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. Continue reading
This week saw the publication of Park Lane, a new novel by Frances Osbourne (wife of the current chancellor) about the shifting social hierachy in Edwardian England. The latest in a long line of historical novels about the suffrage movement, Osbourne’s book has disturbed some readers, on both stylistic and political grounds. As Julie Burchill put it in The Observer: “There is something repulsive about a book that celebrates a pivotal moment of social progress – votes for women – by the wife of a man who serves in a government that contains more well-born nobodies than any since the second world war, men who would probably not have attained such status had they had to get there on their own merit rather than been given a leg-up by their expensive educations and extensive crony network.”
Meanwhile, No Surrender (1911), Constance Maud’s crusading realist novel written at the zenith of the suffrage campaign in England, has recently been republished by Persephone Books.
According to the Persephone Books website: ‘When Emily Davison, who was to die in 1913 under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, reviewed No Surrender, she wrote: “There is scarcely a notable incident of the militant campaign which is left untouched. As we devour its pages, we once more review such unforgettable as the Pantechnicon incident, the protest of the Grille, the Suffragette Fire-Engine, the sending of women by Express Post to the Prime Minister, and the final word-picture of [the procession of 1910]. But for vivid realism, the pictures of prison life, of the Hunger Strike and Forcible Feeding, are difficult to beat. It is a book which breathes the very spirit of our Women’s Movement’”.’
For an insightful exegesis of Edwardian women’s suffrage fiction, see the chapter on ‘Suffragette Stories’ in Jane Eldridge Miller’s Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism, and the Edwardian Novel (1994).