Books: Cry Mother, if you will...

D J Taylor on nuns and honeymoons; Ripples of Dissent: Women's Stories of Marriage from the 1890s edited by Bridget Bennett, Dent, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
In our excitement over the artificial flowerings of the 1980s fin de siecle we tend to forget the existence of another kind of late- 19th century ferment: agitation over the role of women. Although it is difficult to think of a time in the past 150 years when English society wasn't exercised by this absorbing topic, Bridget Bennett's lead-in to her aptly-titled collection has no trouble in demonstrating that in the 1890s it reached boiling point. Mainstream literature of the period is full of idiosyncratic, deracinated female figures, whether "New Women" like Hardy's Sue Bridehead, rebelling against conventional social arrangements, or the "superfluous female" of the Victorian census return who provided George Gissing with the theme for his grim novel, The Odd Women.

Ripples of Dissent assembles a variety of feminine magazine stories on the woman - specifically marriage - question, chosen equally from English and American sources. While they range from the outwardly conventional to the indisputably prophetic, nearly all of them manage to call into question one or other of the 19th century's sexual orthodoxies. Most ominous of all, perhaps, is the note of resentment levelled by younger women at the elders who betrayed them - the heroine of George Egerton's "Virgin Soil", for example, who comes back to reproach the mother who encouraged her to marry a brute - coupled with a desire to escape the horrors of the average late-Victorian honeymoon, Janey, in Margaret Oliphant's "A Story of a Wedding Tour", travelling with her ghastly husband, simply gives him the slip and takes refuge in a French village.

Not everything here is as explicit as the recriminations of Egerton's Flo ("Cry, Mother, if you will: you don't know how much you have to cry for"). Yet even the quieter contributions are directed at the notion of independence: Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun", for instance, in which a woman whose engagement has lasted for the 14 years of her fiance's absences abroad, rejects the man on his return merely as a means of preserving her settled and agreeable existence. Interestingly, the boundaries being extended here are mostly those of subject matter rather than treatment - and no doubt the moral ukases of the contemporary magazine market still prohibited anything like a realistic discussion of sex.

Inevitably, one or two of the 31 stories don't really fit into the subversive category chosen by their compiler: Violet Jacob's "Prudence and Colonel Dormer" is just an engaging account of a young woman being helped to meet the right man, while E Nesbit's "John Charrington's Wedding" is a gruesome story in which - as far as one can make out - the girl marries her bridegroom two hours after the latter's death in a carriage accident.

You wonder too, about the wisdom (literary, that is - it makes perfect sense commercially) of including some of the American material, given the profound differences in social conditions and outlook. Tommy in Willa Cather's "Tommy the Unsentimental", is less a teenage feminist rebelling against her place in society, than a specimen of the "tomboy", a staple of early American fiction.

Individual gems stand out. In particular, "Suggestion" by Ada Leverson is a revelation: six or seven pages of glittering chatter placed in the mouth of a decadent young teenage boy busy rearranging the love lives of members of his family in an atmosphere of cheery amorality, and a kind of pontoon bridge linking the '90s twilight with the proto-modernism of Ronald Firbank. Elegantly produced and edited, and with excellent biographical notes, Ripples of Dissent fails only at the price hurdle. But whatever the merits of charging pounds 25 for a hardback that involved no copyright payments to authors, this is a paperback worth waiting for.