by

Jennifer Nicol

Portrait_of_Sarah_Grand

 

‘[W]omen do not care to see life any longer in a glass darkly. Let there be light’.

—Sarah Grand, ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ (1894)[1]

 

In 1871, Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke (1854-1943), the daughter of a naval guard and a well-educated Yorkshire woman, married David Chambers McFall, a military surgeon who was twenty-three years her senior. By the Victorian standard of uniting social equals the match was a fine one. Frances was only sixteen years old when she accepted McFall’s proposal of marriage and began a new life as a military wife but, in doing so, she demonstrated shrewdness beyond her years. As well as financial security, marriage to a military man afforded Frances with the opportunity to travel the world. Between 1873 and 1878, the McFalls were stationed, along with their newborn son, in Singapore, China, Japan, Ceylon, and the Straits Settlements. For Frances, the incentive to marry lay not in any great passion for the man who would become her husband, but in the promise of self-improvement by way of education and worldly experience that his military career offered. Reflecting upon her marriage in an article for Lady’s Magazine thirty years later, Frances stated that ‘the great inducement [of marriage was] that I should be able to study thoroughly any subject I liked, learn languages so that I could speak them, and music so that I could play it, have command of good books and escape from routine’.[2]

Despite finding her life flooded with the new experiences of travel, study and writing her first novel, Frances struggled to reconcile her role as military wife with a strong sense of individuality. After seventeen years of marriage, she voiced this struggle in her first published novel, Ideala (1888), in which her heroine decries marriage to be ‘a grievous waste of Me’.[3] Two years later, Frances yielded to her desire for freedom. At the age of thirty-six, she traded the confinement of married life and her married name for the excitement and freedom of London and a pseudonym, Madame Sarah Grand. It was by this name that she was henceforth known to friends, publishers, and the reading public.

The breakdown of Grand’s marriage was very much a product of the socio-political landscape of the fin de siècle. Britain was entering a transitional state and the atmosphere, Holbrook Jackson reflected, was one ‘alert with new ideas which strove to find expression in the average national life’.[4] These new ideas were expressed by way of legal reforms (a contributory factor to Grand’s marital separation was the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which allowed women to retain their own property after marriage) and in challenges to the traditional notion of ‘duty’. While Grand referred to her ‘duty’ often in personal letters and lectures, her biographer Gillian Kersley argues that her concept of the word was novel in that it ‘applied to herself first’.[5] For Grand, duty amounted to personal integrity, and from this came the power to influence others.

Spurred on by her pursuit of self-determination and financial security, Grand joined the growing community of middle-class women participating in contemporary culture within the pages of the general illustrated magazine. She was not alone in seeking financial independence by way of a journalistic career. The number of women who identified themselves as ‘author’, ‘editor’ or ‘writer’ had grown from 255 to 660 between the censuses of 1871 and 1891, and by 1899 the Society of Women Journalists (founded just five years earlier) boasted 200 members.[6] Women were not restricted to the positions of journalist or reporter, however; they were also making their names as editors and leaders in the field. In 1888, Henrietta Müller (under the pen-name Helena B. Temple) founded the Women’s Penny Paper, which claimed to be the ‘only paper in the world conducted, printed and published entirely by women’, and in 1895 Catherine Drew was appointed Vice-President of the Institute of Journalists.[7] . It was to one particular female-edited magazine that Grand owed her early literary successes. In Aunt Judy’s Magazine, edited by Juliana Gatty, Grand published her first three short stories, ‘Mama’s Music Lessons’ (1878), ‘School Revisited’ (1880), and The Great Typhoon’ (1881).

Grand’s long relationship with the general illustrated magazine began in 1893, when Woman at Home, a new magazine co-edited by Jane T. Stoddart, agreed to publish ‘Ah Man’ in its first edition. Set in Hong Kong in 1874, Grand’s short story charts the relationship between an unnamed British woman and her Chinese butler, whom she calls ‘Ah Man’. At the height of summer, the woman’s health begins to decline. While Ah Man tends to her every need, he fails to cure his mistress of her ailment: between bringing her cups of beef-tea, the butler tells his mistress that he thinks she is bound to die. In the final throes of her illness, the woman is gifted a copy of Cornhill Magazine by a fellow Englishwoman. Contained therein are the early serialised chapters of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The magazine and its contents begin to have an extraordinary affect on the woman’s health. The woman describes the affect of the magazine’s contents on her state of mind, thus:

I ceased, as it were, to read, and began to live in the book, and [within] I found something neither visible nor definable, but perfectly perceptible to me, something vivifying, worth having, worth using, and more, worth contemplating […], a power that wrought itself into feeling and claimed in me a humble kinship.[8]

Ah Man watches, awestruck, as his mistress is transformed into her previous self within the space of a week. Full with wonder about the apparent healing capacities of the magazine, Ah Man eyes the orange cover of the magazine with an ‘undisguised interest’. Finally, under an elaborate pretence of dusting, Ah Man abstracts a volume of the magazine from its place in a pile, retreats into another room, and begins to search within the magazine’s pages for the extraordinary element that secured his mistress’s good health.

Grand’s story attests to the rehabilitative and affective capacities of reading on mental wellbeing. Moreover, the woman’s sudden convalescence appears, at least in the first instance, to be a direct result of the circulation of ideas between women. Although it was published anonymously in Cornhill Magazine in January 1874, readers and reviewers initially believed that Far from the Madding Crowd was the work of the popular female novelist, George Eliot.[9] The protagonist presumes, then, that she is reading the work of a woman, gifted to her by another woman. It is in this relationship between these two women that she finds a ‘humble kinship’. In the story’s final act, an earthquake brings to its knees the house in which Ah Man and his mistress live. Ah Man guides his mistress to safety, but is killed upon returning to the house to retrieve the magazine. Incredibly, the magazine survives; still clutched in Ah Man’s hand, the orange covers of Cornhill Magazine are an orange beacon in the rubble.

Following the publication of ‘Ah Man’, Grand published seven of a total eleven short stories and ten articles in general illustrated magazines. Her favoured publications included Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Woman at Home, Lady’s Realm, Lady’s World and Cosmopolitan. Published in this medium Grand’s work reached a large, if not particularly broad, audience. The earliest successful example of the general illustrated magazine came in 1852, with Samuel Beeton’s publication The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, but its popularity lasted long into the latter half of the century. By the mid-1880s, the general illustrated magazine had succeeded the drawing room journal as the monthly periodical of choice for women. In 1894, The Spectator confirmed the success of the general illustrated form. It claimed that Woman at Home had ‘firmly established itself as an enjoyable mélange of letterpress and illustration, fact and fiction, cookery and dress, marriages and nursery chatter, specially adapted […] to the comprehension of women’.[10]

Like the drawing room journal, the general illustrated magazine was usually published monthly and carried the tradition of miscellany to a largely female readership. Unlike its predecessor, however, it aimed to secure a middle-class, rather than upper-class, audience. Its lower price (usually sixpenny, rather than a shilling) reflected this movement towards a middle class readership. The success of the medium was the result of its content being calibrated according to the shared interests of a middle-class female reader. The middle-class woman was more involved with the domestic management of her home than her upper-class counterpart, and so the general illustrated magazine secured her attention by way of a domestic emphasis. The general illustrated magazine featured items tried and tested by the drawing room journal, such as fashion and shopping bulletins, needlework patterns, and features on hygiene and beauty, but it also emphasised content that was usually down-played by other magazines aimed at upper-class women. So, in addition to traditional magazine content, the pages of general illustrated magazines were occupied by biographical and autobiographical articles, fiction pieces, recipes, and articles offering advice on family management. It was also by showcasing new technologies of production that the general illustrated magazine found a point of difference from the drawing room journal. The genre took great pride in its characteristic wealth of illustrations and visual features. Woman at Home, for one, was described on its title page as ‘profusely illustrated’. In this context, this profuseness was indicative of progressiveness and forward-thinking.

The most notable advances made by the general illustrated magazine lay in its embrace of a burgeoning celebrity culture and its development of the advice or correspondence column. In the most successful publications, these two features went happily hand-in-hand. Woman’s World and Woman at Home were two popular magazines to grow out of the rise of celebrity culture in the late 1880s. In addition to holding a similar domestic emphasis, both magazines boasted celebrity contributors. Between 1887 and 1889, Oscar Wilde assumed the role of editor of Woman’s World, and the novelist’s involvement in the publication was proudly displayed on its cover. Woman at Home, meanwhile, boasted the novelist Annie S. Swan (also known as Mrs Burnett Smith) as a regular contributor. Swan’s involvement with the magazine was so great a success, and her voice considered so distinct, that ‘Annie S. Swan’s Magazine’ soon came to be used interchangeably with the publication’s title. In fact, Swan was so closely associated with Woman at Home that the magazine printed a notices asking that all correspondence intended for the editor of the magazine ‘not be addressed to Mrs Burnett Smith’.[11] In Swan’s column ‘Over the Teacups’ we also find the genesis of the advice column. With a stylistic emphasis on the visual, a thematic interest in celebrity culture, and the beginning of the advice column, the success of the general illustrated magazine was central to the development of the modern commercial women’s magazine.

Grand’s preference for publishing material in general illustrated magazines was partly influenced by the popularity of the form and the large audience that her work was likely to reach. However, in her preference Grand also demonstrated a keen understanding of the political value of the medium. A women’s magazine carrying domestic miscellany might seem an unlikely supporter of female emancipation but, in her 2004 study New Woman Strategies, Ann Heilmann identified a ‘standard feminist device of the time’ being deployed in the pages of the general illustrated magazine. Heilmann found that contributors, including Grand, were drawing on domestic housekeeping as a metaphor for the public mission of women. The aim of this device, Heilmann argued, was to transform personal concerns with the private body and home into the ‘political impulse to improve the body politic and domestic power structures of the state’.[12]

The domestic emphasis identified by Heilmann was two-fold; it occurred at both a literal and a rhetorical level.  The October 1893 edition of Woman at Home (in which Grand’s ‘Ah Man’ was published), we find the domestic emphasis operating at both levels. Items that plainly promoted the domestic ideal include features on ‘the delight’ of clay modelling with children, recipes for ‘chicken mayonnaise’, and advice on how best to furnish a house on an income of £300.[13] These items were typical of the publication’s preference for features that promoted a woman’s involvement in the domestic upkeep of her home and in the care of her children.

Rhetorical discussions of the domestic were an integral part of advice columns. A regular feature in Woman at Home, Swan’s letters column, ‘Over the Teacups’, promoted a culture of confessional exchange between women. The tone of Swan’s column was informal. At its core were readers’ opinions, with Swan’s role being akin to a conductor. By uniting the various, seemingly disparate, opinions of her readers in one ‘special corner’ of the magazine, Swan was able to show their overlap. ‘Over the Teacups’ aimed to validate the shared lived experience of women. Accompanying Swan’s letter column in October 1893 is a visual component: an illustration depicting four fashionable women in a drawing room. One woman is set apart fulfilling the role of ‘chairwoman’, but all four women appear engaged in conversation, balancing teacups on their knees and leaning forward. Crucially, the eyes of the women are not all on the chairwoman, but on each other. Emphasis here is on the culture of exchange, on the importance of sharing the stage, and the collective value of female opinion and experience.

Specifically, the rhetoric of ‘Over the Teacups’ aimed to foreground and legitimise the relationship between the home and the state. In the October 1893 edition of Woman at Home, Swan showcases and offers replies to the various opinions of her readers on women’s rights (or, as it was discussed in the Victorian press, the ‘Woman Question’). We hear from ‘A Farmer’s Wife’, who laments the lack of culture available to country-dwelling women, and from ‘L. M. Eccles’, who asks that we reconsider the importance of ‘household accomplishments’. The letter to most capture Swan’s attention is signed by ‘Alicia’. The writer of the letter claims that the independence of women from men ‘cannot be reconciled with the Christian ideal’. The writer goes on to explain that she believes ‘the interests of the sexes are too closely interlaced for either to be quite independent of the other’. Swan rewards Alicia’s letter with a lengthy reply:

The whole system of society, the interests of the home which lay the foundation of all stability, cannot be held together except by such hearty cooperation [between men and women], and those who seek to sever such association, and to claim for women standing ground apart from her brother man, are waging war against an inexorable and immutable table law of nature, which can bring nothing but defeat in its train. The wise and great and good of all nations give Woman her due. Let her be fit first of all for all the duties to which her qualifications of head and heart specially call her, and then it will be time to shout for a wider sphere.[14]                                               [emphasis my own]

 

In Swan’s reply we find the crux of the magazine’s moral aesthetic: women, as the keepers of the home and the raisers of men, lay the foundations of society. Swan argues that it is only when woman has mastered the qualities of both duties, and so society is stable, that she should then pursue a life outside the home. This ideal was also being enforced elsewhere in Woman at Home, with Grand a key player. In an interview with Jane T. Stoddart for the magazine in 1895, Grand informed her reader that they must aim to ‘raise the man’ as they would the child.[15] Five years later, in an article for the same magazine, Grand echoed Swan’s reply to Alicia: she argued that ‘no earnest high-minded woman ever trifles with her home duties’.[16]

While Grand’s use of domestic rhetoric was very much at home in the general illustrated magazine, it also found its way into her famous article for the North American Review, ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ (1894). Founded in Boston in 1815, the North American Review was considered the most important intellectual magazine in the United States and published work by notable American writers and thinkers, including Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Between 1894 and 1895, the North American Review published a debate between Grand and the British novelist Ouida on the Woman Question. In this, the most widely circulated of her periodical contributions, Grand made use of the domestic rhetoric that had become a feature of her articles in general illustrated magazines. Of woman realising and defending her true societal worth against ‘the Bawling Brotherhood’ of men, Grand wrote:

Women do not care to see life any longer in a glass darkly. Let there be light. […] We shriek in horror at what we discover when [the light] is turned on that which was hidden away in dark corners; but the first principle of good housekeeping is to have no dark corners, and as we recover ourselves we go to work with a will to sweep them out. It is for us to set the human household in order to see to it that all is clean and sweet and comfortable for the men who are fit to help us make home in it. We are bound to raise the dust while we are at work.[17]

In her article, Grand addresses a large, broad reading public about woman’s place in the public sphere. Significantly, she discusses the politics of the public sphere through a domestic rhetoric and perspective. Through this rhetoric, Grand argues that woman’s societal worth can only be known once light has been shed on the realities of the domestic and marital world—the ‘dark[ened] corners’ of the ‘human household’—and this unchartered territory mapped. In this way, Grand argues that women will find empowerment and purpose in holding out ‘a strong hand to the child man’, and that ‘the sacred duties of wife and mother will be all the more honourably performed when women have a reasonable hope of being wives and mothers of men’. According to Grand, the dark corners of the domestic sphere were of unparalleled social importance. It was in these spaces, she argued, that women were raising and reforming children into honourable men.

The debate between Grand and Ouida in the North American Review certainly went some way towards ‘raising the dust’: it caused a surge of interest in the Woman Question in the American press and cemented Grand’s reputation as a woman of literary importance on both sides of the Atlantic. By the following year, The Heavenly Twins (1893), Grand’s most recent novel, had sold 20,000 copies and had enjoyed praise from Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw; in 1901, she embarked upon a four-month lecture tour of the United States; in 1905, she published an article about the ‘ungraciousness’ of the modern age in the New York Times. Upon her return to Britain, Grand lectured throughout the country, promoting women’s suffrage and rational dress, until she was appointed Mayoress of Bath in 1922. Grand died in Bath in 1943.



[1] Sarah Grand, ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’, North American Review, 158 (1894), 270-6 (p. 276).

[2]Sarah Grand, ‘Some Recollections of My School Days’, Lady’s Magazine, January 1901, pp. 42-3, p. 42.

[3] Sarah Grand, Ideala: A Study from Life (Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008), p. 31.

[4] Holbrook Jackson, The 1890s: a Review of Art, and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1913; repr. London: Harvester, 1976), p. 23.

[5] Gillian Kersley, Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend (London: Virago, 1983), p. 62.

[6] Sally Mitchell, ‘Careers for Girls: Writing Trash’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 25 (1992), 109-13 (p. 109).

[7]Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <http://oxforddnb.com&gt; [accessed 25 October 2013].

[8] Grand, ‘Ah Man’, Woman at Home, 1 (1893), 24-40 (p. 28).

[9] Lawrence Jones, ‘George Eliot and Pastoral Tragicomedy in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd’, Studies in Philology, 77 (1980), 402-25 (p. 402).

[10] ‘Current Literature’, Spectator, 13 January 1894, p. 25.

[11] ‘Notices to Correspondents’, Woman at Home.

[12]Ann Heilmann, New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), p. 17.

[13]Woman at Home, October 1893.

[14] Annie Swan, ‘Over the Teacups’, Woman at Home, October 1893, p. 59

[15] Sarah Grand, interviewed by Jane T. Stoddart, ‘Illustrated Interview’, Woman at Home (1895), pp. 247-52, p. 250.

[16] Sarah Grand, ‘On Clubs and the Question of Intelligence’, Woman at Home (1900), pp. 839-42, p. 840.

[17] Grand, ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ (p. 276).

 

Jenifer Nichol

Jennifer Nicol is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University.  Her doctoral research is on the fantasies of isolation in female-authored, nineteenth century literature, with a particular interest in New Woman fiction and the work of Sarah Grand, George Egerton and Amy Levy.

Find out more about her work here