Trying to get a hold of this book is not easy; I had a few unsuccessful attempts: Apparently, if you ask at Blackwells for a book called Discords
by a female author writing under the name George Egerton, people will assume you don't know the basics of literary history, and that you really meant George Eliot.
I won't pretend to be a specialist on George Egerton, however; in fact, this novella, "The Regeneration of Two" would not appear here if it had not been suggested to me by Clare Stainthorp
, who clearly has better contacts in the obscure Christmas books underground than I have. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday in the National Library of Scotland reading their copy, however, and decided it could not be left out.
Egerton's real name was Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright, and while she is classed as a feminist "New Woman" writer, that is not unproblematic, as she was not altogether in favour of the suffrage movement, and attempted to distance herself from the label. She was certainly radical, though, encouraging sexual freedom for women (possibly one of the reasons why she wrote under a male pseudonym). This is very much a topic in "Regeneration of Two", as well; but there is a second reason for its inclusion, which I imagine will become readily apparent any moment now. I will admit the opening sentence may not set the Christmas tone.
It is mid-June one hot forenoon in Christiana.
That's right. It's set in Norway. And that's not all. It is filled with the most wonderful drips of Norwegian local colour, in particular in the use of language.
A door opens; she calls irritably, 'Jomfru!' and a stout woman enters the room.
'Does Fruen want anything?' She speaks respectfully, yet there is a note in her voice that one uses to a child or an invalid; indeed she is on terms of companionship with her mistress.
'I'm awfully thirsty, I want something tart.'
'Fruen had better have saft' (fruit juice) 'and seltzer.'
It turns out Egerton lived in Norway for two years, where she read Ibsen to her heart's content and had an affair with Hamsun. In fact, her Keynotes was dedicated to Knut Hamsun
, and she was the first to translate Sult
into English. The description of the main character (Fruen) as a child or an invalid echoes A Doll's House
, and the novella traces a similar (though different) trajectory: Away from the confining and debilitating expectations of society, rather than the individual man. And towards a rather happier ending (at Christmas time). Fruen is trapped in indolence and passivity, in which her only object is to appeal to men; but the prospect of another marriage repels her:
'The men have the best of it. If a man is bored he puts on his hat and goes out, and looks for a man or a woman to help him to get rid of himself. Why can't we do the same? I wish I knew what to do with myself?'
'Yet Fruen has much to be thankful for. She had a rich husband and --'
'Buried him,' she interrupts cynically. 'Yes, there is a measure of thankfulness in that.'
She heads to "Bygdo, that prettiest of Christiania surroundings
", where she finds a man sleeping in the grass, with a dog beside him. Struck by something in him, she watches him for hours; and when he wakes up he is wonderfully rude (which she rather likes, not generally used to having men be rude to her). She asks him to explain his philosophy, and when he throws vague words at her, she says
'I don't believe women as a rule like poetry as well as men. I believe we have really much less sentiment in us. No,' with a coaxing intonation, 'tell me what you see in plain prose; tell me the truth!'
He smiles, and she marvels at the softening of the stern lines and the new tone in his voice.
'The truth? Does Fruen think she could stand the truth? Truth doesn't wear a fig-leaf!'
'Fruen will try.'
He then gives quite a rousing speech on the hypocrisy and corruption of Victorian power structures, and how neither men nor women are worth anything anymore. And in particular he is scathing about the kind of femininity she performs, with the corset and the powder and the coquettish superficiality that keep her from functioning as a full human being.
She feels her corset press her like an iron hand; she is shamed to the depths of her soul. The spots of rouge on her cheeks seem to sting as a sharp blow from a freshly gathered nettle; and she is conscious that she who has all her life let men care for her, and closed her eyes without thoguht of their trouble or what she may have done to them; that she, who would have laughed at their presuming to find fault with her, only cares now because this one 'cracked-brained poet,' outcast, what you will, is the first man who has touched the underlying fibres of her nature; and she is the epitome of this class of women he lashes with his scorn! She cringes inwardly, and a dull pain stirs in her, and she queries impatiently, as so many others have done before her: What is this feeling, and from where does it come, making us the playthings of the inexplicable?
'Are you not ever lovely?' she asks.
'Yes, when I am ill.'
While his words have a powerful impact on her, she does not passively absorb them:
"We have been taught to shrink from the honest expression of our wants and feelings as violations of modesty, or at least good taste... And our powder and our paints! Aren't they rather tributes to the decay of chivalry in your own sex? It's not to woman but to pretty woman man pays deference. So much' -- with bitterness -- 'for the dolls, as you call them, ... and the desexualised half man, with a pride in the absence of sex feeling, reckoning it as the sublimest virtue to have none, what is she but the outcome of centuries of patient repression?
I have been a coward because I have half felt these things, but I never knew till to-day that I could put my thoughts into words, and may be after to-day I shall turn over a new leaf, and put more into my life, and more of myself into it."
Which is what you might call an Awakening (in fact, there is something in this book which reminds me strangely of Kate Chopin's The Awakening
, though that goes in a rather different direction). I'll get to the Christmas bit soon, bit let me first provide another drip of Norwegian delight:
An empty droschke comes slowly up to them; as it reaches them she holds up her hand and stops it; the driver pulls up and waits.
The driver jerks the reins and urges the horse on with a peculiar noise Norsk horses seem to expect as a right.
Does anyone know at what point the German "droschke" became the current Norwegian "drosje"? And how lovely is it that the n in "Norsk" is capitalised and the plural form's e is missing?
The second half of the novella begins three years later; and Christmas is finally approaching!
Snow everywhere! A white world wrapped in a snowy shroud, under a grey-white sky. What a feast the gods are preparing; the last down of the wild geese breasts falls softly, silently, caressingly down, as when death comes to a little child in its sleep.
Which is not a weird way of describing snowfall at all. I suspect this kind of association may come from having binged on H. C. Andersen's fairytales, but I am not sure. Here, too, there are touches of Norwegian in the description:
Every touch of colour, the crimson in a little lad's muffler, as he drags his newly-painted kjelke (hand-sled) up the hill, strikes warmly to one as the light in the window to a wayfarer on a murky night, or one's name on the lips of a sleeping lover.
It is Christmas Eve. ... Two men are running a sheaf of wheat to the top of a pole for the birds' Christmas treat. In a country where every man is more or less a sailor, and where the driest notary can tie a 'Turk's head', most things are done in a seaman-like way. They break into a shanty as they hoist it up. She is standing looking at them, she has on a red ski (snow-shoe) costume.
I am always a little confused whenever I see Victorians (and sometimes later Brits) describe skis as snowshoes, but it happens so regularly that I suppose I really shouldn't be anymore: If you lack the word "ski", which is now fairly well integrated into English, snow-shoe must be the second best choice.
By this time, at any rate, Fruen has quite come into her own. She has left the city, started a kind of commune in a farm, and cheerfully breaks any number of social norms. The most extreme expression of this is her willingness to take in women and men who would otherwise be shunned by society.
That she would be eccentric in her way of carrying out her scheme was only to be expected, and there were both smiles and headshakings when she espoused the cause of all women, without reference to character or exhortations to repentance. It began when Captain Sörensen turned his pretty daughter out of doors. She took her in, and kept her until the trouble was over, and when Morten Ring went up to read to her, and she found the girl shaken with sobs, before the scathing power of his ranting eloquence, she took him by the collar and put him out of doors, with a definite intimation to keep off her property.
On this particular Christmas Eve, the pastor comes to see her, sent by the disapproving ladies of the village. She tells him off quite forcefully.
'Yes, I know what you are going to say, Herr Pastor, I see it on your lips, it's a stock church phrase, "Man is the head of the woman, etc." St. Paul had something to do with that heresy, hadn't he -- well, I don't believe him a bit.
Which cheers my heart no end; really, anyone who tells St. Paul which way is up has my gratitude.
Man hasn't kept the race going, the burden of the centuries has lain on the women. ... The only sign-post man ever raised for her was: "Please me, that is the road to my heart; curb the voice of your body, dwarf your soul, stifle your genius and the workings of your individual temperament, ay, regulate your conscience in accordance with mine and my church, be good, and I will feed you and clothe you in return for your services; what more can a woman desire?" And if sometimes the untamed spirit looked out of a woman's eyes, and she spurned his offer, he took care to cry: "She is a traitor to the sex I have moulded in my hand for centuries!" And if her own sex joined in the cry, small blame to them to curry favour with their bankers.'
Needless to say, the poor pastor gets nowhere. Instead of conventional morality, she has revived traditional crafts, grounding her people in production and creation. I quite like that she sets up spinning as the solution to all the ills of the world; I am fairly sure she is right: Everyone would be a little calmer if they had to spend a few hours each day sitting at a wheel.
All this while, however, she has been dreaming of the man she met at Bygdø. And as "the third Yule day
" ends, (in an impressive coincidence) his dog suddenly arrives at the door.
'Come here, Bikkje' (little bitch), she calls to the dog.
It carries a note indicating that the man is hurt and alone in the forest (not a good thing at any time, but certainly not at midwinter). Having learnt to fend for herself (and having long since burnt her corset, presumably), she gets out the sledge and sets off through the night to fetch him. Which provides the opportunity for yet another
delightful moment of Norwegiana:
'Are you the Snow Queen?'
'Perhaps. Shut your eyes and sleep, and when you wake you'll know.'
'I do know lillemor,' (motherkin), 'only I forgot.'
And while we are on the subject of language (again), the book also offers the best exclamation I have ever heard (I hope it has a Norwegian origin -- it would set me up with patriotic spirit for life, but I fear not).
'The devil photograph me, did ye now!'
We are obviously headed for a happy ending; the title of the novella is "The Regeneration of Two", after all. And it is in keeping with the idea of Christmas that this resolution is set at this time. There is the death of the old and the hope of renewal -- and interestingly a renewal through tradition at that. Having had the opportunity to see whether he is in fact lovely when ill, she declares that
'From this out I belong body and soul to myself; I will live as I choose, seek joy as I choose, carve the way of my life as I will.'
But it is tied to her mastery of old means of production.
'She has an old black spinning-wheel, with ivory knobs; she moves her foot with steady rhythm, and she feeds it with the ivory white curls of well-carded wool with a beautiful action of hands. He watches her with a kind of fascination, and the song of the wheel sings soothingly in his thoughts.
'Few ladies spin now,' he remarks.
'No; I am not very good at it, I am only learning. The wool in my gown holds all my first attempts -- I like it. I span an awful lot of thoughts into it, much of my old self, and when it was finished I was new.'
They move around each other, tentatively; he is despondent because he feels he has found the perfect woman, but he cannot break away from the social rules which state that as he has nothing to offer her, he cannot offer himself; and she, for a while, is tied to the convention that she must wait passively for him to approach her. Finally, however, she has had enough:
What should she trouble what the world says -- after all one's world is only as big as one can grasp it -- why worry over the rule of waiting to be wooed; a relic of the days of capture by force.'
It seems to him that she is like a tall pillar of white flame. 'For I am sure of myself, proud of my right to dispose of myself as I will, to choose --'
She looks him full in the face as she speaks and her changeful eyes are glorious with a fire that is too clean, too strong for shyness. 'And even --' there is a break in her voice -- 'if I mistake you, to feel not one pang of false shame at having spoken as my heart tells me. Man, I love you.'
And so, there is a happy ending. As there should be, I suppose.