Sarah Grand, © National Portrait Gallery,
by kind permission.
Sarah Grand (1854-1943), born Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke, was a leading New Woman novelist, feminist activist and a public speaker in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who coined the term ‘New Woman’. She contributed significantly to the late-Victorian debates about gender and nationhood and called for redefining of women’s roles in society and in the home. She lobbied particularly hard for social purity and women’s suffrage, strongly denounced double standards in marriage, and advocated rational dress and the health benefits of cycling.
Childhood and education
Frances was born of English parents in the small town of Donaghadee, County Down, Ireland. Her father, Edward John Bellenden Clarke, served as a naval coast guard officer. He was posted in Ireland in 1852 and remained there until his death in 1861. Her mother, Margaret Bell Sherwood, was a highly cultivated woman from Yorkshire. She had an admirable library, and Frances must have inherited from her a taste for reading books. As a young girl, she was fond of reading Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. She also invented fancy stories long before she learnt to write them. After the death of her husband, Sarah’s impoverished mother with five children moved to the Scarborough area in northern England. Frances was educated at home until she was 14 and then, in 1868, attended briefly the Royal Naval School at Twickenham. However, after a year she was expelled because she formed a debating club in support of Josephine Butler, the renowned leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which forced women suspected of prostitution to undergo a medical examination while men who consorted with them were left unchecked. Next she continued education in a finishing school in Holland Road, Kensington, which prepared girls for their ‘true career’ in marriage. Yet, after a year, she returned home from this school. Her formal education lasted a little over two years. Gifted with a strong power of observation, as a young girl Frances started writing verses and stories.
A mismatched marriage and separation
In 1871, at 16, she married Lieutenant-Colonel David Chambers McFall, a 39-year-old widowed army assistant surgeon with two sons. Her motivation to marry at such a young age was to escape from her over-possessive mother and to gain access to books and the chance to travel the world. After the birth of their only child, David Archibald Edward, Frances accompanied her husband at various military missions in the Far East, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, China, Japan and the Straits Settlements (now part of Malaysia). Before returning to England in 1879, McFall was briefly posted in Malta, where Frances enjoyed social life among British residents. Next McFall was assigned to the army barracks in Norwich, and in 1881 was made, on half-pay, Honorary Brigade Surgeon and Medical Officer at the Warrington barracks. Then, approaching fifty, he partly retired from full-time medical work. However, in Warrington, he was involved with the infamous lock hospital, which used to confine prostitutes suspected of carrying venereal disease. Gradually, Frances felt increasingly unhappy in her marriage; she was averse to her husband’s heavy smoking, drinking, womanizing and his excessive sexual demands. ‘These years in Warrington were the bleakest and most cruel of Frances’ life’ (Kersley 45). After twenty years of oppressive marriage, having brought up her son Archie, who became and actor, and two stepsons, Chambers (later known as Haldane) and Albert, Frances decided to leave her dissolute husband and lead an independent life devoted to literature and campaigns for women’s rights. In 1891, she moved to a large flat in Kensington, London, and restarted her life at thirty-six as a New Woman activist and writer. It was then that she changed her name to Madame Sarah Grand, a literary pseudonym which was to suggest her independence, feminist pride, self-empowerment and an expression of the New Woman ethos. Her earlier marriage to a surgeon had given her opportunity to become acquainted with various medical problems. Particularly, she learnt quite a lot about the epidemiology of sexually transmitted diseases and the deplorable conditions in lock hospitals. She used this knowledge widely in her feminist fiction and polemical articles.
A New Woman writer
Sarah Grand published eight novels, three short story collections and numerous articles. At 19, she published her first story, Two Dear Little Feet (1873), in which, amongst others, she warns women of the health risks of wearing tight boots and corsets. Her next fictional work, a novel, Ideala: A Study from Life (written in 1879), was rejected by publishers, but Grand published it anonymously in 1888 at her cost, and when it was republished by Richard Bentley in the next year, it became an instant bestseller. Ideala was the first novel of her famous New Woman trilogy about a disastrous marriage and a woman’s self-awakening. The heroine, a highly sensitive and well-bred woman is married to a man of loose morals. She leaves him when she falls in love with a doctor, but eventually she rejects both marriage and romance in order to become a social reformer. Next Grand published A Domestic Experiment (1891) about another mismatched marriage. The novel was criticised, like Ideala, as a justification of adultery, divorce and ‘free love’. However, Grand was far from supporting such demeanour, she only urged men to adopt stricter standards of sexual and moral conduct.
In her very popular and influential novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), the second in her New Woman trilogy, she described the shocking problem of the transmission of syphilis by promiscuous husbands to their wives and children. The highly intelligent and self-educated heroine marries a brutish man whom she barely knows. When she discovers that he has syphilis, she refuses to consummate the marriage, but nevertheless must stay in it for social convenience, thus sacrificing love, sexual fulfillment, and motherhood. Grand was outraged by the fact that Victorian men had a free access to prostitutes. She advised her female readers that they had the right to refuse sex with their immoral husbands if their marriage was based on a ‘grave misapprehension’ or ignorance. She asserted that a number of ‘respectable’ gentlemen were carriers of venereal diseases and that they infected their unsuspecting wives with syphilis without any pangs of conscience and legal liability. As a result, innocent women bore syphilitic children. Syphilis was not curable until antibiotics were discovered in the second half of the 20th century. For the first time in literary history Grand frankly dealt with the problem of venereal disease and supported the social purity movement.
A social activist for women’s emancipation
Grand was a member of the Rational Dress Society, founded in 1881, which protested against the introduction of any fashion in dress that deformed a woman’s figure, impeded her movements, or tended to injure her health. The Society particularly campaigned against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets, high-heeled shoes and heavily-weighted skirts, especially crinolines or crinolettes. Besides, she was a founder member and vice-president of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, formed in 1908 by Cicely Hamilton and Bessie Hatton, the Women’s Citizens’ Association, and the Women’s Suffrage Society. She also took a leading role in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. All these movements led to the gradual emancipation of middle- and upper-class women. Grand’s active membership in women’s organisations acquainted her with prominent feminists and suffragists in London. She supported the vote for women campaigns and and called for the reform of the marriage law. The circle of her feminist friends included Mrs. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies; Emily Caroline Langton Massingberd (known as Lady Emily Langton Langton), a women’s rights campaigner, temperance activist and a founder of the Pioneer Club (1892) for the political and moral advancement of women; Lady Henry Somerset (née Lady Isabella Caroline Somers-Cocks), a philanthropist, temperance leader and a campaigner for women’s rights; and Constance Wilde (born Constance Mary Lloyd), the wife of Oscar Wilde, and a campaigner for suffrage and rational dress.
The ‘New Woman’ concept
Between 1894 and 1895, the North American Review published a debate between Sarah Grand and the popular antifeminist novelist Maria Louise Ramé, better known by her pen name Ouida, on the Woman Question. In one of her articles (‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’) Grand coined the term ‘New Woman’, which became a popular catch-phrase in newspapers and books. She wrote: ‘the new woman is a little above the man and it was her duty to bring him up to her standard' (Grand, 1894: 271). The ‘New Woman’ was a significant cultural icon of the of the fin de siècle who departed from the stereotypical Victorian woman because she was educated, emancipated, independent and self-supporting, like Sarah Grand. Apart from contributions to the North American Review, Grand published articles in Cosmopolitan, the Independent, and Harper’s Bazaar. However, in the early 20th century her writing became less radical and controversial.
Babs, from a copy in
the Internet Archive.
Grand was active all her life as a writer and social campaigner, but her later fictions with the exception of The Beth Book were less radical. In The Beth Book, Being a Study of the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure, a Woman of Genius (1897), the last and most autobiographical novel in the trilogy, Grand made references to her childhood, adolescence and her mismatched marriage. She supports marriage as an important social institution and satisfying mutual relationship. Her other works include Our Manifold Nature (1894), a collection of short stories, an autobiographical novel, Babs the Impossible (1901), the first two parts of a proposed trilogy which was never completed: Adnam’s Orchard (1912), about a utopian agrarian commune, and The Winged Victory (1916), focusing on social class conflict, and finally, a collection of stories entitled Variety (1922). Apart from fiction Grand published numerous topical articles, the most interesting and controversial being her contributions to the late-Victorian Woman Question debate. She urged women to redefine their social roles and become more autonomous from men. At the same time, unlike a few other New Woman writers, such as Mona Caird, Grand propagated sexual purity, marriage based on equal rights and obligations of both spouses, and maternity. In the article ‘The Modern Girl’, published in the North American Review in 1894, she describes it as the ‘holiest and most perfect state for both men and women’ (Aslami 144) However, she strongly criticised traditional patriarchal marriage and called for its radical reform. She opposed vehemently the traditional Victorian belief in natural male supremacy in favour of gender equality in both social and family life. She believed that a new type of marriage based on love and reciprocal esteem would contribute to the social and personal improvement of both men and women.
Promoter of social purity, women’s suffrage, rational dress and cycling
Sarah Grand lived through a period of intense social agitation which included changes in legislation concerning women, such as the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886, and the formation of the Women’s Trade Union League in 1889. At the turn of the 19th century, Grand became very active in the public sphere. She was one of the leading New Woman writers who propagated social purity, feminism and women’s suffrage. She strongly opposed the Victorian patriarchal view of women as self-sacrificing ‘angels in the house’, devoted unconditionally to domesticity and motherhood. As Laureen Simek has observed: "Grand’s novels work to debunk traditional views of women as selflessly passive angels, demonstrating that these views breed dangerous moral ignorance and unreflective self-absorption" (340). In fact, although Grand could not withstand the problems of her own marriage, unlike radical feminists, she advocated reforming rather than abandoning this important social institution. In 1901, she travelled widely in the USA, giving lectures on the Woman Question, marriage and the abuse of married women. On the whole, despite this, she continued to defend marriage as ‘the only possible protection for women and children who might otherwise be abused and abandoned by men’ (Mangum 114). In her view marriage as a legal institution should protect both men’s and women’s rights and interests.
Commitment to eugenic feminism and racial regeneration
It should be noted that Sarah Grand and a few other Victorian female social campaigners, such as Ellice Hopkins, believed in the rational regeneration of the British imperial race. Angélique Richardson asserts that ‘Sarah Grand was a committed exponent of biological determinism and eugenic feminism’ (95). She believed that the New Women had a special mission to accomplish in British society: its national and ‘racial’ regeneration. Similarly, Ann Heilmann calls Grand a ‘social purist who promoted eugenic solutions to societal problems’ (Heilmann 2004, 14). Using eugenic rhetoric Grand tried to invert traditional gender hegemony arguing that women possess spiritual and moral superiority over profligate men and therefore are destined to control and reform them in order to maintain and strengthen the imperial race.
At the turn of the century Grand became a celebrated public speaker In 1901, she went on a four-month lecture tour to the United States. She visited New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago and San Francisco. Apart from promoting social purity and women’s suffrage, she also advocated rational dress and cycling as a form of healthy exercise for women. Grand learned to ride at a cycling academy in Paris. In the 1890s, she took regular short rides which she found to be ‘a perfect refreshment for brain workers’ (Heilmann and Forward 235). However, in 1903, she suffered from neurasthenia. After recuperation, she spent a decade lecturing on feminist issues in different parts of the UK.
In 1898, Grand settled in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where she became president of the local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, an officer of the National Council of Women and, in 1908, spoke at a meeting of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in London. After World War One Grand’s fame as a suffragist and a New Woman writer declined. In 1920, she moved to Bath, where she officially assisted the widowed Mayor Cedric Chivers as Lady Mayoress between 1922 and 1929, supporting him in his civic responsibilities. When a bomb damaged her home in 1942, she moved to Calne, Wiltshire. Sarah Grand died in poverty and obscurity at her home, the Grange, in Calne, on 12 May 1943, a month before her 89th birthday, and is buried in Lansdown Cemetery in Bath. On the next day, the Times obituary noted that ‘Sarah Grand and other writers of the school widened the field of English fiction by freeing it from some of its former limitations as to subject and treatment’ (qtd. in Richardson 95).
Sarah Grand’s New Woman fiction was shaped by some Victorian values: she glorified chastity and maternity, but at the same time strongly opposed the subordination of women, particularly to what she called ‘degenerate’ and immoral males, and emphasised female moral purity. She called for equality in marriage and gender relations and women’s autonomy. Her admirers included George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, and Alice Meynell, a poet, editor, critic and suffragist; also George Bernard Shaw, who compared her literary genius to that of Whistler<>, Ibsen and Wagner (Heilmann 2000, 1). In her insistence on exploring and defining new womanhood and her outspoken attack on male sexual profligacy, Sarah Grand contributed significantly to New Woman polemical fiction and journalism.
Aslami Zarena. The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
Bonnell, Marilyn. ‘The Legacy of Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins: A Review Essay’. English Literature in Transition 36:4 (1993), 467-78.
Forward, Stephanie. ‘Attitudes to Marriage and Prostitution in the Writings of Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird, Sarah Grand and George Egerton’, Women’s History Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 1999.
Gorsky, Susan. ‘The Art of Politics: The Feminist Fiction of Sarah Grand’. Journal of Women’s Studies in Literature 1 (1979): 286-300.
Grand, Sarah. ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’, North American Review 158 (1894).
____. The Heavenly Twins. In Three Volumes. London: William Heinemann, 1893; also available on Project Gutenberg.
____. The Beth Book, Being a Study of the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure, a Woman of Genius. London: William Heinemann 1897; also available on Project Gutenberg.
____. Ideala. London: Richard Bentley 1889; Project Gutenberg.
____. Adnam’s Orchard. London: William Heinemann, 1912.
____. The Winged Victory. London: William Heinemann, 1916.
Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004.
____. New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Heilmann, Ann and Stephanie Forward, eds. Sex, Social Purity, and Sarah Grand: Journalistic Writings and Contemporary Reception. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Huddleston Joan. Sarah Grand (Mrs Frances Elizabeth McFall, nee Clarke), 1854-1943: A Bibliography. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1979.
Jusová, Iveta. The New Woman and Empire. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.
Kersley, Gillian. Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend. London: Virago, 1983.
Ledger, Sally. ‘The New Woman and the Crisis of Victorianism’. Cultural Politics at the Fin- de-Siecle, ed. by Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken, 22-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
___. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Lister, S.P. Sarah Grand and the Late Victorian Feminist Novel. MS, Manchester Polytechnic, 1977.
Lowenstein, Adam Seth. ‘Not a Novel, nor Even a Well-Ordered Story: Formal Experimentation and Psychological Innovation in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins’. Studies in the Novel. Vol. 39, 4, 2007.
Magnum, Teresa. Married, Middle-Brow, and Militant: Sarah Grand and the New Woman Novel. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Pykett, Lyn. The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. London: Routledge, 1992.
Richardson, Angélique. Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Simek, Laureen. ‘Feminist “Cant” and Narrative Selflessness in Sarah Grand’s New Woman Trilogy’, Nineteenth-Century Literature , Vol. 67, No. 3 (Dec. 1, 2012), 337-365.
Stubbs, Patricia. Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel 1880-1920 . London: Methuen, 1981.
Created 16 September 2021