Friday, October 7, 2011

Sarah Grand and The New Woman

While reading Tasha Alexander’s magnificent new mystery A Crimson Warning, I came across a name I had never heard before, that of novelist Sarah Grand. Alexander’s heroine, Lady Emily Hargreaves is notorious for her taste in literature that was deemed unhealthy for women. As soon as I read the name, I had to know more about her. Her name is almost forgotten; yet one hundred years ago she was regarded as a woman of genius.  Today you won't find many of her books in the library, nor is she studied much in literature courses compared to the big guns of Victorian literature, Henry James, Anthony Trollope or Thomas Hardy. However, during her lifetime Sarah Grand was known for her radical ideas, daring style, and aggressive wit. She was also credited with coining the phrase, “The New Woman.”

Sarah was born Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke in Ireland, on June 10 1854. Her parents were English; her father was a coastguard commander who lived in a spacious mansion called Rosebank on the town’s Millisle Road. After her father’s death in 1861 when she was 7, her mother moved the family to England where she was enrolled in the Royal Naval School in Twickenham. She was expelled after a year for expressing what were considered radical attitudes and religious skepticism. Instead, she finished up her education at a finishing school in London.

It was marriage to army surgeon David McFall which really began to shape Sarah’s future life. Sarah was sixteen (fairly young by Victorian standards) and her new husband was 23 years her senior. David already had two sons from a previous marriage and their new stepmother was only six years older than her eldest step-son. The couple later had a son of their own named David, who later became an actor. The family travelled widely in the Far East and for a time Sarah enjoyed the glamour and excitement, not to mention the freedom of life abroad. However, after returning to England, Sarah quickly became disillusioned with her now domineering husband. Now retired, he spent his time drinking and consorting with what one would call lewd women.

Sarah turned to writing to cope with her unhappy marriage; she had already published several short stories in children’s magazines, but now she took up writing full-time. She started writing her first novel Ideala in 1881. The novel told the story of a woman who, after making a bad marriage, must decide whether to leave her husband for another man or embrace a feminist philosophy that requires her to sacrifice personal relationships for the good of other women. She published the book anonymously in 1888 with her own money and the proceeds gave her enough money to leave her husband and start a new life. She renamed herself Madame Sarah Grand, and quickly adopted unconventional dress and ideas. In her writing, she publicly attacked double standards in marriage, she also believed that women had a responsibility to other women, and that literature had the capacity to change people’s lives. According to Wikipedia, Grand also argued in favor of women’s education, and that women should have the responsibility of choosing mates with whom they might produce strong, well-educated children in order for the British nation to grow stronger.

Her next book, The Heavenly Twins, took a long time to publish. The fact that it dealt with “taboo” subject matter including venereal disease scared off many publishers. Sarah was told, amongst other things, to bury the manuscript deep in her back garden! However, despite being rejected by over 30 publishers, in 1893 the book was published. Immediately, The Heavenly Twins was a sensation. The Times and other journals refused to review the book but it didn’t matter. The book was a huge best seller, it sold over 140, 000 copies in England and America and had to be reprinted eight times during its first year of publication. Her autobiographical novel, Beth Book:  A study in the Life of a Woman of Genius (love the title!) sold 20,000 copies in its first week.

Her success opened many doors. Sarah embarked upon a lecture tour which attracted thousands of people, particularly in the United States. George Bernard Shaw (who made a career writing plays about the ‘New Woman’), Thomas Hardy and Mark Twain were among her many admirers. Critics however focused more on her broken marriage and prickly personality than her writing abilities. And not everyone was an admirer. The writer Frank Harris called her ‘aboriginal’ rather than “original” and insisted that “She was unfit to be received by decent people.”

Tired of the attacks, Sarah stopped writing for ten years, from 1898 to 1908. Instead she moved to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, focusing her attention on the National Union of Women’s Suffrage and other causes. When she took up the pen again, her later novels were not as successful as her first. The ‘New Woman,’ had become part of the lexicon and a host of new writers including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and Elinor Glyn among others had come onto the scene. In 1920 she moved to Bath and was for several years Lady Mayoress alongside Mayor Cedric Chivers.

Sarah Grand died at her home at The Grange on May 12, 1943 and was buried in Lansdown Cemetary in Bath.

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