Decorated initial I

n 1893, the pioneering feminist author Sarah Grand published her most successful novel, The Heavenly Twins, which immediately became a bestseller in England and the United States, rivalling Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles in sales and press reviews. First issued privately, the novel was reprinted by the progressive publisher William Heinemann in three volumes six times in England and sold nearly 20,000 copies within the first year of its publication. The American edition sold five times more. Although condemned as immoral, the novel became fashionable at the turn of the century and was reissued in the years 1897, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1912, 1924, as well as translated into several foreign languages including Dutch, German and Russian. William Thomas Stead, a noted journalist and critic, described it as "a bomb of dynamite, which [...] exploded with wonderful results" (67). The Heavenly Twins was regarded as "the chief woman’s rights novel of the period" (Magnum 223).

Title-page of a copy from the University of California
Libraries, in the Hathi Trust website.

The Heavenly Twins was the second of Sarah Grand’s New Woman trilogy, preceded by Ideala (1888, but written 1881) and followed by The Beth Book (1897). The novel deals with the issues of female vulnerability and male licentiousness, mismatched marriages, the problem of venereal disease spread from dissolute men to their wives and children, the question of social purity, women’s access to knowledge and limited outlets for women’s talents and abilities. Grand put to scathing critique the Victorian double moral standard which allowed sexual promiscuity for men and enforced chastity on women. "The novel has been read as a social purity (and more recently, a eugenic treatise on sexual selection" (Lloyd 181). Apart from feminist issues, Grand made in her novel numerous references to literature, as well as to political, social and scientific developments.

Plot and subplot

The novel, which looks like a typical Victorian three-decker, recounts the fates of three upper-class intelligent, self-educated young women, Evadne Frayling, Angelica Hamilton-Wells, and Edith Beale, from their childhood, through adolescence to adulthood, courtship and marriage with older men. Two of the main characters, Evadne and Edith, are victims of dysfunctional and disastrous marriages. Evadne and Angelica represent the contrasting aspects of new womanhood, whereas submissive Edith, who represents traditional womanhood, is presented as a foil for the two New Women. Like George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss or Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, the three heroines of Grand’s novel experience self-development from youthful innocence and blissful ignorance to the realities of bitter adult experience.

This rather lengthy novel (over 700 pages) comprises six books which weave together several narrative threads and acute social issues. Book I, titled "Childhoods and Girlhoods," and Book II, titled "A Maltese Miscellany," narrate respectively, Evadne’s girlhood and her married life in Malta, where her military husband was stationed. Book III, titled "Development and Arrest of Development," describes the deterioration of Evadne’s mental health caused by her estrangement from her husband due to his past profligacy. In Book IV, titled "The Tenor and the Boy ̶ an Interlude," Grand incorporated an earlier written subplot about mischievous twins, Diavolo and Angelica. In fact, the "Interlude" has little relation to the main plot and can be read as a separate novella. In 1899, Grand republished it in the Heinemann Popular Novels imprint. This interpolated story, set in the cathedral city of Morningquest, narrates the odd relationship between a male church-singer, called the Tenor, and a lad who turns out to be Angelica, one of the twins in disguise. Book V, titled "Mrs. Kilroy of Ilverthorpe," deals with the relationship between Angelica and her husband after the Tenor’s death. Book VI, called "The Impressions of Dr. Galbraith," unlike the previous Books, is narrated in the first person by the sympathetic Dr. Galbraith, who tells the history of his relationship with Evadne.


Evadne, the most interesting character in the novel, is a very serious and intelligent girl with a strict moral code. She has grown up in a patriarchal family with a dominant and misogynistic father, who has a strong patriarchal notion of gender relations. "He was one of those men who believe emphatically that a woman should hold no opinion which is not of masculine origin, and the maxims he had for his boys differed materially in many respects from those which he gave to his girls" (Bk I, Ch. I]). Unlike her brother, due to gender constraints, Evadne receives limited education. Notwithstanding this, she is attached to her conservative father during her girlhood and tries to avail herself of his vast knowledge. With time her thirst for knowledge increases and she spends her time reading not only fiction but also scientific books.

At nineteen Evadne looked out of narrow eyes at an untried world inquiringly. She wanted to know. She found herself forced to put prejudice aside in order to see beneath it, deep down into the sacred heart of things, where the truth is, and the bewildering clash of human precept with human practice ceases to vex. And this not of design, but of necessity. It was a need of her nature to know. When she came across something she did not understand, a word, a phrase, or an allusion to a phase of life, the thing became a haunting demon only to be exorcised by positive knowledge on the subject. Ages of education, ages of hereditary preparation had probably gone to the making of such a mind, and rendered its action inevitable. For generations knowledge is acquired, or, rather, instilled by force in families, but, once in a way, there comes a child who demands instruction as a right; and in her own family Evadne appears to have been that child. Not that she often asked for information. Her faculty was sufficient to enable her to acquire it without troubling herself or anybody else, a word being enough on some subjects to make whole regions of thought intelligible to her. It was as if she only required to be reminded of things she had learnt before. Her mother said she was her most satisfactory child. She had been easy of education in the schoolroom. She had listened to instruction with interest and intelligence, and had apparently accepted every article of faith in God and man which had been offered for her guidance through life with unquestioning confidence; at least she had never been heard to object to any time-honoured axiom. And she did, in fact, accept them all, but only provisionally. She wanted to know. Silent, sociable, sober, and sincere, she had walked over the course of her early education and gone on far beyond it with such ease that those in authority over her never suspected the extent to which she had outstripped them. [Bk, Ch. I]

Described as "wanting to know," Evadne reads avidly canonical texts in English literature, but discovers in them a hidden masculinist bias. She finds double moral standards in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. She defies masculine lecherousness and the ideal of female purity. Neither does she feel empathy with Alfred Tennyson’s Elaine, who dies of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot: "But when you come to consider, there is nothing very noble, after all, in a hopeless passion for an elderly man of the world who is past being benefited by it, even if he could reciprocate it. Elaine should have married a man of her own age, and made him happy. She would have done some good in her time so, and been saved from setting us a bad example" (Bk I, Ch. VII). Evadne argues that Elaine, a pure, inexperienced maiden, has located her love in the wrong man. Lancelot was much older than she, and besides he was involved in an adulterous affair with Guinevere:

Dissatisfied with fiction, Evadne increasingly prefers reading medical textbooks which she has found in the attic of her family home. She delves into books on anatomy, physiology and even pathology. Yet, despite her reading, she still remains abysmally ignorant of the facts of life. At the urge of her parents Evadne marries an older man of good fortune, Major Colquhoun, and goes with him to Malta, where he rejoins his regiment. Soon after her wedding she discovers that her husband has had previous sexual relations with women, and therefore, she refuses to consummate the marriage because she is aware of the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, she is persuaded by her parents to stay with him in order to keep up appearances and preserve the family’s reputation. Evadne’s caution is justified when her close friend Edith contracts syphilis, a tabooed disease, from her dissolute husband, gives birth to an infected child and dies. Evadne separates for a while from her husband and finds a refuge in her aunt’s home. She tries vainly to lead a life of an independent New Woman. However, Evadne’s aunt, who is quite sympathetic to her niece, persuades her that she should forgive her husband. Evadne replies obstinately:

That is the mistake you good women all make,” said Evadne. “You set a detestably bad example. So long as women like you will forgive anything, men will do anything.” You have it in your power to set up a high standard of excellence for men to reach in order to have the privilege of associating with you. There is this quality in men, that they will have the best of everything; and if the best wives are only to be obtained by being worthy of them, they will strive to become so. As it is, however, why should they? Instead of punishing them for their depravity, you encourage them in it by overlooking it; and besides," she added, "you must know that there is no past in the matter of vice. The consequences become hereditary, and continue from generation to generation." …. “You think I should act as women have been always advised to act in such cases, that I should sacrifice myself to save that one man’s soul,” she tells her aunt. “I take a different view of it. I see that the world is not a bit the better for centuries of self-sacrifice on the woman’s part and therefore I think it is time we tried a more effectual plan. And I propose now to sacrifice the man instead of the woman. [Bk I, Ch. XIV]

Evadne feels alone with her thoughts and opinions because her parents are reluctant to blame her husband for his past. Instead Evadne’s mother teaches her daughter in a letter about the duties of an obedient wife:

And, Evadne, remember: a woman has it in her power to change even a reprobate into a worthy man ̶ and I know from the way George talks that he is far from being a reprobate now. And just think what a work that is! The angels in heaven rejoice over the sinner that repents, and you have before you a sphere of action which it should gladden your heart to contemplate. I don’t deny that there were things in George’s past life which it is very sad to think of, but women have always much to bear. It is our cross, and you must take up yours patiently and be sure that you will have your reward. Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. [Bk I, Ch. XV]

Under the pressure of her family, Evadne returns to her husband and promises him not to involve herself in feminist activities and he, in turn, guarantees her a celibate marriage. Thanks to such a deal, she avoids possible syphilis infection, but her nervous system breaks down and she develops a long period of acute depression, which is regarded by many as typical "female hysteria," an alleged mental health condition obsessively ascribed to women. After the death of her husband of heart attack, Evadne marries Dr Galbraith, an honest physician, who represents a positive model of new masculinity. He treats her with compassion, sympathy and takes a good care of her both as a doctor and husband, but ̶ as Sally Ledger has asserted ̶ she is "more his patient than his wife" (117). Dr Galbraith is a type of New Man, who has respect for women, their rights and aspirations. He tries to encourage her to resume her social activism, but her melancholy and depression do not go away. Pregnant with Dr Galbraith, Evadne attempts to commit suicide in fear that her hypothetical unborn daughter might follow Edith’s fate. Although Evadne eventually regains some mental balance and trust in marriage when she bears a son, she has not regained her youthful assertiveness and vivacity. She still suffers from apathy and struggles to retain her spirit to live "on the surface of life, as most women do" (Bk VI, Ch. XVIII). Feeling burned out mentally, she abandons all her aspirations and remains submissive to her second husband.

The second of the three heroines, Edith Beale, a friend of Evadne’s, is a devoted daughter of the conservative bishop at Morningquest. She is also brought up in "complete ignorance" of the facts of life:

Edith, by descent, by teaching, by association, and in virtue of the complete ignorance in which she had been kept, was essentially one of that set. It is impossible for any adult creature to be more spiritually minded than she was. She lived in a state of exquisite feeling. The whole training of her mind had been so directed as to make her existence one long beatific vision, and she was unconsciously prepared to resent in her gentle way, and to banish at once, if possible, any disturbing thought that might break in upon it. [Bk I, Ch. XXI]

Unlike her two friends, Evadne and Angelica, she has no desire to develop her education and remains completely obedient to her father and then her husband. She follows her parents’ will and, despite Evadne’s warning, marries a naval officer, Sir Mosley Menteith, who turns out to be a dissolute man with syphilis. Unaware of her husband’s illness, she contracts syphilis from him, and as a result, bears a sickly child. Eventually, she goes mad and dies within a year of syphilitic fever which she has evidently caught from her profligate husband.


Angelica Hamilton-Wells, another family friend of Evadne’s, and a duke’s granddaughter, is one of the mischievous "Heavenly Twins" of the novel’s title. For a large part of the book, she and her brother Theodore, nicknamed Diavolo, are adorable, precocious children who grow up in great symbiosis. Described as a "splendid specimen of hardy, healthy, vigorous young womanhood" (Bk VI, Ch. X), Angelica has an assertive and rebellious personality. She is more intelligent and capable than her twin brother Diavolo. She defies societal norms, gender and religious constraints. Angelica tells the tutor, Mr. Ellis: "Diavolo and I find that we were mixed somehow wrong, and I got his mind and he got mine…The fact of the matter is that I am Diavolo and he is me" (Bk I, Ch XIX). The girl tries purposefully to transgress the confines of femininity.

As an aspiring New Woman, she wants in vain to receive the same education as men. She is supported by her twin brother Diavolo, who ̶ as a male ̶ enjoys the privilege of his gender and has access to formal education. Unfortunately, Angelica soon clashes with gender constraints and realises that unlike her brother she will not be able to pursue any career in her adult life. Her destiny is marriage. Angelica abruptly marries for convenience a boring and dull politician, Mr. Kilroy, twenty years her senior, in order to evade the troublesome authority of her father and achieve personal independence and autonomy, which are denied to women in Victorian society. In fact, it is she who proposes to her future husband, saying: "Marry me, and let me do as I like" (Bk III, Ch. XI). However, unfulfilled in her marriage, she cross-dresses as a boy, and explores extramarital flirtations with a mysterious and melancholic singer called the "Tenor" from the cathedral choir, who is infatuated with the real Angelica. Angelica consciously transgresses gender roles in order to escape from the boredom of a domesticated wife, which prevents her from pursueing a musical career. Disguised as a boy, she frequently visits him at night in order to derive sensual and aesthetic pleasure from the musically talented choir singer:

The Boy was associated in the Tenor's mind with many sweet associations; with the beautiful still night; with the Tenor's far off ideal of all that is gracious and womanly; with the music that was in him; and, further, with a sympathetic comprehension of those moments when gray glimpses of the old cathedral, or a warm breath of perfumed air from the garden, or some slight sound, such as the note of a night bird breaking the silence, fired a train of deep emotion, and set his whole poetic nature quivering, to the unspeakable joy of it; joy sanctified by reverence, and enlarged beyond comparison by love. [Bk IV, Ch. IX]

The relationship between the Tenor and the Boy anticipates homoerotic situations described in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both the Tenor and the Boy (i.e. Angelica) seem to have experienced for a moment a transgender epiphany, which is soon lost when the Tenor discovers the true identity of the Boy. The Tenor believes that the Boy is the twin brother of the beautiful Angelica with whom he is infatuated. He sees her at mass every Sunday and regards her from afar as "his ideal of purity, his goddess of truth, his angel of pity" (Bk IV, Ch XV). One moonlit night when he goes out rowing with the Boy, their boat capsizes, the Boy falls overboard, his wig is washed away, and the Tenor, while rescuing the unconscious victim, discovers that the Boy is in reality cross-dressed Angelica. His idealised image of Angelica is immediately shattered. He is shocked by the fact that she has deliberately switched gender identity and may have awakened his latent past homosexual experience when he was adopted as an orphan by an older, rich, "very liberal" and unmarried gentleman (Heilmann 133). When the Tenor eventually dies of pneumonia as a result of a chill he caught during the romantic boating accident, Angelica returns to her safe and loveless marriage. Somehow she succumbs to male authority. Nevertheless, she does not wholly abandon her New Woman attitude and writes political speeches about women’s issues for her permissive husband in which she can voice her political ideas.

Experiment in narrative strategies

In The Heavenly Twins, Sarah Grand makes constant experiments in narrative strategies. On the surface, it looks like a typical Victorian three-decker, but as Adam Seth Lowenstein argues, the narrative structure of the novel may reveal its nascent modernism: "Even though Grand's narrative was published at the tail end of the vogue of the highly conventionalized three-decker novel, given the striking manner in which it combines different narrative modes – allegory and realism, linearity of plot and fluidity of dreams, third-person omniscient and first-person narrative voice – it would not be unreasonable to style The Heavenly Twins as an artifact of nascent modernism" (431).

Apart from the prevailing realist stance, the novel exhibits elements of melodrama, sensation, mystery and fantasy. Books I to III and V are narrated in a realistic way by an omniscient narrator, whereas Books IV, titled "The Tenor and the Boy ̶ An Interlude,", resembles allegory and fantasy. The final Book VI is narrated in the first person, revealing the interior monologue of Dr Galbraith, Evadne’s second husband and doctor.


The Heavenly Twins sparked a great discussion for and against the book. The novel was praised and blamed for its critique of male promiscuity, exposure of the spread of syphilis and the detrimental impact on female readership. The Times and other newspapers and journals refused to review the novel because of its taboo subject. One of the few periodicals which presented an enthusiastic review was The Woman’s Herald, a late Victorian feminist and progressive paper. In an article titled "Marriage and the Modern Woman: or, the Story of The Heavenly Twins," the novel was praised as a "sign of the times.... It raises and discusses with fearlessness, rare in the word of fiction, the most important of all questions that confront the modern woman" (Youngkin 59). Although The Heavenly Twins was generally condemned on moral grounds, it was defended by such authoritative authors as Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw.


Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins is one of the most significant New Woman novels and displays thematic and structural affinity with Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883). Grand boldly challenged the masculinist tradition in literature and advanced her favourite feminist argument that men’s moral failures make them unworthy to marry the new breed of self-aware young New Women. Her ethics involved reformation of men who should live according to women’s and not men’s standards. Grand strongly contested false male assumptions about women and advocated women’s liberation from a loveless and dysfunctional marriage. She also called for a better education for women.

Links to related material


Ardis, Ann. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Bjørhovde, Gerd. Rebellious Structures: Women Writers and the Crisis of the Novel 1880 ̶ 1900. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1987.

Gutowska, Anna. "A feminist Bildungsroman or a cautionary tale? Female characters’ arcs in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893)." From Queen Anne to Queen Victoria: Readings in 18th and 19th century British literature and culture. Vol. 5. Edited by Grażyna Bystydzieńska and Emma Harris. British Studies Centre, University of Warsaw.

Harman, Barbara, ed. The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction. New York: Garland, 1996.

Heilmann, A. New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First Wave Feminism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Kersley, Gillian. Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend. London: Virago, 1983.

Ledger. Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Lloyd, Naomi. "The Universal Divine Principle, the Spiritual Androgyne, and the New Age in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins. Victorian Literature and Culture. Vol. 37, No. 1 (2009), 177-196.

Lowenstein, Adam Seth. "Not a Novel, nor Even a Well-Ordered Story: Formal Experimentation and Psychological Innovation in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins." Studies in the Novel. Vol. 39. 4 (2007).

Magnum, Teresa. Married, Middle-Brow, and Militant: Sarah Grand and the New Woman Novel. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Mouton, Michelle J. “Taking on Tennyson: Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins and the Ethics of Androgynous Reading,” Victorian Review. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter 1997): 184-211.

Stead, W. T. "The Novel of the Modern Woman." Review of Reviews. 10 (1894): 64-74.

Youngkin, Molly. Feminist Realism at the Fin de Siècle: The Influence of the Late-Victorian Woman’s Press on the Development of the Novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Created 14 July 2022