Decorated initial I

Ideala, subtitled A Study from Life (written in 1881 and published in 1888) is the first of Sarah Grand's New Woman trilogy, followed by The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897). The young author sent it to various publishers, but the manuscript was rejected. Eventually, she published it anonymously at her own expense. When the book came from the press, it achieved an instant success and was a turning point in her literary career. Immediately, the book was republished by in 1889 by R. Bentley & Son, which had earlier ignored it. The novel had three more editions within a year. The leading literary magazines welcomed the author as a new star in the world of literature and Ideala was reviewed as a harbinger of the emerging New Woman fiction. The income from the publication of Ideala gave Grand the means to survive on her own after separation from her husband.

A feminist novel with semi-autobiographical undertones

Cover of a copy from Ohio State University
Libraries, in the Hathi Trust website.

This overtly feminist novel with semi-autobiographical undertones tells the story of a traditionally-minded, intelligent and deeply sensitive young woman whose domineering and abusive husband mistreats her cruelly; he locks her outdoors for her alleged stubbornness, opens her letters, strikes her, and has affairs with other women. Ideala suffers in her miserable and oppressive marriage for years. She feels a growing disgust for her husband, particularly after the death of their only child who dies of diphtheria. Eventually, she begins to have strong doubts about the sanctity of conventional marriage. The novel's heroine calls her marriage "a grievous waste of Me" and contends that many upper-class women have found themselves in a domestic trap which deprives them of any meaningful occupation.

"There are so many thousands of us," she said, "who have no object in life, and nothing to make us take it seriously. My own is a case in point. I am not necessary, even to my husband. There is nothing I am bound to do for him, or that he requires of me, nothing but to be agreeable when he is with me, which would not interfere with a serious occupation if I had one, and is scarcely interest enough in life for an energetic woman. My household duties take, on an average, half an hour a day; and everything in our house is done regularly, and well done. My social duties may be got through at odd moments, and the more of a pastime I make them the better I fulfil them; and, with the exception of these, there is nothing in my life that I cannot have done for me by some one better able to do it than I am. And even if I had children I should not be much more occupied, for the things they ought to learn from their mothers are best taught by example. For all practical purposes, parents, as a rule, are bad masters for any but very young children. They err on the side of over severity or the reverse. So you see I have no obligations of consequence, and there is, therefore, nothing in my life to inspire a sense of responsibility. And all this seems to me a grievous waste of Me. I remember Lord Wensum telling me, when we discussed this subject, that he was travelling once with a well-known editor, and, noticing the number of villas that had sprung up of late years along the whole line of rail they were on, he said: 'I wonder what the ladies in those villas do with their time? I suppose their social duties are limited, and they are too well off to be obliged to trouble themselves about anything.' 'It is the existence of those villas,' the editor answered, 'that makes the present profession of the novelist possible.' But I think," said Ideala, "that those women might find something better to do than to make a profession for novelists." [Ch. V]

For some time Ideala endures being trapped in a bad marriage. But when she sees her husband in a public house with a barmaid sitting on his knee, she first suffers a nervous breakdown and seeks psychological advice from Dr Lorrimer in a mental hospital. Briefly she is tempted to have an extramarital relationship with the young and handsome doctor, and gradually enters into an unconsummated, platonic love affair with him. However, soon she finds this relationship improper and breaks off with her doctor lover. Nevertheless, she considers divorce from her dissolute husband, but is afraid of a scandal. When Ideala goes to the theatre one night in London, she sees her "husband in the stalls with a lady in flame-coloured robes" (Ch. XVI). Later on, a friend tells her that her husband was at the theatre with a prostitute. Some time later, she meets one of her husband's abandoned mistresses, Mary Morris, who dies of scarlet fever in her arms. It is a decisive moment which leads to her leaving her husband. Just as Grand did herself, Ideala withdraws from her mismatched marriage without seeking divorce or re-marriage. Ideala has rejected her husband because she disapproved of his immoral conduct. Having separated from him, she tries to cut herself off from her former existence and discovers her true selfhood while travelling abroad. She spends a year in China, where she meets anti-footbinding women campaigners. In China, Ideala notices a number of similarities related to the deplorable condition of women in Britain. Whereas many Chinese girls are sold into slavery, a number of poor British girls are forced into prostitution. From China, Ideala returns to England with a mission. Her acquaintance with women reformers in China prompts her to begin work with prostitutes. At the end of the novel, Ideala, who has gone through bitter and complete disillusionment with her husband, an ambiguous relationship with Dr Lorrimer, and a moral self-awakening in China, achieves her feminist selfhood and agency to act for public benefit:

"I did think of becoming a missionary — that was why I went out there. But I know all radical reforms take time, and when I saw what the Chinese women were doing for themselves, and compared their state with our own, it seemed to me that there was work in plenty to be done at home, and so I returned. Certainly, the Chinese women of the day bind their feet. When a girl is seven or eight years old, her mother binds them for her, and everybody approves. If the mother did otherwise, the girl herself would be the first to reproach her when she grew up. It is wonderful how they endure the torture; but public opinion has sanctioned the custom for centuries, and made it as much a duty for a Chinese woman to have small feet as it is for us to wear clothes! And yet they do a wonderful thing. When they are taught how wrong the practice is, how it cripples them, and weakens them, and renders them unfit for their work in the world, they take off their bandages! Think of that! and remember that they are timid and sensitive in a womanly way to a degree that is painful. When I learnt that, and when I remembered that my countrywomen bind every organ in their bodies, though they know the harm of it, and public opinion is against it, I did not feel that I had time to stay and teach the heathen. It seemed to me that there was work enough left yet to do at home." [Ch. XXIX]

Ideala realized that it was possible for women not only in China, but elsewhere, including England, to remove their subservience to crippling tradition by an act of daring personal choice. Ideala believes that social renovation may begin with women's rational dress reform. Victorian women's dress confined their personal freedom. Therefore, after leaving her husband, Ideala gets rid of her petticoats and begins to wear comfortable and healthy clothing. Eventually, she feels that she is fit to be man's equal.

What I want to do is to make women discontented . . . Women have never yet united to use their influence steadily and all together against that of which they disapprove. They work too much for themselves, each trying to make their own life happier. They have yet to learn to take a wider view of things, and to be shown that the only way to gain their end is by working for everybody else, with intent to make the whole world better, which means happier.... It is to help in the direction of that force that I am going to devote my life. [Ch. XXIX]

Thus, ultimately, Ideala renounces her personal life and follows her almost religious calling to help "fallen women" rejected by society and show them how to shape their lives in a meaningful way. She tries to bring them back to public life as responsible citizens.

A critique of traditional Victorian marriage

In the novel, Grand presents a bitter critique of upper-class marriage and reveals its oppressive nature. Ideala calls marriage "a commercial treaty" (Ch. IX).

"I think an ideal of marriage should be fixed by law, and lectures given in all the colleges to teach it," Ideala went on; "and a standard of excellence ought to be set up for people to attain to before they could be allowed to marry. They should be obliged to pass examinations on the subject, and fit themselves for the perfect state by a perfect life. It should be made a reward for merit, and a goal towards which goodness only could carry us. Then marriages might seem to have been made in heaven, and the blessing of God would sanctify a happy union, instead of being impiously pronounced in order to ratify a business transaction, or sanction the indulgence of a passing fancy. But only the love that lasts can sanctify marriage, and a marriage without such love is an immoral contract." [Ch. XXV]

In Ideala, Grand expressed her views about the disadvantaged position of married women who more often than not became victims of their husband's violence and sexual profligacy. In the 1880s and 1890s male infidelity and female victimisation became a central issue in the "condition of women" debate. Ann Heilmann argues that Ideala in her journey to self-awakening has gone through the four basic "victim" positions described elsewhere by Margaret Atwood: denial, resigned acceptance, protest and constructive action, and finally, social and political activism (48-49).

A social purity activist

Sarah Grand became a notable social purity activist. As Angèlique Richardson has written: "Social purists biologized vice as male and virtue as female" (52). Grand's novel best exemplifies this opinion. Ideala feels deeply disappointed and betrayed not only by her husband but also by men in general who arbitrarily set moral double standards, in which men's extramarital sexual contacts are tacitly accepted by society, whereas women are stigmatized for similar behaviours. For Grand women are morally superior to men. As a social purist, Grand did not condone divorce, but emphasised women's right to refuse sex with abusive or adulterous husbands. She vigorously condemned male sexual license and suggested that women should take a greater role in both domestic and public spheres due to their "higher" morality and sexual "purity."

"Ah! when you ask me that, you get to the first cause of the trouble," she answered. "The truth is that we have lost faith in our men. They claim some superiority for themselves, but we find none. The age requires people to practise what they preach, and yet expects us to be guided by the counsels of those whose own lives, we know, have rendered them contemptible. They are not fit to guide us, and we are not fit to go alone. I suppose we shall come to an understanding eventually — either they must be raised or we must be lowered. It is for the death of manliness we women mourn. We marry, and find we have taken upon ourselves misery, and lifelong widowhood of the mind and moral nature. Do you wonder that some of us ask: Why should we keep ourselves pure if impurity is to be our bedfellow? You make us breathe corruption, and wonder that we lose our health." [Ch. II]

In Ideala, Grand proposed separation as a feasible solution to the dilemma of physically, mentally and sexually oppressed married women. At the end of the novel, Ideala, after her metamorphosis from an unhappy, bullied wife to an independent, socially and politically active New Woman, regains her dignity and agency to become a champion of women's rights as a social purity activist.

Moral eugenics

In her New Woman novels, Grand promoted moral eugenics because she had a negative view of the nation's morals and health. She made use of the late nineteenth-century theory of eugenics and degeneracy, which had their roots in evolutionary theory, but her goal was far removed from Darwin's ideas. Grand's sole purpose was to upgrade women's social and political standing. Concerned with the future of British society, Grand believed that the health of the nation as well as its spiritual rebirth depended on moral and marital improvement. "The future of the race has come to be a question of morality and a question of health" (Ch. XXIX). However, she was deeply distrustful about falsely superior and morally dubious men who arbitrarily and inadvertently contributed to the decline of the imperial nation: "Since women are the mothers of the next generation, the wrongs done to them through the prevalent stultifying education, unfulfilling careers, and relationships with morally dubious husbands, become, in Grand's narrative, also wrongs done to the entire nation" (Jusová 21).

In her view morally upright and socially responsible New Women could become agents of nation's regeneration. Women should not sacrifice themselves to undeserving men, but to society: Ideala says that "it is clearly the duty of individuals to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community at large" (Ch. XXVI).

Narrative structure

Narrated in first-person by Ideala's sympathetic friend Lord Dawne, the novel recounts her journey to self-awakening, New Womanhood and feminist activism. As Ann Heilmann has demonstrated: "Ideala maps the eponymous heroine's transition from traditionalism to feminism, focusing on one of the central themes of Grand's trilogy: women's enforced choice between sexual and social roles, personal fulfillment and political activism, home-bound femininity and public feminism" (47).

In Ideala, Grand developed a characteristic and original narrative technique, which distinguishes her from other New Woman writers. Grand anticipated the modernist technique of interior monologue. Ideala's consciousness is central in the novel. Ann Heilmann observes that "One of the most striking aspects of Ideala and The Heavenly Twins is the friction between the female voices as orchestrated by the narrative structure" (45). Surprisingly, the novel is narrated by an elderly aristocratic person, Ideala's close friend, Lord Dawne, who describes her with great admiration and respect although he does not fully understand her motives. His aristocratic provenance may be read as a guarantee that his account is sincere and not biased, but the reader has reasons to doubt his reliability. The idealistic and philanthropic Lord Dawne is simply infatuated with Ideala, whom he perceives as an ideal woman, or rather a New Woman. He himself is a kind of a New Man because he approves of her desire to educate herself and reform fallen women. Thanks to such narrative strategy, Grand's novel approaches the narrative strategies of modernist fiction with an unreliable and non-omniscient narrator and an internal monologue.


In Ideala, Grand presented a scathing critique of Victorian marriage founded on a wife's self-sacrifice and submission to her husband, and not on mutual love and respect. The author offers mistreated women an alternative to an unhappy and mismatched marriage, proposing self-awakening and New Womanhood instead. The New Woman, in Grand's view, may find fulfillment outside marriage in the public sphere in the service of mistreated and victimised ("fallen"") women who need help in order to return to society. The novel evoked different reactions among the reading public and critics ranging from great admiration to outright condemnation. Ideala is an interesting introductory read in the light of Grand's two other New Woman novels, The Heavenly Twins and The Beth Book.

Links to related material


Grand, Sarah. Ideala. Project Gutenberg.

Gray, Alexandra. Self-Harm in New Woman Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Jusová, Iveta. The New Woman and the Empire. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2005.

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

Richardson, Angèlique. Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Created 31 October 2021