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“My life has been a hell, mother”: Victimisation and Abortion in George Egerton’s “Virgin Soil” and “The Regeneration of Two”
By Emma Burris-Janssen.
Throughout her two most (in)famous short story collections—Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894)—George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) characterises women’s maternal instincts as “the only divine fibre in a woman” (“Gone Under” 108; original italics), 1 as a site of cross-class affiliation and sisterhood, 2 as a source of erotic and personal fulfillment, as a gateway to female regeneration, and as a motivating force so strong that, when thwarted, it can be transfigured into vengeful infanticide. 3 Given what Nicole M. Fluhr calls the “slippery … distinction between motherhood’s revolutionary and conservative functions” (258) in Egerton’s oeuvre, it is unsurprising that Egerton’s depictions of maternity have invited a great deal of scholarly debate since the recovery of her work by second-wave feminists more than a quarter of a century ago. As Sally Ledger observes in her 2003 introduction to Keynotes and Discords, “[b]eginning with Elaine Showalter’s account in 1977 in A Literature of Their Own, 4 all subsequent readings of Egerton’s stories have identified a faultline of biological essentialism in them” (xix). But, as Ledger goes on to argue, focusing too much on this “essentialist vein” in Egerton’s work can obscure the “unresolved tension between an essentialist, biologically driven maternal impulse associated with femininity, and a less tangible ‘excess’ of desire that has, in the stories, nothing to do with reproductive sexuality” (xix; original italics). One way to make this “less tangible ‘excess’ of desire” more tangible is to examine Egerton’s handling of abortion, an act that immediately signals a severing of the tie between sexual experience and reproduction. In “Virgin Soil” and “The Regeneration of Two,” Egerton aligns abortion with the victimised bodies of both middle- and working-class women. Through this narrative displacement, Egerton creates what Judith Butler calls a “constitutive outside” that allows her to reimagine the female body’s possibilities (x). In order to make a strong, unashamedly sexual and maternal body matter, Egerton associates “unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies” with images of abortion (Butler x). While abortion functions as shorthand for women’s real-life heteropatriarchal oppressions, female empowerment through maternity becomes the stuff of Egerton’s feminist utopia.
“Virgin Soil” opens in the wake of a wedding. This, as one would expect from a piece of New Woman fiction, is not a portrait of conjugal bliss. The reader is first introduced to the groom, who is waiting impatiently for his bride. He is the poster child for fin-de-siècle masculine degeneracy: “florid, bright-eyed, loose-lipped, inclined to stoutness” (127). As if this were not enough, he also bears the markers of a threatening and predatory sexuality: he signals his impatience with his new bride by sticking the phallic point of his umbrella into the linoleum; he bares his “strong white teeth” (127) like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood; and he repeatedly checks the time on “his hunter with the clock on the stairs” (127; emphasis mine). Meanwhile, his seventeen-year-old bride is sobbing on her mother’s shoulder only to find that the only comfort her mother can give is a halting series of veiled allusions to the necessity of obeying her new husband: “in all things—there are—there are things you should know—but—marriage is a serious thing, a sacred thing … you must believe that what your husband tells you is right—let him guide you—tell you—” (127). What falls into the spaces marked with dashes are unspoken and unspeakable references to female sexuality. The importance of sex is made more dramatic by its absent presence in the text. It forms a gap in the girl’s knowledge, a gap that has been cultivated and maintained by the girl’s mother. As Ann Ardis argues in New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism, filling in the gaps of female sexuality was “an important part of what can be termed the original agenda of the New Woman novel” (37). Though Egerton took issue with the term “New Woman,” which she condemned as “one of those loose, cheap, journalistic catch words” (Egerton qtd. in Forward 75), and tried to distance herself from New Woman novelists like Mona Caird and Sarah Grand, notoriously saying that “[t]o bracket me with Madame Sarah Grand or Mrs. Mona Caird is all right from the point of view of differentiation—wrong from any other” (Egerton qtd. in Forward 75), Egerton’s desire to explore the “terra incognita” of womanhood certainly resonated with the goals of her New Woman contemporaries (“A Keynote to Keynotes” 58; original italics).
With no knowledge of her own sexual needs or her husband’s expectations, the young bride in “Virgin Soil” initially departs the narrative in darkness, as her new husband’s “large, well-kept hand, with a signet ring on the little finger, pulls down the blind on the window of the engaged carriage” (128). The heroine is cut off from the outside world—and from nature—in what the reader can assume is a brutal sexual initiation. With her marriage, her body is contained and transported in ways that are outside of her control. Like Tess Durbeyfield, she is carried “like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from its living will” (Hardy 401). 5 When she returns to the narrative five years later, the trace of her husband’s sexual abuse is etched onto her body: “Her skin is sallow with the dull sallowness of a fair skin in ill-health, and the fringe of her brown hair is so lacking in lustre that it affords no contrast. The look of fawn-like shyness has vanished from her eyes, they burn sombrefully and resentfully in their sunken orbits, there is a dragged look about the mouth; and the keynote of her face is cynical disillusion” (129). Marked by illness, victimisation, and chronic suffering, her body is literally and rapidly becoming unlivable. Yet, it is only in this moment of abjection that the reader learns the woman’s name: Flo. Upon her return to her childhood home, the young bride of five years before is finally named by her mother, yet there is a slippage in the mother’s recognition of her child, as she hesitatingly questions, “Flo, my dear, Flo, is it really you?” (129). Ironically, Flo can only claim her name—can only be recognised as a viable subject in her society—after marriage has fragmented her body and identity.
Flo returns with the express purpose of confronting her mother, of telling her that “[w]hatever of blame, whatever of sin, whatever of misery is in the whole matter [her marriage] rests solely and entirely with you, mother” (131; original italics). In her analysis of this story, Elaine Showalter sees Flo’s animus toward her mother as a means of exploring “the effects of women’s suppressed anger, disgust, and rage in a situation where their emotional and economic dependence on men makes it impossible for them to confront their real enemies; in each story the woman projects her grievance onto a more manageable opponent” (213). Though Flo’s anger may initially appear to be misplaced, it is part of a larger critique that New Woman writers like Mona Caird 6 were also launching against women’s complicity in heteropatriarchal oppression. In order for women’s subjugation to be complete, it was necessary for mothers to mould their daughters into willing victims. Mothering, in other words, could be viewed as the primary means of replicating the heteropatriarchal order. While maternity in Egerton’s work is typically portrayed in a positive light, a crucial distinction must be made here: Egerton only depicts motherhood as fulfilling when it and the woman’s sexual partner are freely chosen. Flo articulates her lack of choice by describing her experience of marital rape, which is framed as normative for middle-class married women like her:
marriage becomes for many women a legal prostitution, a nightly degradation, a hateful yoke under which they age, mere bearers of children conceived in a sense of duty, not love. They bear them, birth them, nurse them, and begin again without choice in the matter, growing old, unlovely, with all joy of living swallowed in a senseless burden of reckless maternity, until their love, granted they started with that, the mystery, the crowning glory of their lives, is turned into a duty they submit to with distaste instead of favour granted to a husband who must become a new lover to obtain it. (131)
This depiction of female sexual experience complicates Egerton’s tendency to endorse maternity as the fulfillment of female desire. Flo’s narrative foregrounds the idea that maternity can only be satisfying when it functions as an expression of unconstrained female sexual choice, not as a mechanism for disciplining female sexuality.
While willed and willing maternity is exalted throughout Egerton’s stories, the “senseless burden of reckless maternity” is not. This is one aspect of the disconnection between Egerton’s aspirational agenda for women and her darker depictions of their everyday lives: her vision of an “eroticized maternity” through which women can achieve self-fulfillment is a complete departure from the ways in which women were actually taught to experience their bodies at the time (Miles 247). As “Virgin Soil” demonstrates, Egerton’s typical (not exceptional) middle-class woman is forced to wage a grim war between her husband’s sexual “needs” and her own survival. Her real-world choice is between submission to and resistance against the “senseless burden of reckless maternity.” There is no other option open to Egerton’s typical woman because she does not yet live in the world that Egerton’s exceptional woman constructs. As a woman living within an exploitative marital system, Flo does not have the option of bringing her sexuality into step with her desire for maternity. This is made clear from Flo’s reaction when her mother suggests that Flo’s hardness of heart might be softened if she “had had a child—” (133). While childbearing might be an empowering option for Egerton’s liberated heroine in “The Regeneration of Two,” it is clearly not for Flo, as she completes and rejects her mother’s thought: “‘Of his—that indeed would have been the last straw—no, mother.’ There is such a peculiar expression of satisfaction over something—of some inner understanding, as a man has when he dwells on the successful accomplishment of a secret purpose—that the mother sobs quietly, wringing her hands” (133). I would like to suggest that this reference to Flo’s accomplishment of a masculinised “secret purpose” is a coded allusion to abortion.
One of the aspects of abortion that most worried the nineteenth-century medico-legal establishment was its potentially covert and secretive nature. In an era before pregnancy testing and ultrasound technologies, only a woman could reliably determine when she was pregnant. And, by extension, this meant that a woman could potentially terminate her pregnancy without anyone being the wiser. Even after abortion’s criminalisation in 1803, “many women regarded abortion as morally acceptable—at least before quickening—and were unaware that it was a serious criminal offence” (Keown 40). As Leslie Reagan points out, early nineteenth-century women typically “perceived conception as the ‘blocking’ or ‘obstructing’ of menstruation, which required attention” (8). This meant that what is today labelled an early abortion would, throughout much of the nineteenth century, have been seen as a restorative practice by which the menstrual flow was returned. The name Flo resonates with this earlier tradition. Flo is an emblem of Victorian womanhood. She is caught up in a set of outmoded marital conventions that are completely out of step with the natural ebb and flow of her desire. Instead, she is forced to submit to her husband’s sexual “needs” without acknowledging her own. Faced with the daily “legal prostitution” and “degradation” of her body, Flo’s only option for maintaining her flow is to resort to criminalised abortion. By associating Flo with abortion in this story, Egerton is also labeling abortion a byproduct of Victorian marital abuse. Abortion, in this piece, is an option of last resort among the victimised. Flo is not an Egertonian Übermensch of the future; 7 instead, she is a victim of her circumstances and the predictable product of an oppressive society. Unable to establish a new type of society, Flo’s only choice is to disrupt the replication of the heteropatriarchal order by refusing to submit her body to the literal reproduction of her husband’s will. This is exactly the wish Flo expresses to her own mother: “why didn’t you strangle me as a baby? It would have been kinder; my life has been a hell, mother” (132). Here, Flo passionately articulates her own status as an unlivable body. Hers is a body that wishes for its own demise and becomes a reproductive “dead-end” as the only form of resistance left to it.
While Flo represents women’s victimised status under the old system, Egerton’s nameless heroine in “The Regeneration of Two” represents the possibility for development through female-directed social regeneration. “The Regeneration of Two” charts one woman’s transformation from a corseted, sickly, powdered, and listless young widow to the vigorous matriarch of a commune for fallen women and their children. At the beginning of the story, its heroine is captured in a “weary attitude” (135). She is caught mid-yawn, having thrown down her book because she is too headachy to read. She is described as someone whose body is naturally strong but whose vigour has been sapped by the trappings of her wealth and social position. Her hands are “well formed” but have a jaundiced look about them—a tone of “yellow whiteness” that denotes their protection from the outside world and the necessity of labour (135). They possess innate strength but have been “cultivated” into delicacy. This tension between natural strength and socially-induced uselessness is reiterated in the description of the woman’s body that follows:
She is far above the average height, and as she lifts her rather long, bare arms to reach down a gown, every action is full of grace. She has sloping shoulders and a long deep chest; she looks slight of hips, and yet her frailness is more apparent than real: her muscles show under her delicate skin as she moves. She dresses slowly and stamps her foot impatiently when she lets anything drop out of her hand, which she seems to do often in her nervous irritability. She looks at herself in the long glass with a kind of satisfaction, rubs off a final dab of powder … lifts up her gown and looks at her feet in the glass, turns slowly round to get a back view, and then gives a pleased nod over her shoulder at her own image. (138)
Like Flo, this woman is marked by frailty, sallow skin, and nervousness. She is only able to recognise herself through the imagined gaze of an approving (and presumably masculine) spectator. Her body is an image, alienated from her subjective, embodied experience of it. All that it naturally possesses is overpowered by the role it is required to perform within the heteropatriarchal parameters of her society. Its frailty is cultivated, its physical “flaws” are constructed by the male gaze and then covered by corsets and powder, and all of this has resulted in a “nervous irritability” that reveals itself as the woman prepares to be seen—not to act.
However, by the story’s close, the nameless woman’s relationship to her own body is radically transformed. By the narrative’s end, she is unrecognisable—both to the reader and to the male poet whose words have effected her transformation: instead of being fitted into the latest Parisian fashions, she is clad in crimson homespun, which she has made herself. Her change is charted through the embodied experience of this spinning. As she tells her poet-companion, “The wool in the gown holds all my first attempts. I like it; I spun an awful lot of thoughts into it,—much of my old self; and when it was finished, I was new” (165). Rather than purchasing the labours of others, she is liberated by performing the labour herself. 8 This freedom from the market economy also registers her freedom from the marriage market. Just as she is able to possess the fruits of her own labour, she is able to possess her own body in a way that she could not before. Instead of dressing to deny, reshape, and literally fit her body to the desires of others, she is able to dress in a way that allows her body to function and to work. She has thrown off her Paris-made clothes and her corset. She has also thrown off the practice of wearing makeup, and her skin is no longer covered by powder but is instead described as being clear and naturally flushed, as opposed to being artfully painted. This transformation also contains a move from the signifiers of the city (the Paris-made clothing, the demands of social life) to the signifiers of the country and nature (the woman’s embrace of her natural shape, her natural skin, and her natural abilities). As Martha Vicinus points out in her 1983 introduction to Keynotes and Discords, though Egerton does not “equate Nature with women’s nature,” she “consistently moves her characters outdoors for moments of self-revelation or reverie” (xi). Located on the fringes of society, Egerton’s heroine is free to embrace her body, explore her sexuality, and mother her fallen women and their children.
What sparks this nameless woman’s regeneration are the words of the nameless poet she initially encounters when she flees the enervating confines of her home in town to the liberating green world of the Norwegian woods. While walking in the woods, she chances upon a man’s sleeping body. She watches him sleep and, when he wakes, she is unsettled by his lack of interest in or appreciation for her feminine charms. She attempts to capture his attention through artful flirtation and, when this fails, she asks him to tell her what he sees “in plain prose”: to tell her “the truth” (145). One of the truth-images the poet conjures for her is this: “I see factory doors open and troops of men and women and children, apologies for human beings, narrow-chested, stunted, with the pallor of lead-poisoning in their haggard faces, troop out of them; and as they laugh wearily their teeth shake loosely in their blue-white gums, and they are too tired to wash the poison off their hands before their scanty meals” (146). As Laura Chrisman observes, much of the poet’s diatribe constitutes an “outburst against empire … [that] loosely links imperial war-mongering with the exploitation and destruction of honest working men (such as carpenters) and with the degeneration of working people through manufacturing industries” (48). There is, however, one missing link in Chrisman’s list: the link that this passage implicitly forges between empire, urban degeneration, and abortion. While on the surface, the poet’s statement seems like a fairly straightforward critique of capitalism and its abuse of the worker, I would like to suggest a second reading, one that does not offer a gender-neutral representation of the oppressed body but that recognises the gendered implications of this scene.
Most nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commentators on the risks of lead poisoning were not concerned with bodies generally but tended to focus on women’s bodies in particular. In 1911, Sir Thomas Oliver, MD presented a paper on “Lead Poisoning and the Race” for the Eugenics Education Society, which was subsequently reprinted in The British Medical Journal. While Oliver begins by voicing his concern for the average worker, he rapidly zeroes in on the implications of lead poisoning for the female worker, saying that this form of poisoning is particularly cruel for women because it prevents them from rising “to the dignity of the completed act of motherhood” (1096). For Oliver, this problem with the female body translates into a flaw in the body politic, as he equates women’s reproductive health with the health of the nation. In this same piece, Oliver proceeds to associate women’s factory work with the weakening of the nation, arguing that work in general is harmful to pregnant women and that working around lead is especially dangerous because of its linkage to abortion “in the lower animals” and “with women” (1096). Though he refuses to go into detail, Oliver also alludes to one of the ways in which this knowledge of lead’s effect on pregnancy was used beyond the urban factory, commenting that this knowledge speaks to “the havoc which is being wrought by the modern craze for pleasure and which among all classes of society is undermining the best instincts of womanhood” (1096). Of course, the unspeakable thing that Oliver cannot bring himself to name is the act of abortion.
What began as a risk originating in the work environment quickly caught on with women looking to end their pregnancies. As historian Patricia Knight notes, “It had been observed that women who worked in factories where white lead was used, often had miscarriages,” and this knowledge quickly spread throughout the female subculture (60). By the 1890s, this relatively new means of obtaining an abortion was becoming increasingly popular as it was believed to be more effective than other, more traditional methods. While the older, more traditional means of obtaining a miscarriage were associated with plant-based remedies passed down through generations of wise women and midwives, the increasing urbanisation of the population spurred changes in the preferred methods for inducing illegal abortions. Where community women were once informally consulted, displaced urban populations were much more likely to turn to the pharmacy or the advertisements section of a newspaper. As The British Medical Journal bemoaned in a 1920 column on “The Sale and Advertisement of Abortifacients,” lead-based products were being sold through a range of publications, and this illicit knowledge was being spread so quickly that, between 1893 and 1905, “it became a routine practice to examine the gums of female patients” of childbearing age for the telltale white-blue line that indicated lead poisoning (192). This same practice was instituted across the country, as some hospitals checked the gums of all women who had miscarried, while others inspected the bodies of all dead women of childbearing age.
Lead poisoning’s strong association with abortion, particularly in the 1890s, raises a number of questions about Egerton’s use of this imagery in “The Regeneration of Two.” What does it mean that this image is so key to the regeneration that occurs in the central female character? Why does it appear in connection with the bodies of the working masses? And, what does it mean that this image serves as a trigger for the heroine’s personal growth away from the city? This suggestion of abortion at the beginning of the story is especially telling because, by the end, we find that the main character has reacted to this image by escaping to her rural estate to create a commune for former prostitutes and their children. This is significant because, although most historians believe that married women with several children accounted for much of the traffic in illegal abortion services, it was still strongly associated in the popular mind with prostitutes and other lower-class working women. While the first section of the story introduces the problematic image of bodies being wounded and unsexed by a popular abortifacient, the following section provides the “solution”: freeing these female streetwalkers by transferring them to a rural commune where they can reconstitute themselves and reclaim their bodies.
Part of this reclamation involves consciously or unconsciously coding the oppressed body as an aborting body so that the empowered female body can emerge as a maternal one. As Casey Cothran persuasively argues in “Fanged Desire: The New Woman and the Monster,” pregnancy often constitutes an embrace and assumption of a “decidedly female body” in Egerton’s oeuvre, a “natural” body that is often juxtaposed with the socially imposed “mask of the feminine” (par. 17). This tendency clearly manifests itself in “The Regeneration of Two” where the bodies that the poet unsexes are the bodies that he also aligns with lead, a well-known abortifacient in the 1890s. Although he is careful to say that these bodies encompass “men and women and children,” his descriptions of these bodies belie their sexual differentiation, as they all merge into that mass that lacks the signifiers of sex: they are figured as “apologies for human beings, narrow-chested, stunted” (“Regeneration” 146). When the body of this unsexed crowd is compared with the heroine’s evolution into a maternal body, the association of maternity with the assumption of a “decidedly female body” is especially pronounced. When the poet encounters the heroine again at the end of the story, he comments on the physical growth that mirrors her psychological development: “You have grown, I believe. Your bust is fuller, your hips—ah, your corset is gone. You look so strong, so capable” (166). Of course, it is the tale of the lead-poisoned, unsexed urban crowd that serves as the pivot point between the Fruen’s two bodies: she begins the tale in the sickly body of a society lady and ends it in the utopic maternal body of a “true woman.”
Abortion in Egerton’s work functions as a warning, as an object lesson in what can happen if women fail to rethink the heteropatriarchal structures they inhabit. This tendency to collapse the aborting body with the victimised one was hardly rare among nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century feminists who tended to view abortion exclusively as a consequence “of male sexual exploitation and pressure” (Reagan 32). Historian Leslie Reagan argues that this insistent alignment of the victimised body with the aborting one signalled an early feminist blindness to “the possibility of female sexual independence … [and] [o]ther possible explanations for abortion—that the woman did not want to marry, or that both parties in the relationship viewed the potential child and the potential marriage as impossible, or that some women, like men, participated in sexual affairs that they had no intention of concluding in marriage—were not acknowledged” (32). But, what are we to make of this explanation in the context of George Egerton’s work? What does it mean that a woman whose writings were openly attacked for their too-frank handling of female sexuality would demur from exploring the full range of possible reasons why a woman might choose abortion as an empowering decision?
One possible reason for this is political. As much as Egerton insisted on her disengagement from the political side of the woman question, her characterisations of aborting women as victims is a tried and tested means of facilitating abortion reform. As legal historian Sally Sheldon observes, this was one of the methods mobilised by advocates for the Abortion Act of 1967: while opponents of this act portrayed aborting women as selfish and irresponsible, reformers tried to counteract this image by presenting the typical woman criminalised by abortion law as
distraught, out of her mind with the worry of pregnancy possibly because she is young and unmarried, but normally because she already has too many children. She is desperate, and should the doctor not be able to help her, her potential actions are unpredictable (suicide is discussed). Her husband is either absent or an alcoholic, her housing situation is intolerable. She is at the end of her tether simply trying to hold the whole situation together. (38)
This description could easily fit both Flo and the nameless workers portrayed in the poet’s speech. Female agency is undercut to enable a chivalrous protectionism. Though Egerton tries to sidestep the issue altogether by imagining her exceptional women outside of real-world demands for political change, I would argue that her construction of the aborting body as a victimised one realigns her writing with the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century abortion reformers. Like New Woman novelist Emma Frances Brooke, 9 George Egerton deploys abortion as a symptom of female oppression within a heteropatriarchal regime. While this association fails to engage with the rich terrain of women’s motivations for abortion, it does constitute a political gesture and a distinctive New Woman critique of heteropatriarchal structures.
Emma Burris-Janssen received her M.A. in English literature from the University of New Hampshire in 2013 and is currently finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation project brings together her interests in the medical humanities and gendered criminality by exploring the ways in which abortion was represented in British fiction from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.
These lines from “Gone Under” are voiced by the story’s naïve heroine while she is trying to comprehend how a woman’s natural character can be perverted into badness by her sexual abuse. The story is focalised through the character of an inexperienced Irish girl who encounters a fallen woman on her return trip to the British Isles from New York City. Edith, the tale’s fallen woman, explains how her child is killed at “Madame Rachelle’s” (107). While the name Madame Rachelle is suggestive of London-based beautician and alleged abortionist, Madame Rachel (Sarah Rachel Leverson), I am hesitant to label this an abortion. Instead, Edith’s description of her experience seems more in keeping with infanticide, as she describes her period of confinement in the country and tells the story’s heroine that, when “the time drew near, … we went up to town” (107). This suggests that Edith was nearing full term and that, rather than having a forced abortion, she was drugged during delivery and that her child was killed after it was delivered. While the line between infanticide and abortion was often blurred during the nineteenth century, I am cautious about collapsing these two categories by labelling Edith’s experience an abortion. However, like Egerton’s representations of abortion, her depictions of infanticide (in both “Gone Under” and “Wedlock”) highlight women’s oppression and their inability to embrace their desire for maternity. The desire for maternity in Egerton’s stories is so powerful that it can overcome all but the cruelest forms of heteropatriarchal intimidation and abuse. For instance, in “A Cross Line” (from Keynotes
), the story’s heroine chooses not to pursue her sexual desire for another man and, instead, opts to remain with her nurturing—if dull—husband when she realises she is pregnant. Even within the nineteenth-century confines of the institution of marriage, Egerton shows how a woman’s maternal instinct can be nurtured as long as it is not actively denied.
In “A Community of Women: Women’s Agency and Sexuality in George Egerton’s Keynotes
,” Lisa Hager documents the “recuperative elements” of Egerton’s essentialism and how maternity serves as a potential site for cross-class affiliation (par. 4). Hager also explores the ways in which Egerton elides some complexities of class positioning in order to make this positive experience of “bonding over maternity” possible (par. 15).
For an introduction to the question of maternity in George Egerton’s work, see Martha Vicinus’s 1983 introduction to Keynotes
, as well as Sally Ledger’s 2003 introduction to the most recent scholarly edition of Keynotes
. Nicole M. Fluhr’s 2001 article, “Figuring the New Woman: Writers and Mothers in Egerton’s Early Stories,” provides a helpful analysis of the ways in which Egerton used her female characters to explore the relationship between reproduction and literary production.
As Ann Ardis observes in New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism
(1990), Showalter “treats the work of late-nineteenth-century women writers with enormous condescension” in A Literature of Their Own
(6). In Egerton’s case, Showalter describes her as “another ‘advanced’ woman writer of the nineties who never developed sufficiently as an artist to sustain her first celebrity” (210). Ardis makes a compelling case for this harsh judgment as a symptom of feminist criticism’s marginality in the academy of the 1970s (8).
Unlike Tess, however, Flo is carried away—not by a natural element like water—but by a symbol of man-made “progress.” This is a key component of the type of tragedy Egerton tracks throughout her fiction. The tragedies of Egerton’s heroines are typically the clear byproduct of social forces.
In two of her best-known novels, The Wing of Azrael
(1889) and The Daughters of Danaus
(1894), Caird shows the crucial roles that mothers—and children—play in imprisoning women within loveless marriages of convenience.
In her article dealing with Nietzsche’s influence on George Egerton’s depiction of women and femininity, Elke D’hoker suggests that, for Egerton, a woman could inhabit the position of the Übermensch
through her demonstration of “strength, self-reliance, independence, and a closeness to body and earth” (533). While a character like Flo from “Virgin Soil” might lack these qualities, Egerton’s heroine in “The Regeneration of Two” is able to eventually acquire the status of an Übermensch
Of course, as Laura Chrisman rightly observes, “this allegory of pastoral self-sufficiency, in which an independent livelihood is constructed from scratch, is no more authentic than that of Robinson Crusoe, who commences his island sojourn with the advantage of many technological aids from the metropolis. In 'The Regeneration of Two,' for instance, the woman is enabled to develop her colony of women only because she has inherited property and wealth from her dead husband. The achievement of self-sufficiency through ‘honest’ cottage labour, in other words, is possible only through the unearned wealth of an inheritance which precedes it” (47-48).
Emma Frances Brooke’s novel, A Superfluous Woman
, appeared the same year as Egerton’s Discords
, 1894. Like “The Regeneration of Two,” Brooke’s novel features a society heroine who flees to the countryside (in this case, the countryside in question is located in Scotland, not Norway). Unlike Egerton’s heroine, however, Brooke’s Jessamine Halliday returns to her life in town, marries the degenerate Lord Heriot, and eventually wills herself to abort her final pregnancy. In a sense, Brooke’s novel brings together the key features of Egerton’s “Virgin Soil” and “The Regeneration of Two,” Jessamine tries to liberate herself as Egerton’s heroine in “The Regeneration of Two” does, but she ultimately
fails to resist the call of the familiar and ends up trapped in a loveless marriage, much like Flo in “Virgin Soil.” And, like Flo, Jessamine is forced to extricate herself from her society through an act of abortion.