“There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids”, writes Stephen King. In literature of all ages, mothers have cut extraordinary figures through their unconditional love, self-sacrifice and untiring affection. But even after such toils, a few mothers drown in their own tear-drops. Betrayed by their own children, their suffering knows no end. Such tales make our hearts heavy. Grant Allen‘s THE WOMAN WHO DID is one such story.A woman who did everything for her child yet received nothing but wounds.
Subhadeep Pradhan narrates her tragedy…
ONE more unfortunate
Weary of breath,
Gone to her death.
-Bridge of Sigh, Thomas Hood
In today’s world where ‘living together’ is less condemned and boldly used as a recurrent motif in almost every pot-boiler, Grant Allen’s novel would seem very ordinary. In 21st century, frank depiction of human sexuality is marketed at a high price and we have been so accustomed with this that we are hardly shocked anymore. But capitalism always surprises the consumer to keep the demand alive. Grant Allen was writing something shocking in the last decade of 19th century in a highly conservative, prudish, pretentious, Victorian England. The very name of his novel, The Woman Who Did, sent the average reader to Victorian consternation. The result was, of course, in favour of this capitalist spirit. Overnight, Allen, a struggling novelist became notorious, was criticized,parodied and turned rich. The grumpy Victorians condemned the content of the novel so much that the sale of the novel skyrocketed and led to nineteen publications in the first year. But what was in it that made jaws drop? Allow me to be a little serious now.
The small piece of verse which you find at the top was written almost four years before Allen was born and naturally had nothing to do with him, but it somehow summarises the destiny of Allen’s protagonist, Herminia Barton, the woman of The Woman Who Did. This kind of women were rarely seen before in English fiction. They denied to fit in the idealized gender roles and tried to redefine womanhood by rejecting age-old institutions like marriage. They found free union more liberating, knowing very well that they would attract unwanted attention and criticism from the ‘civilized’ society. They were very frank in matters related to sexual pleasure and found marriage as a legal, oppressive, discriminating and unnecessary permission to taste the ‘forbidden fruit’. Motivated by the ideals of equality and liberty, they were treading a thorny path to show the world that they did not care about its ways. Herminia is one such member of this league of independent, emancipated, liberated women. Have a look at the clarity of her thought and her opinion on marriage:
‘I know what marriage is; from what vile slavery it has sprung; on what unseen horrors for my sister women it is reared and buttressed; by what unholy sacrifices it is sustained and made possible. I know it has a history. I know its past: I know its present: and I can’t embrace it. I can’t be untrue to my most sacred beliefs. I can’t pander to the malignant thing, just because a man who loves me would be pleased by my giving way and would kiss me and fondle me for it. And I love you to fondle me. But I must keep my proper place, the freedom which I have gained for myself by such arduous efforts… That much I can yield, as every good woman should yield it, to the man she loves, to the man who loves her. But more than that, no. It would be treason to my sex. Not my life, not my future, not my individuality, not my freedom.’
In an imperialist nation like Britain, which requires a good number of human soldiers to maintain its control over its colonies, anti-marriage is a real nightmare. It can effectively decrease the production of future soldiers. To rub salt into the wound, this clarity is absolutely contagious and if embraced by most women, it can become a serious threat to an economy which swells by exploiting others. Therefore, social blackmailing in form of moral criticism is unleashed in order to counter such evil. But it would be a transgression to overlook the other side of her character. She is a single mother, little stubborn perhaps, fighting an unfair fight against her destiny, after the death of her lover and rejection of her priestly father to extend any help to his ‘rebel’ daughter, in order to liberate humanity and bring up her sweet, little Dolly. It requires an inhuman courage to face the brunt of the society and that courage makes Herminia one of my most beloved characters in English literature.
Words will fall short to praise this novel. I encountered this absolute masterpiece by Allen in my course of New Woman Literature. It has addressed some serious issues like marriage, free union, sex, raising an illegitimate child in an apparently civilized society. Herminia Barton, the eponymous woman of this novel, worshipped no God, but her principles and ideals which she loved very dearly. She believed that marriage is an institution which enslaves a woman to a man. When she fell in love with Alan Merrick, a lovely artist of her own temperament, they decided to remain life-long companion and supports to each other without marrying. Indeed, it was an absolutely radical decision in Victorian England. When Herminia was pregnant with Alan’s child, they left for Perugia, Italy where the sudden demise of Alan left Herminia absolutely destitute. She gave birth to a lovely daughter, Dolores. To the unmarried young mother’s fancy, this girl was predestined to regenerate humanity where men and women can bond with each other not by a contract, but by love.
Herminia’s hope was totally shattered when she realized that her daughter despised the lofty ideals of freedom and respectful equality she held and struggled for throughout her life. She committed suicide out of utter despair when her own daughter held her in contempt, not recognising the interminable flow of love from her mother.
Herminia realized that in life, you either suffer or cause suffering to others. She chose to be a sufferer little realizing that her independent choice would be the cause of her daughter’s sufferings in future.
The tragedy of Herminia Barton was perhaps inevitable because the battle between the society and the individual is perhaps the most unfair one. The individual’s chance of emerging victorious seems so bleak that most people, if put in Herminia’s position, would willingly submit. But we cannot just ignore her tragedy. In her plight, we find our own hidden wishes of being justly treated reverberated and thwarted. She gave her everything with the fond hope that at least her daughter would appreciate her sacrifice but her hope is thoroughly betrayed.
The novel was published in 1895.
In the same year Thomas Hardy’s JUDE: THE OBSCURE was burnt. Hardy himself praised Allen’s novel which had some similarities with his. Both the authors have dealt with the institution of marriage. Allen’s novel is replete with thought-provoking conversations on these issues. We can ultimately debate whether Herminia’s resoluteness to stand by her ideals was justified or not, whether it was her foolhardiness not to accept the opportunities that life offered her; but we cannot help but sympathise with her. She stood for righteousness in a society which favoured hypocrisy over the truth. She was almost fifty years ahead of her time. Her real tragedy lies in her realization that Dolores, her daughter, whom she loved and educated sacrificing every happiness of her life, did not value the ideals of her parents. Herminia died for a lost cause. I held her own womanly obstinacy responsible for the tragedy, yet I hoped she would get the respect and love that she rightfully deserved. Her tragedy is heart-wrenching. Much like Michael Henchard in Hardy’s THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE, Herminia wrote a letter addressing her wayward daughter before removing herself from her life for ever. In the last night of her life, Herminia wrote her last letter to her beloved daughter. Reader, if you have toiled so far, I want you to read this letter:
‘My darling Daughter… By the time you read these words, I shall be no longer in the way, to interfere with your perfect freedom of action. I had but one task left in life- to make you happy. Now I find I only stand in the way of that object, no reason remains why I should endure any longer the misfortune of living.
‘My child, my child, you must see, when you come to think it over at leisure, that all I ever did was done, up to my lights, to serve and bless you. I thought, by giving you the father and the birth I did, I was giving you the best any mother on earth had ever yet given her dearest daughter. I believe it still; but I see I should never succeed in making you feel it. Accept this reparation. For all the wrong I may have done, all the mistakes I may have made, I sincerely and earnestly implore your forgiveness…
‘My darling, I thought you would grow up to feel as I did; I thought you would thank me for leading you to see such things as the blind world is incapable of seeing. There I made a mistake; and sorely am I punished for it. Don’t visit it upon my head in your recollections when I can no longer defend myself.
‘I set out in life with the earnest determination to be a martyr to the cause of truth and righteousness, as I myself understood them. But I didn’t foresee this last pang of martyrdom…I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith I started in life with. Nothing now remains for me but the crown of martyrdom. My darling, it is indeed a very bitter cup to me that you should wish me dead; but ’tis a small thing to die, above all for the sake of those we love. I die for you gladly, knowing that by doing so I can easily relieve my own dear little girl of one trouble in life, and make her course lie henceforth through smoother waters. Be happy! be happy! Goodbye, my Dolly! Your mother’s love go for ever through life with you!
‘Burn this blurred note the moment you have read it. I enclose a more formal one, giving reasons for my act on other grounds, to be put in, if need be, at the coroner’s inquest. Good night, my heart’s darling…
Your truly devoted and affectionate
Henchard’s tragedy made me sad, Herminia’s brought tears.
Title art by Prapti Roy
Next post on 21st May