Thursday, 13 March 2014


Five years ago a writer in a London newspaper boldly asserted that "the most unpleasant books were written by women and their readers were principally women. "

Since that time women writers (says Jessie Adelaide Middleton in "Pearsons Magazine") have become still more daring, still more unconventional in their revelations, still more reckless in their unmasking of a side of feminine nature which is better left unrevealed. They continue to pour out a flood of books, some of which offend openly against the laws of decency, while others, which preserve a strict and indeed an almost aggressive morality, touch upon themes which are nauseating and revolting and depict scenes of vice and depravity.

An American writer, commenting on this fact, remarks:—"One is amazed sometimes at the frequency with which, in an age that shudders at the outspokenness of Shakespeare and shrinks from the plain dealing of Fielding, stories only to be described as ineffably nasty are admitted to the chastest drawing-room tables. Sometimes these stories are written by young girls, who prattle with naive audacity of things of which they ought to know nothing; sometimes they are written by grown women, who believe in emancipating their sex by depriving it of modesty. . . .   By whomsoever written they sell." 

The yearly output of new novels is between two and three thousand. About 30 per cent, of them are written by women, and at least half of them deal morbidly with unpleasant topics. Many women embark on the writing of a novel, not because they have a story to tell or a lesson to teach, but merely, to quote the words of Miss Braddon, the veteran woman novelist, "for the purpose of tickling the depraved palate of a certain class of reader." 

The same thing is true of many volumes of reminiscences written by women. The last year or two has seen several notorious volumes published for the mere purpose of raking up long-dead scandals. Some women seem to take an unholy joy in washing dirty linen—other peoples of course—in public.

A sort of censorship has been established by the libraries with a view to refusing to circulate "doubtful" novels; but this is worse than useless, because its energies are directed in the wrong channel. The libraries ban books that attack serious problems in a serious manner, and go issuing feeble and vicious ones that do far more harm, because they treat vice lightly. Imagine a censor who knows nothing of his business, for instance, banning a masterpiece like Sudermann's "Song of Songs," while allowing such books as "A Celibate's Wife" and "Anna Lombard" to remain in circulation. In any case, the libraries ought not to take upon themselves the consciences of their clients. They exist to supply books to order, not to dictate to their clients what they must and must not read, and nothing is more galling to a man or woman of mature years than to ask for a book and to be told "None of the libraries have taken it."

One of the first modern writers to contribute to what is described as the fiction of sexuality was Madame Sarah Grand with "The Heavenly Twins," which fell like a bombshell into the reading world. Its morality was unimpeachable, but it frankly discussed the problem of whether prenuptial immoralities on the part of a man should be a bar to marriage.

"'Shocking!" said the Puritan. "We don't discuss these things in books!" But worse was to follow.   

A woman writer in South Africa had already adopted the pseudonym" of "Ralph Iron" to launch another strong book— one of the finest books ever written by a woman. This was "The Story of an African Farm," by Olive Schreiner. Its pages palpitate with genius, but its theme is morbid and unpleasant and its realism is at times revolting, as, for instance, where it details the flogging of a boy and the torturing of an ox. The heroine's candid views on marriage and motherhood are strongly expressed, and she boldly claims sex-freedom for women. Olive Schreiner is one of the pioneers of the New Woman movement, and her book is an expression of her views.         

Other sex-problem novels came thick and fast from the pens of women's writers:— "A Superfluous Woman," by Emma Brooke in which the heroine is doomed to become the mother of a diseased child by a reprobate husband; "A Yellow Aster,' by Mrs. Mannington Caffyn, which is a protest against girls rushing blindfold into marriage; "Dr. Janet of Harley-street," by Arabella Kenealy, on the same subject; "The Daughters of Danaus." by Mrs. Mona Caird, on loveless marriage and enforced maternity : "The Story of a Modern Woman," by Ella Hepworth Dixon, which incidentally tells the tale of a woman who is—as the author says—a moral scapegoat; "Johanna Traill. Spinster," by Annie Holdsworth", which deals frankly with the women of the pavement. Last, but certainly not least, "Keynotes" and "Discords," by "George Egerton." perhaps the most startling, certainly two of the most able and artistic, of the sex-problem novels ever written.

All these books, frankly expressed and getting down into the very heart of things, were books written with a purpose. They each laid bare some canker eating at the core of womanhood, and did not spare the reader one jot of detail in so doing. They were not merely stories, but books to read and ponder over, and nobody would dream of questioning the sincerity of their writers. But they were novels and not scientific treatises, and as novels they must be judged. They suggested no remedy for the evils they depicted, and they were apt to be read more because they were unpleasant than because they were powerful. Worse still, they had the effect of raising up a horde of inferior imitators.

There followed a perfect flood of merely sensual books, written by women, their eternal theme being lawless love and divorce, two subjects upon which women love to harp—"Seventh Commandment" books, as someone wittily calls them which do not pretend to teach a lesson or air a grievance, but are frankly pagan, and revel in an atmosphere of gross sensuality.

It is as if their writers had said to themselves, in the words of Adolphe Brisson:—"The public is no longer hungry. Let us serve it with cunning and diabolical sauces, the spices of the Orient, mingled with the concoctions of Europe. The voluptuous mysteries of Egypt and of Greece, the debaucheries of Byzantium, the erotic manias of Rome in her decline, the customs of unmentionable houses, the alluring pictures of hidden vices—let them all lend us their help!"'

Some of these books reek openly of the unpleasant, others are redolent of the boudoir, and have a subtle suggestiveness which the readers may or may not appreciate, according to their enlightenment

One can imagine a dear old early-Victorian lady of a certain type sitting down to "peruse" one of the novels written by the women of to-day and going placidly on, utterly failing to catch the author's drift or to see the indelicacy of the double entendre, perhaps closing it at last with the remark that it was a dull book because there was so little story in it—"and oh, my dear, what slipshod grammar, to be sure!"

But the modern girl is more wide-awake. She is certainly better educated than her grandmother in the world's wickedness. Girls who are fond of reading read everything they can lay their hands on, and in some cases they are none the worse for it. The evil does not stay with them—they read of it without being polluted—but other cases the poison which is instilled does incalculable harm, because every germ of evil takes root and flourishes in the unhealthy soil of a morbid and neurotic mind. "But we don't write for young girls." cries the author of "Seven Scarlet Sins," or "An idyll of Piccadilly." True, but young girls get hold of questionable books, whether they are written for them or not.

Among unpleasant books I may mention collectively several of the novels of "Victoria Cross." some of those of "Frank Danby," one at least by Dolf Wyllard, and some by Gertie de S. Wentworth James. Even the finest and most popular women novelists of to-day are tainted with the morbid love for unpleasant—I do not mean improper—themes. Lucas Malet, whose literary style is unimpeachable, and who towers head and shoulders above most men writers, chooses for her hero in "'Sir Richard Calmady," a man born practically without legs, whose love adventures in the original book are extremely nauseating.

The Baroness von Hutten makes her precocious child-heroine, Pam, the offspring of a most happy irregular union, and lets her discuss the situation very gravely. Mrs. Edith Wharton's new book. "Ethan Frome," is truly described by a reviewer as revealing "a tragedy so horrible in its completeness that it leaves us aghast. Mrs. Campbell-Praed, in "Nadine," details the manner in which a girl drags her dead lover's body by night through the corridors of a country house.

Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes—a most charming and brilliant writer—makes her heroine (a married woman), in "The Uttermost Farthing," die in the train in the presence of her lover en route to the place where they propose to sojourn together. Clever Miss Clo Gravas has been all too silent of late, but recently (if she wrote the book, as alleged) she has broken silence with "The Dope Doctor," and a more unpleasant book in some places—although it is powerful and interesting—it would be difficult to find. 'The Dangerous Age," by Karin Michaelis, is supposed to be a psychological, but is really a physiological study of the woman of forty.

One might go on detailing one unpleasant book after another, but enough has been said to show the morbid tendencies of modern women writers. That women can, when they choose, write with horrible realism and with a love of gruesome detail that would shame the French decadents is certain.   

We ourselves are going through a period of literary decadence, and the strange fiction written by women is one of its phases. Everybody rushes into print. Mediocre writers, with hardly any literary gifts at all, keep on writing silly, rather risky novels about love and divorce, one after the other, which, so long as there is a demand for them will continue to appeal.

It seems to me that, in criticising the unpleasant books written by women, and in trying to give the reasons why women write them, some people are wide of the mark. Many assert that the books in question are designed to show the intellectual and moral degradation of Man. Others say they are written to sell —inspired by purely mercenary motives because there is a great and growing market for them. Others maintain that women use these books as a vehicle for airing the grievances of their own sex and reciting their wrongs. Others, again, assert that it is woman's love of notoriety— which is far stronger than man's—that leads her to write books that will be talked about and bring her into public notice.

I venture to think that the chief reason why women write unpleasant books is that woman is by nature morbid and neurotic, and deep down, under the mask of convention, she retains all her primeval instincts. These books are a reflex of a certain type of feminine mind, and women, in writing them, hold up the mirror to their own. 

Years ago, to write an unpleasant book meant social ostracism. Women dared not put their inner thoughts and feelings into print, and strip their hearts and souls naked for the world to read. They thought the thoughts, but dared not voice them.   

Byron's oft-quoted lines—"Man's love is of man's life a thing apart—'tis woman's whole existence," strike the keynote of the feminine nature. Woman was created for love—it is her sphere and her kingdom. When she dared write as she felt she promptly wrote of Love and Sex, openly and unashamed, because they were the subject that most absorbed her. Women write these books from their own experiences and their own observations. I do not for one moment suggest that every woman who writes of illicit love is necessarily unchaste, or that a woman who writes of intemperance is a drunkard. But I do suggest that our latter-day women are neurotic and sensuous, and that they often write about unsavory subjects from inner knowledge and a morbid love of the unclean.

"George Egerton" tells us that men have never discovered why a refined physically fragile woman will mate with a brute, a mere male animal with primitive passions. Then she goes on to explain why. "They have overlooked the original wildness, the untamed primitive savage temperament that lurks in the mildest and best women. Every woman is conscious of it in her truth-telling hours of quiet self-scrutiny, and each woman in God's world will deny it, for the woman who tells the truth and is not a liar about these things is untrue to her sex and abhorrent to man."

Here is a frank confession about women by a woman, and if true it account for many things. Without agreeing with Pope that every women is at heart a rake, one cannot help feeling that most of the heroines of women writers are certainly next door to it, in their unbridled animal passions, hysterical confidences, and diseased imaginings. The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, in the play of that name, says that "to be a woman is to be mad," and truly women, when they let themselves go, write with a lack of restraint akin to madness. This is the outcome of the "untamed primitive savage temperament," and it is a pity it finds its expression in the form of fiction, for such fiction can only pander to the lower side of human nature, and can serve no good purpose whatever.

 The Advertiser 13 April 1912,

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