The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 6

A Camp of the Reserve

In consequence of letters exchanged during the week, next Sunday brought the three Miss Maddens to Queen’s Road to lunch with Miss Barfoot. Alice had recovered from her cold, but was still ailing, and took rather a gloomy view of the situation she had lately reviewed with such courage. Virginia maintained her enthusiastic faith in Miss Nunn, and was prepared to reverence Miss Barfoot with hardly less fervour. Both of them found it difficult to understand their young sister, who, in her letters, had betrayed distaste for the change of career proposed to her. They were received with the utmost kindness, and all greatly enjoyed their afternoon, for not even Monica’s prejudice against a house, which in her own mind she had stigmatized as ‘an old-maid factory,’ could resist the charm of the hostess.

Though Miss Barfoot had something less than a woman’s average stature, the note of her presence was personal dignity. She was handsome, and her carriage occasionally betrayed a consciousness of the fact. According to circumstances, she bore herself as the lady of aristocratic tastes, as a genial woman of the world, or as a fervid prophetess of female emancipation, and each character was supported with a spontaneity, a good-natured confidence, which inspired liking and respect. A brilliant complexion and eyes that sparkled with habitual cheerfulness gave her the benefit of doubt when her age was in question; her style of dress, gracefully ornate, would have led a stranger to presume her a wedded lady of some distinction. Yet Mary Barfoot had known many troubles, poverty among them. Her experiences and struggles bore a close resemblance to those which Rhoda Nunn had gone through, and the time of trial had lasted longer. Mental and moral stamina would have assured her against such evils of celibacy as appeared in the elder Maddens, but it was to a change of worldly fortune that she owed this revival of youthful spirit and energy in middle life.

‘You and I must be friends,’ she said to Monica, holding the girl’s soft little hand. ‘We are both black but comely.’

The compliment to herself seemed the most natural thing in the world. Monica blushed with pleasure, and could not help laughing.

It was all but decided that Monica should become a pupil at the school in Great Portland Street. In a brief private conversation, Miss Barfoot offered to lend her the money that might be needful.

‘Nothing but a business transaction, Miss Madden. You can give me security; you will repay me at your convenience. If, in the end, this occupation doesn’t please you, you will at all events have regained health. It is clear to me that you mustn’t go on in that dreadful place you described to Miss Nunn.’

The visitors took their leave at about five o’clock.

‘Poor things! Poor things!’ sighed Miss Barfoot, when she was alone with her friend. ‘What can we possibly do for the older ones?’

‘They are excellent creatures,’ said Rhoda; ‘kind, innocent women; but useful for nothing except what they have done all their lives. The eldest can’t teach seriously, but she can keep young children out of mischief and give them a nice way of speaking. Her health is breaking down, you can see.’

‘Poor woman! One of the saddest types.’

‘Decidedly. Virginia isn’t quite so depressng — but how childish!’

‘They all strike me as childish. Monica is a dear little girl; it seemed a great absurdity to talk to her about business. Of course she must find a husband.’

‘I suppose so.’

Rhoda’s tone of slighting concession amused her companion.

‘My dear, after all we don’t desire the end of the race.’

‘No, I suppose not,’ Rhoda admitted with a laugh.

‘A word of caution. Your zeal is eating you up. At this rate, you will hinder our purpose. We have no mission to prevent girls from marrying suitably — only to see that those who can’t shall have a means of living with some satisfaction.’

‘What chance is there that this girl will marry suitably?’

‘Oh, who knows? At all events, there will be more likelihood of it if she comes into our sphere.’

‘Really? Do you know any man that would dream of marrying her?’

‘Perhaps not, at present.’

It was clear that Miss Barfoot stood in some danger of becoming subordinate to her more vehement friend. Her little body, for all its natural dignity, put her at a disadvantage in the presence of Rhoda, who towered above her with rather imperious stateliness. Her suavity was no match for Rhoda’s vigorous abruptness. But the two were very fond of each other, and by this time thought themselves able safely to dispense with the forms at first imposed by their mutual relations.

‘If she marry at all,’ declared Miss Nunn, ‘she will marry badly. The family is branded. They belong to the class we know so well — with no social position, and unable to win an individual one. I must find a name for that ragged regiment.’

Miss Barfoot regarded her friend thoughtfully.

‘Rhoda, what comfort have you for the poor in spirit?’

‘None whatever, I’m afraid. My mission is not to them.’

After a pause, she added  —

‘They have their religious faith, I suppose; and it’s answerable for a good deal.’

‘It would be a terrible responsibility to rob them of it,’ remarked the elder woman gravely.

Rhoda made a gesture of impatience.

‘It’s a terrible responsibility to do anything at all. But I’m glad’— she laughed scornfully —‘that it’s not my task to release them.’

Mary Barfoot mused, a compassionate shadow on her fine face.

‘I don’t think we can do without the spirit of that religion,’ she said at length —‘the essential human spirit. These poor women — one ought to be very tender with them. I don’t like your “ragged regiment” phrase. When I grow old and melancholy, I think I shall devote myself to poor hopeless and purposeless women — try to warm their hearts a little before they go hence.’

‘Admirable!’ murmured Rhoda, smiling. ‘But in the meantime they cumber us; we have to fight.’

She threw forward her arms, as though with spear and buckler. Miss Barfoot was smiling at this Palladin attitude when a servant announced two ladies — Mrs. Smallbrook and Miss Haven. They were aunt and niece; the former a tall, ungainly, sharp-featured widow; the later a sweet-faced, gentle, sensible-looking girl of five-and-twenty.

‘I am so glad you are back again,’ exclaimed the widow, as she shook hands with Miss Barfoot, speaking in a hard, unsympathetic voice. ‘I do so want to ask your advice about an interesting girl who has applied to me. I’m afraid her past won’t bear looking into, but most certainly she is a reformed character. Winifred is most favourably impressed with her —’

Miss Haven, the Winifred in question, began to talk apart with Rhoda Nunn.

‘I do wish my aunt wouldn’t exaggerate so,’ she said in a subdued voice, whilst Mrs. Smallbrook still talked loudly and urgently. ‘I never said that I was favourably impressed. The girl protests far too much; she has played on aunt’s weaknesses, I fear.’

‘But who is she?’

‘Oh, some one who lost her character long ago, and lives, I should say, on charitable people. Just because I said that she must once have had a very nice face, aunt misrepresents me in this way — it’s too bad.’

‘Is she an educated person?’ Miss Barfoot was heard to ask.

‘Not precisely well educated.’

‘Of the lower classes, then?’

‘I don’t like that term, you know. Of the poorer classes.’

‘She never was a lady,’ put in Miss Haven quietly but decidedly.

‘Then I fear I can be of no use,’ said the hostess, betraying some of her secret satisfaction in being able thus to avoid Mrs. Smallbrook’s request. Winifred, a pupil at Great Portland Street, was much liked by both her teachers; but the aunt, with her ceaseless philanthropy at other people’s expense, could only be considered a bore.

‘But surely you don’t limit your humanity, Miss Barfoot, by the artificial divisions of society.’

‘I think those divisions are anything but artificial,’ replied the hostess good-humouredly. ‘In the uneducated classes I have no interest whatever. You have heard me say so.

‘Yes, but I cannot think — isn’t that just a little narrow?’

‘Perhaps so. I choose my sphere, that’s all. Let those work for the lower classes (I must call them lower, for they are, in every sense), let those work for them who have a call to do so. I have none. I must keep to my own class.’

‘But surely, Miss Nunn,’ cried the widow, turning to Rhoda, ‘we work for the abolition of all unjust privilege? To us, is not a woman a woman?’

‘I am obliged to agree with Miss Barfoot. I think that as soon as we begin to meddle with uneducated people, all our schemes and views are unsettled. We have to learn a new language, for one thing. But your missionary enterprise is admirable.’

‘For my part,’ declared Mrs. Smallbrook, ‘I aim at the solidarity of woman. You, at all events, agree with me, Winifred?’

‘I really don’t think, aunt, that there can be any solidarity of ladies with servant girls,’ responded Miss Haven, encouraged by a look from Rhoda.

‘Then I grieve that your charity falls so far below the Christian standard.’

Miss Barfoot firmly guided the conversation to a more hopeful subject.

Not many people visited this house. Every Wednesday evening, from half-past eight to eleven, Miss Barfoot was at home to any of her acquaintances, including her pupils, who chose to call upon her; but this was in the nature of an association with recognized objects. Of society in the common sense Miss Barfoot saw very little; she had no time to sacrifice in the pursuit of idle ceremonies. By the successive deaths of two relatives, a widowed sister and an uncle, she had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government — nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well — those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength. At her instance, and with help from her purse, two girls were preparing themselves to be pharmaceutical chemists; two others had been aided by her to open a bookseller’s shop; and several who had clerkships in view received an admirable training’ at her school in Great Portland Street.

Thither every weekday morning Miss Barfoot and Rhoda repaired; they arrived at nine o’clock, and with an hour’s interval work went on until five.

Entering by the private door of a picture-cleaner’s shop, they ascended to the second story, where two rooms had been furnished like comfortable offices; two smaller on the floor above served for dressing-rooms. In one of the offices, typewriting and occasionally other kinds of work that demanded intelligence were carried on by three or four young women regularly employed. To superintend this department was Miss Nunn’s chief duty, together with business correspondence under the principal’s direction. In the second room Miss Barfoot instructed her pupils, never more than three being with her at a time. A bookcase full of works on the Woman Question and allied topics served as a circulating library; volumes were lent without charge to the members of this little society. Once a month Miss Barfoot or Miss Nunn, by turns, gave a brief address on some set subject; the hour was four o’clock, and about a dozen hearers generally assembled. Both worked very hard. Miss Barfoot did not look upon her enterprise as a source of pecuniary profit, but she had made the establishment more than self-supporting. Her pupils increased in number, and the working department promised occupation for a larger staff than was at present engaged. The young women in general answered their friend’s expectations, but of course there were disappointing instances. One of these had caused Miss Barfoot special distress. A young girl whom she had released from a life of much hardship, and who, after a couple of months’ trial, bade fair to develop noteworthy ability, of a sudden disappeared. She was without relatives in London, and Miss Barfoot’s endeavours to find her proved for several weeks very futile. Then came news of her; she was living as the mistress of a married man. Every effort was made to bring her back, but the girl resisted; presently she again passed out of sight, and now more than a year had elapsed since Miss Barfoot’s last interview with her.

This Monday morning, among letters delivered at the house, was one from the strayed girl. Miss Barfoot read it in private, and throughout the day remained unusually grave. At five o’clock, when staff and pupils had all departed, she sat for a while in meditation, then spoke to Rhoda, who was glancing over a book by the window.

‘Here’s a letter I should like you to read.’

‘Something that has been troubling you since morning, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

Rhoda took the sheet and quickly ran through its contents. Her face hardened, and she threw down the letter with a smile of contempt.

‘What do you advise?’ asked the elder woman, closely observing her.

‘An answer in two lines — with a cheque enclosed, if you see fit.’

‘Does that really meet the case?’

‘More than meets it, I should say.’

Miss Barfoot pondered.

‘I am doubtful. That is a letter of despair, and I can’t close my ears to it.’

‘You had an affection for the girl. Help her, by all means, if you feel compelled to. But you would hardly dream of taking her back again?’

‘That’s the point. Why shouldn’t I?’

‘For one thing,’ replied Rhoda, looking coldly down upon her friend, ‘you will never do any good with her. For another, she isn’t a suitable companion for the girls she would meet here.’

‘I can’t be sure of either objection. She acted with deplorable rashness, with infatuation, but I never discovered any sign of evil in her. Did you?’

‘Evil? Well, what does the word mean? I am not a Puritan, and I don’t judge her as the ordinary woman would. But I think she has put herself altogether beyond our sympathy. She was twenty-two years old — no child — and she acted with her eyes open. No deceit was practised with her. She knew the man had a wife, and she was base enough to accept a share of his attentions. Do you advocate polygamy? That is an intelligible position, I admit. It is one way of meeting the social difficulty. But not mine.’

‘My dear Rhoda, don’t enrage yourself.’

‘I will try not to.’

‘But I can’t see the temptation to do so. Come and sit down, and talk quietly. No, I have no fondness for polygamy. I find it very hard to understand how she could act as she did. But a mistake, however wretched, mustn’t condemn a woman for life. That’s the way of the world, and decidedly it mustn’t be ours.’

‘On this point I practically agree with the world.’

‘I see you do, and it astonishes me. You are going through curious changes, in several respects. A year ago you didn’t speak of her like this.’

‘Partly because I didn’t know you well enough to speak my mind. Partly yes, I have changed a good deal, no doubt. But I should never have proposed to take her by the hand and let bygones be bygones. That is an amiable impulse, but anti-social.’

‘A favourite word on your lips just now, Rhoda. Why is it anti-social?’

‘Because one of the supreme social needs of our day is the education of women in self-respect and self-restraint. There are plenty of people — men chiefly, but a few women also of a certain temperament — who cry for a reckless individualism in these matters. They would tell you that she behaved laudably, that she was living out herself— and things of that kind. But I didn’t think you shared such views.’

‘I don’t, altogether. “The education of women in self-respect.” Very well. Here is a poor woman whose self-respect has given way under grievous temptation. Circumstances have taught her that she made a wild mistake. The man gives her up, and bids her live as she can; she is induced to beggary. Now, in that position a girl is tempted to sink still further. The letter of two lines and an enclosed cheque would as likely as not plunge her into depths from which she could never be rescued. It would assure her that there was no hope. On the other hand, we have it in our power to attempt that very education of which you speak. She has brains, and doesn’t belong to the vulgar. It seems to me that you are moved by illogical impulses — and certainly anything but kind ones.’

Rhoda only grew more stubborn.

‘You say she yielded to a grievous temptation. What temptation? Will it bear putting into words?’

‘Oh yes, I think it will,’ answered Miss Barfoot, with her gentlest smile. ‘She fell in love with the man.

‘Fell in love!’ Concentration of scorn was in this echo. ‘Oh, for what isn’t that phrase responsible!’

‘Rhoda, let me ask you a question on which I have never ventured. Do you know what it is to be in love?’

Miss Nunn’s strong features were moved as if by a suppressed laugh; the colour of her cheeks grew very slightly warm.

‘I am a normal human being,’ she answered, with an impatient gesture. ‘I understand perfectly well what the phrase signifies.’

‘That is no answer, my dear. Have you ever been in love with any man?’

‘Yes. When I was fifteen.’

‘And not since,’ rejoined the other, shaking her head and smiling. ‘No, not since?’

‘Thank Heaven, no!’

‘Then you are not very well able to judge this case. I, on the other hand, can judge it with the very largest understanding. Don’t smile so witheringly, Rhoda. I shall neglect your advice for once.’

‘You will bring this girl back, and continue teaching her as before?’

‘We have no one here that knows her, and with prudence she need never be talked about by those of our friends who did.’

‘Oh, weak — weak — weak!’

‘For once I must act independently.’

‘Yes, and at a stroke change the whole character of your work. You never proposed keeping a reformatory. Your aim is to help chosen girls, who promise to be of some use in the world. This Miss Royston represents the profitless average — no, she is below the average. Are you so blind as to imagine that any good will ever come of such a person? If you wish to save her from the streets, do so by all means. But to put her among your chosen pupils is to threaten your whole undertaking. Let it once become known — and it would become known — that a girl of that character came here, and your usefulness is at an end. In a year’s time you will have to choose between giving up the school altogether and making it a refuge for outcasts.’

Miss Barfoot was silent. She tapped with her fingers on the table.

‘Personal feeling is misleading you,’ Rhoda pursued. ‘Miss Royston had a certain cleverness, I grant; but do you think I didn’t know that she would never become what you hoped? All her spare time was given to novel-reading. If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea we should have some chance of reforming women. The girl’s nature was corrupted with sentimentality, like that of all but every woman who is intelligent enough to read what is called the best fiction, but not intelligent enough to understand its vice. Love — love — love; a sickening sameness of vulgarity. What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won’t represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced. Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. There is the sexual instinct, of course, but that is quite a different thing; the novelists daren’t talk about that. The paltry creatures daren’t tell the one truth that would be profitable. The result is that women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals. This Miss Royston — when she rushed off to perdition, ten to one she had in mind some idiot heroine of a book. Oh, I tell you that you are losing sight of your first duty. There are people enough to act the good Samaritan; you have quite another task in life. It is your work to train and encourage girls in a path as far as possible from that of the husband-hunter. Let them marry later, if they must; but at all events you will have cleared their views on the subject of marriage, and put them in a position to judge the man who offers himself. You will have taught them that marriage is an alliance of intellects — not a means of support, or something more ignoble still. But to do this with effect you must show yourself relentless to female imbecility. If a girl gets to know that you have received back such a person as Miss Royston she will be corrupted by your spirit of charity — corrupted, at all events, for our purposes. The endeavour to give women a new soul is so difficult that we can’t be cumbered by side-tasks, such as fishing foolish people out of the mud they have walked into. Charity for human weakness is all very well in its place, but it is precisely one of the virtues that you must not teach. You have to set an example of the sterner qualities — to discourage anything that resembles sentimentalism. And think if you illustrate in your own behaviour a sympathy for the very vice of character we are trying our hardest to extirpate!’

‘This is a terrible harangue,’ said Miss Barfoot, when the passionate voice had been silent for a few ticks of the clock. ‘I quite enter into your point of view, but I think you go beyond practical zeal. However, I will help the girl in some other way, if possible.’

‘I have offended you.’

‘Impossible to take offence at such obvious sincerity.’

‘But surely you grant the force of what I say?’

‘We differ a good deal, Rhoda, on certain points which as a rule would never come up to interfere with our working in harmony. You have come to dislike the very thought of marriage — and everything of that kind. I think it’s a danger you ought to have avoided. True, we wish to prevent girls from marrying just for the sake of being supported, and from degrading themselves as poor Bella Royston has done; but surely between ourselves we can admit that the vast majority of women would lead a wasted life if they did not marry.’

‘I maintain that the vast majority of women lead a vain and miserable life because they do marry.’

‘Don’t you blame the institution of marriage with what is chargeable to human fate? A vain and miserable life is the lot of nearly all mortals. Most women, whether they marry or not, will suffer and commit endless follies.’

‘Most women — as life is at present arranged for them. Things are changing, and we try to have our part in hastening a new order.’

‘Ah, we use words in a different sense. I speak of human nature, not of the effect of institutions.’

‘Now it is you who are unpractical. Those views lead only to pessimism and paralysis of effort.’

Miss Barfoot rose.

‘I give in to your objection against bringing the girl back to work here. I will help her in other ways. It’s quite true that she isn’t to be relied upon.’

‘Impossible to trust her in any detail of life. The pity is that her degradation can’t be used as an object lesson for our other girls.’

‘There again we differ. You are quite mistaken in your ideas of how the mind is influenced. The misery of Bella Royston would not in the least affect any other girl’s way of thinking about the destiny of her sex. We must avoid exaggeration. If our friends get to think of us as fanatics, all our usefulness is over. The ideal we set up must be human. Do you think now that we know one single girl who in her heart believes it is better never to love and never to marry?’

‘Perhaps not,’ admitted Rhoda, more cheerful now that she had gained her point. ‘But we know several who will not dream of marrying unless reason urges them as strongly as inclination.’

Miss Barfoot laughed.

‘Pray, who ever distinguished in such a case between reason and inclination?’

‘You are most unusually sceptical today,’ said Rhoda, with an impatient laugh.

‘No, my dear. We happen to be going to the root of things, that’s all. Perhaps it’s as well to do so now and then. Oh, I admire you immensely, Rhoda. You are the ideal adversary of those care-nothing and believe-nothing women who keep the world back. But don’t prepare for yourself a woeful disillusion.’

‘Take the case of Winifred Haven,’ urged Miss Nunn. ‘She is a good-looking and charming girl, and some one or other will want to marry her some day, no doubt.’

‘Forgive my interrupting you. There is great doubt. She has no money but what she can earn, and such girls, unless they are exceptionally beautiful, are very likely indeed to remain unsought.’

‘Granted. But let us suppose she has an offer. Should you fear for her prudence?’

‘Winifred has much good sense,’ admitted the other. ‘I think she is in as little danger as any girl we know. But it wouldn’t startle me if she made the most lamentable mistake. Certainly I don’t fear it. The girls of our class are not like the uneducated, who, for one reason or another, will marry almost any man rather than remain single. They have at all events personal delicacy. But what I insist upon is, that Winifred would rather marry than not. And we must carefully bear that fact in mind. A strained ideal is as bad, practically, as no ideal at all. Only the most exceptional girl will believe it her duty to remain single as an example and support to what we call the odd women; yet that is the most human way of urging what you desire. By taking up the proud position that a woman must be altogether independent of sexual things, you damage your cause. Let us be glad if we put a few of them in the way of living single with no more discontent than an unmarried man experiences.’

‘Surely that’s an unfortunate comparison,’ said Rhoda coldly. ‘What man lives in celibacy? Consider that unmentionable fact, and then say whether I am wrong in refusing to forgive Miss Royston. Women’s battle is not only against themselves. The necessity of the case demands what you call a strained ideal. I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

‘I can’t declare that you are wrong in that. Who knows? But it isn’t good policy to preach it to our young disciples.’

‘I shall respect your wish; but —’

Rhoda paused and shook her head.

‘My dear,’ said the elder woman gravely, ‘believe me that the less we talk or think about such things the better for the peace of us all. The odious fault of working-class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature. We, thanks to our education and the tone of our society, manage to keep that in the background. Don’t interfere with this satisfactory state of things. Be content to show our girls that it is their duty to lead a life of effort — to earn their bread and to cultivate their minds. Simply ignore marriage — that’s the wisest. Behave as if the thing didn’t exist. You will do positive harm by taking the other course — the aggressive course.’

‘I shall obey you.’

‘Good, humble creature!’ laughed Miss Barfoot. ‘Come, let us be off to Chelsea. Did Miss Grey finish that copy for Mr. Houghton?’

‘Yes, it has gone to post.’

‘Look, here’s a big manuscript from our friend the antiquary. Two of the girls must get to work on it at once in the morning.’

Manuscripts entrusted to them were kept in a fire-proof safe. When this had been locked up, the ladies went to their dressing-room and prepared for departure. The people who lived on the premises were responsible for cleaning the rooms and other care; to them Rhoda delivered the door-keys.

Miss Barfoot was grave and silent on the way home. Rhoda, annoyed at the subject that doubtless occupied her friend’s thoughts, gave herself up to reflections of her own.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/odd-women/chapter6.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:20