"Oh, dear," I imagine many of you saying to yourselves, "he's back onto his Winifred Peck obsession."
And indeed I fear that you're right. For not only does this review follow my earlier posts about Peck's wonderfully charming mystery The Warrielaw Jewel and her sweetly hilarious tale of wartime life in a vicarage, Bewildering Cares (both of them eminently worthy of reprinting), but I've actually already finished reading yet another of Peck's novels, and two more are (fingers crossed) meandering their way to my hot little hands via Interlibrary Loan. Obsession indeed.
One thing that has struck me about these first three novels I'm reviewing is Peck's impressive versatility. A delightful mystery, a rollicking novel of domestic life worthy of E. M. Delafield or D. E. Stevenson, and now, of all things, an historical novel tracing several decades of the women's suffrage movement through the lens of one passionate women's rights activist and her three very different sisters.
Honestly, I'm not always a fan of what might be called "issue" novels—those works that try to sum up all the main points of a pressing social concern, either present or historical. I usually find that they err more on the side of being pedantic and forced than on the side of bringing history to life or even bringing much enlightenment about their subjects. So I was a bit worried when I discovered the theme of Peck's novel. But in fact her writing pulled me in from the first few paragraphs.
The story begins in 1860, with Julia, Arabella, Caroline, and Edith Gorne coming to terms with their dictatorial father's death and the realization that he has mismanaged the family's finances and left them more or less impoverished (as literary fathers are so prone to do—someone could make a fictional killing providing sound investment advice to these eternally misguided schmucks). Ironically (or perhaps logically), their father's cruelty over the years has given the sisters the impetus they need to question the harsh assumptions and dictates of their time, which he has rather heartlessly enforced:
Their ideas of the opposite sex were founded wholly on their father, and Julia was a convinced feminist by instinct before she had reached the age of reason. It was old Anthony's misfortune that amongst his few early friends and patrons he numbered the Martineaus and the Nightingales.
Julia dedicates her life to the cause of women's rights—right up to the novel's end just as suffrage is finally achieved in 1918—and she is so passionate about the cause that she is sometimes blinded to the realities of her sisters' less radical lives. Along the way she rubs shoulders with a number of other important figures in the movement, including Frances Buss, Lydia Becker, and Emily Davison as well as the aforementioned Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale. My personal favorite of these prominent cameos is the dramatic appearance of reformer and activist Josephine Butler in one pivotal scene in which she makes a dramatic rescue of two of the sisters.
|The formidable crusader Josephine Butler|
There are a few times, perhaps, where the pace of the novel slows a bit to make room for an educational or didactic tidbit, and that might take away from some readers' enjoyment. But Peck clearly did her research on (and/or lived through) the circumstances she was portraying, and her delightful prose and ability to create vivid characters and situations outweighed, for me at least, any sluggishness in the plot. And unlike some issue-oriented novels, where the stakes are presented as cut-and-dried—as if there could never have been any significant dispute among sensible people—Peck even fascinatingly describes some of the conflicts within the early women's movement itself. In particular, the scandalous issues dragged to the surface by Butler—in her crusade on behalf of fallen women—violently divided the women fighting for women's rights more generally and threatened to split the movement entirely.
The passage in which Peck describes Butler's neglected legacy is also a good example of one of Peck's greatest strengths—her ability to view not only the impacts of major historical events but also the ways in which those impacts are filtered through the attitudes, mores, and repressions of their time and the times that follow:
Josephine Butler has never perhaps been accorded her due place in the roll of saints and reformers of her period.
In her own day her work of rescue amongst those unhappy filles de joie whom she called the children of God was veiled in the shroud of Victorian modesty. Many men and some women recognized the self-abnegation which inspired her work, but of that work they could never bring themselves to speak to the younger generation. The generation which followed them inherited a vague tradition that a certain Mrs. Butler had devoted her life to some wonderful but unknown work, and by the time that plain speaking and clear thinking had come into fashion, her struggle against the laws of her country was over, her victory almost won.
As it keeps jumping forward in time, the novel effectively presents the changing realities of the sisters' lives. To some extent, you might imagine it as a fictional iteration of Ruth Adam's wonderful history, A Woman's Place (though beginning and ending a few decades earlier). Arabella marries a clergyman and leads a bleak life of unceasing childbirth and poverty, Edith joins the first class of women admitted to Cambridge, and Caroline takes Julia's espousals of women's freedom in a more scandalous direction and becomes a "loose woman."
In my review of The Warrielaw Jewel, I tried to highlight Peck's skill not only at detailed descriptions of domestic life and furnishings, which create a real sense of the presence of times past that I enjoy a lot, but also her way of lending small domestic details a larger meaning. For some reason, I still find myself thinking now and then of the boredom and uselessness evoked in that novel by the elderly aunts' perpetual embroidery work, which Peck turned into a memorable symbol of the limitations of women's lives in an earlier generation.
This strength also shines through in The Skirts of Time. An example: the scene in which Arabella and Julia—who have been alienated for years due to Arabella's conservative husband's horror at Julia's activism—are reunited, and Arabella puts into context, using a clothing-related frame of reference, the very physical differences between her own existence and Julia's:
Was it possible that she, Arabella, had possessed that ease and grace only six years ago, she who for years had barely laid down one burden before she bore another? Her glance took in Julia's trim tight bodice, the easy fall of her full, draped skirt. Little did her sister know of the lacings and unlacings and weary letting-outs of tucks which fell so often to her portion!
Of course, the title of the novel itself, which comes from Tennyson, also highlights another small wardrobe-oriented domestic shift: the varying styles of women's dress which allowed, gradually, for increased freedom and mobility. And, although I can't bring myself to spoil its impact—should anyone be inspired to track down and read this novel (or should a smart publisher decide to reprint it)—by quoting it here, I will certainly always remember the refusal of Arabella's husband to allow her chloroform at the birth of her umpteenth child, despite the fact that the doctor has said she may not survive without it, and Julia's shocking, hilarious, but perfectly characteristic solution to the problem.
One of my favorite parts of the novel is the evocation of Julia's own time at Cambridge, as, despite being much older than the other young women, she follows in her little sister's footsteps. It's presented from the perspective of a descendent of the sisters, looking at old memorabilia (one of many examples of Peck's fascination with the way urgent present events become part of the past), and it's a rather hilarious and yet touching portrayal:
Another relic which aroused laughter was a reproduction of a lithograph from some ephemeral publication of the day entitled: "Lady Undergraduates Undergoing Final Examinations for the Cambridge Tripos". Beneath the picture of a vaulted Gothic hall where fashionable young women sat in high-backed oak chairs at long refectory tables, watched serenely by a row of professors in caps and gowns, Julia had scribbled the words: "The Ideal!" Some friend had appended a sketch entitled "The Reality". It represented cleverly enough the low, dismal dining-room in a Cambridge Inn where the earliest examinations were held. Over the draped mantelpiece hung a picture of Prince Albert regarding a dead stag at Balmoral, flanked by portraits of leading Cambridge worthies; there was a huge sideboard covered with cruet-stands and bottles of every description, and a long table dotted with paper and bottles of ink. At the window stood a little old lady and out of her mouth came a balloon with the words: "He cometh not, she said!" Ten young ladies drooped over the table. "We've been here for two hours now!" said one. "I wish I'd had breakfast instead of hurrying," said another. "Suppose they can't get hold of a paper this year at all!" sighed a third. It was, as Julia explained, only by the charity of the few dons who sympathized with the mad craving of women for University education and examinations that the examination papers could be smuggled to the ladies at all on the day of the great event. Another rough sketch showed the young ladies, heads bent over the table, scribbling violently, the duenna knitting peacefully at a rocking chair by the fire, while through the window was visible the back of a professor in cap and gown ejaculating: "Well, they've got it! I hope they'll like it." Out of that examination, in spite of her disadvantages and the difficulties in the path of women students, Julia emerged with first-class honours.
This passage has a lovely ring of truth about it, which may stem from Peck's own experiences at Oxford around the turn of the century. It makes me look forward to her two memoirs, A Little Learning and Home for the Holidays, in which are to be found, I hope, more such scenes minus the veil of fiction. (For better or worse, I'll probably end up discussing those books here too...)
People always say that a book should be "required reading" for such-and-such an audience, and I always feel cynical about such recommendations. But I have to admit that I'm tempted to use it in this case. I'm not any kind of expert on suffrage novels (though this one has driven me to request a history of the movement from the library). A few years ago, I read Elizabeth Robins' The Convert (1907), written nearly three decades before Peck's novel (and before suffrage was actually achieved, which lends it an immediacy that a retrospective novel can't match) and enjoyed it very much, and I've been meaning to read Persephone's reprint of Constance Maud's No Surrender (1911) ever since it came out. But that may be the extent of my expertise on the subject. From that limited perspective, however, I can honestly say that if you're going to read a novel about the dawning of feminism and the motivations driving it, you could hardly make a more entertaining choice.
One of Julia's last assertions particularly caught my eye:
"The world's all so kind and sentimental now that it loves to rescue victims and put them on pedestals. But no one cares for simple common-sense fair play!"
Reading the news on any given day, I think this assessment might remain as true today.