Academic Submission May 2018
A Séance for the Matriarchs
Female Voices of Britain’s New Woman
For girls born in between – in between social classes, in between religions that tear us down instead of build us up, in between fathers, in between homes, in between our mothers’ ability to consistently love us as they should, in between husbands, in between lovers – this séance is for you. This séance is for me. Here, may we find our worthy ancestry and claim our greatest inheritance, that of wisdom, not of wealth.
But before we direct our attention to the inspiring New Woman of the Twentieth Century, we must first meet her as a girl, more specifically, The Girl of the Period, as so vividly captured by a dubious séance-crashing fortune teller.
Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898)
Linton was born surrounded by beaches on the Isle of Wight. Because she was motherless by the age of five and because she grew up educating herself through access to her father’s library, she seems to belong among us. On first impression, we begin to sympathize with her, maybe even admire her. Yet, upon closer observation, we find her voice fatigued with repeated messages of patriarchy.
In her essay, The Girl of the Period, Linton writes of social warnings, shaming girls for innocent curiosities like splashing their feet through a rippling creek and letting down their pinned-up hair to blow wildly in the wind. Surprisingly, a woman herself, and an independent one at that, Linton doesn’t seem to be on our side. Bearing the burdening label of the first paid female journalist in Britain, it may simply be that she not only knew who buttered her bread, but who churned that butter as well. Her words ting a patriarchal tone, so sure of herself, cold to thoughts of differing opinion, and scolding without love like a resentful and obligatory stepmother.
Linton’s most notable essay, “The Girl of the Period,” first published in the Saturday Review in London on March 14, 1868, when she was 46, is a somewhat ironic rant in the sense that all Linton abhors in girls is all that we, as mothers today, hope their daughters to be – original and free.
“The Girl of the Period is a creature who dyes her hair and paints her face
. . . a creature whose sole idea of life is fun. . .whose dress is the chief object of
such thought and intellect. . . Her main endeavor is to outvie her neighbors in the extravagance of fashion. . . If sensible fashion lifts the gown out of the mud, she raises hers midway to her knee. If the absurd structure of wire and buckram, once called a bonnet, is modified to something that shall protect the wearer’s face without putting out the eyes of her companion, she cuts hers down to four straws and a rosebud, or a tag of lace and a bunch of glass beads. . . .But the Girl of the Period does not please men. . .All men whose opinion is worth having prefer the simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesties, to this loud and rampant modernization, with her false red hair and painted skin, talking slang as gibly as a man. . .She will not see that though men laugh with her, they do not respect her, though they flirt with her, they do not marry her. . . all we can do is wait patiently until the national madness has passed, and our women have come back again to the old English ideal, once the most beautiful, the
most modest, the most essentially womanly in the world.”
Are girls really any different today than they were then – the dyed hair, the painted faces? My goodness, if Ms. Linton could see us now with our short skirts and hair accessories, what cheesecakes we must be! Did she ever see tattoos or were those only displayed in traveling circuses among bearded ladies and siamese twins? And what girl doesn’t want to have the nicest handbag or the nicest pair of shoes in the room? How different is this than grown-up boys with all their grown-up toys? Isn’t it about time we quit apologizing?
Linton continues with the same ranting voice throughout many of her essays, placing men and women of British society into such simple and ridiculous classifications that we might find her writing published today in the Sunday Comics. In her essay “Little Women,” Linton refers to specific female characteristics as distinguished by two simple body types, small and large. Her voice is as confident as Darwin’s though she provides us with no scientific evidence.
“. . .the little woman is irrepressible. Too fragile to come into the fighting section of humanity – a puny creature whom one blow from a man’s huge fist could annihilate – absolutely fearless. . .what can be done with her? She is afraid of nothing and can be controlled by no one. Sheltered behind her weakness as behind a triple shield of brass, the angriest man dare not touch her, while she provokes him to a combat in which his hands are tied. She gets her own way in everything and everywhere. . .”
“But, in general, the large-boned woman obeys the orders given, because, while near enough to man to be somewhat on a par with him, she is still undeniably his inferior. She is too strong to shelter herself behind her weakness, yet too weak to
assert her strength and defy her master on equal grounds. . .”
then yet again,
“ – the pert, smart, pretty little woman, who laughs in your face and goes
straight ahead if you try to turn her to the right hand or to the left. . .as if you were talking a foreign language she could not understand. . .You may see her stepping over barriers, slipping under the ropes, penetrating to the green benches with a red ticket, taking the best places on the platform over the heads of their rightful owners. . .You cannot turn her out by main force. British chivalry objects to the public laying on of hands in the case of a woman. . . more particularly if she be a small and fragile-looking woman. . .If the battle is between her and another woman, they are left to fight it out as they best can, with the odds laid heavily on the little one.”
I am still surprised by the way we judge people based on appearances. An overweight interviewee is lazy. A teenage girl with large breasts is “easy.” A tall man is more intelligent than a short one. The physically handicapped are mentally incompetent. The homeless are given no more regard than a stray dog. Until we become aware of our own prejudices, we will continue to pass them down from generation to generation, and there will be no end.
In her writing, Linton appears to uphold Victorian tradition and she makes little to no reference regarding the value of a female’s strive for independence. Yet, in her own life, choosing divorce after only a few short years of marriage, she seems to contradict this advice, and rejects the idea that a woman should sacrifice her personal preferences and desires for the advancement of her husband’s career and place in society. Did she publish any essays justifying her decision to leave her family? If so, where are they? Are her essays credible or did she make a pact with the patriarchal devil to maintain her independence?
Alice Mona Caird (1854-1932)
In 1888, at the age of 34, Scottish writer, Caird, began publishing a series of articles refuting Linton’s biased attitudes. Caird was one of the first female writers to support the idea that women’s “social evolution was not biologically but historically determined.” In The End of the Patriarchal System, she compares and contrasts the male and female “spheres,” bringing to light society’s distorted ideology.
“. . .the woman of the nineteenth century. . .sees her brothers going forth
into the world with a thousand advantages, to her denied. For them a good
education, encouragement in study, fostered talents, cherished opportunities;
for them a good start in life, so far as lies in the power of parents to bestow, and on the father’s death, the inheritance of the bulk of his property. For her, there is nothing but discouragement, opposition. . . the one thing left to her, if she would not displease all her family and friends is to marry, and so provide herself with a home and competence. . . Thus, the woman must struggle with other women for the sole means of livelihood that has hitherto been recognized as fitting for her sex; the family claims from her duty and obedience, as of old, but it expects her to provide for herself. On no account must she go out of her ‘sphere’ . . . She must pay taxes, but she may not vote; she may be divorced for unfaithfulness, but she may not divorce.”
In Sons of Bondswomen, Caird gracefully bends toward social understanding and away from blame when she writes:
“A man has been brought up, from earliest childhood, to regard a woman
as of less importance than himself; he sees her trained to minister to his comfort, and to make herself pleasing in his eyes. He finds the respectable British matron eager to see her daughters marry well. . .does she not know. . . that if they do not marry well, society offers them small chance of doing well in any other way?”
Here, Caird offers whispers of hope, the possibility that men are capable of understanding the errors of patriarchy, but she makes no promises for change. More eloquent prose can be found in two of her novels, The Wing of Azrael, a story of marital rape and revenge, published in 1889, and Daughters of Danaus, the story of a New Woman trying to balance her ideals within a marriage, published in 1894.
My name was supposed to be Lance Emery, Emery after my paternal grandfather. The only Lance I know of was on a soap opera. My father was Emery’s firstborn son. My mother named me Lisa Ann, not really that far of a stretch from Lance Emery, I guess. I wonder how long she had the girl name as a back-up. And then of course there was that whole “Elvis’ daughter’s name is Lisa” thing going on, so there were always three or four Lisas in my class, the reason everyone called me by my maiden name, “Creekbaum,” instead, which couldn’t have been any worse. If they’d gone to college, I’d probably be Elizabeth instead, and able to reach a little higher towards that glass ceiling. If I’d been a boy, though, I might have been a quarterback. My dad would have loved that.
Three years after I was born, my mom gave birth to another girl. Shame on her! Mom named her Sheryl Kay, Sheryl because it meant “little Shirley,” Shirley being our mother’s name, the two sharing the same middle name as well. After my parents brought her home from the hospital, my Dad said something like,“I just don’t understand why we couldn’t have a boy.” Well, as I understand it, that’s kind of the guy’s call. He never considered for a second that we might enjoy playing football. Five months later, he hopped in his car, complete with a new set of tires, and headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Fifty years later, he has four amazing grandsons he barely knows. He also has three amazing granddaughters capable of changing the world, but whatever. At least for him, though, maybe he should have thought grandsons someday might just be worth the wait.
Sarah Grand (1854-1943)
Francis Elizabeth Clarke was born in Northern Ireland. Her father, a naval officer, died only seven years later. By 16, she was married to a 39-year-old widower, David Chambers McFall, an Army surgeon with two sons. His financial security enabled her to travel and pursue a writing career. In 1871, she gave birth to their only child, David. Following some success as a contributing author for magazines, she published her first novel, Ideala, in 1888. Two years later, longing for independence, she left her family and took a new name – Sarah Grand. Her son, it seems, was emotionally supportive of her decision. When he was older and began his acting career, he also took the last name of Grand.
The Heavenly Twins, Grand’s most well-known novel, was published in 1893. It is the story of a girl and a boy, born in the most equal of states, to the same parents at the same time, yet raised within the confines of the extreme gender roles of the period. And how dare the author allow the female to be born first! Early in the book, the main character, Evadne, has a conversation with her father when, unbeknownst to him, she analyses his every word, his every contradiction in logic. Yet, as any good girl would do at the time, she keeps her thoughts quietly to herself. In the first few pages of chapter one, Grand opens a window into Evadne’s psyche:
“Her mind was prone to experiment with every item of information it
gathered, in order to test its practical value; if she could turn it to account she
treasured it; if not, she rejected it, from whatever source it came. But she was not herself aware of any reservation in her manner of accepting instruction. The trick was innate, and in no way interfered with her faith in her friends, which was profound. She might have justified it, however, upon her father’s authority, for she once heard him say to one of her brothers: “Find out for yourself, and form your own opinions,” a lesson which she had laid to heart also. Not that her father would have approved of her putting it into practice. He was one of those men who believe emphatically that a woman should hold no opinion which is not of masculine origin, and the maxims he had for his boys differed materially in many respects from those which he gave to his girls. But these precepts of his were, after all, only matches to Evadne which fired whole trains of reflection, and lighted her to conclusions quite
other than those at which he had arrived himself. In this way, however, he became her principal instructor. She had attached herself to him from the time that she could toddle, and had acquired from his conversation a proper appreciation of masculine precision of thought. If his own statements were not always accurate, it was from no want of respect for the value of facts; for he was great on the subject, and often insisted that a lesson or principle of action is contained in the commonest fact; but he snubbed Evadne promptly all the same on one occasion when she mentioned a fact of life, and drew a principle of action therefrom for herself. ‘Only confusion comes of women thinking for themselves on social subjects,’ he said, ‘You must
let me decide all such matters for you, or you must refer them to your husband when you come under his control.’ Evadne did not pay much attention to this, however, because she remembered another remark of his with which she could not make it agree. The remark was that women never had thought for themselves, and that therefore it was evident that they could not think, and that they should not try. Now, as it is obvious that confusion
cannot come of a thing that has never been done, the inaccuracy in one or other of these statements was glaring enough to put both out of the argument. But what Evadne did note was the use of the word control.”
Of all my mother’s children, and there were five, I was the eldest and the quietest one, listening and observing the insanity around me. I was told by my mother “I never thought you were college material.” I was told by my Christian school principal that “Children from broken homes usually end up with broken homes.” I was told by a frumpy female teacher that “Beauty is a curse.” The boys I competed with in acting competitions always won first place because they chose to preach famous sermons. I recited poetry. Not until I memorized Patrick Henry’s speech, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” did I receive any real recognition for my talent. In the school I attended, girls were not allowed to pray aloud to open a chapel service, nor were we allowed the position of class president. We were allowed to prepare tacos when we were trying to raise money for our senior trip. A hundred years later, I was still a hundred years behind.
Grand’s fictional storyline allowed her to speak freely about the double standards in marriage, even so far as husbands running amuck with prostitutes then bringing sexually transmitted diseases back to his wife and, in some cases, his unborn child. Her book contains a societal plea for husbands to be held as morally accountable as their wives.
Shortly following the success of The Heavenly Twins, In March 1894, Grand’s article “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” was published in the North American Review, and the concept of the New Woman was born. As it goes so often in the publishing world, others took advantage of the opportunity to hop on Grand’s well-oiled bicycle, specifically, Ouida (1839-1908) in her rebuttal to Grand’s New Woman concept published a mere two months later in the same magazine, so conveniently titled “The New Woman. The editors of Punch magazine flaunted serial sarcastic cartoons of women in bloomers, riding bicycles, and larger-than-life masculine-looking females toying with little men. But, also as it goes with the ever-advancing printing press, there is still ever only one original.
“It is amusing. . .to note the pause which the new aspect of the woman
question has given to the Bawling Brothers who have hitherto tried to howl down every attempt on the part of our sex to make the world a pleasanter place to live in. That woman should ape man and desire to change places with him was conceivable to him. . .well inflated with his own conceit. . . ‘If women don’t want to be men what do they want?’ asked the Bawling Brotherhood. . . they pointed to a certain sort of woman in proof of the contention that we were all unsexing ourselves. It would be rational for us now to declare that men generally are Bawling Brothers or to adopt the hasty conclusion which makes all men out to be fiends on the one hand and all women fools on the other. We have our Shrieking Sisterhood as the counterpart of the Bawling Brotherhood. The latter consists of two sorts of men. . . he who is satisfied with the cow-kind of woman. . . The other sort. . . is under the influence of the scum of our sex. . .but THE NEW WOMAN is a little above him, and he never even thought of looking up to where she has been sitting apart in silent contemplation all these years, thinking and thinking, until at last she solved the problem and proclaimed for herself what was wrong with Home-is-the-Woman’s-Sphere, and prescribed the remedy. . .” When others don’t like what we say, they try to convince us we are delusional, ill-informed, selfish nags.
Thirty years later, when a new edition of The Heavenly Twins was published, Grand’s attitude towards the double standard on gender was just as sincere. In the forward, she wrote, “A man might keep a baby-linen shop if it paid – anything that paid was masculine – but a woman could not drive a pair of horses for profit, however a good whip she was, without the odium of being ‘unsexed.’”
Olive Schreiner (1855-1920)
Appropriately speaking for Schreiner, we have Lyndall, the author’s female protagonist in her first novel, The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883 under the pen name of Ralph Iron (because what authority did any woman have to trespass on man’s territory?) Through Lyndall, a strong yet desperate character, Schreiner is able to share her own hopes, dreams, disappointments, nightmares, and the even darker reality that the space and time in which she lived really was quite hopeless.
When we meet Lyndall, she is a spunky, opinionated girl, probably a bit too much of a realist for her own good. At the age of 12, discussing with her cousin, Em, their contrasting lots in life, Lyndall speaks well beyond her years.
“I intend to go to school. . .There is nothing helps in this world but to be
very wise, and to know everything – to be clever. . . When you are 17. . .you will have this farm. . .but I will have nothing. I must learn. . . I do not want your sheep. . .I want things of my own. When I am grown up. . .there will be no thing that I do not know. I shall be rich, very rich; and I shall wear not only for best, but every day, a pure white silk, and little rose-buds. . .and my petticoats will be embroidered, not only at the bottom, but all through.”
I am Lyndall. At 53, I still want it all – to learn, to travel, to be in a marriage if I choose to, not because I need someone to help pay a mortgage. I worry that I don’t have enough time – enough time to prove to myself, to prove to my daughter, to prove to my granddaughters that we can accomplish anything!
A few years later, contemplating the idea of marriage, Lyndall again belts out,
“I am not in so great a hurry to put my neck beneath any man’s foot; and I do not so greatly admire the crying of babies. . . There are other women glad of such work.” Lyndall posed as Schreiner’s New Woman, a female born a century before her time, disappointed in the education available to her, frustrated with her lovers’ expectations, and ambiguity about the prospect of motherhood.When did this fragmentation of our psyche begin? When did wanting another life become a sin?
“. . . The less a woman has in her head the lighter she is for climbing. I once heard an old man say that he never saw intellect help a woman so much as a pretty ankle; and it was the truth. They begin to shape us. . .when we are tiny things in shoes and socks. We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window, and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: ‘Little one, you cannot go,’ they say, your little face will burn, and your nice white dress be spoiled.’ We feel it must be for our own good, it is so lovingly said: but we cannot understand; and we kneel still with one little cheek wistfully pressed against the neck; and we go and stand before the glass. We see the complexion we were not to spoil, and the white frock, and we look into our own great eyes. The curse begins to act on us. It finishes its work when we are contented. We fit our sphere as a Chinese woman’s foot fits her shoe, exactly. . . We wear the bandages but our limbs have not grown to them; we know that we are compressed, and chafe against them.
And many of us are still deformed, waiting for the right man to remove this ancient binding, to massage our feet, set our toes, our feet, our hearts and minds straight, never realizing our own hands, hearts and minds could do the same. Always waiting to post that diamond ring on our Facebook page.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Between 1915 and 1927, Virginia completed and published three novels, The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse. A few months following this successful trifecta, she wrote in her diary, “. . .the truth is. . . I feel the need of an escapade. . . I want to kick up my heels and be off.” Then, like giving birth to the child she never had, she writes Orlando, whose main character holds the same name.
We meet Orlando when he is 15, near the end of the sixteenth century, when his beauty and innocence muses a queen, specifically, Elizabeth I. Virginia lets us watch the boy from a distance as he abandons his notebook, already a poet, for the literal beauty of his surroundings.
“. . .nature has tricks of her own. (One) look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, (one) thinks ‘how many more suns shall I see set’. . .one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.
He was careful to avoid meeting anyone. . .Stubbs, the gardener, coming
along the path. He hid behind a tree till he had passed. He let himself out of a little gate in the garden wall. He skirted all stables, kennels, breweries, carpenters’ shops, wash-houses, places where they make tallow candles, kill oxen, forge horse-shoes. . . – for the house was a town ringing with men at work at their various crafts – and gained the ferry path leading uphill through the park unseen. There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another long with it. . .this clumsiness is often mated along with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.
So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone,’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for
the first time in this record.” He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree.”
When do children today have time to contemplate, to think – about nothing, and everything? To write, to sing, to explore, to ignore? Where are their woods, their creeks, their barns? When we will give them permission to be bored? And why are nannies taking children to pools if the parents know how to swim? And why are kids eating Lunchables and McDonald’s and M&Ms? Where are the wagons, the sticks, the swords, the dragons? Let’s replace a little screen time with a little dream time, a chance to think. Childhood is over in a blink.
By 30, after celebrating his appointment as Ambassador to Constantinople by King Charles II, Orlando becomes a woman, forcing Virginia to change her pronouns throughout the remainder of her novel. “Orlando was kept busy, what with his wax and seals. . .various colored ribbons. . . engrossing of titles and making of flourishes round capital letters, till luncheon came – a splendid meal of perhaps thirty courses. . .with a gesture of extraordinary majesty and grace, first bowing profoundly, then raising himself proudly erect, Orlando took the golden circlet of strawberry leaves and placed it, with a gesture which none that saw it ever forgot, upon his brows. It was at this point that the first disturbance began. . .
Next morning, the Duke, as we must now call him, was found by his
secretaries sunk in profound slumber amid bed clothes that were much tumbled. . .The table was littered with papers. . .many were scribbled over with poetry, in which frequent mention was made of an oak tree. . .But at length they came upon a document of far greater significance. . . a deed of marriage, drawn up, signed, and witnessed between his Lordship, Orlando . . . And Rosina Pepita, a dancer, father unknown, but reputed a gipsy, mother also unknown. . . The secretaries looked at each other in
dismay. And still Orlando slept. No suspicion was felt at first, as the fatigues of the night had been great. But when afternoon came and he still slept, a doctor was summoned. . .Morning and evening they watched him, but, save that his breathing was regular and his cheeks still flushed their habitual deep rose, he gave no sign of life. . .On the seventh day of his trance. . .He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete darkness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! We have no choice left but confess – he was a woman.
. . .Orlando stood stark naked. No human being, since the world began, has
every looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace. . . Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.”
Then true to her gender, Orlando marries (a man who used to be a woman nonetheless) and gives birth to a son. By 1928, nearly 350 years after we first meet Orlando as a 15-year-old boy, she speaks with the voice of a New Woman, “‘What then? Who then?’ she said. ‘Thirty-six; in a motor-car; a woman. Yes, but a million other things as well. . .”
Orlando became Woolf’s proverbial public curtsey to her female lover, another writer, Vita Sackville-West, with whom she began an affair in 1922, the same year Virginia and Leonard celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. Virginia devoured every minute detail of Vita’s ancestry, and sifted through albums upon albums and boxes upon boxes of family photographs until she uncovered just the right images to spread throughout the pages of her novel. Vita also shared with Virginia treasured stories of her childhood home, The Knole Estate of West Kent England, property Vita should have inherited but ultimately lost because she was, unfortunately, born a female. Through Orlando, Woolf was able to return Knole to its rightful owner. Whispers of whether or not the novel’s location was the real main character in the story were widespread. Commercially, Woolf was disappointed in the sales, partly due to the fact that the book was marketed as a bibliography instead of the enticing fictional creation it really was.
Finally, just four short years before her suicide, Woolf replaced this little escapade once again with her more traditional tone, perhaps even a depressed one, in The Years. Here, she introduces the fictional but very plausible Kitty Malone. Kitty was born quite privileged for her time, to an Oxford professor. Unlike the boys she met with similar scholastic DNA, Kitty faced rejection when trying to penetrate the doors and halls most appealing to her. Though experiencing what girls of lower social status could only dream, Kitty grew rebellious of the contradictions slammed in her face at every turn. Just a few pages into the novel, Woolf writes:
“The difficulties, inconsistencies, and complexities of life in Oxford in the eighties for a girl like Kitty were numerous; and puzzling enough to perplex a mind that was original enough to ask them, though not original enough to ask them openly. The only question that Kitty could put openly, and was determined to put to her parents on the 1st of September 1880 – the day was marked with a cross on her calendar – was ‘May I leave Oxford and become a farmer in Yorkshire?’ But however tactfully she phrased it, she knew the question was so wrapped up in all those other questions – about pouring out tea, and standing at the window in a nightgown, and not going for walks alone, and always calling undergraduates ‘Mr,” and never meeting them except with her mother, and talking to rowing men about rowing and reading men about reading; it was so involved also with the opinions of great men. . .who thought that women must be chaste. . . that they could
be laborers but not capitalists. . .that it was an insinuation of the Devil that caused this woman to drop her glove’. . . that the lowest man is intellectually the superior of the cleverest woman; it was so complicated, further, by the fact that there was no way in which a woman could earn a living; and therefore no way in which she could be independent of such opinions. . .”
I wonder if the reiteration here may have been Virginia’s undoing, returning to a reality she would not see changed in her lifetime. Could she not have given us more, herself more, another escapade maybe, another fantasy, another chance? Return us, please, to Vita.
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
In comparison to Woolf, who was raised in a somewhat elitist environment, we have Vita, whose maternal grandmother, Pepita, was the illegitimate child of a Spanish Dancer. Like Orlando, we meet Vita as a young girl, specifically, as she describes herself from one of her July 1920 diary entries.
“. . .the past is misty. I can’t remember much about my childhood, except that I
had very long legs and very straight hair, over which Mother used to hurt my feelings and say she couldn’t bear to look at me because I was so ugly. . . I can remember doing dangerous things on a bicycle and climbing high trees. . .I kept my nerves under control, and made a great ideal of being hardy, and as like a boy as possible. . . I remember stuffing their nostrils with putty. . .none of the local children would come to tea with me. . .
. . .Dada used to take me for terribly long walks and talk to me about science,
principally Darwin, and I liked him a great deal more than Mother, of whose quick temper I was
frightened. . .My impression of her was that I couldn’t be rough when she was there, or naughty, and so it was really a great relief when she went away.
. . . Grandpapa liked children and believed in fairies. . . he used to fill a plate with fruit and put it ready for me to fetch early next morning; he used to sit it in a drawer in his sitting room. . .
. . . (In Scotland) I practically lived at the farm, where I built myself a shanty. I was happy there. Mother was sensible about me. I was always out, either with the guns, or with
the farmer’s boys, or by myself with the dogs. . .I don’t suppose I was ever tidy. . . .
Again, we find acceptance through nature, where one needs not impress but to simply be – the only place we are truly loved “as is.” As a child, I was fortunate enough to spend Sunday afternoons on my grandfather’s farm. I’d take two hour hikes, pretend I was a knight, not a boy, though, still just a girl, but strong and able, with a mind of her own, most importantly – I was alone.
In Vita’s diary, not long after complaining her “khaki playsuits never came with trousers,” we are introduced to Violet as an adolescent. “When I was about twelve, I started to write. I never stopped writing after that.” Upon remembering her first physical relationship with a girl, she recalls, “I acquired a friend with Violet. . . I was twelve, she was two years younger, but in every instinct she might have been six years my senior. . . she kissed me.”
Then, Vita begins speaking from a more mature woman’s voice.
“. . .I want to be frank. I have implied, I think, that men didn’t attract me, that I
didn’t think of them in what is called ‘that way.’ Women did. Rosamund did . . .
The neat little girl who came to play with me when Dada went to South Africa. . .
invited by my mother, not by me; even Violet had never spent more than a week at Knole: I resented invasion. . .the fact remains that by the middle of the summer,
we were inseparable, and moreover were living on terms of the greatest possible intimacy.”
My mind returns again to the idea that we should somehow apologize for being who and what we are at our core if our attitudes tend to lie outside social norms. Social norms are not constant, I’ve seen them change in my lifetime. Trying to stay within moving boundaries can drive a person insane.
In her diary, Vita mentions more than once her feelings of shame over the course of her relationships with women, not from the aspect of giving in, expressing her desires, or sinning, but in a more objective, retrospective way because there seemed to hang over her head the inevitability of causing someone pain, including herself. Though her sexual preference was to be with women, she married Harold Nicolson for the intellectual stimulation and friendship he provided. With him, she could be honest, she could be herself, unlike with many members of her own family.
During her marriage to Harold, Vita and Violet finally eloped. While living in Paris, they lived as an entirely different couple, with Vita dressing like a man, courting Violet in public, and answering to no other name than Julian. Harold remained the ever calm and understanding husband, maybe, in part, because he was allowed his own homosexual escapades without retaliation. Though both had relationships outside of their marriage, when it came to being truthful, the two were exceedingly so.
On December 19, 1922, shortly after meeting Virginia Woolf, Vita writes to Harold.
“I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite
flat before her charm and personality. It was a good party. They asked a lot about your Tennyson. Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big. She is utterly unaffected: there are no outward adornments – she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. She was smarter last night, that is to say, the woolen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but
she still wore the pumps. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well. She is quite old (forty). I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me. At least, she’s asked me to Richmond where she lives. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.”
I’m not sure I really buy all of this honesty business. This seems a little immature to me and I wonder if maybe she’s subconsciously asking her husband for permission. Harold, it seems, lived a double life as well. Where are his confessions? His permission slips? I don’t think Vita was as independent as she wants us to believe. Was she ever on hiatus from a relationship? Was she ever alone? Was she ever free?
By August 1926, she confesses, “. . .I have gone to bed with her (twice), but that’s all. Now you know all about it, and I hope I haven’t shocked you. My darling, you are the one and only person for me in the world; do take that in once and for all, you little dunderhead.”
His September reply included, “Thank you for telling me so frankly about Virginia. . . Don’t let’s worry about these things. I know that your love for me is central, as is my love for you, and it’s quite unaffected by what happens at the outer edge.”
In her novel, All Passion Spent, Vita takes us into the subconscious mind of an elderly widow, an experienced woman of her time, perhaps the woman the author becomes in retrospect of her indulgent, whimsical, and frivolous affairs “. . . if I were only young once more, I would stand for all that was calm and complicated opposed to the active, the scheming, the striving, the false – yes! the false. . .”
Surrendering to their love, however sexless it was, Harold and Vita purchased the dilapidated Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, rebuilding their home, rebuilding their lives, allowing each a separate bedroom and sitting room, with no less the same for each son. Together, in their spare time, and as finances would allow, Vita and Harold also created the new Sissinghurst Gardens, the topic of her weekly newspaper column which ran a consecutive 15-year course. It was not Knole, but it was home.
From 1918 to 1961, she published four books of poetry, two biographies (one on Joan of Arc, the other on her grandmother, Pepita), seven novels, and a nonfictional account of her travels in the East, Passenger to Teheren and Twelve Days in Persia: Across the Mountains with the Bakhtiari Tribe.
Lastly, Vita leaves us surprised with a modern day find in A Note of Explanation. Rediscovered nearly a hundred years after it was written, Vita’s work resides with 170 other prominent authors inside the library of Queen Mary’s dollhouse, the front cover of each book no larger than a postage stamp. The dollhouse project was commissioned in 1922 by Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, as a national gift to the Queen. It was completed two years later on a 1:12 scale.
Vita’s childlike wisdom whispers through the story, a ghost story of sorts, but not quite.
“Perhaps it is not fair to call the doll’s house ghost a ghost, for that implies
that she was dead, and, far from being dead, there was never a more lively or
inquisitive spirit or one who prided herself more on being up to date. She had,
in fact, that particular genius for being in the right company at the right moment which under other circumstances would have made of her a conspicuous social success.”
A bit of a fairytale, a bit of a frolic, we find a delightful and curious lanky pixie flapping about with a bobbed hairstyle and naked ankles. Possibly inspiring Orlando, she’s traveled through space and time, witnessing the most famous of fairytales – Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Aladdin.
“So naturally, with this record behind her, it was only to be expected that
she should arrive in London in 1924 to establish herself in the doll’s house that had been built for the Queen of England. . .Now in England, in the twenties of the twentieth century, she was in two minds as to whether she should or should not bob her hair. . .she found herself delighted by the brilliant jerseys and short skirts. . .and by her dark little clubbed head, which
gave her a boyish, page-like appearance unfamiliar to her. . .way back (this was one of her new expressions) in the fourteenth century. . . It must be remembered that all modern inventions were new to her. . .which caused her to compare Aladdin’s palace most unfavorably with the doll’s house.”
As described recently in the “New York Journal of Books” review, “. . .she enjoys sampling the wine from the cellars, taking hot baths in the
commodious bathtubs, and sleeping in the elegant canopy beds which are equipped with warming pans and made up with the finest embroidered linens. . .she is delighted with the modern day conveniences. . .the hot and cold running water, electric lights, a kitchen range. . . the passenger lift (elevator). . . Her activities do not go unnoticed by the dollhouse curators. Each morning when they take off the front of the house. . .they are baffled to find lights turned on, unmade beds, raised blinds. . .the elevator on a different floor from where they left it. . .books removed from the library shelves, and dirty dishes. . .”
With this lighthearted story, Vita finally found a childhood home where she was allowed to be naughty and free! And I don’t believe she intended to take a century to invite us in!
A Note of Explanation, released March 6, 2018, is illustrated by artist Kate Baylay, an art graduate of the University of the West of England, Bristol. After creating the original line drawings, she filled them in with crisp and colorful Gatsby graphics, leading us on a charming, visual escapade.
Forever, a New Woman
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