The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
It was a changed London to which Herminia returned. She was homeless, penniless, friendless. Above all she was declassee. The world that had known her now knew her no more. Women who had smothered her with their Judas kisses passed her by in their victorias with a stony stare. Even men pretended to be looking the other way, or crossed the street to avoid the necessity for recognizing her. "So awkward to be mixed up with such a scandal!" She hardly knew as yet herself how much her world was changed indeed; for had she not come back to it, the mother of an illegitimate daughter? But she began to suspect it the very first day when she arrived at Charing Cross, clad in a plain black dress, with her baby at her bosom. Her first task was to find rooms; her next to find a livelihood. Even the first involved no small relapse from the purity of her principles. After long hours of vain hunting, she found at last she could only get lodgings for herself and Alan's child by telling a virtual lie, against which her soul revolted. She was forced to describe herself as Mrs. Barton; she must allow her landlady to suppose she was really a widow. Woe unto you, scribes and hypocrites! in all Christian London Miss Barton and her baby could never have found a "respectable" room in which to lay their heads. So she yielded to the inevitable, and took two tiny attics in a small street off the Edgware Road at a moderate rental. To live alone in a cottage as of yore would have been impossible now she had a baby of her own to tend, besides earning her livelihood; she fell back regretfully on the lesser evil of lodgings.
To earn her livelihood was a hard task, though Herminia's indomitable energy rode down all obstacles. Teaching, of course, was now quite out of the question; no English parent could intrust the education of his daughters to the hands of a woman who has dared and suffered much, for conscience' sake, in the cause of freedom for herself and her sisters. But even before Herminia went away to Perugia, she had acquired some small journalistic connection; and now, in her hour of need, she found not a few of the journalistic leaders by no means unwilling to sympathize and fraternize with her. To be sure, they didn't ask the free woman to their homes, nor invite her to meet their own women:--even an enlightened journalist must draw a line somewhere in the matter of society; but they understood and appreciated the sincerity of her motives, and did what they could to find employment and salary for her. Herminia was an honest and conscientious worker; she knew much about many things; and nature had gifted her with the instinctive power of writing clearly and unaffectedly the English language. So she got on with editors. Who could resist, indeed, the pathetic charm of that girlish figure, simply clad in unobtrusive black, and sanctified in every feature of the shrinking face by the beauty of sorrow? Not the men who stand at the head of the one English profession which more than all others has escaped the leprous taint of that national moral blight that calls itself "respectability."
In a slow and tentative way, then, Herminia crept back into unrecognized recognition. It was all she needed. Companionship she liked; she hated society. That mart was odious to her where women barter their bodies for a title, a carriage, a place at the head of some rich man's table. Bohemia sufficed her. Her terrible widowhood, too, was rendered less terrible to her by the care of her little one. Babbling lips, pattering feet, made heaven in her attic. Every good woman is by nature a mother, and finds best in maternity her social and moral salvation. She shall be saved in child-bearing. Herminia was far removed indeed from that blatant and decadent sect of "advanced women" who talk as though motherhood were a disgrace and a burden, instead of being, as it is, the full realization of woman's faculties, the natural outlet for woman's wealth of emotion. She knew that to be a mother is the best privilege of her sex, a privilege of which unholy manmade institutions now conspire to deprive half the finest and noblest women in our civilized communities. Widowed as she was, she still pitied the unhappy beings doomed to the cramped life and dwarfed heart of the old maid; pitied them as sincerely as she despised those unhealthy souls who would make of celibacy, wedded or unwedded, a sort of anti-natural religion for women. Alan's death, however, had left Herminia's ship rudderless. Her mission had failed. That she acknowledged herself. She lived now for Dolores. The child to whom she had given the noble birthright of liberty was destined from her cradle to the apostolate of women. Alone of her sex, she would start in life emancipated. While others must say, "With a great sum obtained I this freedom," Dolores could answer with Paul, "But I was free born." That was no mean heritage.
Gradually Herminia got work to her mind; work enough to support her in the modest way that sufficed her small wants for herself and her baby. In London, given time enough, you can live down anything, perhaps even the unspeakable sin of having struck a righteous blow in the interest of women. And day by day, as months and years went on, Herminia felt she was living down the disgrace of having obeyed an enlightened conscience. She even found friends. Dear old Miss Smith-Waters used to creep round by night, like Nicodemus-- respectability would not have allowed her to perform that Christian act in open daylight,--and sit for an hour or two with her dear misguided Herminia. Miss Smith-Waters prayed nightly for Herminia's "conversion," yet not without an uncomfortable suspicion, after all, that Herminia had very little indeed to be "converted" from. Other people also got to know her by degrees; an editor's wife; a kind literary hostess; some socialistic ladies who liked to be "advanced;" a friendly family or two of the Bohemian literary or artistic pattern. Among them Herminia learned to be as happy in time as she could ever again be, now she had lost her Alan. She was Mrs. Barton to them all; that lie she found it practically impossible to fight against. Even the Bohemians refused to let their children ask after Miss Barton's baby.
So wrapt in vile falsehoods and conventions are we. So far have we travelled from the pristine realities of truth and purity. We lie to our children--in the interests of morality.
After a time, in the intervals between doing her journalistic work and nursing Alan's baby, Herminia found leisure to write a novel. It was seriously meant, of course, but still it was a novel. That is every woman's native idea of literature. It reflects the relatively larger part which the social life plays in the existence of women. If a man tells you he wants to write a book, nine times out of ten he means a treatise or argument on some subject that interests him. Even the men who take in the end to writing novels have generally begun with other aims and other aspirations, and have only fallen back upon the art of fiction in the last resort as a means of livelihood. But when a woman tells you she wants to write a book, nine times out of ten she means she wants to write a novel. For that task nature has most often endowed her richly. Her quicker intuitions, her keener interest in social life, her deeper insight into the passing play of emotions and of motives, enable her to paint well the complex interrelations of every-day existence. So Herminia, like the rest, wrote her own pet novel.
By the time her baby was eighteen months old, she had finished it. It was blankly pessimistic, of course. Blank pessimism is the one creed possible for all save fools. To hold any other is to curl yourself up selfishly in your own easy chair, and say to your soul, "O soul, eat and drink; O soul, make merry. Carouse thy fill. Ignore the maimed lives, the stricken heads and seared hearts, the reddened fangs and ravening claws of nature all round thee." Pessimism is sympathy. Optimism is selfishness. The optimist folds his smug hands on his ample knees, and murmurs contentedly, "The Lord has willed it;" "There must always be rich and poor;" "Nature has, after all, her great law of compensation." The pessimist knows well self-deception like that is either a fraud or a blind, and recognizing the seething mass of misery at his doors gives what he can,--his pity, or, where possible, his faint aid, in redressing the crying inequalities and injustices of man or nature.
All honest art is therefore of necessity pessimistic. Herminia's romance was something more than that. It was the despairing heart-cry of a soul in revolt. It embodied the experiences and beliefs and sentiments of a martyred woman. It enclosed a lofty ethical purpose. She wrote it with fiery energy, for her baby's sake, on waste scraps of paper, at stray moments snatched from endless other engagements. And as soon as it was finished, she sent it in fear and trembling to a publisher.
She had chosen her man well. He was a thinker himself, and he sympathized with thinkers. Though doubtful as to the venture, he took all the risk himself with that generosity one so often sees in the best-abused of professions. In three or four weeks' time "A Woman's World" came out, and Herminia waited in breathless anxiety for the verdict of the reviewers.
For nearly a month she waited in vain. Then, one Friday, as she was returning by underground railway from the Strand to Edgeware Road, with Dolores in her arms, her eye fell as she passed upon the display-bill of the "Spectator." Sixpence was a great deal of money to Herminia; but bang it went recklessly when she saw among the contents an article headed, "A Very Advanced Woman's Novel." She felt sure it must be hers, and she was not mistaken. Breathlessly she ran over that first estimate of her work. It was with no little elation that she laid down the number.
Not that the critique was by any means at all favorable. How could Herminia expect it in such a quarter? But the "Spectator" is at least conspicuously fair, though it remains in other ways an interesting and ivy-clad mediaeval relic. "Let us begin by admitting," said the Spectatorial scribe, "that Miss Montague's book" (she had published it under a pseudonym) "is a work of genius. Much as we dislike its whole tone, and still more its conclusions, the gleam of pure genius shines forth undeniable on every page of it. Whoever takes it up must read on against his will till he has finished the last line of this terrible tragedy; a hateful fascination seems to hold and compel him. Its very purity makes it dangerous. The book is mistaken; the book is poisonous; the book is morbid; the book is calculated to do irremediable mischief; but in spite of all that, the book is a book of undeniable and sadly misplaced genius."
If he had said no more, Herminia would have been amply satisfied. To be called morbid by the "Spectator" is a sufficient proof that you have hit at least the right tack in morals. And to be accused of genius as well was indeed a triumph. No wonder Herminia went home to her lonely attic that night justifiably elated. She fancied after this her book must make a hit. It might be blamed and reviled, but at any rate it was now safe from the ignominy of oblivion.
Alas, how little she knew of the mysteries of the book-market! As little as all the rest of us. Day after day, from that afternoon forth, she watched in vain for succeeding notices. Not a single other paper in England reviewed her. At the libraries, her romance was never so much as asked for. And the reason for these phenomena is not far to seek by those who know the ways of the British public. For her novel was earnestly and sincerely written; it breathed a moral air, therefore it was voted dull; therefore nobody cared for it. The "Spectator" had noticed it because of its manifest earnestness and sincerity; for though the "Spectator" is always on the side of the lie and the wrong, it is earnest and sincere, and has a genuine sympathy for earnestness and sincerity, even on the side of truth and righteousness. Nobody else even looked at it. People said to themselves, "This book seems to be a book with a teaching not thoroughly banal, like the novels-with-a-purpose after which we flock; so we'll give it a wide berth."
And they shunned it accordingly.
That was the end of Herminia Barton's literary aspirations. She had given the people of her best, and the people rejected it. Now she gave them of her most mediocre; the nearest to their own level of thought and feeling to which her hand could reduce itself. And the people accepted it. The rest of her life was hack-work; by that, she could at least earn a living for Dolores. Her "Antigone, for the Use of Ladies' Schools" still holds its own at Girton and Somerville.