Friday, June 17, 2011

Mrs. Humphry Ward on Sensational Fiction, Sufferage, and the Servant Problem

Special to The Wall Street Journal, June 4th, 1911. (Reprinted with the kind permission of the authoress and the Quarterly Review of the Anti-Suffrage League)

Contemporary fiction for domestics & humble persons is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

Mrs. Albert Bunthorn-Pandowdy, wife and mother of thirteen, recently stood amidst the cheap paper novel section of her local commercial library, in Minge Lane, Worcestershire, feeling thwarted and disheartened.

She had popped into the shop to pick up something edifying as a present for an elderly housekeeper, long attached to the family, who had been unwell with an attack of dropsy. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving a servant. It was all vampires and suicide and white slavery, these dark, dark stuffs." She left the store empty-handed.

How dark is contemporary fiction for the lower classes? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at menials from the ages of 12 to 80.

Depravities that were unmentionable in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get the lowest musical hall turn banned from the stage, in these new sensational novels, is so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show one the world, yellow fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but the careless humble person —or one who seeks out depravity—will find herself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Now, whether you care if servants spend their half-day immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a schoolboy break the honor code. But the calculus that many respectable persons make is less crude than that: It has to do with a dependent's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

If you think it matters what is inside a servant's mind, surely it is of consequence what he or she reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for respectable families with children and help living-in, it is also everlastingly new. Innocence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with vulgar literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to working persons and some not. As elsewhere in civilized life, the 1860s and 1870s changed everything. In 1861, Mrs. Henry Wood published "East Lynne," a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry.

Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to common people's bookshelves. A purported diary published anonymously in 1871, the title of which I will not name, recounts a girl's spiral into drug addiction, rape, prostitution and a fatal overdose. Shockingly, more than one stage adaptation brought this horrible fiction to the attention of still more vulnerable persons. The writer Mr. Wilkie Collins is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to sensational narratives. His 1866 novel, "Armadale," relates the delirium of a traumatized youth who learns of his fathers' murder by his uncle, and it does not (to say the least) have a happy ending.

Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what's on shelves now. In one of these so-called "Shilling Shockers," "The Wolves of Peking," for example, young Dora is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, she encounters a sinister Chinese who transports her into an alternate world of almost unimaginable depravity and cruelty. Moments after arriving she finds herself facing a great heap of horrors, "covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, unimaginable horrors. "'Where, oh where have you brought me, you Yellow Demon?!' cried Dora." No happy ending to this one, either.

The argument in favor of such novels is that they describe the uglier aspects of real life, giving voice to tortured souls who would otherwise be voiceless. If an unfortunate has been abused, the logic follows, reading about other unfortunates in the similar straits will be comforting and instructive. If a girl has been threatened by a cad, and forced to defend herself, she will find succor in reading about another girl whose virtue has been likewise compromised, eventually learning to manage her emotional turbulence without resort to the opium and the like.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on such horrors help normalize them and, in the case of corruption, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme misbehavior. Self-destructive associations are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

It is just subversive nonsense to talk this way. A dreadfully vulgar book by one "King Brady, Detective", the Reformatory School for Wayward Girls Library Journal inexplicably called "one heck of a good book." This American "Dime Novel" ran into difficulties earlier this year at the Boone County Library in Kentucky, but not just because of its contents. A patron complained that the book's illustrated jacket, which depicts a distressed woman swooning into the arms of a sinister dark man, might trigger a sufferer's relapse. That the protagonist's guardian has been cruelly misusing her since she was a babe and is trying to engineer her suicide would seem not to have been an issue for the committee of librarians re-evaluating the book.

"Books like these, made of such questionable material, provide teachable moments for the family," say the presumably socialist librarians, the suffragettes usually adding: "We like to have the more traditional perspective, but we do try to target the masses because it is they who're reading the stuff, and that's who, we feel, most need the Vote!" The book stayed on the shelves.

Perhaps the quickest way to grasp how much more lurid these revolting books have become is to compare two authors: the original, and now sadly neglected Mrs. Gaskell and a younger writer recently hailed by The Bookman's Companion as "this generation's Gaskell."

The real Mrs. Gaskell won millions of readers (and the disapprobation of some) with then-daring novels such as 1848's "Mary Barton," which dealt with a girl from a factory town, and 1853's "Ruth," which addresses a sweatshop girl's loss of self respect in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some readers, but it's not grotesque.

By contrast, the latest novel by "this generation's Gaskell," otherwise unknown to me, save as a notorious associate of the Pankhursts, takes place in a women's prison in the aftermath of an riot. The girl has been savagely beaten and left tied up with a so-called forced feeding nozzle shoved down her throat, and she may not live. The protagonist, a 16-year-old girl and once a close friend of the victim, is herself yet to recover from a vile slum upbringing; assorted locals, meanwhile, reveal themselves to be in the grip of radical ideas, booze and dope. Determined in the face of supposed police indifference to investigate the attack on her friend, the girl relives her own assault (thus taking readers through it, too) and acquaints us with the concept of "bad girls," fallen young women who engage in unspeakable acts for drugs. The author makes free with language that can't be reprinted in a newspaper.

In the book business, none of this is controversial, and, to be fair, the suffragette's work is not unusually profane. Foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers and booksellers as perfectly unexceptionable, provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation. In any case, with her depiction of ruffians, radicals and immigrants with opium-addled sensibilities, the language is probably apt.

But whether it's language that responsible persons want their servants reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to decent people of whatever station who object either to the words or stories in cheap books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Book Peddler's Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into respectable shops, to strip blasphemies from a sensational novel, "The Inexcusable Mr. Potter," which revolves around a thuggish schoolboy and the destruction of school property he commits. "I don't, as a rule, like to do this with popular titles," the editor grumbled, "I don't want to compromise on free speech. I don't want to acknowledge those d____ed gatekeepers."

By d____ed gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), he meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what simpler persons read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In society, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of one's employee's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"

It is of course understood to be an act of literary heroism to stand against any constraints, no matter the position of one's readers; Some otherwise undistinguished editor told Ladies Weekly that the "new" author "has been on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression."

An American novelist of savage ancestry was recently quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what folks can find on the street corner in the Bowery."

Oh, well, that's all right then. Except that it isn't. It is no comment on the red gentleman's work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If humble people are encountering ghastly things on the street, that's a failure of their betters to protect them, not an excuse for more license of wickedness.

A lady of my acquaintance who's husband is a respected publisher, traces part of the problem to aesthetic coarseness in some younger publishers, editors and writers who, she says, "are used to the vulgar music halls and violent stage melodramas and they love that stuff. So they think that one's maid should love that stuff and not be affected by it. And I don't think that's possible."

In an effort to keep the most grueling material out of the hands of impressionable readers, Mrs. Grundy and her colleagues at The London Lending Library for Those In Genteel Service, an independent charity shop, created a special "For the Gentlemen Only" nook for senior male staff in the better homes. With some unease, she admits that creating a separate section may inadvertently lure the attention of younger footmen and the like, keen to seem older than they are.

At the same time, she notes that many working people, including the majority of junior servants, may not read at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby charity school, only three of the visiting waifs said that they could read. Just as well, perhaps?

So it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for humble readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books interesting to the younger sort of workers. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; respectable homeowners and the better sort of person, ought not be daunted by cries of censorship. No lady or gentleman is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness, suffrage or misery into their servant's and dependent's lives.


  1. Some of those plots sound like the Bay Area section of the Chronicle.

  2. You are so lucky to live in such a polyglot and exciting place, no?