This discussion of The Alabaster Box was first published in an earlier form in English Studies, Vol. 95, No. 8 (December 2014): 890-906, in an article entitled "The Conduct of Life in Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate and The Alabaster Box." The Victorian Web version appears here by kind permission of the publishers, Taylor and Francis. You may use the images added to this version without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the sources and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print document. Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures, and for more information where available.
Memorial plaque to Walter Besant on the Victoria Embankment, London.
alter Besant (1836-1901), the London-based topographer, social reformer and novelist, had recently been disappointed at the outcome of his initiative for the "People's Palace" in the Mile End Road. It had ended up catering for the education of the middle classes rather than raising the aspirations of the poor, as he had originally hoped. He had expressed his disquietude about this in his novel of 1892, The Ivory Gate. However, he was not at all willing to give up on his cherished ideals. One of Besant's later novels, The Alabaster Box (1899), proposes a different way in which like-minded people could bring culture and hope to the struggling denizens of his beloved capital.
Class Issues in The Alabaster Box
nother story of shifting identity and vision of life, The Alabaster Box deals with the class problem through the main character himself, mixing it with another typically Victorian preoccupation, genetic inheritance. It was not the first time that Besant had done this sort of thing. In Children of Gibeon (1886), for example, confusion ensues when Lady Mildred Eldridge adopts a washerwoman's daughter. Her own daughter comes to suspect that she herself is the adopted child, and seeks out what she supposes to be her birth family. This novel, incidentally, appeared in the very same year as Robert Louis Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where too the genteel (Jekyll) and the disreputable (Hyde) exist in awkward, indeed painful symbiosis. Who are we really? Who belongs where, and why? And, perhaps above all, what are the possibilities of effecting change? The Alabaster Box is of special interest because it posits no easy answers, and provides no falsely providential ending.
Here, issues of identity, class and class mobility arise when Isaac Moorson tells his son Gerald, who has recently been called to the Bar after excelling at Eton and Cambridge, that he was not born a gentleman after all. Far from having been the fortunate recipient of some mysterious Australian inheritance, the older man came from the East End, from which he had escaped not on merit, but by cunning and latterly by extortion. He had started in trade (plumbing, undertaking, building), but amassed his wealth by acquiring and letting properties, squeezing his tenants, and money-lending. Expressing no qualms at all about his past ruthlessless, Isaac gives Gerald some unusual fatherly advice: he directs him to "[t]rample on everybody" in his turn (18).
Two illustrations by Clyde O. DeLand. Left: "Gerald turned and walked away." The frontispiece iIllustration for p.10 of the novel, showing Gerald turning away, thoroughly humiliated, from the business his father had once run in the East End. He has just heard his father's reputation for sharp dealing amply confirmed. Right: Gerald's encounter with his roguish uncle (facing p. 303).
his disturbing revelation totally undermines all Gerald has ever believed about his origins, his place and his role in society. When his father dies soon afterwards, he is left, sole heir, to work out how to live with this knowledge, and how to act upon it. At first, he seems set to follow the recommended course. Even when his Cambridge friend, the Hon. James Crozier (Jem) persuades him to visit one of the East End "settlements" that were in vogue at the time, he hardens himself against compassion. The idea of such settlements was to help ameliorate the problems of the slums by elevating the working classes. One had featured in Mrs Humphrey Ward's hugely popular Robert Elsmere of 1888, in which the eponymous hero, having lost his orthodox faith, tries to convince the East Enders that the validity of Christian values does not depend on accepting miracles, and could still give new meaning to their lives, and inspire them to strive for better futures. There are certain similarities between the settlements of the two novels: one of the East End lads staying at Besant's settlement, young Robbie, is indeed very pious; and, just as Mrs Ward's Catherine Elsemere keeps her husband's "Brotherhood" going after his death, here too the leading lights are women. Gerald is taken round the area by a young woman of about his own age, Helen, who serves as the settlement's warder. But Besant's own concern was not for the rebuilding of religion on a new, more rational foundation, but for the provision of new opportunities for uncultivated minds, and for the channeling of undirected energies. The latter concern points to a certain self-interest on the part of those who run the settlements. As Lady Mildred herself says in Children of Gibeon: "the more we, of our set, learn what working people want and think, and how they judge things, and the more they, for their part, learn what we think about things, the better it will be for all of us, and the safer" (330; emphasis added).
As in other examples of socially-oriented fiction, the exploration of the East End involves not only learning about a different sector of society, and about how it is developing and may affect society at large, but also exploring the self in relation to it (see Keating, The Haunted Study, 316). Despite an initial lack of sympathy, and through the kinds of coincidence so common in Besant's novels, Gerald soon finds himself engaged in soul-searching. It is clear that he is already turning his back on his father's advice when he decides to help out a newly-discovered relative. In a convincing touch, the man, a ship's decorator whom Gerald's father had once bankrupted, suspects the family connection even before Gerald does himself: "He had just that look of him [i.e., his father], without the grab and the grasp in his eyes" (131), the man notes. Gerald's father, it seems, had been a monster in those days, "a kind of Minotaur devouring the helpless and the innocent" (156). But there is still more for Gerald to discover and deal with. Another man with whom Gerald comes into contact, a thorough rogue, exacerbates Gerald's problem by turning out to be his maternal uncle. The younger man has bad blood on both sides of his family, then.
"Whoever he was, he lay motionless." Another illustration by DeLand, showing Gerald and Jem looking down with concern at the unconscious Robbie (facing p. 303).
Far from being hard, Gerald's own nature is refined, selfless and generous, and it soon starts to reassert itself. For example, at great personal risk he rushes to intervene when some young unreclaimed toughs set upon Robbie at an isolated spot on the Thames foreshore. But this is exactly when complications occur. Once the "rogue irreclaimable" (201) has identified Gerald as his nephew, he sets out to use the knowledge to his advantage by attempting to blackmail him: he threatens to broadcast Gerald's real origins if not paid £500 a year for his silence. Not only that, but instead of making this demand directly to Gerald, the man asks Jem to convey it to him. In so doing, of course, he reveals the truth to Jem, and also lets out a new detail: Isaac Moorsom's real surname, he says, was Rosenberg, marking his brother-in-law out as even more of a stereotypical East End character — not just a usurer, but a Jewish usurer. Besant had given a clue already by calling Gerald's father Isaac; this confirmation seems unnecessary, especially at such a late stage. It seems especially unfortunate in light of the sympathy Besant expresses for Jewish people elsewhere — in East London, for example, he reports having visited the synagogue and enjoyed the services there (202). Such ambivalence was, however, typical of the times (see Bar-Yosef and Valman, 11).
The Next Step
Left: "He took her hand and kissed it." Gerald kisses Helen's hand in the warden's room of the Settlement, going on to tell her, "You live already in the heights.... We look up from the depths" (301-02). Illustration by DeLand, facing p.303. Right: The stone-carver Thomas Earp's beautiful statue of St Mary Magdalene with her alabster vessel, in the nave of St Mary Magdalene, Paddington. Besant, who edited a book on this part of London, would almost certainly have known it.
Gerald has reached a critical point. Not knowing that the news is already circulating in this and other ways, he is now labouring under the fear of disclosure. What is he to do? Can he just sit back and let his origins be broadcast throughout the new community he is visiting? On the other hand, can he really find the strength to repudiate all that has shaped him? And if so, how should he go about it? Agonising over what step to take, he at last finds the courage to open his heart to Helen. She has been aware all along of the "better nature" he has tried to hide (83), and listens carefully when he tells her what he has learnt about his background. He can no longer pretend to be a gentleman, he declares, saying that in future he will call himself "a self-made man." Saintly but practical, she responds:
You must do no such thing, Gerald, for the simple reason that you propose what is impossible. Part of your inheritance is that you can never call yourself a self-made man, — son of your own works, as the French put it. Why, you have been endowed, by your father, with the education of a gentleman and a scholar; you have been placed, by your father, in a position to distinguish yourself; you have been enabled, by your father, to be called to the bar; you are enriched, by your father, with the means of entering at once upon the career of your ambition: you owe all these things to your father as much as you owe your name and history. You can never be a self-made man. You have been trained and taught for any line of work that you choose to take up. [299-300]
Indeed, by now Gerald has already appeared in his professional role as a barrister, for the very first time, successfully defending George the Slogger, the rogue's son and therefore his own cousin, against a wrongful charge of attacking a policeman.
Then, what kind of change is required of him? As a proponent of self-help, Besant does not expect Gerald to renounce his patrimony, however ill-gotten. "I will give no money to the poor. It is not money they want," says the young man himself (rather disengenuously, since in fact he has already spent some in order to put the ship's decorator on his feet again). But Helen endorses this principle. In an important passage that explains the title of the novel, she tells Gerald that what is needed is not money but commitment. "There was once a woman," she explains, "a woman who brought an alabaster box, very precious, which might have sold for much and been given to the poor. But she gave it to her Master. It was the symbol of a greater offering. For she gave — herself. Oh! Gerald, she gave herself!" (303).
Helen's reference is to the incident in the New Testament when a woman (commonly supposed to be Mary of Magdalene) anoints Jesus with costly oil (e.g. see Matthew 26, vi-xiii). In East London, Besant himself expresses nothing but "extravagant admiration" for the settlements (344). Gerald's way forward seems plain at last. But the self that he commits to this new life must be the real self. So, in a "great renunciation" (317), he destroys the whole tissue of his fabricated family history — portraits, heirloom library, heraldry, and family tree alike:
Out of a drawer below the books he took a folded parchment. This was nothing less than a genealogy of the Moorsom family. It contained a most daringly untruthful list of names, beginning in prehistoric times, in fact, before the arrival of the Conqueror, with the thane named Leofstan of the More. Gerald gave himself no time to read this precious compilation. He ripped it and slashed it savagely with his penknife. Then he thrust it into the empty fireplace and applied a common lucifer match, looking on with a fiendish delight while it crackled and curled and miserably perished. "There is an end of another lie," he said. 
This may seem melodramatic, a mere gesture; but Besant would have been familiar with the very serious concept of renunciation through his sister-in-law, Annie Besant, an adherent of Theosophy, in which "all the vain things of the world have to be utterly renounced" (Meed 11). Moreover, in a masterly touch, Besant takes the edge off its staginess by broadening the perspective: he reminds us of just how little one person's family history means to another, and just how trivial even such a momentous personal sacrifice as this may seem when viewed from the outside. Not what his father either was or pretended to be, but still (and equally importantly) what his father has helped to make him, Gerald emerges from his fake aristocratic past, and is welcomed back as himself into the settlement.
ow long he will stay there, how he will contribute to it while there, and what he might do if and when he leaves it, all remain uncertain. Several possibilities have been raised in the past: a young man who looks as if he is "capable of purpose and resolution" (4), he might become a fixture at the bar, defending other victimes like George the Slogger. On the other hand, he appears to have been "born for politics" (28), destined perhaps to be "leader of the House" (30). Whatever happens, Jem at any rate is confident that his friend will prove a powerful ally. "You will see, all of you," he tells the rest, "what a man he is" (325). Even as Helen leads Gerald into the fold again, the future is wide open to him.
Gerald's hand has been forced by chance and the threat of blackmail, and he has had the good fortune to be advised by Helen. But Besant has made his point through Gerald on the one hand, and George the Slogger on the other. A man will suffer for his father's misdeeds, but is not condemned to repeat them. Caught off balance by his father's revelation, wavering, uncertain, and in need of guidance, Gerald is still at the end likely to face many challenges. But his spirit, we feel, is free. Our lives can be influenced by Nurture and the support of others, but are not predetermined by Nature. It is entirely appropriate that the ending here should give hope rather than closure.
Without discussing it, John Sutherland picks out this novel as "unusually interesting" (61); and so it is. Although it deals with the philanthropic goals that Besant had held for many years, it does so with some subtlety, and in full awareness of the difficulties involved. In particular, it examines the view that men might be born bad, and comes to the conclusion that they are not.
Like so many late Victorians, Besant was gripped by the possibility of genetic inheritance. But he was wary of eugenics, which was touted by some (including Annie Besant) as a way of promoting "civic usefulness" (see "Mr Francis Galton on Eugenics"). He examined the subject and rejected it yet again soon afterwards, in The Fourth Generation (1900). Expanded from "To the Third and Fourth Generation," an earlier piece published in the Humanitarian magazine in 1893, this late work has a larger cast and range of characters than The Alabaster Box. Besant went so far as to describe it in his autobiography as "the most serious of my novels" (210). Turning on whether a more distant ancestor's guilt affects his children, it explicitly confirms the words of the prophet Ezekiel, that "[t]he son shall not bear the iniquity of the father" (18, xx). As Leonard Campaigne, the troubled great-grandson of a murderer realises in The Fourth Generation: "the liability to temptation — the tendency — is inherited, but the necessity which forces a man to act is not inherited; that is due to himself" (325). There is no way of knowing, in other words, what a given person, however unpropitious his family background, might be able to contribute to society. But this later novel is marred by its ending, Leonard's great-grandfather confesses his crime after decades of silence, and, by way of reparation, leaves his fortune to his victim's great-grand-daughter — who just happens to be Leonard's fiancée. As so often, then, a fairytale marriage underpinned by an accession of wealth sabotages the integrity of what has gone before, and helps to explain why Besant is not even mentioned by those like Nicholas Freeman who look for "the evolution of different realist strategies" in the literature of this period (27).
Besant was incurably optimistic. In his autobiography he gives a wonderful picture of himself as a child, "watching the tombs, especially those which were old and broken, in the hope of seeing with my own eyes a soul wing its flight to heaven" (48). Instead of trying to "catch the colour of life itself," as Henry James recommends in his response to Besant's Art of Fiction (30) he never gave up trying to facilitate a hopeful outcome. Yet there are novels of his in which the individual's struggle is keenly felt, and the ending is not so facile — perhaps, as in The Alabaster Box, involving elements of sacrifice and uncertainty. Such narratives are susceptible of closer analysis, and repay it. They help to enhance an appreciation of this currently neglected novelist, while encouraging us (as Besant would no doubt have wished) to take responsibility for our own actions, particularly as they involve others less fortunate than ourselves.
- "Novels with a Purpose": An Introduction to Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate and The Alabaster Box
- "True Visions" or "Deluding Lies"? Tensions in Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate
- Slums and Slumming in Late-Victorian London
- Sculpture of St Mary Magdalene with her Alabaster Box at St Mary Magdalene, Paddington
- To reconceive the Christ! — Robert Elsmere's New Brotherhood of Christ
Bar-Yosef, Eitan, and Nadia Valman. Introduction. In "The Jew" in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture, ed. Bar-Yosef and Valman. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 1-27.
Besant, Walter. The Alabaster Box. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 January 2015.
_____. Autobiography of Walter Besant. London: Hutchinson, 1902. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 January 2015.
_____. Children of Gibeon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1888. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University Library. Web. 3 January 2015.
_____. The Fourth Generation. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1900. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University Library. Web. 3 January 2015.
Freeman, Nicholas. Conceiving the City: London, Literature and Art 1870-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." In The Art of Fiction (bound with Besant's lecture of the same title). Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company, 1885. 51-85. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 January 2015.
Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989.
Meed, G. R. S. Theosophy and Occultism. London: Theosophical Society, 1892. Internet Archive. Open Resource Collection. Web. 3 January 2015.
"Mr Francis Galton on Eugenics." The Times. 17 May 1904: 14. Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 January 2015.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. Paperback ed. London: Longman, 1990.
Ward, Mrs Humphrey. Robert Elesmere. London: Macmillan, 1888. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 3 Janujar 2015.
Last modified 3 January 2015