Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics

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The Story of a Modern Woman, Ella Hepworth Dixon, 1894

I am trying to remember why I added this book to my list and I am guessing that my past-self was hooked by the idea of a New Woman roman a clef. Dixon wrote about her own experience as a woman in a changing, Late Victorian World. Yeah, girl. Tell me what that was like. I am listening. I am ready to know how you define modern womanhood.

I know you are never going to read this obscure book, so here is a summary. Mary Erle is the daughter of a prominent scientist. When he dies, little orphan Mary must earn enough money to support herself and her younger brother. She tries to make it as an artist, but the painting that she works on for six months (six months!) is rejected from the Royal British Academy of Art or Whatever. Poor Mary. Fortunately, one of her more successful painter friends asks her to write a story to accompany a piece of his. Thus begins her career as a starving writer.

Meanwhile, her wealthier friend Alison takes an interest in helping less fortunate women. She wants to lead a more useful life than that of a London deb. Alison, who is far more interesting than Mary, seriously considers marrying the prominent doctor Dunlop Strange. I am not kidding. His name is Dr. Strange. Dunlop Strange. However, she encounters a dying woman in a hospital who turns out to be Strange’s abandoned mistress. Even though most Victorian women were expected to and did look past this type of masculine misbehavior, Alison cares about other women and is not about to marry a man who would toss someone aside like garbage.

Sadly, Alison catches a cold that, in combination with the mental shock of discovering her beau’s dying mistress, proves fatal. I know. That seems a bit too delicate, but they didn’t have antibiotics then. So, I suppose a thorough wetting and some bad news could. . .kill an otherwise healthy young woman? On her deathbed, Alison implores Mary to “Promise me you will never, never do anything to hurt another woman” because “there comes a time in our lives when we can do a great deal of harm or a great deal of good, or an incalculable amount of harm. If women only used their power in the right way! If we were only united we could lead the world.”

The implication is that if society women refused to marry men who ruin poor women’s lives and leave them to die in the gutter, men would have to stop doing that. It is tempting to think that female solidarity alone could generate a brave new world. It is a solution to the problem of male misbehavior that I have contemplated myself. It’s tough though, because, as Thomas Hardy wrote “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” Alison did not marry Dr. Strange, but someone will. He certainly wasn’t worth dying over, honey. Side note: How perfect is Thomas Hardy. So perfect.

Alison’s dying wish sets us up for the great crisis in Mary’s life. After stringing her along for years, her worthless lover marries a much wealthier woman, because he thinks her fortune can advance his political career. Later he has the audacity to come knocking at Mary’s door complaining about his unsatisfying marriage and begging her to runaway to France with him and live as his mistress. Of course, Mary tells him to jog on; she is a modern woman and modern women don’t bang each other’s husbands. I mean. . .it is certainly not the strongest feminist statement I have ever heard, but I will take it.

I appreciate that while the novel contains a strong dose of self-pity, Hepworth Dixon spends ample time acknowledging that other women have it much worse. She was well-connected, after all. One of her connections was Oscar Wilde, who appears in the book split into several different characters. He offers Mary writing work, but she still disdains his company, finding him too acerbic.

 

Here’s a quote:

“‘Oh, dear Miss Erle,’ said a shrill voice at the door, ‘do come in. It’s such a nice party. I wonder,’ continued Mr. Beaufort Flower, who entertained a good deal himself, ‘why other people’s parties are so much nicer than one’s own? I suppose it is because one always knows so many more people at other people’s houses?’

‘Who is here?’ said Mary, who never troubled herself to laugh at his small witticisms.”

Um, excuse me, Ella. You had the privilege of being in Oscar Wilde’s presence and you never troubled yourself to laugh. I don’t know what you are trying to prove with that attitude, but you’ve only shown that your bad taste. Also, don’t try to write something witty that Oscar Wilde might have said. You are not up to the task. He was much funnier than you. Anyway, I will try to forgive her. Oscar Wilde did enough mocking of others that he deserved to be mocked a little.

Final thoughts: Not bad. I am glad I read it. If you are interested, give it a try. It is quite brief and fairly well-written. I enjoyed it. Not a masterpiece, but worthwhile if it appeals to you. I can’t end this post without telling you about “Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics” which is a charity one of the characters in this book organizes. Feel free to use that for your next album title.

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