The Story of a Modern Woman

May 18, 2017
The Story of a Modern Woman

Impressions // The Story of a Modern Woman by Ella Hepworth Dixon

‘All we modern women mean to help each other now.’

If I were rich enough to buy a million copies of this book and devote the rest of my life to leaving them scattered across tube station platforms, park benches and shopping centres à la Emma Watson, I would.  Dixon’s text has, for reasons that utterly elude me, spent the best part of the past century out of mainstream print and has been republished only relatively recently, in this fantastic Broadview edition, which contains a thorough grounding in the context of the ‘New Woman’ phenomenon by way of Steve Farmer’s brilliant introduction, as well as a collection of reviews and essays from contemporary publications at the close.  My first encounter with this novel actually took place just over a year ago as part of a postgraduate class focusing on the Victorian Bildungsroman.  For this reason I should probably take a moment to express my gratitude to my university’s English department for introducing me to the novel which took just a few pages to become one of my all-time favourites.  In fact, there’s such scant information about Ella Hepworth Dixon available on the internet that it’s hardly a stretch to say that had it not been included on that particular module’s syllabus I would probably still be totally ignorant of her life and work, particularly as a student whose research interests have, up until now, tended towards the earlier half of the 19th century, only lightly skimming the ‘Woman Question’ debates that sprang up towards the later half.

Anyway, this first time, I read quickly (as literature students are often inclined to do) and impatiently, longing so desperately for the narrator to finally relay some good news, some good fortune – in short, something deserved – but something which ultimately never comes, to Dixon’s ill-fated heroine.  Instead, the novel charts the process of Mary Erle’s steady realisation that the world into which she was born is, to say the least, an unaccommodating place for women of any social standing, not least a woman like Mary; unmarried, financially strained, and searching for work in order to sustain both herself and her rather oblivious (if not utterly selfish) spendthrift younger brother, Jimmy.

Dixon’s language is rich, but by no means is it welcoming.  The picture of London she paints is at once beautiful and incredibly claustrophobic, creating that perfect physical parallel to the confining, suffocating conditions which characterised late Victorian girl/womanhood.  The novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the death of Mary’s father, an event which, despite occurring before the action of the story, will hang over the narrative like London’s infamous smog.  The effect here is twofold: her father’s death is a way of propelling the story; it is this event which alters the course of her development and necessitates her search for employment, but it also serves as a constant reminder of just how fully the women of the novel are forced to rely on the men around them for any semblance of stability.  The memories of her father are fond enough, but, as Farmer points out in his introduction, Professor Erle died having failed to provide Mary with ‘any substantial inheritance’, thus ‘[serving] to imprison Mary in a lifelong struggle to survive in a working world in which most young, single women are treated with scorn.’[1]  This practically agonising dependence upon men for any kind of financial or emotional security is underscored again and again throughout.  When Vincent Hemming, Mary’s lover, professes ardently his love for her, the hands with which he holds her are like ‘links of iron’.  Having established her own devotion to him, he declares his intention to travel for a year, ironically, to ‘collect materials for my book on the Woman Question’, leaving Mary alone in London, waiting dutifully for his letters, and his eventual return.

This is all to say nothing of Alison Ives, Mary’s closest friend in the novel.  An ‘an eminently modern woman’, the story could just as well be about Alison as it is about Mary.  Alison, who, unlike Mary, is not struggling to stay afloat financially, has made it her life’s work to turn around the lives of the impoverished women in the East End of London, and many of Alison and Mary’s exchanges are governed by Alison’s rather self-congratulatory tone, as she regales her friend with gossip-worthy tales of her own philanthropy and her life among the working classes.  Alison’s charity work, though well-intentioned, is bizarrely executed; apparently what London’s poverty-stricken women really need is a sense of humour and a trip to the National Gallery, rather than, say, healthy living conditions, a liveable wage, or, I don’t know, family planning or contraception or something. She is, nonetheless, presented sympathetically, and we are invited to empathise with her as the mouthpiece for the New Woman – perhaps more than Mary herself – yet she too is ultimately undone by the man to whom she is engaged to be married.  She thus provides the novel with what is most certainly its most memorable piece of dialogue, an entreaty to Mary not to do as women before have done:

‘Promise me that you will never, never do anything to hurt another woman… I don’t suppose for an instant you ever would.  But there come times in our lives when we can do 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.  But we’re not.’

Having made no attempt to hide my particular interest in, and emphasis on, works by and/or about women, I naturally have rather a lot more to say about Dixon’s novel than the fairly sparse precis I’ve provided for you today (I did try to minimise spoilers), particularly given that, despite decades of neglect, I think it ought to be considered something of a revolutionary feminist text.  I’m not entirely sure that I’m up to the task of examining just why The Story of a Modern Woman was never to command such a level of near-universal reverence, the way that, say, Jane Eyre has (although it’s certainly food for thought), but I do intend to write a longer piece about Mary’s development, her desires, her disappointments, and the novel’s place in feminism’s first wave.[2]

[1] Steve Farmer, ‘Introduction’, in The Story of a Modern Woman by Ella Hepworth Dixon (Plymouth: Broadview, 2004), p.28.

[2] Although Farmer does seem to advise caution when it comes to reading Dixon’s text (or indeed any text considered a New Woman novel) in this context, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything to lose in examining it as part of the feminist movement as a whole.

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