- 1 “[The Heavenly Twins] was reprinted six times within the first year of publication, and sold (...)
- 2 Sarah Grand, The Heavenly Twins, New York: Cassell, 1893, 301, 669.
- 3 Useful anthologies of New Woman Fiction include Carolyn Christensen Nelson (ed.), A New Woma (...)
1The name Sarah Grand (or Frances McFall) may not sound familiar to the ears of English literature specialists, yet her name was a byword in the 1890s, when Sarah Grand was the famous author of successful best-sellers, including the scandalous Heavenly Twins1 in which one of the female characters marries a syphilitic man and dies after giving birth to a “speckled toad.”2 Grand is acclaimed today among feminist critics as a prominent writer of New Woman fiction, a sub-genre of novels and short stories written between the 1880s and the First World War, dealing with the “Marriage Question” and presenting the private face of the much decried New Woman.3
- 4 These Acts were passed in 1864, 1866 and 1869 in order to limit the spread of syphilis in th (...)
2The Beth Book, Being a Study of the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell McClure, a Woman of Genius is the third novel in a partly autobiographical trilogy composed of Ideala (1888), The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897). Beth is the daughter of a British officer posted in Ireland. After her father’s death when she is just eight years old, she moves to England with her mother. The novel consists in a detailed account of her formative years and her marriage to a brute, explaining how she gradually finds her vocation for public speaking and becomes a feminist writer and an oratorical genius. The grammar of Grand’s title presents Beth’s relation to the book as problematic. Is it hers? Is it about her? Is she its author? Or perhaps it is a combination of all three. The book we hold in our hands presents Beth’s life from a perspective that is favourable to her, and provides her viewpoint on things, but Sarah Grand has toned down the novel’s didacticism by remaining vague about Beth’s final production once she has found her true calling. The title of her book is not revealed (we only know that it is non-fiction) and although she turns out to be a great public speaker, her public speeches are not transcribed. The Beth Book differs from other New Woman novels in that more emphasis is laid on Beth’s difficulty expressing herself than on the substance of her new and untypical ideas. While Lyndall in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm was a great monologist, and Ideala, the New Woman in Grand’s eponymous novel, could, in the manner of De Staël’s Corinne, deliver long semi-improvised poems to a whole assembly, The Beth Book delineates the effects of Beth’s speech rather than her discourse itself. While the novel attacks the constraints of Victorian matrimony and the double standard (in particular in the context of the Contagious Diseases Acts),4 feminism presents itself not so much in the form of a message, but rather as a linguistic problem. How can Beth express herself in a mother tongue which feels foreign to her? Beth progresses to her position of feminist public speaker by becoming aware of the politics of language.
3The Beth Book recounts the apprenticeship of a woman who is to become a woman of genius but the narrator remains discreet about the nature of Beth’s genius and the text is dotted with premonitory signs of her future vocation. Three pages before the end of the novel, these signs are collected into a synthetic passage praising lucid readers:
- 5 Sarah Grand, The Beth Book, New York: Virago, 1980, 525. References to the novel will appear (...)
She had been misled herself, and so had everyone else, by her pretty talent for writing, her love of turning phrases, her play on the music of words. The writing had come of cultivation, but this – the last discovered power – was the natural gift. Angelica had said that all the indications had pointed to literary ability in Beth, but there had been other indications hitherto unheeded. There was that day at Castletownrock when Beth invited the country people in to see the house, and, for the first time, found words flowing from her lips eloquently; there were her preachings to Emily and Bernadine in the acting-room, of which they never wearied; her first harangue to the girls who had caught her bathing on the sands, and the power of her subsequent teaching which had bound them to the Secret Service of Humanity for as long as she liked; there was her storytelling at school, too, and her lectures to the girls – not to mention the charm of her ordinary conversation when the mood was upon her, as in the days when she used to sit and fish with the bearded sailors, and held them with curious talk as she had held the folk in Ireland, fascinating them. And then there was the unexpected triumph of her first public attempt – indications enough of a natural bent, had there been any one to interpret them.5
4Despite the pessimistic tone of the last words, novel-readers are enlightened interpreters who can identify Beth’s true genius, although familiarity with New Woman fiction will help.
5Like many fictional Victorian children, Beth is an outspoken girl, but as she grows up, she tends to lock herself in self-protective silence.
- 6 Murphy, 119. Patricia Murphy’s essay can be read in an earlier version in “Reevaluating Fema (...)
The Beth Book departs from the pattern of presenting a character’s entrance into and increasing facility with language as a sign of maturation. Indeed, the text contests the notion that an unproblematic interpellation within language is even desirable for a female subject. In chronicling the events of Beth’s childhood, the novel foregrounds her resistance to language – specifically her disdain for acquiring reading and writing skills – and the cultural norms that language inherently promotes and perpetuates.6
- 7 Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Translated by Pa (...)
- 8 Derrida, 71.
- 9 Derrida, 41, 39.
- 10 My translation of « Avec la phrase féminine, le paradoxe est redoublé, puisque la théorie co (...)
6Like many New Women, Beth has a problematic relation towards literacy and to her own language. Indeed, Jacques Derrida’s paradoxical statement, “I only have one language, yet it is not mine,” could have been hers.7 A great emphasis is laid on the fact that her language has to be conquered in a context of patriotic monolingualism where some languages are forbidden, “subtracted”8 or neglected: Irish, the language of the oppressed in Western Ireland; Latin, which is reserved for the masculine elite; swear words, which are for men; and Italian, which is her parents’ private language. In the words of Derrida, Irish becomes her “favorite language”, as compared to English, the colonizers’ language and the “language of the Law”, represented by her tyrannical old-style mother.9 As Jean-Jacques Lecercle observes with reference to Derrida’s theory of monolingualism in the context of feminine writing, “The case of the female sentence is doubly paradoxical, as the theory implies that the female sentence can only be written in a language which is not the mother’s language.”10 During her English lessons at school, Beth is taught her mother-tongue as if it were a foreign language forced onto her by rote-learning and repetition. When she starts writing, her first task is to imitate canonical writers, before she finally decides to purify – one could even say to purge – her English in a quest for a language that could truly convey her novel kind of ethical art.
As Penny Boumelha, Teresa Mangum and Patricia Murphy have pointed out, in proclaiming her exceptional woman not simply an “artist” but a “genius”, Grand affirmed the inherent rather than acquired nature of female creativity, undercutting Victorian scientific taxonomies which defined genius as a biological prerogative of masculinity. “Authentic” art is thus, once again, identified as quintessentially feminine, spiritual, natural, lifelike and organic, and contrasted with hegemonic (male) artifice, rejected for its contrived, hollow and essentially lifeless particularities.11
- 12 Murphy, 116.
- 13 Lauren Simek, “Feminist ‘Cant’ and Narrative Selflessness in Sarah Grand’s New Woman Trilogy (...)
- 14 See also Lyssa Randolph, “The Child and the ‘Genius’: New Science in Sarah Grand’s The Beth (...)
- 15 Murphy, 119.
7Yet Patricia Murphy also shows that Sarah Grand borrowed the existing discourse of “an evolutionary theory built on the supremacy of the white male holding an appropriate class status”12 in order to adapt it to her own use, while Lauren Simek shows how suspicious Sarah Grand was of falling into the ready-made arguments and phrases of “feminist cant”, which the women in her trilogy blame each other for.13 Several studies have investigated the influence of Post-Darwinian science, which was practiced and promoted mainly by male thinkers, on the discourse and plotline of The Beth Book.14 Is such reliance on external discourse an issue in this Bildungsroman? My analysis will examine whether Beth’s own cultural maturation brings about an emancipation from pre-existing discourse, which would be experienced as foreign. It investigates the place which foreign languages and strange discourse play in Beth’s evolution to her position of public speaker and addresses the question of the representation of female subjects as alienated speakers of their own language. Beth’s development from the condition of sensitive, gifted, martyr-child to the status of feminist orator involves familiarity with different languages and positioning herself in relation to them, a process that can be analysed in successive theoretical stages. As a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, The Beth Book follows a linear structure, but on account of its density and occasional self-contradictions, tracing the heroine’s development requires spelling out a theoretical pattern behind the storyline. The first stage of Beth’s “interpellation within language”15 is a contact with foreign languages, rather than with English books. She then goes on to mimetically assimilate, through unconscious pastiche, the male culture around her, before purging herself of these literary influences. However, Grand’s formulations often suggest that Beth’s ideas transit through her rather than originate in her. Grand’s repeated use of the metaphor of the conduit to describe Beth’s productions reveals her difficulty in conceptualizing Beth’s creation as truly personal. Her reluctance to transcribe the final products of Beth’s writing and speaking activities is coupled with the way she conceives of Beth’s language as coming from outside, from a foreign source. Is Beth’s conquest of her own language a return to an original language, the pure language that preceded its pollution by ideology? As a child, Beth was a poet whose verse and ideas “came to her” as though she was not their true author. She was capable of reconnecting with her ancestors and speaking with nature’s true voice. The evolutionary discourse of atavism and recapitulation add a conservative rather than revolutionary function to Beth’s work. Beth’s intuition seems to direct her towards the past, and a primitive legacy, rather than towards the future.
8Beth is brought up in an English Protestant family in Northern and later Western Ireland. She speaks the language of the colonizers but she also learns to speak the language of the colonized working-class people who befriend her. She becomes aware of the power issues at stake in verbal exchanges, such as when she sings party songs to the Irish peasants whom she has taken on a guided tour of her parents’ house, so as to arouse their rebellious spirits: “‘I like to feel,’ Beth began, gasping out each word with a mighty effort to express herself – ‘I like to feel – that I can make them shake their fists.’” (56) Beth, who typically struggles to express herself, wants her words to be followed by effects, and, being a martyr child, she enjoys the revolt she can arouse in others. Her fondness and respect for the Irish extends to reporting the words of the local population in their own dialect. In Beth’s opinion, transposing their speech into English is a form of betrayal:
“Horner ses as ‘ow——”
“Beth, don’t speak like that!”
“That’s Horner, not me,” Beth snapped, impatient of the interruption. “How am I to tell you what he said if I don’t say what he said? Horner ses as ‘ow, when Lady Benyon gev them there white ponies to ‘er darter fur ‘er own use, squire ‘e sells two on ‘is ‘orses, an’ ‘as used them ponies ever since. Squire’s a near un, my word!” Beth perceived that Aunt Grace Mary looked very funny in the face. (99)
9The child’s awareness of the inseparability of form and content has ethical implications: adapting somebody’s words with disregard for form is an act of linguistic colonization. The implication for Beth as a future speaker is that she will have to find her own untranslatable language in order to express what she has inside her. That this will be an act of resistance to her mother tongue is made apparent by the important place which foreign languages play in the first part of the book.
10Italian is her parents’ private language. They speak Italian in order not to be understood by their children, and we are told that “Beth supposed at that time that all grown-up people spoke French or Italian to each other, and she used to wonder which she would speak when she was grown up.” (34) Beth’s future language therefore promises to be a foreign language rather than her mother tongue. Indeed, her mother, an intransigent and ill-informed educator, is a counter-example rather than a feminist role model. Beth’s mother and grandmother learnt French, the foreign language that was taught to girls at the time. But through Beth’s conversation with Grace Mary, one of Beth’s two loving aunts, Grand shows that girls are taught languages in a way that never enables them to speak.
“I was educated in a convent in France,” she said to Beth. “If you were older you would know that by my handwriting. It is called an Italian hand, but I learnt it in France. I was there five years.”
“What else did you learn?” said Beth.
“Oh – reading. No – I could read before I went. But music, you know, and French.”
“Say some French,” said Beth.
“Oh, I can’t,” Aunt Grace Mary answered. “But I can read it a little, you know.”
“I should like to hear you play,” said Beth.
“But I don’t play,” Aunt Grace Mary rejoined.
“I thought you said you learnt music.”
“Oh yes. I had to learn music; and I practised for hours every day; but I never played.” (94)
- 16 Beth once declares that her mother expects her to go “unexpressed” (323).
11Aunt Grace Mary’s acknowledgement that her education has left her feeling inadequate both linguistically and musically is an ironic commentary on the insufficiencies of female education. This list of female accomplishments (studying abroad, writing an Italian hand, learning French and the piano) presents female education as a source of alienation rather than personal development. The references to foreign techniques, languages and different artistic forms highlight the discrepancy between what is taught and women’s true nature. Victorian women are described negatively as alienated creatures who are not taught to develop themselves but are given a lesson in unlearning to be themselves, or “unexpressing” themselves.16 Since at the time, French was also the degenerate language of licentious realist novels, it appears somehow suitable that women should be taught it for lack of a better thing to do, but should never speak it well enough to be submitted to those novels’ influence.
12Foreign languages have a further role to play in the form of forbidden languages. A key element of male education was the learning of Latin, a language which is both spatially and temporally remote. Latin is men’s secret language, and the secret source of their self-confidence, as Beth realizes:
But Beth learnt a good deal from her young men that summer – learnt her own power, for one thing, when she found that she could twist the whole lot of them round her little finger if she chose. The thing about them that interested her most, however, was their point of view. She found one trait common to all of them when they talked to her, and that was a certain assumption of superiority which impressed her very much at first, so that she was prepared to accept their opinions as confidently as they gave them; and they always had one ready to give on no matter what subject. Beth, perceiving that this superiority was not innate, tried to discover how it was acquired that she might cultivate it. Gathering from their attitude towards her ignorance that this superiority rested somehow on a knowledge of the Latin grammar, she hunted up an old one of her brother’s and opened it with awe, so much seemed to depend on it. Verbs and declensions came easily enough to her, however. The construction of the language was puzzling at the outset; but, with a little help, she soon discovered that even in that there was nothing occult. Any industrious, persevering person could learn a language, she decided […]. (273-274)
13The narrator adopts Beth’s naïve perspective on male superiority in order to deflate the occult and exclusive nature of male learning. In lines which mockingly rewrite the stock scene in which a Gothic heroine tries to gain access to the secret, patriarchal language of the Gothic lore-keepers (“knowledge”, “hunt up”, “occult”), the exclusiveness of Latin is demystified. Although Beth imitates male education by teaching herself this language, she makes a subversive use of it since it teaches her to relativize male superiority rather than to admire the Latin original sources to which she now has access. Latin is cultural capital that confers power on those who can understand it, but it empowers Beth by teaching her how it excludes non-speakers. In other words, foreign words do not broaden the speakers’ minds, leading them to relativize their own place in the intellectual field, but they have the effect of creating barriers which protect and limit access to those speakers’ worlds.
14Foreign languages are thus the opportunity to expose the paradox at the core of female cultural development. Aunt Grace Mary is presented as embroiled in a disempowering cultural turmoil which gives her an alienated relationship to culture and to herself. At the other extreme, women have to censor themselves because the use of bad language is an index of low moral standards. As a child, Beth is so eager to exploit the full potentialities of the effects of language that she has a tendency to swear, but she easily absorbs the idea that “all the bad words in the language were made for the men. I suppose because they have all the bad thoughts, and do all the bad things.” (190) Such a belief in the inseparability between form and content results in an attempt to imitate the form of male discourse, so as to recover their knowledge.
15Beth’s marriage is described as a turning point in her literary apprenticeship. She suddenly finds a cause for herself. The mysterious subject matter of her book and of her speeches can be inferred by the causes for complaint which her married life gives her. She marries a worthless philanderer, who opens her letters, takes money from her and turns out to be the keeper of a lock-hospital. At this point, Grand’s story takes a different turn from the other novels of the genre: instead of being mired in child-rearing and domestic management (like Hadria in Mona Caird’s Daughters of Danaus), Beth finds a secret room of her own in her husband’s house and starts sewing, studying and writing. This stage of her literary education consists in mimesis.
As she read of those who had gone before, she felt a strange kindred with them […]. It delighted her when she found in them some small trait or habit which she herself had already developed or contracted, such as she found in the early part of George Sand’s Histoire de ma Vie, and in the lives of the Brontës. Under the influence of nourishing books, her mind, sustained and stimulated, became nervously active. It had a trick of flashing off from the subject she was studying to something wholly irrelevant. She would begin Emerson’s essay on Fate or Beauty with enthusiasm, and presently, with her eyes still following the lines, her thoughts would be busy forming a code of literary principles for herself. In those days her mind was continually under the influence of any author she cared about, particularly if his style were mannered. Involuntarily, while she was reading Macaulay, for instance, her own thoughts took a dogmatic turn, and jerked along in short, sharp sentences. She caught the peculiarities of De Quincey too, of Carlyle, and also some of the simple dignity of Ruskin, which was not so easy; and she had written things after the manner of each of these authors before she perceived the effect they were having upon her. […] When, in her reading, she came under the influence of academic minds, she lost all natural freshness, and succeeded in being artificial. Her English became turgid with Latinities. She took phrases which had flowed from her pen, and were telling in their simple eloquence, and toiled at them, turning and twisting them until she had laboured all the life out of them; and then, mistaking effort for power, and having wearied herself, she was satisfied. Being too diffident to suspect that she had any natural faculty, she conceived that the more trouble she gave herself the better must be the result; and consequently she did nothing worth the doing except as an exercise of ingenuity. She was serving her apprenticeship, however – making her mistakes. (370-371)
16In the course of those unconscious pastiches, Beth is colonized by her own monolanguage, or male-language. Instead of appropriating English for her own use, she is being appropriated by Macaulay and De Quincey. The narrator, a female omniscient narrator who occasionally uses the first person plural in an effort to bring into existence a female-friendly community of readers, criticizes Beth’s production rather than presenting a sample of her writing, and this remains true even after Beth has found her own voice. These lines are simultaneously an indirect commentary on Grand’s writing and her theoretical concerns, an indictment of male writing and a blueprint for how Grand would like female writing to be judged.
- 17 Sarah Grand, The Heavenly Twins, New York: Cassell, 1893, 525-527.
17Female self-development is also a major concern of The Heavenly Twins, the second novel in Sarah Grand’s New Woman trilogy. By giving Angelica a twin brother, Diavolo, Sarah Grand was able to demonstrate the equality of the sexes and to contrast the cultural strategies used by boys and girls. Angelica also experiences patriarchal culture as an existential hindrance. In a long monologue which anticipates the stream of consciousness technique (525-527),17 she deplores the fact that Shakespeare has already thought it all, and that his language comprehends the whole of life’s experience, forcing others to “think in inverted commas”:
“Let them alone and they’ll come home.” I wish I had no memory. It is a perfect nuisance to have to think in inverted commas all the time. And Shakespeare is the greatest bore of all. The whole of life could be set to his expressions – that cannot be quite right; what I mean is the whole of life could be expressed in his words. Diavolo and I tried once to talk Shakespeare for a whole day. I made the game. But Diavolo could remember nothing but “To be or not to be,” which went no way at all when he tried to live on it, so he said Shakespeare was rot and I pulled his hair – I wish I could stop thinking – suspend my thoughts – 18
- 19 Susan Lanser’s analysis of how George Eliot’s epigraphy subverted the deferential quotatio (...)
18The comprehensiveness of Shakespeare’s works, a sure sign of his genius, is resented as a hindrance by Angelica. While the inability of Diavolo to quote anything else than “to be or not to be” is felt to be a severe limitation, Angelica’s own familiarity with patriarchal discourse, embodied by the canonical figure of Shakespeare, is ironically presented as an existential constraint. The stuttering Diavolo is the parody of a male subject illustrating Derrida’s argument that those who unquestionably fall into speaking their mother-tongue are bound ceaselessly to repeat it instead of appropriating it. When Angelica finds no way out of Shakespeare’s language, she experiences her thinking and existence as a form of psittacism.19
19Both Angelica and Beth realize that the language they speak is not truly theirs. The experience becomes so alienating that Angelica can no longer think and Beth’s conception of work is precisely “the effort to express [her]self.” (521) Beth has now reached the next stage of her stylistic development: she experiences the need to purge herself of the strange words in her.
20In Sarah Grand’s purposeful style, Beth’s life becomes the vehicle for presenting an argument. Concomitance between events gives the illusion of causality, so that Beth’s evolution seems to result from the turns taken by the story rather than from Grand’s strategies. The opening lines of the following paragraph associate the greatest misery in Beth’s life, her marriage, with a fortunate change for the better in her literary apprenticeship:
But it was in these days, nevertheless, that she began to write with decision. Hitherto, she had been merely trying her pen—feeling her way; but now she unconsciously ceased to follow in other people’s footsteps, and struck out for herself boldly. She had come back from Ilverthorpe with a burning idea to be expressed, and it was for the shortest, crispest, clearest way to express it that she tried. Foreign phrases she discarded, and she never attempted to produce an eccentric effect by galvanising obsolete words, rightly discarded for lack of vitality, into a ghastly semblance of life. Her own language, strong and pure, she found a sufficient instrument for her purpose. When the true impulse to write came, her fine theories about style only hampered her, so she cast them aside, as habitual affectations are cast aside and natural emotions naturally expressed, in moments of deep feeling; and from that time forward she displayed, what had doubtless been coming to her by practice all along, a method and a manner of her own. (423, my italics)
21Beth’s artificially acquired style is rejected (“discarded”, “cast aside”) as the outcome of a form of purification. Her idiom is described in morally connoted terms (“clear”, “pure”, “strong”, “natural”). Beth’s literary theory at this stage of the novel asserts that the style of authors of genius is “the outcome of character” as opposed to the “manufactured style” of second-rate authors (389). Style has an ethical dimension: authors of genius have no special writing skills, for their style is the reflection of their character. Beth does not try to coin a new language, for her moral worth and the nobility of her political commitments will give shape to her ideas. Grand does not attempt the risky task of giving a sample of either her writing or her public speaking in her novel, for that would require her own novel to be a work of genius. She returns to the formulations which initially endowed Beth’s language with a magical power, before it became tainted with the written word and poor female schooling.
22Substantial evidence from the first half of the novel shows that Beth’s genius consists in an innate ability to return to the original magical language of the race: a performative language that can kill and is in harmony with nature. Despite her emphasis on the personal nature of Beth’s style, Grand’s formulations present Beth’s ideas and their expression as having an external source. Beth’s ideas and poems “come to her” as if from outside of her. The following exchange between Beth and her sweetheart Sammy, to whom she recites her improvised poems, is typical:
Sammy listened with his mouth and eyes open, but when she had done he shook his head. “You didn’t make that up yourself,” he said decidedly.
“O Sammy! yes, I did,” Beth protested, taken aback and much pained.
“No, I don’t believe you,” said Sammy. “You got it out of a book. You’re always trying to stuff me up.”
“I’m not stuffing you, Sammy,” said Beth, suddenly flaming. “I made it myself, every word of it. I tell you it came to me. It’s my own. You’ve got to believe it.” (183)
- 20 Genius is said to be “sympathetic insight made perfect” (81).
- 21 Havelock Ellis wrote in 1894 in Man and Woman: “Genius is more common among men by (...)
23The simultaneous emphasis on authorship (“I made it myself”), transference (“it came to me”) and propriety (“it’s my own”) is perplexing. Beth’s genius is constantly attributed to an external source speaking through her: “it was extraordinary how aptly she utilised all that was necessary for her purpose, and how invariably she found what she wanted – if found be the right word; for it was rather as if information were flashed into her mind from some outside agency at critical times when she could not possibly have done without it.” (276) When Beth asks Aunt Victoria whether things also “come to her,” she answers that it may be that some individuals have this divine power while others do not (213). In other words, Beth seems to be a channel or “conduit” voicing words from a foreign source. The recurrence of the metaphor may express the author’s reluctance to attribute real creativity and genius to women. In a similar manner, the eponymous heroine of George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894) is the muse but also the “larynx” of the true musical genius, Svengali. Is the conduit metaphor symptomatic of a difficulty in envisaging a woman’s true originality? Does it confirm the clichéd idea that women cannot be the authors of truly original thought? In the earlier part of the book, Beth was said to be closer to the magical roots of language than she ever would be. Does Beth’s work consist in recovering her lost connections with the true meaning of things, from which her education has led her away? Beth’s talent is indeed said to reactivate a common legacy. “Beth’s heart swelled at the words. This attitude was new to her; and yet all that was said she seemed to have heard before, and known from the first.” (414) The uncanny feeling that “it was all strangely new, and yet he/she had heard it before” crops up in fin-de-siècle novels inspired by contemporary theories of recapitulation and atavism. Beth may have to resist strange and foreign words, but her genius is said to connect her with others through sympathy20 and atavism. In the context of the late-nineteenth century debate over the insanity of genius and degenerate artists, writing about female genius was a task fraught with disturbing implications. While Beth’s original and rebellious nature is tempered by traditional Victorian feminine values (orderliness, godliness, humility), her creativity is maintained within reassuring limits by being attributed to her innate capacity to connect to “the race”, an idea which was in keeping with biological theories about female conservativeness as opposed to male variability.21 Female genius could only be conservative.
- 22 “How can one say and how can one know, with a certainty that is at one with onesel (...)
- 23 “His features were European, but his complexion, and his soft glossy black hair, c (...)
- 24 The last association between Beth’s genius and atavism is on page 414.
- 25 Derrida, 68.
- 26 In her close reading of the novel, Patricia Murphy focuses on Grand’s borrowing fr (...)
- 27 “Invented for the genealogy of what did not happen and whose event will have been absent, (...)
- 28 “So much so that the gesture – here, once again, I am calling it writing [écriture], even (...)
24The idea that Beth’s effort is one of recollection and excavation rather than invention might defeat Grand’s purpose and my reading of it, as the language of her race strikingly resembles the national language, which is said to be at the core of a people’s identity. If Beth is not appropriating this language for herself and is not “inventing” anything,22 it follows that English, her mother tongue, is speaking through her. This hypothesis is potentially valid in the context of the 1890s, in an author who was strongly influenced by evolutionary theories. Yet Grand’s suggestion very early in the novel that Beth’s father might have African blood complicates the issue.23 Indeed, while formulations attributing Beth’s ideas to an external source dominate in the first part of the book, they tend to become more discreet towards the end.24 Furthermore, Grand does not report Beth’s late political speeches. The ellipses make Beth’s language a potentiality, or to use Derrida’s term, a “promise.” 25 While my use of the word “purge” and Grand’s own borrowing from evolutionary discourse26 seem to imply that the invented language harks back to a past language, a “prior-to-the-first language,”27 Derrida shows that this language exists as a personal project or promise. Beth’s spoken language will be her idiom or écriture.28 We cannot read it because it is oral, not truly English, and consists in the theoretical construction of a pragmatic tool whose effects we can only eagerly await, just as feminist New Woman writers eagerly waited for women’s lot to change without bringing about that change in their novels.
25In her childhood, Beth had an allegorical dream of a cave in Dorman’s Isle where she found herself among her ancestors. When she reflected about the dream, she marvelled at her special power in the following terms:
Was it recollection? Or is there some more perfect power to know than the intellect – a power lying latent in the whole race, which will eventually come into possession of it; but with which, at present, only some few rare beings are perfectly endowed. [sic] Beth had the sensation of having been nearer to something in her infancy than she ever was again – nearer to knowing what it is the trees whisper – what the murmur means, the all-pervading murmur which sounds incessantly when everything is hushed, as at night; nearer to the “arcane” of that evening on the Castle Hill when she first felt her kinship with nature, and burst into song. It may have been hereditary memory, a knowledge of things transmitted to her by her ancestors along with their features, virtues, and vices; but, at any rate, she herself was sure that she possessed a power of some kind in her infancy which gradually lapsed as her intellectual faculties developed. She was conscious that the senses had come between her and some mysterious joy which was not of the senses, but of the spirit. There lingered what seemed to be the recollection of a condition anterior to this, a condition of which no tongue can tell, which is not to be put into words, or made evident to those who have no recollection; but which some will comprehend by the mere allusion to it. All her life long Beth preserved a half consciousness of this something – something which eluded her – something from which she gradually drifted further away as she grew older – some sort of vision which opened up fresh tracts to her; but whether of country, or whether of thought, she could not say. (27-28)
- 29 Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place, New York: Harper and Row, 1975. For a discussion (...)
26In this disjointed, faltering style, Grand seems to try and approximate the same inexpressible something as Beth, but these lines are also strongly rhetorical and programmatic. The instability of the passage is reflected in Grand’s omission of the interrogation mark in the second rhetorical question: the question unobtrusively turns into a statement, thus defeating the idea that feminine language is tentative and unassertive.29 Beth’s impression that something has been lost and that she has the capacity to recover it is in itself a worthy project, leading her to use her mother-tongue to come as close as she can to “this condition of which no tongue can tell, which is not to be put into words”. I like to think that this passage, which is situated in the novel’s first pages, amounts to a promise to the reader, and provides an eloquent illustration of Derrida’s abstract theorizing of the “promise”.
- 30 Ellen Moers, Literary Women, London: Women’s Press, 1978, 183.
27Beth’s genius can mainly be felt and observed in the triumphant effects she has upon others. Ellen Moers observed that this was a constant feature of the representation of female genius.30 Grand’s response to the contemporary debate on genius was to make Beth a genius of a new sort (public speaking is not listed in Lombroso’s typology in The Man of Genius). Rather than making her the inventor of a language, she placed her in an unusual position of enunciation: a woman speaking in public with a political purpose. Her impromptu speeches are meant to translate into action, leaving no trace behind them except in their effects on the listeners. Beth is a monolinguist of an uncolonizing sort, since her words produce no long-lasting oppressive linguistic structure. The same can be said of New Woman fiction, a movement whose cultural and political importance was immense, but which has resisted canonization.