Interlibrary Loan, How I Love Thee.

Warning: Inevitably, this will become a really nerdy post.

Those of you who know me academically are aware that I study Victorian literature. Those who are familiar with the label "Victorian" also know that there is no good definition of Victorian literature or good boundaries for the time period. So, those of us nutty enough to pursue Victorian studies end up specializing in a decade or two of the 70 plus years that make up the time period. Typically, I center my studies between 1850-1870, though my dissertation pushes for 1840s-1870s. Anyway, none of this is interesting in itself, except to say that I am ignorant of the early and later stuff...and that includes some fantastic later fiction by "New Woman" writers. I have been reading some Marie Corelli over the summer, but I don't know much about these "New Woman" folks (other than the basics).

So, I decided to check out some material for fun because God knows I have NOTHING else to do. Right. So, I started looking around in our library catalog for "New Woman" material, and discovered that our collection isn't great. So, off to WorldCat I go, and I find this fantastic anthology, called, oddly enough, the A New Woman Reader. I sent off an ILL request (hence the title of this post) and ta da! Here it is. And it is fantastic. I highly recommend it.

The first thing that I read is a story by a woman writer unknown to me: Netta Syrett. Apparently, according to the editor, her real name is Janet Syrett and she was educated at Cambridge Training College and wrote some children's fiction. She ended up publishing 38 did I never hear of her??? Anyway, she also never married...which means that I like her already. (Yes, "The altar, tis of death!"...just kidding. But I had to throw that in there.)

Anyway, I read her short story titled "Thy Heart's Desire," published in July of 1894 in the Yellow Book. This story takes place in the, the editors, in the anthology intro, say that it is the Middle East, but I think it is India or somewhere thereabouts because of the descriptions of dress and things. Anyway, the young wife (only married about a year) is miserable, didn't marry for love, and is trapped in a marriage that she hates...and an existence that she hates. The editors point out that the isolated surroundings mirror her feelings of being trapped and isolated...well, yeah. Anyway, the story is really interesting, especially for me because I am so used to the measured words and hidden meanings in most Victorian fiction. Here, the woman is so outspoken and blunt, but the story is very painful to read. When another man comes to the camp, Kathleen (the heroine) realizes that her situation is even more unbearable. It isn't explicit whether or not she has a physical affair with the man who visits (his name is Broomhurst), but she definitely has an emotional affair with him--and her husband (Drayton) is well aware of the fact.

The story is filled with really awkward and painful moments. It may not be wonderful "literature" but it is well done in that it captures everything about the agony of marrying the wrong person, about being trapped in a bad situation. One of my favorite moments occurs after Broomhurst arrives. He comes over to dinner and this is the conversation that takes place:

"Given the right Adam and Eve, the desert blossoms like the rose, in fact," Broomhurst answered, lightly, with a smiling glance inclusive of husband and wife; "you two don't feel as though you'd been driven out of Paradise, evidently."

Drayton raised his eyes from his plate with a smile of total incomprehension.

"Great heavens! what an Adam to select!" thought Broomhurst, involuntarily, as Mrs. Drayton rose rather suddenly from the table.

"I'll come and help with that packing-case," John said, rising, in his turn, lumberingly from his place; "then we can have a smoke--eh! Kathie don't mind, if we sit near the entrance.

The two men went out together, Broomhurst holding the lantern, for the moon had not yet risen. Mrs. Drayton followed them to the doorway, and, pushing the looped-up hanging farther aside, stepped out into the cool darkness.

Her heart was beating quickly, and there was a great lump in her throat that frightened her as though she were choking.

"And I am his wife--I belong to him!" she cried, almost aloud.

I especially like the ending of the story because after Drayton dies she doesn't just fall into Broomhurst's arms. In fact, she realizes that she doesn't love him either and she says:

What sort of woman should I be to be willing again to live with a man I don't love? I have come to know that there are things one owes to oneself. Self-respect is one of them. I don't know how it has come to be so, but all my old feeling for you has gone. It is as though it had burnt itself out. I will not offer grey ashes to any man. (69)

I was shocked when I read these lines. NEVER have I seen anything like it in the Victorian era. Sure, other heroines have implied the same sentiments, but I have never seen the words come out of their mouths. It was astonishing. And brilliant. It is a brave statement for anyone to be able to make, full of risk...the biggest kind of risk. I feel the same way. Why would anyone be willing to offer "grey ashes" to anyone--or oneself? I don't understand it and yet I see it in so many of the people that are married or together. I can't do it. I can't resign myself to that kind of life because I will break and run. Instinct related to self preservation is a powerful thing. Kathleen felt it early on enough, but she thought that she could override it, that her plan to marry without love would be enough. (It is easy to marry someone. There are plenty of people out there who just want to get married. So, no one can say that they can't find a husband or wife. The problem is that "easy" spells disaster.) The thing is, she realized that "belong[ing] to him" was much more than marriage. Without the passion (God...I hate that word...unless I am thinking about the etymology given in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and the real love, she is trapped. And is in a perverted Eden (at least from English points of view) with Adam...her only choice.

Speaking of the "Adam and Eve" and "Garden of Eden" story, there is an amusing reference to it in this story. Broomhurst and Kathleen talk about Eve's encounter with the serpent...and, in a move of brilliance, Kathleen totally gets why Eve found the serpent interesting. It was really funny to come across that moment on Sunday because Saturday night I had the exact same conversation with my friend, Kelly. It is true though. If you take Milton's version, why would Eve--clearly in need of some intellectual stimulation--want to hang out with Adam who just sits around weaving her necklaces and things out of flowers? Of course she took up with the serpent. At least he knew how to talk to her. AND when she tries to turn Adam into that type of person (i.e. giving him the fruit from the tree of knowledge) it totally backfires. Ladies: this is your first true example. YOU CANNOT CHANGE A MAN--OR A WOMAN, FOR THAT MATTER. HE/SHE IS WHAT HE/SHE IS. IF HE/SHE ISN'T WHAT YOU WANT NOW, HE/SHE ISN'T EVER GOING TO BECOME WHAT YOU WANT.

Anyway, read it if you have a chance and are interested! It is worth the time!


Anthology: A New Woman Reader


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