Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate turns out to be a bit hard to get out here. I’ve been reading a copy that came (via “document delivery” or interlibrary loan) from the Winnipeg Public Library–who knew. It said it wasn’t renewable: the good folks at our library managed to wangle one renewal for me, but its revised due date is today, so I’ve missed the window to try for a couple more weeks. Whose bright idea was it, anyway, to order in a 500-page novel right at the end of term? However, I found what looks like a decent copy at AbeBooks, so I should be able to finish it up at my leisure.
In the meantime, I have read the whole of the first part. The novel is structured in three volumes. Parts I and II both cover approximately the same stretch of time–Part I is 1894 to 1919, and Part II is 1906-1919. Part III picks up in 1920 and carries us on to 1930. It’s a rather clever structure, if I understand how it’s going to work out: Parts I and II take us through the story of two different families who are problematically interconnected–exactly how, Part I doesn’t say, except to recount that its main characters, after settling near the family featured in Part II, have to make a sudden departure after some sort of crisis. So I expect Part II will fill us in.
Part I, though not particularly artful in its style or form (it’s pretty much just one thing after another, in relentless succession), is emotionally quite intense and (to me) also quite depressing. It centers on Janet Harding, the discontented young wife of a country clergyman whose autocratic preferences intensify in reaction to her increasingly militant feminism. Janet is quite an unusual character. She marries ignorant of the facts of life and is not impressed (to put it mildly) when she learns them; she is particularly upset to find herself pregnant, as she feels no maternal urges at all. When the novel opens, she’s actually in labour, and her husband is struggling with his anger and abhorrence after reading in her diary about her revulsion from the whole situation: “I see nothing before me,” she has written, “but the sacrifice and the pain and the lasting cares and the cruelty of it all. I suppose it sounds inhuman, but my great hope now is that the child may not be born alive.” It’s understandable that Thomas is is upset, but it’s also made perfectly understandable that Janet would resent being cornered, which is how she feels, by a combination of biology and patriarchy. She suffers physically during the birth and blames indifferent medical care. The record in her diary for the date of her son’s birth is “the terse, unembroidered entry: ‘Women doctors? YES!!'”
Things don’t get any better for Janet and Thomas. Janet hates being a mother and finds her only fulfillment in her suffragist activism. She gets pregnant a second time and deliberately terminates the pregnancy. The means are not very clear but I gathered that abortifacents were involved–“I am acting on the assumption that I have a child,” she writes to her only confidante, “and I am doing my best to destroy its life.” When Thomas finds out, he’s practically hysterical (he’s not the most stable man to begin with–he reminds me a bit of Louis Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right, and in both cases, interestingly, the authors link frantic attempts to control wives to insanity). He eventually coerces her into confessing and repenting, and then to submitting to him sexually (“she lay still and passive, shivering a little as he came towards her”). So much for marriage as an ‘honourable estate.’
The rest of the volume follows this miserable couple as the tensions between them worsen. Thomas considers Janet’s feminism a disease, a corruption, while she finds in it and in her friendship with a successful playwright Ellison Campbell some reason for living and even, occasionally, some transcendent sense of purpose to her unhappy life. Brittain really pits political commitment against family obligations here, though by making the family deeply dysfunctional she can be seen, not as rejecting marriage and motherhood altogether (and after all, she herself was married and a mother), but as showing the need for families in general and husbands in particular to reform in order to accommodate women who rightly have other occupations. Janet pays a high price for her activism: not only does she finally walk out on her marriage, but she loses Ellison’s friendship too when she chooses to attend the funeral procession for Emily Davison (the suffragist who threw herself in front of King Edward’s horse ) instead of celebrating Ellison’s latest theatrical success. She persists, however, and Thomas gets crazier and crazier–and poor Dennis, their unwanted son, grows up in the midst of all this and turns out not badly. He makes his way eventually to Oxford, and as he becomes more independent and self-aware, he defends and supports his mother’s cause. When Part I ends, he has finally overcome medical obstacles to enlistment, but the Armistice is declared before he ever gets to France.
I was surprised over and over by the dark brutality of the story and its main characters. Brittain makes none of the concessions to convention that many 19th-century advocates for women make: I’m thinking, for instance, of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which makes a powerful case for the need to improve women’s position in marriage but does so by way of a heroine, Helen, who exemplifies crucial ideals of femininity and demands change in order to realize, not transform, the promised balance of power and influence between the sexes. Helen’s cause is not herself but her son: it’s unthinkable that she would wish he not be born alive, much less abort a potential sibling. Janet fails all the ‘relatability’ tests imaginable. I find this a strategically interesting decision: Brittain’s work would surely have been easier if Janet were nicer, even if she still had no interest in keeping house or looking after Dennis. She risks confirming misogynist prejudices about feminism as an outlet for ‘unwomanly women’–as if, of course, there is any definition of ‘womanly’ besides what women themselves are individually. Maybe the idea is to focus us on the principle of the thing: no matter whether we like her or not, we have to see Thomas’s treatment of her as unjust and repellant.
I’m genuinely interested in seeing what Parts II and III do. For now, though, it’s back to the library with this one.