Monday, December 03, 2018

Two Women of the World, 1902 & 1903

Katherine Frensham / Beatrice Harraden
Edinburgh: Blackwood, c1903.
338 p.

This is one of Harraden's later novels, following on her first huge success in 1893 with Ships That Pass In The Night (which I've read, and really enjoyed!) 

This novel follows the lives of two characters: scientist Clifford Thornton who is unhappily married as the book opens, and Katharine Frensham, who meets him in part two, when he arrives in Norway where he's taken his son to get away from the tragedy that happens in the opening chapters.

The central section of the book is entirely set in Norway, with much natural drama (someone has noted that it reads like a travelogue/folk custom guide, which it sort of does). There is a Norwegian family with a guest house at which they are all staying, and the women of that family are very involved in the rolling out of the plot.

The final part of the book sees them all back in England. There's been a misunderstanding, and a lost letter: but it's a week before Christmas and something of the magic of the season works a miracle. The lost letter appears at Thornton's door, he reads it, and immediately runs to find Katharine in London. All is forgiven and it's a happy ending all around.

This is very much a novel of the early 1900s. It features a New Woman, Katharine, who is full partner with her brother in their family business, an organ making company. She works in the factory and thinks that a profession is the making of a woman. 

She's travelled around the world, though she thinks that Mary Kingsley is much better at relating her travels than she is herself! She goes to Norway as part of her business and that changes everything for her. But she's not weak and dependent, she continues on with the life she has planned for herself despite everything. I enjoyed her character, and so was able to overlook a lot of the predictable melodrama. While the earlier Harraden book I read had more humour and bookishness to it, this one was not terrible -- there was friendship, nature, music, and even science, all rolled into a typical story of the era. 

Life, the Interpreter / Phyllis Bottome 
London: Longman, c1902.   
299 p.

Now this is one older read that did not age well. The plot in brief: rich girl Muriel has left her uncle and her comfortable life to work in the slums of London, wanting to help the wretched poor. As such, she cannot marry Jack, the man she loves (against her better judgement) at least not until he leaves behind his life of reckless pleasure and shows some interest in the kind of social work she's given her life over to. 

Of course, her beauty and cleverness are no match for riches and frivolity, and Gladys, a much younger girl whom Muriel was once friends with, sets her mind on Jack. And eventually gets him. 

This throws all their friendships, relationships, social positions etc. into turmoil, but Muriel soldiers on helping poor girls left pregnant and abandoned to force the men responsible into marrying them - even though the poor girl helped thus doesn't seem to appreciate it much after a few months. Muriel's Lady Bountiful act comes from a well-meaning place but from this date, looking back on it, it is so very, very classist in her motivations and the descriptions of the poor people that she lives among. And there is absolutely nothing said about the structural reasons for their abject poverty -- the structure that Muriel herself goes right back to when she takes her regular holidays from the work. 

Meanwhile, there is a grim and humourless doctor who works in the slums and eventually comes to have a grudging respect for Muriel. Nevertheless he is a complete misogynist who, near the end, goes into a pages long rant about how women can never be men's equals, their brains aren't up to it, they should really focus on nurturing and supporting the valuable men (like himself) who are doing the intellectual work needed for social growth, and on and on -- and Muriel, until now a liberated woman, says NOTHING. It's like the author truly believes what she has Dr. Grant say. And then, to top it off, Muriel decides to marry the doctor. Her martyrdom is complete. 

This was a frustrating read that went in circles for far too long. The characters are thin, the plot is weak, and the author was beating a dead horse with the Muriel/Jack/Gladys love triangle. And then that ending, ugh! I wasn't a big fan of this story, but finished it because I needed a book for 1902 (ha!) and also I was hoping that the ending I saw coming was not going to really be the ending. Alas. 

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