Thomas Babington Macaulay – “Minute on Indian Education” (excerpts)

Macaulay returns, this time as a high-ranking official of the East India Company, and an excerpt from his text opens the section “Empire and National Identity”. It is a “minute”, or a rather long memorandum presenting Macaulay’s views on the language of instruction in Indian schools and it’s breathtakingly, unabashedly racist. The question under discussion was whether the language of instruction should be Sanskrit and Persian, as until then, or English. Macaulay’s argument is: all the “dialects” (by which he means the mainly oral languages of India, I suppose) are so “poor and rude” that of course they are not fit for the purpose. But literature in “Sanscrit” as he spells it, and Persian is just vastly inferior to English literature, which Macaulay feels pretty confident about, even though he frankly admits he doesn’t know either of these languages and makes his sweeping statements on the basis of his conversations with Western scholars. The best part of it is poetry, which is still inferior to Western poetry, and as for academic literature, there is simply no comparison. So summing up, Indians cannot be educated in their own native language, so why not English, which is simply the best. Here Macaulay does some patriotic drum-beating, although it has to be admitted that his statement that whoever knows English has access to all the “intellectual wealth” of all nations is even more true now, when English is practically the lingua franca of world science. Moreover, in India English is already the language of the ruling class, and teaching English to Indians will help the commerce with Australasia and South Africa. He dismisses the argument about Sanskrit and Persian being the languages of sacred books, because of course these are sacred books of false religions, and while the government has to be tolerant of them, it doesn’t have to support them – as he writes ironically “we are to teach false history, false astronomy, false medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion.” And all that from the man who calls Persian “Arabic” because it is written in Arabic script and I think confuses the two languages in general (does he mean the Quran in his reference to sacred books?)

The final excerpt foreshadows the creation of what Spivak would call the “subaltern” – Macaulay agrees that it’s impossible to educate the whole population of the subcontinent in English, so they have to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” who in turn are going to work on enlightening and elevating their native cultures to the level of the English one.

Walter Besant – “The Queen’s Reign” (excerpts)

Walter Besant was a writer, novelist, historian, and for a few years Annie Besant’s brother-in-law, although it’s hard to say what they thought of each other, since they studiously failed to mention each other in their respective autobiographies. The Queen’s Reign is a kind of cultural history of the Victorian era published actually a few years before it ended, in 1897. In these excerpts Besant compares two hypothetical women, one born around 1815 and coming of age in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession to throne, , and the other her granddaughter, born about 1875 and coming of age at the time of his writing the book. The former is uneducated, unable to have a conversation on any serious topic, and brought up in such extreme modesty that even a tip of her shoe projecting from under her skirt could cause offence. She is like one of Thackeray’s heroines, who are often found insipid, but Thackeray just painted what he saw. He calls women’s seclusion at home “Oriental”. Young women of her granddaughter’s generation, conversely, can get educated, have all manners of professions including medicine, though they are still excluded from the Church and the law, but these bastions of patriarchy will fall, too, as Besant confidently foresees. They work and they do want to work, not just out of bare economic necessity. They put off their marriages for later, although Besant thinks that in due time “the voice of nature… will prevail”. They ride around on their bicycles, fully independent, and this will change the relationships between sexes, because men will no longer perceive them as fragile flowers in need of their protection, sweet but completely ignorant and good only for housekeeping. I think Besant overdoes the generational difference here: to give just a few examples, George Eliot was born in 1819, and Florence Nightingale in 1820, just a little bit later than Besant’s starting date, and they did manage to have brilliant careers, even if admittedly they were very exceptional women. And on the other hand, his optimism about the young “New Women” and how all the doors are open to them is exaggerated as well. (Not to mention that some of his compliments are rather back-handed, like the one about women actors: “The acting of the best among them is equal to that of any living man”, which sounds a bit like “Meryl Streep is as good as Channing Tatum” [no offence to Channing]).

Mona Caird – “Marriage” (excerpt – the end)

I am losing interest in this text a bit because while Caird’s heart is in the right place, her prose is not awfully exciting. So she foresees that the relationships between sexes are going to improve with the general improvement in health and living standards and happier and smarter people are not going to make imprudent marriages. This might even decrease the number of divorces (oh, how wrong she was, but at least it’s phrased very tentatively), and if it doesn’t, at least people are not going to stay in marriages against their will. She envisages that with changes in society will come new forms of relationships (true) and that we are no longer at the mercy of biological evolution, but can shape our own destiny. The relationships between men and women are going to be on equal footing, with beneficial influence for both sexes, because “[n]o man has a right to consider himself educated until he has been under the influence
of cultivated women , and the same may be said of women as regards men.” She looks optimistically forward to what she calls, quoting Hamlet while forgetting about the context of this phrase, “consummation devoutly to be wished”, and ends by quoting a Welsh poet Lewis Morris foreseeing the times “When man and woman in an equal union
Shall merge, and marriage be a true communion . “

Mona Caird – “Marriage” (excerpt)

With Caird we move a generation forward, to the era of women who went to college (even if they weren’t granted a degree), had professions and became known as “the New Woman”. She was the author of several novels and essays, of which “Marriage” is an attempt to envisage what marriage should be like. Her ideal may seem utopian, she writes, but every progress in society once seemed utopian and a pipe dream. The ideal marriage should be, first of all, free, that is people should not be forced by law or social norms to stay in it if they stop loving and trusting their partner. The prerequisite is, of course, that the woman is in charge of her own person and herself chooses whom to marry. In order for the woman to be free, she needs economic independence, and that is difficult because: capitalism, so Caird can only hope for moving towards moving a more socialist state (she doesn’t use exactly these words, but that’s her general drift). Caird’s ideal relationships between sexes are pretty much like what they are in the West today: co-education, mixed work environment, all of these should lead to more opportunities to meet potential spouses and getting to know them better than at the time of Caird’s writing, when marriage was “the haphazard thing” and girls believed they fell in love with the first man that came along and married him just for the sake of the social and economic position being a wife gave them.

Florence Nightingale – “Cassandra” (excerpts – the end)

Nightingale criticizes the fact that women are not allowed to have any time of their own, but are always interrupted either by the demands of their family or social life, and for that reason their life is cut up into pieces: from breakfast to dinner, from dinner to tea, etc. It is actually surprising, she writes, that there are so many loving marriages, because women do not have a chance to study and develop their minds, and for that reason the conversations with their husbands revolve around the trivial everyday subjects, family issues and child rearing. There is no deep communion between them, except for the early period when they are passionately in love, and later on, when the husband has any unorthodox opinions, he won’t dare to share them with his wife, for the fear of unsettling her. She quotes the then popular saying that “a woman is by birth a Tory” (i.e. all women are conservative) and tries to explain that it’s not their nature but nurture which stifles women’s natural thirst for activity and intellectual pursuits. She ends with a not altogether clear call for a female Saviour figure, thewoman who will “resume in her own soul all the sufferings of her race”.

Florence Nightingale – “Cassandra” (excerpts)

Cassandra is a text Florence Nightingale wrote before she became Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing and was just a spinster (in Victorian terms) living with her parents, having rejected several offers of marriage, and increasingly chafing against the restrictive model of Victorian womanhood. This book was a way to let off steam, I suppose, and though it was printed privately in a few copies (Nightingales were very wealthy), it didn’t become widely known until it was republished long after Nightingale’s death. The caveat, like with Mulock’s text, is that Nightingale describes what we would call ‘first world problems”, or the issues that the girls from rich families had to deal with. It’s also a bit rambling, although maybe that’s just an impression created by the way these excerpts were edited. The selection starts with Nightingale noticing that women have “passion, moral activity, intellect” and can’t use them, or are not even allowed to complain about not being able to use them, because that irritates men. The second excerpts starts with a question “Is discontent a privilege” and here Nightingale’s text gets a bit confusing, but the crux of her reasoning is that yes, the unhappy women she writes about are the privileged ones, whose talents and intellect are wasted on social obligations of attending or organizing dinners and answering letters. She quotes the example of Catholic monasteries in which, even though the vows of celibacy may seem unnatural, at least four and a half hours a day were assigned for study and spiritual development, a luxury denied to English ladies. She correctly points to the double standard: men are not expected to spend their days in their mother’s drawing room, doing embroidery or accompanying her during her visits; those who do, are widely ridiculed. Why is it that women’s occupations, whatever they are, are considered less important than the demands of social life?

Dinah Mulock Craik – “A Woman’s Thoughts about Women” (excerpts)

Mulock is one of the writers from the category “everybody read them back then/nobody reads them now” (except for the committed Victorianists. She started publishing in the 1840s, her biggest success was John Halifax, Gentleman, and kept up a respectable writing career through the rest of her life. She married her publisher George Craik when she was in her late thirties and an established writer; for that reason there is some confusion about her surname, because she published her later texts as Mrs Craik, some later editions of her works credit her as Dinah Mulock Craik, and some stick to the name she had at the time of publishing this text, like the editors of the NAEL, who call her Dinah Maria Mulock. It’s one of her didactic texts, in which she tries to approach the question of women’s work from a rather conservative position. She describes young ladies from a privileged background who, unlike their brothers, have nothing to do after they complete their (rudimentary) education, but go to balls, visiting, playing instruments and do what they can to “massacre old Time”, as Mulock writes not without a touch of humour. Her answer is, unsurprisingly, that they can find employment at home, by helping their parents with their household duties or teaching younger siblings, or getting more committed and serious about a hobby. But failing that, they can find employment (though not a job) outside home by helping their neighbours and extended family, and Craik writes a whole hymn about how cherished and happy old maids can be, if they remain cheerful, altruistic, and hardworking – basically the spinster version of the Angel in the House.

“The Great Social Evil” (excerpts – the end)

The author of the letter defends herself, saying that if she is, like many think about her, a cancer on the body of the society, that society is to be blamed. She earns her living, lets in turn many other tradesmen earn their living, conducts herself becomingly in public and doesn’t cause any problems, so all the moralists should shut up, including the ‘Unfortunate”, whose letter provoked her into writing her retort. The vast majority of prostitutes come, like the author of this letter, from the lowest classes of society, and society does nothing to help them. She says the often quoted statistics of 80,000 prostitutes working in London at that time is grossly overinflated, by including all the poor working women, like seamstresses, who might occasionally turn to having sex for money in order to save themselves from starving. She paints a vivid picture of a nice shop, whose owner and his family live very well, and which attracts high-class clientele, but none of them think about the toil of the women whose underpaid work keeps it going. They are not prostitutes, they are victims, and as such they should not be chased by the police. I wish some of the good folks who do computer stylometry tried to compare this texts against some of Victorian writers, because I don’t think it’s real author could be a London working-class girl with little formal education.

“The Great Social Evil” (excerpts)

Today’s reading is an abbreviated letter to The Times, published in 1858 as a response to a previous letter by a correspondent who claimed to be a former governess turned prostitute. The apparent author of this letter was a prostitute as well, but from a very different background, with perhaps a more typical back story. The NAEL editors are careful to point out that there is no way of confirming the identity of these writers and indeed, it’s been a dirty little secret of many journals that some portion of their “Letters to the Editor” came from the editor themselves. The author of this letter says she grew up in a working-class family, with her father working as a brickmaker, and her mother and the ever growing brood of children helping him. They all slept in the same room and “there were few privacies, few family secrets in our house”, which is a Victorian code for “our parents had sex pretty much in front of us”. There was no notion in the community she was brought up in that prostitution was something wrong – her mother winked and smiled when as a child she sang the song “My face is my fortune”, and the young girls who left and returned some time later, inexplicably well-dressed and with a lot of cash to spend, were universally admired. Motivated by curiosity and natural desire, she, as she puts it, gave away her virtue at the age of 13 – she says she couldn’t lose it because she had none of what Victorians would call moral virtue, having seen and known everything about sex. At the age of 15 she is introduced by one of these older well-dressed girls to the world of prostitution, and soon she herself became the well-dressed girl visiting her poor neighbourhood. At the age of eighteen she became a mistress to a man who treated her somewhat better than her other customers and gave her some education, which I guess is the way of explaining why she was able to write her letter to The Times in the first place.

Harriet Martineau – “Autobiography” (excerpts – the end)

Martineau finally decided to attempt publication on the instigation of her beloved brother James, who was returning to college after his vacation and tried to think of a project for her in what she calls her “widowhood”. Initially she said she would do it only if he did, but he said he really couldn’t do it under the eyes of his tutors and encouraged her to submit her text to the Monthly Repository, a small Unitarian magazine. She wrote her first article on “Female Writers on Practical Divinity”, a text she claimed she was so ashamed of as an adult that she hadn’t read it ever since. She signed it randomly as “V” and sent it herself, in secret from her family. Much to her surprise, it was printed and in the section “Notices to Correspondents”, the editors wrote they would like to hear more from “V of Norwich” (since she didn’t give them a return address). On that Sunday when that issue of the Monthly Repository arrived, she went after service to have tea with her newly married brother. Her brother started reading her article aloud, noticing that it must be a new writer, and praising it very highly, saying that “they have had nothing so good as this for a long while” (which, as Martineau modestly observes, was not setting the bar very high). Finally when he noticed she was not very responsive to his enthusiasm and asked her what was going on, she admitted it was by her. He finished reading her article silently and as she was getting ready to leave, he told her, calling her “dear”, as she notices, for the first time: “Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings; and do you devote yourself to this.” She returned home stunned but happy and she claims “that evening made me an authoress”. Martineau writes vividly about the happiness on seeing her text printed for the very first time in her life, and it’s a sentiment I read in other writers’ autobiographies as well, at least the writers who debuted before the computer age. I feel sorry it’s lost nowadays. Was it gone with the Internet, when anybody can write anything and become famous? Or was it even earlier, with the advent of word processors and printers, when anybody could see their words printed on what looked like (at least to an untrained eye) a professionally-set page?

The last excerpt is about what seemed like a big catastrophe in the Martineau family, when their business failed. This was, she claims, the best thing that happened in her life, not only for her, but for her mother and her sisters as well, because it demanded action from them, while the previous misfortunes were just to be endured. Harriet was finally allowed to pursue her writing career in order to make money to support herself and her family, because “we lost our gentility”. Without that loss, they would have led a modest life “in the ordinary provincial method of ladies with small means”, while the need to make money allowed them to work, make money and friend, travel locally and abroad, and in short, as she puts it, live instead of vegetate.