The Woman Who Did (1895) is a novel by the prolific Canadian writer Grant Allen. Although broadly feminist in its outlook the book caused a scandal upon its initial publication with both conservative society, and the more progressive supporters of women’s rights, finding much to dislike within its pages. Although feminists at the time treated the book with a degree of caution it did, however, highlight in sympathetic terms the plight of unmarried mothers and the hypocrisy shown towards them by society.
The Woman Who Did tells the story of Cambridge-educated Herminia Barton, a woman who chooses to lead an independent life rather than follow the conventional plans set out for her by her parents. Herminia moves to London, pursues a career as a teacher and falls in love with a young lawyer, Alan Merrick. The two live together, but remain unmarried, and Herminia falls pregnant. Disaster strikes when Alan dies leaving Herminia to bring up her daughter alone. Worse still, she has to do so as an unmarried mother – something which in Victorian eyes was always tainted by a deep social stigma – and without access to Alan’s money, which because of her unmarried state she is barred from inheriting.
In the pages shown here (pp. 156–57) Herminia, despite her distressed condition, is rejected by her clergyman father because she refuses to repent. Herminia’s view of marriage meanwhile (pp. 44–46) draws on earlier observations expressed in the novel and states clearly the view that marriage is a ‘degradation’. Allen regarded himself as sympathetic to the feminist cause but the downfall of his heroine, while highlighting the harshness of conservative opinion, portrays the independent young woman as likely to suffer if she fails to marry.
When The Spectator refused to review Jude the Obscure, it was on the grounds that Thomas Hardy and Grant Allen were both proposing an objectionable ‘new morality’. The Woman Who Did, with its portrayal of a woman who lives happily out of wedlock, only to fall foul of society’s moral outrage when her partner dies and the financial security he provided is removed, seemed to imply that society would prefer women to live unhappily married lives rather than be independent.
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Free-spirited and independent, educated and uninterested in marriage and children, the figure of the New Woman threatened conventional ideas about ideal Victorian womanhood. Greg Buzwell explores the place of the New Woman – by turns comical, dangerous and inspirational – in journalism and in fiction by writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Gissing and Sarah Grand.
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