I’m currently reading Sarah Grand’s novel The Heavenly Twins (1893). One of the last three-deckers of the Victorian age, Grand’s book break all other conventions of sentimental realism with book that addresses venereal disease (likely syphilis), gender norms, women’s education, infanticide, and other taboo subjects for women. As a book aimed at women, Grand considers how women are denied much of the information she attempts to reveal in the novel by a patriarchal system that values women’s innocence (i.e. ignorance) regarding sex, health, love, and the separation of the sexes into spheres.
I can understand why this book is rarely assigned on reading lists. Its size is enormous and if a course in Victorian literature were going to incorporate a large novel of the period, Dickens or George Eliot are more likely choices. Unfortunately, this novel is the best example I have read so far of New Woman fiction. It’s didactic, women-centred, and brutally honest without any sentimentality or romance. Women were asked to read literature for instruction (read Kate Flint’s book, The Woman Reader for some great insight into this concept), and this novel offers that in a complex plot that interweaves multiple storylines on the notion of fear that results from women’s ignorance regarding late-Victorian sexual practices outside of marriage.
Men are condemned – husbands who spread disease and fathers who ignorantly marry off their daughters to men who will ultimately transmit their illnesses to both her and any children they have. However, women are also condemned – condemned for allowing men the power to abuse and dictate their decisions for them. The novel’s politic insists that it is not men who will change the situation, but obstinate women like Evadne and Angelica who will fight to change things.
The women in this novel fail. It’s a tragedy and follows the naturalist form of realism that makes the work of George Gissing so dark. However, there is intelligence to the novel that makes it a very engaging read.
The highlight of the novel for me is the relationship between Angelica and her twin brother Theodore, nicknamed “Diavolo.” Diavolo so far, seems to represent how men can be educated to see how their treatment of women is atrocious and that men can be the allies of the New Woman. Their mischief together is not only wildly entertaining but a political and intellectual challenge of existing systems of authority such as fathers, religious orders protestant and catholic alike, silent women who refuse to disturb their men, and secrets that keep women in blissful ignorance. I suspect that these characters will not fare well as the novel does not seem to promise happy endings for anyone.
The other interesting element is the discourse of eugenics and social Darwinism that pervade the novel. The focus of sexuality is on health and wellness, not on desire or beauty. I think this is an important idea regarding late-Victorian realism which I will save for future academic work.
The only existing edition is a reprint with a critical introduction by Carol A. Senf (Georgia Institute of Technology). The introduction is well done and offers important insight into the novel but the actual book from Ann Arbor Paperbacks/U of Michigan Press is a poor quality reprint where words fade, some things are underlined and the lines sometimes curve on the page, all indicating that the novel is little more than a photocopy. This is unfortunate because I think there is a need for a real edition of this novel. Perhaps if it were available, Grand would get the attention she deserves and her work would be taught as an important representation of the New-Woman Novel. Then perhaps, Grand would become the preferred choice for a long novel and compete with Dickens and Eliot.
Sure, I’m kidding myself here, but I choice to be hopeful. Too much critical ink has been used to deride the quality of New Woman writing when it’s a form of realism that reflects not only the journalistic work these women were engaged in as a means to earn a living, but it also reflects the limits the educational opportunity that many of these women could access. To critique its quality without recognizing the limits of women’s access to knowledge about writing is to misunderstand the Victorian woman. Not all women had access to knowledge and books the way Austen and Eliot did. The Heavenly Twins reflects a different readership – a readership nurtured by Sensation fiction, the popular press, and women’s newspapers.
If you have not yet read The Heavenly Twins, I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.