~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~
In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.
And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.
A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.
What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:
It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.
So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)
The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:
Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.
Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.
King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:
She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.
Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.
Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.