Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

"But surely no woman would ever dare to do so," said my friend.
"I knew a woman who did", said I; "and this is he story."

I like to have a kindle app on my phone, I mostly ignore it because it's an awful way to read a book, but sometimes it's useful, setting it up on my new phone last week was a reminder of all the odd stuff sitting on there, including 'The Woman Who Did' by Grant Allen.

It was almost certainly a free download (probably made in the first flush of enthusiasm when the last phone was new). I really enjoyed 'An African Millionare' and 'Miss Cayley's Adventures' (which takes a happier view of the New Woman than this book does) and it's always a pleasure to find one of Allen's stories in an anthology. Free ebooks are more of a gamble, I also suspect I chose this purely for the title.

'The Woman Who Did', which Allen says in his dedication he wrote "for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience" is interesting but it isn't his most entertaining work.

The woman who did is Herminia Barton, daughter of the Dean of Dunwich, and introduced as 'SUCH a nice girl too', and what she does is follow her principles in the hope of striking a blow for the emancipation of women. Particularly when it comes to marriage, which she views as a form of slavery. When she meets Alan Merrick and they fall in love, she refuses to marry him, but persuades him to become her lover anyway. He agrees with her principles, but has his doubts about the social consequences of their actions. Doubts which are fully justified when he unfortunately dies intestate whilst Herminia is pregnant.

Allen is at pains to point out throughout the book how pure in mind and deed Herminia is, driven purely by principle, and the mantra that truth will set you free. She is prepared, and happy, to earn her own living in her search for equality and freedom, prepared and happy to be shunned by society if by doing so she can set a better example for the women who follow her. What she doesn't bargain for is losing the man she loves, and being left penniless whilst she's least able to earn her living. Still, despite the warnings, she perseveres.

The situation Allen creates is a peach in its beautifully thought out unfairness. The impeccable social connections which initially make Herminia's unorthodox behaviour acceptable (in so far as going to Girton, taking a job as a teacher, living alone, and a taste for William Morris prints and lose clothing is unorthodox) in society, but once she's known to have taken a lover she's gone to far. It's also a scandal that we can surmise will hurt her fathers career within the church - and this is where I'm unsure of just how exactly Allen feels about his heroines decisions.

The sacrifices Herminia is prepared to make for what she believes in are one thing, but she's forcing the consequences of her actions on her father who simply can't be seen to condone his daughters behaviour, and can't really be expected to share her views privately either. Had Alan lived he would have had some stiff questions to answer on the topic of seducing Dean's daughters, and would have been cut off from his own family. There is also the question of where this all leaves Herminia's child in an age when being illegitimate still carried a considerable stigma. All the prejudices against Herminia's decisions might well be rank hypocrisy, but they're still real prejudices.

It's therefore not surprising when the daughter thoroughly rejects her mother's principles, finds herself utterly appalled and disgusted by the truth of what Herminia has done, and considers that her life has been ruined. At this point, in the best tradition, Herminia does away with herself (leaving a worryingly passive aggressive note for her teenage daughter).
One of the things that makes it interesting is that when Lynne Reid Banks wrote 'The L Shaped Room' almost 70 years later (1960) attitudes hadn't really moved on, or that having a baby outside of marriage would still raise eyebrows in the 1980's. Even now, the kind of open relationship that Herminia suggests looks unusual. Allen does such a good job of listing all the double standards and hypocrisies society exercises towards women, not all of which have been resolved, that it becomes compelling reading to see just what injustice he's going to heap on his heroine next. And if sometimes I wanted to shake her for her decisions, or questioned the precise nature of Allen's own convictions and conclusions on the questions he raises, this book has certainly made me fonder of him as a writer

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