A Woman's Thoughts about Women
With the reputation and stature provided by John Halifax, Gentleman, Craik began to speak confidently in her own voice to the readers most like herself. She shared what she had learned as an independent woman in a series of essays printed in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal between 2 May and 19 December 1857 and published in 1858 by Hurst and Blackett as A Woman's Thoughts about Women.
Advice books were popular at midcentury because many people were insecure in new stations. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management explained manners, menus, and servants; the series of conduct manuals by Sarah Ellis crystallized the middle-class domestic ideal by telling women no longer burdened by housework that their most important job was to exercise moral influence and provide emotional support (for Ellis, see References). Craik wrote for another growing category of persons who lacked a satisfactory tradition — unmarried women in the middle ranks of society.
The phenomenon that was becoming known as the "woman problem" arose from the transformations that Craik wrote about in John Halifax, Gentleman. As long as society was hierarchical, with power held from above, men and women in the middle class were all subordinate. Their relative status altered, however, as the middle-class male — but only the male — became part of the ruling class. In addition, self-help contributed to the enormous surplus of women revealed by the 1851 census. Colonial administration and the open territories in Australia and western North America gave men opportunities they could not find in England. During the 1840s and 1850s one man in ten left the country as he approached marriageable age. Furthermore, as society became more fluid, there was an increasing [53/54] tendency to measure status by external signs instead of by birth or profession. Men postponed marriage until they could afford a house on a good street, with the furniture, servants, and establishment that their parents had not achieved until middle age. More and more women remained single throughout their twenties, if not permanently.
A Woman's Thoughts about Women supplied emotional support for single women. The first two chapters talk about the satisfactions of self-dependence and useful occupation. Chapters on friendship, gossip, worldliness, happiness, and aging consider women's personal needs. The effect of the essays grows more from their tone than from content; the advice is often commonplace, but the writer's authority and her example show that a woman on her own can lead a busy and rewarding life.
Three concepts in A Woman's Thoughts about Women distinguish it from most advice books of the period. First, Craik assumes that all persons are human first and female or male second. She points out that temperament and ability vary more among members of one sex than between the sexes and that many differences in adult behavior are actually taught in childhood. She particularly despises the way that girls learn to be helpless. The doctrine of "lovely uselessness, fascinating frivolity, delicious helplessness," she says, insults both women and their creator (chap. 1). Craik saw the emotional pain that grew from having nothing to do and called it the "chief canker at the root of women's lives" (chap. 1). Lack of occupation, she says, keeps women from respecting themselves, makes them dependent on praise and recognition from other people, and causes physical and nervous disease. When a women is self-sufficient she knows her own worth and can therefore also trust her own moral judgments.
Secondly, Craik tries to develop feelings of unity and sisterhood among all women. She seeks to eliminate the barrier between professions and trades; she encourages middle-class women to take up some of the occupations that are less traditional and therefore better paid. She continually reminds employers that servants are also women. They should not be sent on errands at night; they need wholesome food and adequate rest; they ought to be allowed to invite their "followers" into the house so that they will not be forced to satisfy their emotional needs in more dangerous ways. [54/55]
Finally, Craik is frank but unsentimental about fallen women. There had been a great deal of talk about prostitution in the 1840s and 1850s, not because it was becoming more commonplace but because the growing sense of public decency made it harder to ignore. However, most writing about the problem was done by men for other men; women were expected to close their eyes. Many people thought that Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Ruth (1853), which had an unwed mother as heroine, was simply too shocking to read. Craik wrote bluntly so that women would face the facts. Anyone who had contact with unmarried servants, seamstresses, and village girls could hardly help encountering some that were sexually active. Craik wanted to be sure her readers admitted to themselves that a woman who dismissed a pregnant servant without a reference probably forced her into prostitution, and that shame and concealment led desperate, frightened girls to kill their infants. Craik did not, however, approve of novels that simply pitied the poor victim because they made women seem helpless. She insisted that all women were responsible for their own choices and able to help themselves.
In these essays, as in the novels, Craik encourages readers to agree by helping them to identify. She carefully dissociates herself from women's rights advocates. She promotes sisterhood through empathy. She asks readers to imagine for a moment that they have lost their chastity, to pretend that some disaster has forced them to go into service, to remember that the awkward young kitchenmaid is another woman's daughter. She is honest about the emotional pains of single status, sometimes sentimental about the aching for children, rather discouraged about the possibility of friendship between women, poignantly resigned to the fact that the single woman must "make up her mind, that the close of her days will be more or less solitary" (chap. 12). John Halifax, Gentleman may have taught her how difficult it is to internalize the rewards of self-dependence; she wrote that "since ambition is a quality far oftener deficient in us than in the other sex, its very successes are less sweet to women than to men" (chap. 3). The unfilled emotional needs, the loneliness, the anxiety, are seen in the strength of women's longing for a more conventional role:
Dependence is in itself an easy and pleasant thing: dependence upon one we love being perhaps the very sweetest thing in the world. To resign one's self totally and contentedly into the hands of another; to have no [55/56] longer any need of asserting one's rights or one's personality, knowing that both are as precious to that other as they ever were to ourselves; to cease taking thought about one's self at all, and rest safe, at ease, assured that in great things and small we shall be guided and cherished, guarded and helped — in fact, thoroughly "taken care of" — how delicious is all this! So delicious, that it seems granted to very few of us, and to fewer still as a permanent condition of being. [chap. 2]
By turning into herself for subject, Craik discovered emotions shared by other women and worked out some of the moral principles implied by her fiction. She also identified herself publicly with the woman problem and the woman reader. These supplied the voice and the topics for her subsequent novels.
A Life for a Life
A Life for a Life (1859) was planned so that both form and plot would embody Craik's philosophy. The overlapping diaries kept by Max Urquhart and Dora Johnston illustrate that women and men have similar strengths, needs, and emotions. The plot shows that a man who commits murder and a woman who has a child out of wedlock can experience the same pattern of suffering and redemption.
In his youth Max Urquhart killed a man in the heat of passion. He makes reparation by saving lives as a military surgeon in the Crimea. He is reserved, dedicated, conscientious, and lonely.
Theodora Johnston, the other diarist, is equally lonely because woman's role gives her nothing to do. Her oldest sister Penelope is engaged; her youngest sister Lisa is being courted. Dora dislikes balls and company manners; she is twenty-five and plain; she studies German and wishes someone could accept her as she is.
Max and Dora grow to love each other. He reveals his past and discovers that the man he killed was the black sheep, eldest son of the Johnston family. Dora's father forbids her to see Max again. Max goes to Liverpool as a prison doctor, but gossip follows him. He frees himself from concealment by confessing his crime and serving a sentence for manslaughter. Dora tells her father that she cannot obey him, marries Max, and goes with him to Canada.
Craik had become a very successful writer because she could reflect the values and feelings of her readers. In the first version of A Life for a Life she allowed her sense of what the public would accept to [56/57] interfere with the story she wanted to tell. In the 1859 edition of the book Max Urquhart killed Henry Johnston purely by accident:
Now you see how it was. I murdered him. He must have died easily — instantaneously; he never moaned nor stirred once; but for all of that, it was murder.
Not with intent, God knows. So little idea had I he was dead, that I shook him as he lay, told him to "get up and fight it out:" oh, my God! — my God! [A Life for a Life, II, 297]
The Athenaeum review criticized Craik for making so much suffering and guilt follow from such an accidental event, and gave her the courage to make the killing deliberate, as she had originally intended:
Now you see how it was. I killed him; I meant to kill him, or at least to injure him. But only at the instant, God knows! and out of that blind fury which for the time being is utterly reckless of consequences. He must have died instantly. . . . [A Life for a Life, rev. ed., p. 239]
The man who kills because he is swept away by blind passion is in a situation that Craik saw as exactly comparable to that of the woman who is overwhelmed by sexual feelings. Both are morally responsible yet emotionally explicable. In the subplot Lydia Cartwright, a servant in the Johnston house, has a child by Penelope's fiance, Francis Charteris. Like Urquhart, she repents but cannot get work because people know about her past. Dora helps Lydia train as a schoolmistress to women prisoners so that she can both support her child and make reparations by serving other women.
The single moral standard is carefully worked out. Penelope calls off the wedding when she finds out about Lydia and the baby. Charteris is astounded that Penelope thinks chastity is as essential for men as for women. Finally, like many of the unmarried mothers in the period's fiction, Charteris, the unmarried father, grows to love his child and reforms.
The narrative device of the double diary allowed Craik to unfold the plot slowly — maintaining a certain amount of dramatic irony — and to ensure emotional identification with Max and Dora. It also provides a paradigm for Craik's conception of love. Each begins by writing a diary, out of loneliness, to an imagined sympathetic reader. [57/58] As they come to care for each other, both transform their diaries into unsent letters: the beloved merges with the imaginary other. Finally, after love is declared, the narrative is transferred to actual letters.
Craik admires and rewards the same qualities in Dora and Max. Both fall ill; each is shown nursing, nurturing, and taking care of the other. Both depend entirely on their own moral judgment and are therefore free from the control of conventional authority: Max works out his own redemption because he cannot accept the law that says death by hanging is the only way to pay for taking a life; Dora declares independence from her father when she tells him that she will marry without his consent.
The book had two important points to make. The first was that men and women were essentially the same and should enter marriage as equals. The second was that even the most heinous sins could be completely redeemed, and that sinners who had paid the price should be fully restored to society. As her hesitation over the degree of Max's guilt makes clear, Craik knew that many of her readers would reject both of these ideas. She was no longer simply reflecting public values; she was using the dramatic and affective power of fiction in an attempt to form opinion. Max and Dora leave for Canada at the end of the book because English society has no place for them. Craik makes clear that they are rejecting the society as much as they are being rejected by it, and she structures the climax so that the reader's emotional support goes with them.
The reviewers who considered the moral aspects of the book were divided on the question of whether society should welcome back Max and Lydia after he had served his prison term and she had married the father of her child. At least one reviewer, furthermore, found the character of Dora exceedingly dangerous because by asking questions and making up her own mind — and then living happily ever after — she might encourage young ladies to defy authority (Christian Remembrancer, 38, p. 305-21). But although the book was not nearly so successful John Halifax, Gentleman, Craik wrote in it much of her deepest belief, and she continued to say, for the rest of her life, that A Life for a Life was her best book.
The literary marketplace changed during the 1860s. A great many new monthly magazines were established. Most of them featured [58/59] serialized novels in order to keep readers loyally buying issue after issue. The most popular kind of serial was the sensation novel — forerunner of the detective story — which held its readers with secrets, suspense, hidden crimes, and scenes of strong emotion.
But Craik was no longer dependent on literary fashion. Although she had used complex plots and narrative modes that heightened suspense in some of her earlier books, she avoided those strategies after A Life for a Life instead of using her skills to create sensation novels. The large number of competing magazines also tended to fragment the public for novels — readers could choose to buy the magazines that printed the kind of fiction they preferred to read. Craik became identified as a women's novelist. Most of the books she wrote after 1860 are narrated by an authorial "I" who addresses her readers with a "we" that includes only fellow women. Reviewers no longer treated the books so seriously. They patronized Craik by praising her moral influence or began their reviews with a generalization about "the woman reader."
In these novels disregarded by literary history Craik wrote about women's ambiguous experiences and their contradictory thoughts and feelings. Women must often read between the lines to penetrate secrets that they know must be kept. Craik deals, sometimes covertly, with the real pains and conflicts of her role. She exposes and uses emotions that are sometimes embarrassing to the intellect. She also maneuvers the stereotypes supplied by her society in an attempt to give authority to women's values.
Mistress and Maid was serialized in Good Words from January to December 1862. Craik chose to publish the story in a magazine, which would be bought, instead of as a three-volume novel that had to go back to the library, because she hoped that readers in the kitchen would see it after those in the parlor had finished. Mistress and Maid illustrates the sisterhood that grows from women's shared values and needs, despite differences in class.
The story concerns a household made up of three unmarried women — Johanna, Selina, and Hilary Leaf — who earn a barely adequate income keeping a school, and their servant Elizabeth Hand, who comes to them as an awkward girl in her first place. They teach her how to cook and scrub by sharing the work. But Selina is not happy being poor and single, and misery gives her an unsympathetic character and ugly outbursts of temper. The sisters' orphaned nephew Ascott Leaf is a medical student with an easygoing manner and [59/60] undependable ways. And Elizabeth herself is a moody and inarticulate adolescent. Slowly, the women learn to appreciate and care for one another. Elizabeth's character as an adult woman is formed by Hilary's example, and Hilary is rewarded by Elizabeth's tacit and tactful sympathy in times of trouble.
In the course of the novel the school fails, the sisters move to London lodgings and are hard pressed for money to pay Ascott's debts, Hilary crosses the line from profession to trade by becoming manager of a stationer's shop, and Ascott disappears without trace after committing a felony. The real story, however, is the commonplace events and feelings of daily life: the minor frictions of four women living together, the depressing search for a cheap place to live in a new city, the need to give up riding buses in order to scrimp out money for new shoes, the weary longing of Hilary for some sign from Robert Lyon, the man who went to India without ever saying that he loved her.
The book constantly demonstrates the fellow feeling of all working women. Only once does fortuitous outside help come to the Leaf sisters — and it comes from a tradeswoman, Miss Balquidder. Elizabeth Hand's brief romance with a workingman is treated with as much respect and dignity as Hilary's relationship to Robert Lyon.
Mistress and Maid is the first of Craik's books to show consistently that women are more complete and admirable than men. The father and brother of the Leaf sisters were men "whose sole mission in life seemed to have been to spend everything, make everybody miserable, marry, and die. . . " (chap. 1). The male characters are largely offstage and primarily a source of difficulties. They are treated with a kind of patronizing indulgence that had hovered between the lines of A Woman's Thoughts about Women. A household of women, writes Craik, has advantages "which the other sex can hardly comprehend or credit." Women can "stand alone" much better than men: "we are better able to provide for ourselves interests, duties, and pleasures; in short, strange as it may appear . . . we have more real self-sustaining independence than they" (chap. 5).
Yet despite this cheerful narrative voice, Mistress and Maid is touched throughout by a mood of quiet pathos. Critical tradition has made it hard to discuss books that bring tears to our eyes. In this book the passages that make us cry have the dignity of honest emotion. We are put in touch with the real source of our self-pity instead of being allowed to evade it by indulging in the sentimental [60/61] tears aroused by imaginary exaggerations. Craik knew the strain of a narrow income, the dreary interior of a one-room lodging on the shady side of the street, the weariness of continued work, the sorrow of exclusion. Like Hilary Leaf, she knew how it felt to have a father who ran up debts and a brother who was unsettled and undependable, while living in a society that assumed women would be looked after by their male relatives. The book's crises are deliberately underdramatized; Hilary faces them with weary resignation and gets through whatever must be done. And, as a single woman in her thirties, Craik knew how Hilary could be overwhelmed with a sense that her life was slipping away: "And the aching, aching want which sometimes came over her, began again. Let us not blame her. God made all our human needs" (chap. 4). By using her own feelings simply and directly, Craik makes the reader's tears legitimate and significant.
Robert Lyon comes back at the end of the book and finally proposes, but neither he nor the marriage is ever quite real. Hilary disappears quickly to Liverpool and out of the story. The last chapter is devoted to the sad conclusion of Elizabeth's romance. Even Craik does not seem to believe in the wish-fulfillment of one good man who sails out of the east to lift the woman's burdens.
The triumphs supplied for Elizabeth are almost more satisfying daydreams. Tom, her unfaithful suitor, and Ascott Leaf, who had also been unkind to her, both turn up shabby and contrite and need her help. The real key to the book, however, is the quiet poignancy of the ending. Elizabeth continues her life as a single working woman: competent, respected, useful, content, and lonely.
Christian's Mistake (1865) more covertly reveals the psychic trauma of woman's situation. The book begins half an hour after the wedding ceremony and closes six months later, when the initial period of tension and adjustment is over and Christian's happy marriage begins. Christian is a twenty-one-year-old governess; her husband, the Reverend Arnold Grey, is forty-five and the Master of Saint Bede's College in the University of Avonsbridge. The book's incidents show how she gains the affection of her stepchildren, wrests control of the household from the two maiden relatives who had been in charge since Dr. Grey's first wife died, and overcomes the self-conscious shyness that had kept her from telling her husband she was once briefly fond of another man. [61/62]
The novel is very short (less than one-third the length of John Halifax, Gentleman or The Head of the Family) and not well developed; the minor characters are flat, the social milieu sketchy, and the author's voice fills in empty spaces with tedious and obtrusive moralizing. But the soothing voice does not quite lull the inner eye to sleep. Although the book is overtly about Christian's happy adjustment, the embedded images convey a strong resistance to marriage, a terror of men, and a dread of losing personal identity that makes matrimony seem quite literally the end of a woman's life.
Immediately after the marriage, Christian is described as a "person who, having certain things to go through, goes through them in a sort of dream" (chap. 1). She shudders when she realizes that she will never be alone any more. The master's lodge at the college is perpetually cold; Christian follows a manservant with a flickering candle "up narrow, steep stone staircases, which might lead to a prison in a tower or a dormitory in a monastery" (chap. 2). The bed seems designed for lying in state. Christian loses the sense of her own identity. She only dimly remembers, in brief "lucid intervals" (chap. 3), that there was once a person called Christian Oakley. She forces herself not to recall that she once had other plans and imagined a different life.
The terror of men lurks in shadows too dreadful to face. Christian's father, who had been organist at Saint Bede's, was a musical genius, a drunkard, and something else hidden under the repeated phrase "the greatest blessing which could have happened to his daughter was his death." What could the secret be? Syphilitic dementia? Incest? Child abuse? The reader is left to supply it from whatever she knows or suspects about men that cannot be mentioned in public. Christian was once attached to the undergraduate Edwin Uniacke, but her fondness died before it grew into love when she discovered nameless evidence that made it impossible for any virtuous maiden to respect him. Even good paternal Dr. Grey is associated with strangeness and distance; he habitually sits with his hand covering his mouth so that his feelings are hidden.
The narrative that presents this emotional content criticizes Christian mildly because she married a man for whom she felt only affection and respect. The implication is that it requires a very strong love to create the blind self-sacrifice needed to overcome resistance to marriage. But the book also shows the dark consequence of frustrated emotion in single women. Phillis was an unwed mother [62/63] who first entered the Grey house as wet nurse; she is passionately attached to the children and she torments them with sadistic whippings. The two maiden relatives, Miss Grey and Miss Gascoigne, have fed on each other for twenty years in a master-slave relationship that, for a modern reader, baldly reveals its repressed sexual content.
Christian avoids these threats from within and without by discovering a way to preserve herself even in marriage. The initial situation encodes the inequality of man and woman. As master of a college, Dr. Grey has impressive social and intellectual standing. Christian is poor, unprotected, tainted by her father's name and by having been a governess in a tradesman's family. Her background has given her the inner strength to do her duty and repress her feelings, and it has made her expect that her own wants are of no importance.
Christian's psychological transformation is accomplished by incidents that teach her to use power. These incidents are manipulated to provide a double message. The narrative paints a sentimental picture; the underlying dynamics allow Christian to grow. For example, Christian nurses one child through an illness. The overt image is woman in her most sanctified state, keeping faithful watch in dim lamplight by a sickbed. Psychologically, the experience gives Christian an emotional investment in her stepchildren, and with it the confidence to challenge the maiden sisters for the right to direct the children's training and education.
The subcontent is simultaneously transformed. As Christian grows stronger by asserting herself, the threat of male sexual domination diminishes. It is the angry, violent, eldest stepson who is injured and needs nursing. Dr. Grey turns out to be an "utter coward" at the sight of physical suffering. Christian starts to think of her husband as a sweet child; she realizes that "All her life she would have, more or less, to take care of, not only these her children, but their father" (chap. 5). The fact that Christian bears no children of her own may indicate Dr. Grey's impotence.
Christian's Mistake is a less satisfactory book than Mistress and Maid because it does not face its subject so honestly. The two books explore painful alternatives — Mistress and Maid shows the needs not filled by single life; Christian's Mistake the individuality lost in marriage and the fear that men are mysterious and frightening enemies. But in Christian's Mistake the surface moralizing almost prevents us from recognizing the feelings. The images that convey [63/64] a distaste for men and a terror of close association with them seem to well up in spite of the happy progress of the story. Possibly, however, the narrative silences and vaguenesses and evasions convey to the perceptive woman reader a sense of how much is concealed by superficial propriety. Curiously, Christian's Mistake ends, like Mistress and Maid, with a note of resignation: "most of us have, more or less, to accept the will of Heaven instead of our will, and go on our way resignedly, nay, cheerfully, knowing that, whether we see it or not, all is well" (chap. 15). Marriage with the neutral Dr. Grey protects Christian against a world that continually makes negative social judgments against working women, and it gives her children to nurture without the pain and sexuality of childbirth.
A Noble Life
A Noble Life (1866) was published in the year after Craik's marriage and affectionately dedicated to the old friend she could now address as "Uncle George." Yet the book is painful, even self-indulgent. The obtrusive moralizing is so transparent a defense that it only emphasizes how close the book is to the subconscious disguises of unmediated fantasy. Perhaps Craik's new emotional security gave her liberty to expose the raw wounds of powerlessness and loneliness.
The central character, Charles Edward Stuart Montgomerie, last Earl of Cairnforth, is a hopeless cripple, confined to a wheelchair, just able to hold up his head, forced throughout life to watch pleasures he can never share, and utterly dependent on others to care for his physical needs. Nevertheless, he grows up sweet, patient, and intelligent; he manages his property, relieves distress among his tenants, and builds schools and churches. His only close friend is Helen Cardross, daughter of the village minister. The Earl makes a will naming Helen and any children she might have as heirs to his property. He accidentally lets the fact slip to his fortune-hunting relative Captain Bruce, who hastily woos Helen, marries her, abuses her, and dies. She has a son, who grows up to learn compassion and gentleness by associating with the Earl. The Earl dies peacefully — perhaps gratefully — as soon as his young heir comes of age.
A Noble Life is embarrassing to read. There is almost no action. Scene after scene is constructed to show how much the Earl is to be pitied and to let other characters discuss him tenderly. We feel uncomfortable in the presence of deformity and pain; we feel sensitive about staring so openly at a cripple. It becomes even more embarrassing when we realize that Craik's friend Frank Smedley [64/65] died not long before the book was written. The young Earl of Cairnforth amuses Helen Cardross's brothers with tales of "wild exploits; wanderings over South American prairies, or shipwrecks on desert islands" (chap. 5); Smedley, confined to his wheelchair by spinal deformity, wrote manly novels of college and sporting life.
Yet our very embarrassment suggests that the book touches levels of consciousness we would rather not face. The Earl of Cairnforth, like Phineas Fletcher, represents an essentially feminine predicament. A woman unhappily powerless in a patriarchal society can hardly avoid feeling that she is a crippled and helpless specimen of mankind. The Earl of Cairnforth is doomed because of the body given him at birth. His life is therefore "one long endurance, rendered all the sharper and harder to bear because within that helpless body dwelt a soul, which was, more than that of most men, alive to every thing beautiful, noble, active, and good" (chap. 5).
The book also disturbs our critical intellects because the tears are so close to the surface. Charlotte Yonge, a contemporary of Craik's, remarked that A Noble Life was "exceedingly relished" by servants, because servants and poor people like stories "with what more educated persons think rather an over-amount of pathos" ("Class Literature of the Last Thirty Years", p. 451). The need to cry, the desire to seek out occasions and fictions that lead to tears, strikes us at times when we are helpless to control the circumstances of our lives. Pathetic novels provide a release for the tensions that arise from powerlessness.
Craik resolves the psychodrama of woman as injured human by splitting the feminine personality and then reuniting its two aspects in sexless, compassionate love. Helen is busy, wholesome, and practical; she is sister-mother to her younger siblings and both sister-mother and sister-lover to the Earl. Captain Bruce is less a character than a device to provide a fantasy son for the chaste lovers to raise: Helen's courtship and married life are not even admitted to the imagined reality of the story, but take place entirely offstage.
The fantasy cleanses both motherhood and male-female companionship of the sexuality and the unequal power that contaminate them in the real world. The person represented by Helen and the Earl — together — might be called the female model of androgynous character, an idealized human who has the head of a man and the heart of a woman. In this guise a woman can accept — if only behind the cloak of projection — the inner self that is frail, delicate, and [65/66] incapacitated; and she can indulge, safely, through sentimental transference, the yearning to be helpless, protected, and cared for. The woman also claims the essential power to nurture, to support, to give life. This emotional pattern is repeated throughout the book. All of the important characters — Helen, the Earl, the son — accept human frailty and dependence by taking help when they need it. All of them, at the same time, develop strength when they have to take care of someone else. Each central character becomes more pure and compassionate by contemplating another person's pain. And the moralizing — the Christian sanction — makes the suffering meaningful.
Two Marriages (1867) is openly didactic. The book contains two novelettes, both rather sombre in mood, which illustrate the social barriers that prevent married happiness.
The first, "John Browerbank's Wife," is a relatively uninteresting story about an heiress whose father will not let her marry a poor clerk. Depressed and passive, she drifts into marriage with a middle-aged widower and then into a slow decline that ends in death. The characters are lifeless; the plot uses hackneyed conventions; and much of the story is told at second or third hand, so that instead of sharing Emily's feelings we look pityingly at her through the eyes of a middle-class housewife, Mrs. Knowles, who provides a chorus on the beauty of love in a cottage.
"Parson Garland's Daughter" uses the fallen-woman story to examine the disabilities imposed by sex and class. Charlotte Dean, a sixteen-year-old farm servant, refuses to be a passive victim — she follows Keith Garland to Cambridge and forces him to marry her. Keith's father, Parson Garland, sends his son off to Canada and offers Charlotte a home. He is continually offended by her blowsy beauty, her awkward ways, and her bad grammar, but when he finds out she is unable to read Keith's letters he begins to feel sorry for her and to educate her. She slowly changes into the gentle and loving daughter he had always wished for.
"Parson Garland's Daughter" is built from ideas that never quite become convincing characters. Charlotte is absolutely transformed from abused, illiterate adolescent to perfect woman; Garland is too entirely simple and sweet; and the minor characters exist only to make points. Charlotte is outcast not because of her sin but because of her sex and class. The neighbors would forgive a young man for [66/67] ruining a lower-class girl but not for marrying her; they can tolerate sin — so long as no one mentions it — but cannot visit a wife who has been a servant. They are thoroughly worldly and unpleasant people so that no reader would dare sympathize with their viewpoint. The very loading of the devices shows how Craik enlists conservative feelings to support essentially radical values. By 1867 it was no longer daring to make a fallen woman the heroine of a novel. But Charlotte, unlike her sisters in most fiction of the period, is not sanctified by martyrdom and suffering, nor does she die. She was never an innocent victim in the first place. A minister helps her — but he does not preach about her sins or struggle for her soul. Craik uses the sentimental glow of the father-daughter relationship to show that a fallen woman may have all the rights and virtues of other women. The single moral standard holds women and men to the same rules and also measures them by the same standards. Charlotte is not "forgiven"; she is awarded the respect that she has earned, regardless of her sex, or her class, or her past errors.
The Woman's Kingdom
Most of the novels Craik published during the 1860s reflect the pain and ambiguity of women's position in society. Her own life was turbulent. The triumph of John Halifax, Gentleman was not repeated. Although she was a competent professional, who had no difficulty selling her work, she was no longer a promising young talent; the serious critics began to take a patronizing tone. Nor was she producing the kind of novel that appealed to the widest popular audience. Sensational fiction was the rage, and the overwhelming best sellers were written by other women, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood. Worry and care for her brother Ben drained her physical and emotional energy. She was faced by George Craik's accident and by the decision to marry a man eleven years younger than she. She moved at least six times. She turned forty without having a child.
The novels she wrote reflect the unresolved conflicts of women whose emotional needs were not satisfied, women buffeted by an unfriendly world or the weakness of their own sex, women yearning for something more, troubled by dissatisfaction with their selves or their place in the world. The books are short and uneven. The emotional pain, after Mistress and Maid, is not often directly faced; it is transformed, veiled by disguises, translated into sentimental formulas, or evaded by moral attitudes about the way women ought to feel that lead to flat writing and unconvincing characters. [67/68] The Woman's Kingdom, toward the end of the decade, offers a joyous solution to the conflicts. It was printed in Good Words between January and December 1868, published in three volumes in 1869, and went almost at once into a succession of cheap editions. It provided money to pay for the house at Shortlands. The title-page quotation is taken from John Ruskin, and the book affirms the worldly triumph of virtuous women. The Woman's Kingdom was the whole moral realm, while men ruled only the physical. Women's power was therefore ultimately superior. The book's two plots demonstrate how women make or mar the lives of men.
Letty and Edna Kenderdine are twins who represent two aspects of womanhood. Edna is self-sufficient, practical, and self-aware. She marries a young doctor, keeps him morally straight while he struggles to rise in the world, and raises five thoughtful and responsible sons. But beautiful, clingy, "feminine" Letty marries for worldly station a man who makes her miserable, and in so doing she ruins the life of the sensitive young artist who had trusted her.
The savior at the end of the novel is the child-woman Gertrude, whose instinctive purity and sympathy bring about a partial reconciliation. Yet Letty never repents for her errors or quite understands why her life is so hollow. She ignored the spiritual kingdom. She believed that the only valuable thing women possessed was their physical beauty. The power beauty gave her as a single woman, however, was no longer hers to use once she had sold it to a man.
The first part of the novel contains some of Craik's best writing: carefully detailed scenes, fine distinctions of thought and emotion, an appealing and likable heroine. The latter part, which takes place after a fifteen-year hiatus, is overdramatized and is marred by a shift in viewpoint that transparently conceals the identity of the central characters. This shift supplies the emotional energy of a rather illicit dramatic irony. It also makes it impossible for the author to enter Letty's mind — which perhaps solved the difficulty of having to portray unpleasant feelings; Craik was virtually unable to create, from the inside, a character that she did not approve of.
The utter celebration of woman's sphere makes the book as much a petrified artifact of its time as John Halifax, Gentleman. Kate Chopin copied passages from The Woman's Kingdom in her journal — and Kate Chopin created another Edna, a generation later, in The Awakening (Gartner, pp. 11-20). But Craik's Edna does marry as a woman, not (like Chopin's Edna) as a girl. Edna Kenderdine runs a school instead of [68/69] going out as a governess so that she can have her own house. When she returns home after a holiday she revels in the pleasure of moving among things she has bought in a space she has earned. Yet despite her success, she longs for something more. Because she is essentially satisfied with her single state, she is not exactly sure what she wants — a better school, perhaps, with pupils that would be more rewarding to teach, or maybe a legacy that would buy a cottage in the country and provide some security for her old age. When she is very tired the dark fears sometimes come, the "morbid dread of the future — that bitter sense of helplessness and forlornness which all working women have at times. . . . " (chap. 1).
Edna does not marry, then, as her only aim in life, but because she has some needs that are not met while she is single. She and her future husband learn to know each other well before they marry since, as two working adults, they are able to have a frank, un-chaperoned friendship. They marry from a basis of equal strength and preserve an equal partnership. They are both busy, useful people. And within this satisfying partnership, which fills both physical and emotional needs, the balance of power rests in the woman's hands. She is, by nature, morally superior; the man recognizes her virtue and defers to her judgment on all matters of right and wrong. That, surely, is the most satisfactory dream-solution to the needs that Craik and the women of her period recognized.
The nature of Craik's writing for and about women changed after The Woman's Kingdom. Her last three full-length novels take up issues: divorce, matrimonial law, married women's legal disabilities. Without committing herself to the radical — and divisive — cause of suffrage, Craik tried to extend the woman's kingdom beyond the walls of the home by using traditional women's weapons — sentiment, morality, the example of admirable life — to influence public opinion.
A Brave Lady
A Brave Lady, serialized in Macmillan's Magazine between May 1869 and April 1870, is propaganda for the Married Women's Property Act which was once more being debated by Parliament. The idea that women should have legal right to their own property and earnings had surfaced regularly since the early 1840s, but had always been defeated under the argument that [69/70] the husband was head of the family. (The Married Women's Property Act, in its first (relatively weak) version, finally passed during the 1870 session of Parliament and received royal assent on 9 Aug. 1870.) A Brave Lady, written for the family audience of a shilling monthly magazine, exploits the tactics of sentimental fiction: it arouses the powerful emotions attached to the image of motherhood, and then transfers those emotions to the cause. The book is built around the statement that appears exactly in its center: "If a woman has to choose between husband and children, save the children!" (20-21, chap. 11)
The heroine, Josephine Scanlan, was married at sixteen to a handsome Irish preacher. Babies come every year until there are six surviving children. Edward Scanlan is easygoing about money and never adjusts to his salary as curate. After struggling for many years to take up the slack Josephine begins to fear that the children are being influenced by his bad example. When Edward takes money from the school fund for his own expenses — and uses their eldest son to carry begging letters so that he can replace it — Josephine decides to leave him.
She figures out a way to support herself and the children. And then she borrows a book from a lawyer and copies down, for the reader to see, a neat summary of the laws that apply to her as a married woman. Her husband may legally force her to live in his house — he may "chastise" or "confine" her if necessary. Because the children are over seven, she has no claim whatever to them; her husband may bring them up in any way he chooses and can even prevent her from seeing them. And finally, even if she could leave, she has no right to the money she might earn to support herself; her earnings belong entirely to her husband, to seize or use at his pleasure.
The first part of the novel is designed to secure the reader's emotional involvement. The story is set within a frame and is narrated by a young woman, Winifred Weston, who carefully lets us know that she is happily married. Winifred as mediator serves to reassure readers that letting married women control their own earnings would be no threat to happy wives and, therefore, that supporting the bill in Parliament (or, more important, persuading one's husband to support it) does not indicate that one is unhappy in marriage. Winifred makes it permissible for wives to empathize with Josephine Scanlan by intruding her own husband into the story: "When I — Winifred (not Winifred Weston now) — look at the dear face opposite to me, on my own hearth, I know that such a marriage would have maddened me" (chap. 8). [70/71]
Craik does not melodramatically exaggerate Edward Scanlan into a villain — no woman would knowingly marry an evil man. He is simply weak. Details that many women would recognize build admiration and sympathy for Josephine. She stops going out so that she will not have to spend money on her own clothing. She understands why Edward doesn't spend much time at home; even she is harassed by all the babies and toddlers in a little house. She makes and mends. Edward can't settle to teach the boys regularly, so she learns Latin in order to do it herself. She scrimps on her own food; when Edward goes out to dine she and the children make a meal on pudding or bread. He won't allow her to have a job, so she secretly takes in needlework from a village shop. Edward blames her when things are not fresh and comfortable and wonders why she is growing so plain.
At mid-book the emotional strategies of the propagandist come into conflict with the internal necessities of the character. Josephine is simply too strong to be bound by the law. She plans to take the children secretly to France, and works out the details, the author tells us, "with a caution and foresight, worthy of one of those righteous conspirators against unrighteous authority, who, according as they succeed or fail, are termed in history patriots or traitors" (chap. 12). But if Josephine were to escape successfully, the novel would lose its effect as propaganda. The need for the law is demonstrated by showing how fearfully innocent victims suffer in its absence. And so Craik makes Josephine choose to stay with her husband because of her superior moral and maternal nature. She discovers that Edward has heart disease, and she is afraid that he might die from the shock of her desertion.
The rest of the book arouses pity for Josephine's continued sufferings in marriage. Edward goes prematurely senile and has to be watched like a toddler. And all six of the children — the beloved children to whom Josephine sacrificed her life — die. These sufferings seem illicit and unnecessary. They exist to complete the emotional devastation, to arouse pity, to lend support to the cause. Yet they also release emotions in conventional ways; they give readers a chance to cry. It is as if the tension built up in the reader by the realistic picture of a confined, hopeless, emotionally unsatisfying married life had to be diffused by the tears that flow permissibly and automatically in scenes where children die. [71/72]
The novel's frame and the narration by Winifred Weston provide another, more conventional moral by telling us to admire Josephine Scanlan's Christian resignation. Yet, paradoxically, speaking in Winifred's voice rather than her own allows Craik to handle material that might otherwise be forbidden. The first thing Winifred Weston tells us in the prologue is that when she was a girl of sixteen she fell in love with an old lady of seventy. She insists on the word; she does not mean admiration or affection but actual love, in every way like the love she later felt for her husband. The brave lady, Winifred shows us, is everything that the best man could be. Throughout the book Josephine Scanlan takes the masculine role as well as the feminine. She earns income to support her family. She inherits property, and because of her husband's senility, she manages the property. When a courtesy title is offered the Scanlans (as property owners) she chooses to return to her maiden name and become Lady de Bougainville. She reads and understands the law. When Winifred marries, Josephine acts the part of father and gives her away. She is also her own authority on religious matters. Her husband (who is, of course, an ordained clergyman) asks whether she has forgotten that Saint Paul said '"Let not the wife depart from her husband.'" She answers "'St. Paul was not a woman, and he had no children'" (chap. 11).
The legal cause that inspired A Brave Lady is now dated. The intellectual evasions and structural blunders are obvious. Yet even modern academic literary critics — if they are women — can be devastated by the book's emotional power. Both the intensity and the awkwardness may come about partly because the novel is more autobiographical than any other Craik wrote. That is, it uses material from her mother's life: the charismatic Irish preacher with rings on his hands who never learns to manage money and is sure his life would take a turn for the better if he moved to London, the wife who earns income essential for the family's survival, even the blue print pinafores she puts on her children. But there had been no happy ending for Mrs. Mulock. Nor, apparently, could her daughter imagine one. Whatever she could give her — money, social position, the love of her children — could not make up for the failings of the man to whom society and her own feelings bound her. All she could do was, through the disguise of Winifred, record her anger, her admiration, and her love. [72/73]
Contemporary reviewers were unsympathetic and even nasty about the book. The Saturday Review abhorred its "false morality" (pp. 458-59) and took offense at the "perpetual recurrence of domestic details the frequent allusion to confinements and miscarriages is simply odious." The Athenaeum wrote: "nobody could make such a subject interesting. . . . No one but a lady could sympathize so sincerely with, or depict so feelingly the domestic troubles of, a wife tied to a not over clever husband . . . may we ask the writer next time to try and find a subject more worthy of her pen?" (pp. 385-86)
Yet the topic itself was not an exclusively female property. Wilkie Collins's Man and Wife, published in the same year, was also based on marriage law and marital property. Collins's book, however, was a sensation novel, with an intricate plot, exaggerated suspense, many concealments, a woman who murdered her husband in order to be free of him, and a great many situations no reader was ever likely to find herself in. Possibly A Brave Lady was more disturbing — to male reviewers — because it contained so much that was, indeed, recognizable.
Hannah was serialized from February through December 1871 in Saint Pauls, a shilling monthly magazine that carried ambitious general articles as well as fiction and appealed to a fairly well educated middle-to upper-class public. It is a one-issue novel with a narrow legislative aim. In 1835 Parliament had taken the concept that a wife was completely subsumed by her husband to its logical conclusion by placing in-laws under the same marital prohibition as blood relations. The problem was most generally defined as marriage with a deceased wife's sister; husband and wife were one flesh and therefore, if a wife died, the incest statutes prevented her husband from marrying her sister or other close relative.
Hannah is less compelling than A Brave Lady because the problem touches fewer women's lives than the property issue. However, in an age of risky childbirth and crowded living conditions, alliances of the kind were not uncommon, particularly among the poor. When a young mother died, her unmarried sister was often the only person available to look after the children. If she moved into the widower's cottage, nature was very likely to take care of the rest. The advice columns in working-class magazines simply cautioned people living in "marriages" that were not legally valid to draw up a will so that their children — who were, technically, bastards — could inherit what [73/74] was meant for them. Others, in higher life, tried to get Parliament to change the law.
In Hannah all of the emotional energy is focused on the legal barrier; only it keeps the characters from being happy and the parliamentary battle is important to the plot. The device, once more, is to create an admirable, empathetic heroine and to emphasize her motherliness. Hannah Thelluson is a self-sufficient governess of thirty. She is rather reluctant to give up her independence when her sister Rosa dies in childbirth and Rosa's husband, the young clergyman Bernard Rivers, asks her to take charge of his house and infant. The great inducement, however, is the baby. Hannah has always been aware of "one great want in her nature — the need to be a mother to somebody or something" (7-9, chap. 1).
Before Hannah leaves her post as governess, her employer, Lady Dunsmore, whose husband is backing the bill to legalize in-law marriages, deliberately tells Hannah about the 1835 law and tactfully warns her of the gossip and the emotional complications that may arise when a single man and a single woman live in the same house. This scene announces virtually the whole of the plot and predicts the course of the novel.
Hannah is an instant mother to the infant, and feels almost as motherly toward the grieving young father. She teaches him to bear sorrow, urges him to carry on with his parish duties, and takes a schoolmarm hand to his sermons. The center of the book is dominated by the emotional tension of a situation that is titillating even in the face of Hannah's relentless morality. After a long-drawn agony — social ostracism, the irritability that arises from an attraction they cannot act upon, the failure of the bill to pass Parliament — Hannah and Bernard take their life in their own hands by refusing to obey their country's laws. They move to France, take up French citizenship, marry, and live happily ever after.
The book's purpose entirely controls its plot. Subsidiary stories about a nursemaid and a squire's bride show that the problem affects all classes. The subplots also provide scenes of violence and death that both express and relieve the tension built up by continued sexual frustration. However, the duplications create the unfortunate impression that every man in England has sexual yearnings for his sister-in-law. Reviewers dismissed the book as nothing but propaganda; H. Lawrenny (i.e., Edith Simcox), writing in Academy, called [74/75] it one of the "stray works by writers of acknowledged merit, who have taken up a crotchet" (quoted in Olmstead, p. 11).
In focusing on one single aspect of one bad law, however, Craik arrived at an essentially radical conclusion. Hannah is, finally, a woman who accepts no law except her own conscience. She searches the Bible with a concordance and decides that the Anglican hierarchy has made a ruling with no basis in Scripture. Parliamentary law has even less authority. After all, in-law marriages that took place before 1836 were legal. '"Then, what was right one year was wrong the next?'" asks Hannah ingenuously. '"That is, to my weak womanly notions, a very extraordinary form of justice'" (chap. 5). Neither the class nor the sex of legislators and bishops gives them the right to determine a woman's actions. Craik carries the typical Victorian analogy between the family and the social order to its logical conclusion — and abandons the concept of patriarchal authority in either: "'To break your country's laws, however unjust they may be, and then expect its protection, is like disobeying one's father,'" she has one of the women characters say. '"We must do it — if compelled by his unjust exactions — but we ought to quit his house first'" (chap. 16). The nursemaid, Grace Dixon, is miserable because she did not understand the law; she trusted a man and was deluded by him. Hannah knows exactly what she is doing. She refuses to submit to a law she would not make. She is rewarded by a gloriously happy life. (In November 1875, Dinah Craik chaperoned Edith Waugh to Switzerland so that she could marry her sister's widower, William Holman Hunt.)
Young Mrs. Jardine
Craik's last full-length novel, Young Mrs. Jardine (serialized in Good Words, January-December 1879), is a predictable story about the marriage of a model woman. For most of the decade Craik had been writing essays, travel narratives, and the children's books and short novels that will be discussed in the next chapter. Her creative energy had declined; she was no longer emotionally involved with her characters in the ways that make the earlier novels compelling. Young Mrs. Jardine is of interest only because, near the end, the model wife says that it is necessary under certain circumstances for women to leave their husbands.
Roderick Jardine goes to Switzerland to track down some distant cousins. He loves his young relative Silence at first sight; she supports her ailing mother by giving music lessons, and she is sweet, old-fashioned, and modest, unlike the bold, worldly, English girls. Silence and Roderick are united in a pattern marriage: she controls the purse strings; he overcomes his class inhibitions and goes to [75/76] work as foreman in a cotton mill; together — under her influence — they tell the truth about their poverty and therefore are respected by the honest old Scots gentry. They are, in fact, so ideal that hardly any conflict or tension can arise to make the story interesting. Their only problem is that Roderick's mother refuses to speak to them, since Roderick married without her consent. Silence triumphs by nearly dying in childbirth, which brings her mother-in-law rushing to her side in a state of penitence and fellow womanliness.
Set against the idyll, very briefly, is the contrasting marriage of Roderick's sister Bella to a well-to-do, hard-drinking lout named Alexander Thomson. Infuriated because he had struck her the day before her baby was born, Bella runs away from her husband and takes refuge with Roderick and Silence. Roderick obviously expects that Silence will teach Bella to be a good wife. Instead, Silence passionately explains that Bella has a moral duty to leave Alexander Thomson forever:
Drunkenness, dissoluteness, anything by which a man degrades himself and destroys his children, gives his wife the right to save them and herself from him, to cut him adrift, and be free. Poverty, contumely, loneliness, let her endure it all. Pity her lot, if you will, but to ignore it, to accept it and submit to it, above all, to let the innocent suffer from it — never! Bella tells me that the law gives her possession of her child for seven years. My advice is, let her take it in her arms and fly — anywhere, so that her husband cannot get her back, or make the law follow her. Nay, if I were she, I would defy the law; I would hide myself at the world's end, change my name, earn my bread as a common working-woman, but I would save my child, and go. [20, chap. 14]
In arguing for separation, Silence stops short of absolute divorce — but primarily because divorce would free the male to sow his corruption elsewhere. Women have a supreme duty not only as mothers but also as potential mothers; Bella must leave Thomson's house so that she will never bring any more of his children into the world. Advice books influenced by the single moral standard were beginning to insist that young women should inquire into their future husband's family medical and psychiatric history as well as into his own personal character. The writers were aware — in the discreetest terms — of the danger of lurking venereal infection; they also believed that some aspects of charactet wete hereditary. The eugenic movement, full blown, took seriously the pedestal on which women [76/77] had been placed. The culture defined women as innately pure, moral, compassionate, and self-sacrificing; and it honored them chiefly as mothers. Eugenics could give women, through their ability to control reproduction, the power to change the world, not simply by exercising moral influence within their own restricted spheres, but by determining the course of evolution. Bella, however, is too worldly and slothful to have the strength of pure womanhood; she goes back to her husband and produces a "numerous brood of sickly, ill-tempered children" (conclusion). The final scenes of the novel emphasize the suffering and danger of childbirth. They demonstrate that the world depends on women who virtuously — and voluntarily — sacrifice themselves to give life at the danger of life and show how Silence is able to control the people around her by making them aware of her pain.
King Arthur: Not a Love Story was published in 1886, the year before Craik died. It is a very short novel about a middle-aged couple who adopt a child. The book is hardly more than a series of set pieces arranged to show that women who dislike their children ought to give them up, to reveal the social prejudices of people who think children are tainted by the sins of theit fathers, to explain the loving and honest way to tell Arthur, the adopted boy, that he is a "chosen child," and to explore the difficulties that arise because English law makes no provision for legal adoption. There is a subplot about child abuse; the motherly heroine proclaims that "No man's child is his own to do as he likes with. He must be a true parent or he has no parental rights at all!" (chap. 5) Once more the admirable woman is a lawbreaker; she secretly hides the abused girl where her father can't find her.
The book is carried almost entirely by speeches. An American doctor appears at intervals to say things like "there are lots of children in this world who can only be saved by taking them from their parents" (chap. 2) and to explain that legal adoption is possible in America "where we have neither the curse of primogeniture nor the burden of hereditary rank" (chap. 2). The plot that Craik created to reveal the problems caused by lack of an adoption law is a piece of sensational-romantic claptrap about the discovery of Arthur's birth parents. Arthur manages to do everything right; in the climactic scene between the two women he chooses the mother he has loved all his life and yet at the same time gets proof of his lineage so that he can inherit an estate. This has the unfortunate effect of virtually [77/78] destroying the story's point by making it seem that legitimate birth and inherited rank do matter a great deal after all.
We can sympathize with Craik because we understand why she wanted to write the book, but she no longer had the energy or ability to tell a plain story simply and fell back instead on the improbable plotting and mouthpiece characters that had often threatened her work but had not overwhelmed it so long as she had been able to focus thoughts and feelings shared by a great many women readers.
Last modified 16 August 2007