Why is it, I wonder, that whenever a woman is unmarried, and ventures to express an opinion of her own these days, men put on that expression you are putting on now and call her the New Woman? – Barry Unsworth, The Rage of the Vulture
Two young women, worlds apart, the one in England longing to strip away a series of enveloping cocoons, the other educating herself through their collection and sale in Indiana. They are almost New Women. They are not quite New Women. They are themselves.
In recounting a young woman’s flight from home and her adventures with Fabians, sufragettes and a married man, Wells’ 1909 novel Ann Veronica alienated his traditional publisher and shocked a nation averse to seeing its own reflection in print and determined to instill in its daughters the particular art summed up by the novel’s epigraph:
The art of ignoring is one of the accomplishments of every
well-bred girl, so carefully instilled that at last she can
even ignore her own thoughts and her own knowledge.
Refusing ignorance, overcome by the restive energy that propels her (and the novel’s plot) forward, Ann Veronica knows what she must cast off even if she’s unsure as to precisely what knowledge or experience she wants to take on:
She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient – she did not clearly know for what – to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be – how can one put it? – in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer.
Wells and the clutch of European authors who dominated the early 20th century were obsessed with these houses and the women who went in and out of them. Wells’ contemporary Arnold Bennett, as well as Joseph Conrad, his elder by ten years, each wrote about Victorian women’s failure to free themselves from the wrappings of provincial English life.
Considerably older than both men, though part of their world, Henry James first coined the term “New Woman” to describe American expatriates who formed a vanguard on the continent, enjoying a special freedom of movement in Europe by virtue of their wealth.
More willing than his counterparts to flout social conventions, Wells married Victorians but he admired the New Woman in part because he could go to bed with her – and he did, many, many times. Little wonder that the emancipation he envisioned for women tended to conform to the contours of his desire and the bounds of his own freedom in love.
An Indiana naturalist and author of A Girl of the Limberlost and other books, Gene Stratton Porter herself embodied the New Woman in an American context, but an altogether different sexual freedom concerned her – the reproduction of the natural world. Stratton Porter created, in her beloved Elnora Comstock, an advocate for fragile ecosystems already threatened by the neglect and ignorance of “cooped-up city people,” that is, the people who generally write novels.
A comfortable extension of the pioneer tradition, Elnora strides into the future with the timeless confidence and sense of mission that come with unique opportunities to shape a world and not only be shaped by it. Elnora’s enduring appeal – the book sold well on publication and remains a popular reading club selection – lies in the rich soil of her character, itself the fruit of a distinctly rural environment. One admirer reflects on her peculiar magnetism later in the novel:
This vast store of learning she had gathered from field and forest was a wealth of attraction no other girl possessed. Her frank, matter-of-fact manner was an inheritance from her mother, but there was something more. Once, as they talked he thought ‘sympathy’ was the word to describe it and again ‘comprehension.’ She seemed to possess a large sense of brotherhood for all human and animate creatures. She spoke to him as if she had known him all her life….She might as well have been a boy, so lacking was she in any touch of feminine coquetry toward him.
Both Ann Veronica and Elnora confront real financial challenges that differ in accordance with their authors’ approaches. Fatherless Elnora feels the powerlessness (and bitterness) of women without men but she remains oblivious to or unconcerned with the power of men. In this way, Stratton Porter has created a world defined less by the presence of feminism than the absence of chauvinism. The omission makes her story at once more fantastical and more contemporary, almost post-feminist, even as Ann Veronica’s adventures are grittier and more authentic.
Forced to relinquish more than one much younger mistress (Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves) and to witness the potent effects of scandal on their lives, H.G. Wells was well-aware of the might with which Society overwhelmed even a brilliant young woman’s courage and ingenuity. Ann Veronica can find no way forward that does not require her to rely upon a man. Comparative freedom means only the opportunity and the ability to choose the one she deems appropriate – and the man she chooses is a clear surrogate for Wells himself.
They are almost New Women, Ann Veronica and Elnora Comstock. They are not quite New Women. Reading them in concert serves to illuminate the early 20th century by reminding us that history, even in fiction, tells stories of stubborn individuals who resist the raised nets of pattern and meaning with which we invariably stalk towards them.