© Copyright Julia Saccucci, 2017
In a British periodical called the Temple Bar, there was an article by an observer who chose to remain anonymous called “Woman’s Proper Place in Society”. He (it was British poet laureate Alfred Austin) claimed that a woman’s mission “is within doors, not out of doors; not in the market place, but in that more sacred and tranquil interior of which the hearth is the altar and the shrine.” (Fraser 175) This was the common opinion with which a woman at the British fin de siècle had to contest. Women of the working class and higher were granted at least some level of education, women were entering the workforce in higher numbers than ever before, and in 1897 there were 20 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies spread across the United Kingdom. Yet, as much of a step forward as this was, educated and working women were still expected to put aside whatever else they might like to pursue in order to take their “proper place” as a wife and mother. Women didn’t have the right to vote, only some could own property, and most doors to academia were closed. This story is about a woman who believes herself stuck at a crossroad between intellectual pursuits and romance, that following one would make the other utterly impossible. “In Dull Brown” by Evelyn Sharp looks at first glance like a silly little thing, an early version of a screwball comedy. Roughly half of it is a push-and-pull of banter between the two leads. But looking closer, you will find that it is actually a scathing critique of the mould that women in the 1890’s were expected to fit – both the incredibly small size of the cage made by the crushing lack of options, and the impossibility of sustaining a full life within it.
In Dull Brown
The story follows a young woman named Jean, who works as a governess. She is clearly educated, and from the first exchange of dialogue in the story we are shown that she loves reading, as she brings up what “the girls in novels always wear” in reference to her own russet-brown skirt that day (the brown of the title). She meets a man, Tom Unwin, who is clearly charmed by her, but though she does enjoy his company she cannot seem to flirt with him because she refuses to act like she is less intelligent or complex than she truly is. Then she feels awkward for having put her true self out there for a stranger to see, and withdraws. Even so, they develop a courtship and it is very tentative and sweet. In the end, he comes to her house to call, and she arrives home from work to find him sat with her sister in an idyllic little tableau. It is not made entirely clear why she shrinks, but the narrative heavily suggests that she couldn’t quell her anxiety about not fitting in, and feeling like she cannot but ruin the occasion. She feels like she does not belong. So, she leaves, and in the very end of the story she says to her sister that she, Nancy, being both uncomplicated and lovely, is built for romance, while Jean is simply not meant for it.
Jean feels trapped – she sees women as caught within a binary and this comes up more than once. Clever, educated, working, unlovable women; and beloved, beautiful and beauty-focused, uncomplicated, “angel of the house” women. In her first conversation with Tom she says that working by necessity changes the women who do it, “it makes us hard – what you call cynical. It builds up our characters at the expense of our hearts. It makes heroines of us and spoils the woman in us. We learn to look the world in the face, and it teaches us to be prigs. We probe into its realities for the first time, and the disclosure is too much for us.” Jean clearly speaks to the dilemma of the New Woman, and the shakiness of the ground upon which they landed in their great leap forward, not least because they were quickly made to realise how far they still had to go before they could become truly equal. She, like her sisters, could not go back, but they could not yet move far enough forward to be able to exert actual control over their lives without having to fight a constant uphill battle that most of them would still be doomed to lose.
Suffragettes and Public Opinion
Adding insult to injury, the public opinion of any woman attempting to change her station was grim. Suffragettes were met with loathing and disgust by many men, who considered their call for equal rights unfeminine, leading to the idea that suffragettes were “not proper women” – and unfortunately, some women of the time began to agree. Not all women did consider social change a priority, nor felt the need to vote, own property or go to university; and though settling into the life of a wife and mother is a fine life to lead, it should still be obvious that that should never have been the only option. But it can be assumed that the women who chose that life felt their choice was being spit upon by the women who fought for more, and so, the rise of the suffragettes isolated them, not only from most men but also many women. This was further agitated by the British press (which remains notoriously brutal even to this day) who never missed an opportunity to insult the suffragettes as one, either by making them a punchline or outright calling them names, drawing them as caricatures of either old crones or so ugly they were essentially cartoonish men in dresses and ladies’ hats. In just one example from November 1910, in which suffragettes publicly insulted the prime minister, the Yorkshire Evening News reported this by calling them “maniac women”, “lunatic females”, and “the shrieking sisterhood”, and finished with “They should be put into a home and kept there until they have learned to forget the ways of the brute and have approximated to some degree of civilisation.” (Searle 1992) Even in In Dull Brown, though Jean makes no mention of the vote, the unspoken ties between educated working women and the extension of the franchise comes through clearly. Upon her and Tom’s first meeting she says to him at the end of an emboldened speech: “You don’t like the kind of woman who works, you know you don’t!”
New Woman fiction in The Yellow Book and Beyond
This story was published in the 8th volume of the Yellow Book. That would have come out in January of 1893, and as with all the rest of its quarterlies, a very modern and forward-thinking product of the time. It has been said of The Yellow Book that, though it was a very modern and avant-garde periodical, it did start off very male-driven and male-focused. However, it began to publish more female authors, New Woman writers and Bodley Head women poets, in its second year, and eventually came to have had “significant representation from women in both its editorial management and its literary and artistic contents.” (Kooistra 2012) The 8th volume itself actually features a rare number of female contributors to the literary section: exactly half were by women. Can we conclude that, this late in its run and having already grown, the Yellow Book was consistently committed to challenging the harsh societal views of the suffragettes at the time, and supportive in the plight of all the women who wanted more than the traditional lives they were promised?
In the fiction of that era, the New Woman was becoming, if not quite a staple, a commonplace figure to be found amongst the literary tropes. Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler is widely credited as the inception of the movement, pushing the boundaries of male-dominated society and what a woman’s place could be within it. Though its heroine was quite a dynamic character, she was painted as something between a villainess and a madwoman, and she took her own life in order to reach redemption in the eyes of her audience. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897, the woman question is a repeated theme woven through the text. Mina Harker demonstrates her education in a few ways, like deductive reasoning and her skill at typing – which her husband Johnathan and local vampire hunter Van Helsing find condescendingly amusing. Lucy Westrenra, on the other hand, who is seduced by the vampire and herself becomes a seducer of men, is deemed unfit to live in Victorian society and righteously killed (also granted redemption only by death). Modern feminist interpretations of the book, like that by Miriam Bjorklund, have declared its reinforcement of rigid gender roles to have been symptomatic of male anxiety over the changing of the cultural tide.
What of New Women fiction actually written by women? Can their heroines find happiness in the liminal space between the roles their mothers filled without complaint, and true freedom comparable to that of a man? Unfortunately, most do not fare better. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), the heroine Edna is happy in her role of wife and mother for a time, until an emotional affair makes her realize how little she actually cared about any of the trappings that her life had come to be about. She leaves her husband, tries to make a living as an artist, and has a few romantic affairs, but she cannot get away from the reminders of the fact that the traditional life she doesn’t want are what everyone around her thinks she should. In the end, she takes her own life. Though this is certainly a sympathetic view, the message appears to be that any attempt to swim against the stream in this regard is futile and inevitably ends in tragedy. In fact, sympathetic or not, tragedy seem to be the very common ending to female characters who made this choice. How did the Yellow Book fare in comparison? To a lesser degree, Jean also comes to a melancholy point when the story closes. Did the periodical tend to publish works that were sympathetic to the New Woman’s plight, or did they seem to idealize the traditional woman instead?
Ella D’Arcy, herself a writer of New Woman fiction, was one of the Yellow Book’s editors, and she contributed at least one story to almost every volume. By promoting innovative women like D’Arcy, Sharp, and Vernon Lee; by publishing works like “The Sweet o’ the Year” by Ella Hepworth Dixon, and “Thy Heart’s Desire” by Netta Syrett, “Lot 99” by Ada Radford and “Day and Night” by E. Nesbit, by giving women like Menie Muriel Dowie and Olive Schreiner a voice, The Yellow Book did prove its risk-taking, avant-garde ethos was more than just an idea but truly a legitimate objective. And though the focus of this exhibit is on portrayal of the New Woman, in this story and beyond, it would be remiss not to mention that the traditional definition of masculinity was also seeing variants at this time. According to Hilary Fraser, “broad notions of male social identity [were] subjected to close and often contradictory definitions, ranging from those of male effeminacy, including the dandy, aesthete and decadent youth, to those of the intellectual auteur and colonialism’s adventure hero.” (Fraser 175) The people behind the Yellow Book, with its heavy focus on the aesthetes and themes of decadence, were unafraid to associate with this less-traditionally-masculine man – in fact it was referred to as “the Oscar Wilde of periodicals” in an American review of its first volume called “The Yellow Impertinence”. (Kooistra 2012)
More on Evelyn Sharp
Evelyn Sharp herself began her publishing career with her contributions in the Yellow Book, six stories in which, according to Kate Kreuger, “women struggle for economic independence and personal liberty.” (Green 76) Eventually she wrote a few novels (also generally New Woman fiction) and children’s fairy tales before settling into a long and impressive career as a journalist, even becoming an editor at the Manchester Guardian. But she considered herself to be a suffragist, first and foremost, and according to Katherine Lyon Mix in her book, A Study in Yellow, “Sharp’s adoption of the suffrage campaign was complete, unhesitating, and effective. The very life of the movement from 1914 to 1918, [H.W.] Nevinson has testified, stemmed from her brilliant mind and dogged resolution. She spoke eloquently and was twice arrested.” (Mix 240) Yet after the war for the vote was won, she did not see fit to end her fight; but instead widened her focus to injustice and suffering anywhere, traveling to post-armistice Germany, to post-famine Ireland in 1919, and writing extensively about the trials of the poor back home in London.
Sharp was a woman who knew well what the world thought of her, having devoted much of her adult life to the struggle. Though she would eventually give a glowingly happy account of her life, framing it mostly as “an adventure”, it is very easy to look upon this story and Jean’s feelings within it, as speaking to an anxiety in the secret heart of her creator. She eventually married – H. W. Nevinson, in fact, another Yellow Book contributor who she met at one of Henry Harland’s famous dinner parties. But she wrote this story while still quite young, and already embroiled in the movement – she is recorded as having active disagreements with several other Yellow Book writers on the issue of suffrage, including Edith Nesbit. That does not, however, suggest that we can conclude The Yellow Book was against suffrage in ethos; to stand against progress was not its way. Though Harland and Beardsley’s exact stances on social change regarding women’s rights are unknown, we can conclude by the content they published and the women they championed that their views were not the common, and even if they were not willing to fight themselves for the rights of women, they at least believed in the women’s right to do so.
Sharp, Evelyn. “In Dull Brown.” The Yellow Book 8 (January 1896): 181-200. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012.
Adams, James Eli. A History of Victorian Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Fraser, Hilary, Green, Stephanie, and Johnston, Judith. Gender and the Victorian Periodical. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Green, Barbara. “Mediating Women: Evelyn Sharp and the modern media fictions of Suffrage.” The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880-1920, edited by Holly A. Laird, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 72-85.
Harris, Wendell. “HW Nevinson, Margaret Nevinson, and Evelyn Sharp: Little-known Writers and Crusaders.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, vol. 45, no. 3, 2002, pp. 280-305.
Hartman, Kathleen. A New Band of Pilgrims: Fin de Siècle British Women Writers’ Political Reformation of the Conversion Narrative. Temple University, Philadelphia, January 2005.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “The Yellow Book (1894-1897): An Overview.” The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012.
Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester University Press, 1997.
Mix, Katherine Lyon. A Study in Yellow: The Yellow Book and Its Contributors. Greenwood Press Publishers, 1960.
Searle, G. R. The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration 1886-1929 Macmillan, 1992, 2nd ed, 2001.
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