heavenly Twins Evadne’s husband, an army colonel, is dissolute but not a villain, and after his death she marries a doctor, a very good man this time, able to give her love and understanding. In The Beth Book the husband figure and the doctor figure fuse; Beth marries Dr Daniel McClure, a thoroughly vicious man, whom she finally leaves. The name here, so like that of Sarah Grand’s husband, David McFall, forces one to ask whether there is autobiographical as well as broader social significance in the development of her male characterisations. Of her other novels only Adnam’s Orchard (1912) and The Winged Victory (1916) deserve mention. They are the first two parts of a proposed trilogy which was never completed. They are problem novels, like her earlier books, but this time she deals with the land question and with the setting up of home industries and combines this with old-fashioned melodrama and the mild interest of a roman à clef. Neither novel deserved, or received, as much critical attention as her earlier books.
All three of the feminist novels faced violent opposition when they first came out, with reviewers decrying them as nastyminded, coarse, in bad taste, and full of vulgarities and obscenities. The Spectator deplored the use of subject matter which should not be mentioned in a journal which was read by both sexes. At the same time it approved her originality in ideas, her forceful style, and found The Heavenly Twins full of ethical and intellectual interest. The Nation too found it original and intelligent, though it suggested perhaps appropriately, that the treatment of women’s education in Angelica’s story was slightly out-of-date. However it had no
criticism of the discussion of women’s culpability in not encouraging men to adopt a higher standard of conduct. All three books faced criticism for the usual faults of problem, novels; for haphazardness of plotting, for bitterness of tone and for excess of moralising, but some of the criticism seems excessive even by standards of the time. The New York Bookman said “the uncovering of sewers may be endured when the temporary exposure looks towards lasting relief…but not in The Heavenly Twins and The Beth Book”. It found the subject matter of The Beth Book more appropriate to a medical journal than to a work of fiction, found Beth herself to be characterised by “unwomanly hardness, morbid egotism and cold-blooded selfishness”, and defended her husband as going to the bad only as a result of Beth’s poor treatment of him. Even allowing for hindsight, the reviewer seems to protest too much.
There is no question that the books caused a stir both in England and in the United States. The authoress found herself ostracised by many of her social acquaintances as too advanced and dangerous, and this made her life rather more beleaguered than it need have been. She was not left totally alone however; there is an engaging anecdote which tells of Baroness Burdett Coutts sending round to her a footman with the message ‘Fear not, you have powerful friends’. She felt herself to be a voice crying in the wilderness, but looking back on it we can see that she was simply expressing the views that were already in the air and on their way to acceptance. Without being an extremist she demonstrated the need for a new dispensation for women, and, more importantly, showed that this can only be brought about through social awkwardness and personal pain. There is no easy solution to be found either collectively or individually. All three of her major heroines have to face a lonely hard struggle against opposition from family, friend, and foe. Ideala is left finally mature and self-confident, but alone; Evadne, though an apparently happily married woman with children, is liable to serious emotional trouble, even attempting suicide while unbalanced; and only Beth seems likely to find any kind of mature happiness, though how this is to be achieved is left vague at the end of the novel. From all three of these studies, and to a lesser extent through Angelica and Edith, we can learn a good deal about what it was like to live through a period of rapid change and extreme uncertainty in social values. The author’s only serious faults are those of weak storytelling and of stridency of tone. We must praise her for her insights and her social bravery but regret that her faults prevent her books from rising to the level of more major works.
Sarah Grand was born Frances Elizabeth Clarke in Ireland on June 10 1854, the daughter of middle-class parents, her father a naval officer, her mother the daughter of a landed Yorkshire squire. On the death of her father when she was seven, the family removed to England. She was educated at home with her sister till she reached 14 years old; then it was felt that she needed more discipline, and for two years she was boarded at school. In 1870 she married, at 16, as she herself said,to escape her unhappiness at school. Her husband, David Chambers McFall, was 39, an army-surgeon, widowed with two sons, the elder being only six years younger than his new stepmother. With the addition of her only child, Archibald, born in October 1871, the family went with the Army to the Far East for five years, returning in 1876 to settle finally in Warrington, Lancs. The marriage does not seem to have been a happy one, and the couple spent a good deal of time living apart.
She had made up stories for her family since she was a child and continued to write during her adult life. Many she destroyed but in 1878 she sought and gained acceptance for her first story by Aunt Judy’s Magazine directed by Mrs Gatty (Juliana Ewing). Her first book Two Dear Little Feet was published by Jarrolds in 1880. It is a very thin moralising fable about the evils of wearing tight shoes for the sake of fashion. Ideala, which she had had by her for some time, followed in 1888 though she was unable to find a publisher and eventually brought the book out at her own expense. She found trouble too in trying to get The Heavenly Twins published, with William Blackwood going so far as to threaten that if she went ahead with its publication he would refuse any further work of hers. By 1892, however, she was in need of money, perhaps seeking total independence from Col. McFall, and went ahead with her plans, finally selling the book to the young William Heinemann who recognised its best-seller properties. He brought it out in three volumes in February 1893, and in 1894 in a single volume. He reissued Ideala and went on to publish all but one of her novels and short-story collections till the last, Variety, in 1922. He also reissued The Heavenly Twins in 1923, with a useful foreword by Sarah Grand on the circumstances surrounding the book’s original appearance. Most of her books have been out of print since 1923, but Our Manifold Nature was reprinted in the United States in 1974, and The Beth Book, is to be reprinted by Virago Press in 1979. Between 1922 and at least the 1930s she continued to write though often hampered by ill-health or by her social duties, but she published nothing later than The Breath of Life, a collection of extracts from her novels edited by Gladys Singers-Bigger and privately printed in Bath in 1933.
Sarah Grand had been living in London with her stepsons for some time when Col. McFall died in Warrington in 1898. Thereafter she spent her time between Tunbridge Wells, London, and the South of France, with a lecture tour to America in 1901. She spent a good deal of time lecturing on women’s issues round England too, some under the aegis of the Pioneer Club, and was involved with Mrs Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. About 1920 she moved to Bath where she stayed at the Crowe Hall home of her friends the Tindalls. She was to remain in Bath until just before she died. In 1923 the book-binder Cedric Chivers was chosen as Mayor of Bath and asked her to be his Lady Mayoress. She kept this position throughout the six years of his mayoralty, finding the job arduous at times because of the ill-health of Chivers, but proving a popular figure on the Bath scene (she was even asked informally if she would stand as Mayor in her own right but she refused). During the Second World War her relations persuaded her to remove to a place of greater safety, and so she spent the last year of her life at Calne in Wiltshire, where she died May 12, 1943.