Early on in Una L. Silberrad’s The Good Comrade (1907) the novel’s heroine, Julia Polkington, is described as sorely lacking skills that might reverse the circumstances of her debt-ridden family:
[To earn] any sum was impossible to her; she had no gifts to take to market, no ability for any of the arts, not enough education for teaching, no training for commerce. The only field open to her was that of a nursery-governess or companion; neither was likely to enable her to pay this debt of honour quickly.
As well as being virtually unemployable, Julia, we learn, is also bereft of many important feminine accomplishments. As one character snidely remarks, ‘she cannot sing nor play, she has read no science, she cannot draw, nor model in wax, nor make paper flowers, nor do bead work; she could not even crochet till I showed her how’. Unable to work or to fulfil the role of pleasing female relation, Julia is an emblematic Edwardian heroine: a young woman bound by an era in which, despite the pioneering activities of New Women in the 1890s, it remained unclear what middle-class women with energies and talents ought to do with their lives (she may not be able to crochet, but Julia is quick-witted, hard-working and resourceful). Even those young women who, unlike Julia, had enjoyed hard-won access to a proper education faced the problem, once their studies were over, as to how they might use their knowledge and skills afterwards. The second half of Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), for example, depicts talented female graduates assisting with work in the East London Settlements before channeling their intellectual training into the familiar female roles of wife and mother. Continue reading