Review: Una L. Silberrad’s ‘The Good Comrade’ and Elizabeth Robins’s ‘The Convert’

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Una L. Silberrad, The Good Comrade, edited by Kate MacDonald (first published 1907; this edition and introduction 2014, Victorian Secrets)

Elizabeth Robins, The Convert, edited by Emelyne Godfrey (first published 1907; this edition and introduction 2014, Victorian Secrets)

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.

The precariousness of the opportunities available to middle-class Edwardian women are explored in two 1907 novels recently re-published by Twentieth Century Vox (C20 Vox): Una L. Silberrad’s The Good Comrade (1907), edited and with an introduction by Kate Macdonald, and Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907), edited and with an introduction by Emelyne Godfrey. C20 Vox is a relatively new imprint of Victorian Secrets, specializing in republishing out-of-print books from the early twentieth century. From their covers (reminiscent of Broadview Press editions of classic texts) to their contents, which include informative introductions, comprehensive notes, appendices, and suggestions for further reading, it would appear C20 Vox are seeking to provide scholarly editions of hitherto neglected works.

Given that the majority of ‘forgotten’ turn-of-the-century novels have tended in recent years to be republished by more lifestylish, ‘book beautiful’ publishing houses such as Persephone Books, these critical republications are to be welcomed. There is still a way to go, however: both The Good Comrade and The Convert are peppered with distracting typos and some unfortunate factual errors, the most prominent of which states in the introduction to The Convert that Robins died in 1852. In an era in which out-of-print novels can be readily downloaded for free as e-books, physical republications such as these need to be scrupulously reliable if they are to justify their £10 price tag. That being said, both The Good Comrade and The Convert are novels worthy of republication, providing rich contributions to a reformed and more inclusive canon of ‘Edwardian Literature’.

Una L. Silberrad, like many forgotten Edwardian writers, was a popular author in her own day, producing an array of novels, short stories, a play (unpublished), and the non-fictional Dutch Bulbs and Gardens (1909). The Good Comrade, a rather odd novel, was her most popular and commercially-successful work, going through several print runs well into the 1920s.

The novel follows the fate of Julia Polkington, a sort of anti-Becky Sharp who seeks to redress the dishonour of her debt-prone family: her father is an alcoholic and a gambler, and her mother and sisters persist in maintaining an upper-middle-class lifestyle that their reduced income can no longer reasonably maintain. While her sisters choose to pursue marriage as a means of escaping the family’s financial difficulties, Julia takes a somewhat bemusing approach to repaying her father’s debts, albeit one that allows her author to put her horticultural knowledge to fictional good use. Travelling to Holland with the apparent purpose of working as housekeeper to the Van Heigens, a family of bulb-breeders, Julia seeks to lay her hands on a new, rare blue daffodil that the Van Heigens are rumoured to have cultivated.

Though her motives are initially nefarious, Julia comes to realize that repaying a debt through theft would be morally imbalanced, and is subsequently shown rejecting various opportunities to claim the prized daffodil. Along the way she also rejects a couple of proposals of marriage, and avails herself of a fortuitous Victorian plot turn or two – such as the appearance of a legacy from distant relation. This legacy affords Julia a home and modest income of her own, which she uses to keep her father and his impoverished friend, Johnny Gillat, under her own roof and her own close eye. The three live together in a novel domestic arrangement in which Julia is emphatically ‘head of the household’, setting the older men to work tending the home (her father is particularly resentful of having to oversee the making of the jam).

With these affairs in place, the question for the final part of the novel becomes: what will Julia do with her newfound position of power and financial freedom? To modern readers the conclusion may come as something of a disappointment, though it is typical of many Edwardian novels about women which, as Jane Eldridge Miller pointed out some time ago, typically follow a pattern of transgression followed by retreat into more conservative arrangements.[1]

This edition includes a couple of contemporary reviews, a comprehensive bibliography of Silberrad’s literary output, and an introduction by Kate Macdonald that provides some intriguing commentary and unearths important aspects of Silberrad’s personal and literary biography.

While Silberrad included many notable Edwardian themes in her work – particularly issues surrounding employment – it is notable, as Macdonald notes, that she did not produce any suffrage fiction. One wonders what she would have made of Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert, a suffrage novel published the same year as The Good Comrade.

Robins was a Kentucky-born actress who came to England in 1888, and popularized the work of Ibsen on the London stage (Robins both directed and starred in a celebrated production of A Doll’s House). She began writing her own plays in the 1890s, and the novel The Convert is a fictional version of her Votes for Women!, which had taken to the stage earlier in 1907 with contributions from Henry James and George Bernard Shaw. Robins turned the play into a novel in order to reach a wider audience, a canny move given the proven effectiveness of suffrage novels in getting the aims of the Cause into the hands and homes of the British public. But what was gained in propaganda led, perhaps, to some losses in artistic quality: one can almost feel the sense of hurry and urgency in turning Votes for Women! into a book, with passages of the early chapters of The Convert reading as directions and dialogue turned into prose.

By 1907 suffrage campaigning was at its height, though it was by no means a coherent movement: there were continual clashes between more moderate Liberal and Tory suffragists, who could claim a lengthier campaigning tradition, and the suffragettes, a recent and more militant cohort centred around the Women’s Social and Political Union (founded in 1903). The Convert’s strength to the modern reader lies in the nuanced and at times ambiguous way in which, despite being a pro-suffragette novel, it presents the tensions between competing branches of the suffrage movement – not least because it echoes the competing claims to the term ‘feminist’ made by people across the political spectrum today.

The Convert follows the fate of Vida Levering, the ‘convert’ of the title, an upper-class single woman of thirty who enters the novel dripping with diamonds and professing bemusement about the Cause. Her conversion is not caricature, however: Levering has intelligent and well-considered reasons for being ambivalent about the politicized agitations of her fellow upper-class women, particularly their charitable activities in the Settlements, which, she suspects, they engage in more from an impulse to flaunt their own wealth than from a genuine desire to help others.

Through a series of encounters Levering begins to develop an interest in suffragism, and is shown observing many suffrage rallies and public talks around London. Hers is a curious rather than partisan position: Levering, presumably the reader’s intended counterpart, is described as being at the ‘inquiry stage’, and we hear the suffrage debates laid out from her unconvinced perspective. These debates are often recounted as full speeches, and this emphasis on depicting rallies rather than exploring plot or characterization has the potential to prove tiresome. Indeed, one contemporary reviewer lamented in the Times Literary Supplement that Robins ‘must give us pages and pages, chapter upon chapter, of discussion, must show us how it strikes contemporaries in many walks of life, must give us public meetings, must “Trafalgar Square” us – until we are (there is no denying it) bored to death’.

Yet I found such depictions, based on actual suffragette speeches, interesting in and of themselves, and excellent at creating a sense of the nuanced competing perspectives and voices within the Movement. Levering is not the only woman shown in the novel to be grappling with suffragism: her half-sister, Mrs. Fox Moore, endures ridicule from her peers for her interest in genteel suffrage activities and charitable work, while the young and impressionable heiress Jean Dunbarton, as a result of witnessing ardent suffragist rallies, and despite her recent engagement, becomes increasingly aware of the horizons that might be open to women beyond marriage.

The Convert slyly exposes the snobberies of the upper-classes towards the traditionally working-class militants:

Dick Farnborough was in the middle of a spirited account of that earlier outbreak in the North –

‘She was yelling like a Red Indian, and the policeman carried her out scratching and spitting –’

‘Ugh!’ Hermione exchanged looks of horror with Paul Filey.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Lady John, with disgust, ‘we saw all that in the papers’.

It also sensitively depicts the cross-currents and relationships that could grow up between suffragettes from different backgrounds. Levering’s path to conversion is guided by the working-class militant Ernestine Blunt, an exciting and inspiring orator with a knack for generating and maintaining a crowd whose enthusiasm inspires confidence in Levering. And as the novel progresses Levering is revealed to possess a secret that makes her own position amongst the upper classes somewhat precarious, enabling her to possess solidarity with her working-class sisters. By the final chapters of the novel the question is no longer, will Levering convert to the Cause, but rather: what form will her conversion take? The answer is rich and intriguing.

The appendices to this edition include several contemporary reviews, an extract from Mary Higgs’s Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906), a Votes for Women article by Edith Garrud on ‘Self Defence’ (1910) (which offers suffragette readers a detailed run down of the various applications of ju-jitsu), and reprints of anti-Liberal flyers. These provide illuminating and useful companions to the novel, expanding upon some of its key themes by providing contemporary contextualization.

[1] Jane Eldridge Miller, Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism and the Edwardian Novel, London: Virago Press, 1994, p. 180.

Sarah Shaw, October 2014

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