“On whom a flawless, well-grown specimen of the divine ‘rose of womanhood’ has been bestowed has been granted the greatest gift on earth, and although Clara did not know it, she was one of the fortunate ones.”
— Dorothea Gerard (1903)
In spite of the involuntary, and rather violent, exclamation of, Blecchh!! that escaped me upon reading the above and similar passages in Dorothea Gerard’s The Eternal Woman, I did try to give this novel a fair shake; although it was evident from its earliest chapters that it and I were operating from, to put it mildly, opposing philosophies. Written and set at the turn of the last century, The Eternal Woman is a determined attempt to turn the tide of female emancipation, chiefly by convincing young women that not only is marriage their true destiny, but a realm of female power and control.
Orphaned at an early age, Clara Wood, an English girl, is taken in on an impulse by the Viennese widow Baroness Sieffert. Shallow and self-absorbed, the Baroness loses interest in Clara as she grows older, although she always means to provide for her. However, when she dies suddenly, it is discovered that the Baroness has not made a will, and at the age of twenty Clara finds herself alone in the world and almost destitute. Turning for advice to the feminist magazine editor Fraulein Pohl, Clara is offered the chance to attend university, but decides that what she wants is marriage and a home, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Becoming a governess, Clara passes three years moving from position to position without finding what she seeks, before manoeuvring herself into the household of Philip Aikman in the position of companion-nurse to his senile mother. Aikman is single, lives in near solitude in a small coastal village in Scotland, and is heir to his uncle’s substantial fortune. He is, in other words, exactly what Clara has been looking for, and she sets to work at the task of becoming Mrs Aikman, and with success – provided that her conscience doesn’t intervene…
It is clear in The Eternal Woman that Dorothea Gerard did not like the changes that were happening in her world, and that she set herself to counteract what she regarded as feminist propaganda with some propaganda of her own. She starts by showing her readers the face of the enemy, in the rather paper-tigery form of Fraulein Pohl; at which point we discover that some stereotypes have very deep roots. The Fraulein is, to no-one’s surprise, “masculine”; she is “stout”, with “a pug-dog nose”; she wears glasses, and not only has a slight moustache, she actively cultivates it. Amongst a myriad of foolish notions, the Fraulein dreams of a world where women will be free to have short hair and wear pants – quelle horreur!
Informed of Clara’s situation, the Fraulein, with hopes of winning Clara to “her side”, offers her the chance to attend university on a scholarship. This is really where The Eternal Woman disappointed me. It was fairly obvious that Clara would ultimately choose to “be a woman” rather than “have a career” (naturally, you can’t do both), but I did hope that this novel would first offer a look at what higher education was like for young women at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, however, Clara decides to reject the Fraulein’s offer – and you’ll never believe what makes up her mind for her.
As Clara ponders the Fraulein’s words and contemplates her destiny, we are given the passage from which this novel takes its title:
“And yet, for all the plausible arguments used, for all the grain of truth which undoubtedly lay buried under the mountains of the editress’s rhetoric, there was something in it all which failed to satisfy some part of her inner self, and she was far too inexperienced to know that this part was nothing less than the eternal woman within her, who is neither ‘New’ nor ‘Old’, since she belongs to yesterday as well as to to-morrow…”
Still undecided, Clara tries to read herself to sleep. Instead, she stumbles across the personal philosophy which will in future shape her actions:
“And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once; old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth: A woman with fair opportunities and without an absolute hump may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.”
Incredibly, Dorothea Gerard seems to have taken this passage at face value; Clara certainly does. Personally, I’ve always read it as a typical Victorian example of a comprehensive insult being offered in the guise of a compliment. I must be as stupid as Thackery thinks.
(I may also say that I find it highly significant that we are never made privy to Clara’s opinion of Amelia Sedley, that dear little clinging parasite.)
Anyway, Clara is inspired by this passage with a belief in “the power of her womanhood”, and decides to set about about life as a moral Becky Sharp, if you please: that is, she will conquer the world with her wits and womanhood alone, adapting herself to circumstances and making herself useful, thus creating opportunities, while staying within the bounds of conscience; and as soon as she finds “a decently marriageable man”, she will make him her slave.
And it works. As she goes from position to position, demonstrating how “clever” and “resourceful” she is, Clara finds every available man at her feet, and has to keep moving on because they’re not what she wants, one way or another. Three years on, however, Clara is beginning to get a little desperate; desperate enough to resort to some tactics that are a little too Becky-like for comfort in order to manoeuvre herself into a position in the household of the extremely eligible Philip Aikman.
The world that Dorothea Gerard creates in The Eternal Woman is one I find creepy and depressing. Gerard is so intent on turning young women away from work and self-sufficiency and into marriage with her vision of feminine dominance that – although I rather doubt this was her intention – I ended up feeling profoundly sorry for the male of the species. I wouldn’t wish Clara Wood on anyone.
Gerard seems to have no real notion of a companionate marriage. Her thesis is that any woman who understands her own “womanliness” can get any man she wants to marry her; and that having done so, she will control the situation from there on in. The only unhappy marriages in Gerard’s world are those where the wives do not grasp the true power of their womanhood, or where the wife wields her power in an insufficiently feminine way. Men, confronted by this dread force, are mere playthings, putty in their wives’ hands, who will work and slave and fall over themselves to provide these “queenly” creatures with everything they desire, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to worship at their feet. There’s an underlying implication in this novel that what women really want out of marriage is a roof over their head and children and, that being the case, it doesn’t much matter who they marry. And in fact, husbands are rather like children – just a little stupider, and easier to manage.
And if the promise of power is Gerard’s carrot, she provides a stick also, in her inferences about women who do want a career, or at least don’t particularly want marriage. Here she resorts to a form of language that became increasingly common in conservative novels throughout the second half of the 19th century, as the rumblings of female discontent grew louder, and as new opportunities began to open up. It was no longer sufficient to say, It simply isn’t done! – since, obviously, it was being done, and more often all the time. The implication then became that ambitions apart from marriage and motherhood were nothing less than a form of sickness. Anthony Trollope, that most Victorian of novelists, so generous in some respects, yet narrow to the point of being cruel on this particular subject, was very fond of telling his readers how healthy his marriage-minded young women were – and how unhealthy any woman who made the slightest effort to jump the extremely narrow tracks laid down for her life. Dorothea Gerard uses the same tactic: Whenever she had thought of the future she had thought of matrimony almost as a matter of course (as every healthy-minded young woman does, however furiously she may deny it). And backing this position up is the eternal threat: sure, you can have an education and a career if you want one; but if you do, no man will ever really love you.
It is true that Clara’s feelings finally prevent her from going through with her plan to manipulate Philip Aikman into marriage – but just the same, her tactics work on him as they have on every other man; the novel never really recants its central thesis. Rather, it finally argues that a love-marriage is best, if you can manage one; but failing that, any marriage will do; while beyond that lies a drab and difficult life as a governess, a teacher or a nurse; and beyond that—
Actually, there’s nothing beyond that. No, no! – don’t look over there at the figure beckoning to you from the doorway to the university! Move along now – there’s nothing to see here.
Dismayed as I was by most of The Eternal Woman, there was one thing about it that I liked very much. Philip Aikman lives in a small Scottish fishing village called Rathbeggie, and his house is situated on a very cliff edge. We are given quite a number of word-pictures of Clara’s surroundings during the various extremes of local weather: the violent breaking of the waves, the power of the wind, the seaweed tossed upon the beach, the rock-pools and their scuttling crabs, the smell of salt in the air… In her physical descriptions of Rathbeggie, Dorothea Gerard’s writing contains a passion and a sincerity that are quite absent from her ruminations upon the relations between the sexes, and these passages are easily the best and most enjoyable part of this novel.