Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

On Reading Conrad in the Daily Mail

Kate Macdonald, Ghent University

© Kate Macdonald. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


A longer version of this essay was published in Literature and History 22/1 (2013): 62–80.


Recently, I used the Conrad First website as a highly convenient way to examine full issues of periodicals to which I did not have access where I work. These newspapers were contemporary to a selection of literary and historical sources that I was researching, and I needed their evidence as part of the overall context for the texts, and the socio-historical questions, which I was investigating. Conrad’s writing in this particular newspaper was of secondary importance: more relevant was the fact that he would have read those issues, and thus would have had a general understanding of the opinions of the contributors and advertisers in those issues as part of his awareness of the cultural context of his times. In short, by reading what Conrad read, we see British cultural norms through his eyes.
This sense of understanding how writers viewed their own times, by reading the newspapers that they read, was the basis for my approach to my wider research question, of investigating an “alternative 1910”. I had begun with the well-known quotation from Virginia Woolf’s essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (and its variants), that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed” (Woolf 1924, 319), because I wanted to consider an alternative reading of these words. They are usually applied to the change between Victorian and modern, old and new, in a specifically literary and upper-class English context. I wanted to see what else was happening in Woolf’s society to which she might also have been responding. As a literary historian, I am as interested in historical sources as literary works, and I investigate primary sources and documents of record alongside the cultural productions of the period. I follow Virginia Woolf’s lead when she describes newspapers as “history in the raw” (Woolf 1938, 14), by turning to newspapers when I want facts about fiction. I used Conrad First to look at periodicals from 1911 to 1913, when Conrad was writing the novel I discuss below, and also from 1910. The issues of the Daily Mail of 1910 on the site gave me a fine selection of articles, adverts, serialised fiction, book reviews, and gossipy features with which to contextualize this year in which human character changed. I could make a start at understanding what “character” was, and what Woolf might have meant by it, by reading over her shoulder.
I began by looking at the context of the original quotation. In that 1924 essay Woolf was discussing the example of her cook, for whom we can read any female servant with whom Woolf and her siblings lived in close proximity yet were separated from by income, social expectations, and personal freedom. It was, apparently, in 1910 that Woolf’s cook began to invade the drawing room to ask for advice about a hat or to borrow a newspaper. It was the year when the servants began to ask new things of their employers, personal advice that demanded a personal response, that would enforce a new familiarity, and a shared understanding of a rather specialised vocabulary—between women of different classes—on matters relating to emotion and physicality, which hitherto had been taboo.
Woolf referred to 1910 in another of her memoirs when describing her and her sister Vanessa’s angry rebellion against the domestic tyranny of their father Leslie Stephen, and their older, predatory Duckworth half-brothers, with whom they lived throughout Virginia’s later teenage years and early twenties:

Father himself was a typical Victorian: George and Gerald were unspeakably conventional. So that while we fought them as individuals we also fought against them in their public capacity. We were living say in 1910: they were living in 1860. (Woolf 1976, 127)

In Woolf’s letters and diary entries up to and around 1910 there is a recurring joking interest in “passing” as a prostitute as well as references to sex, immodesty, nudity, and pregnancy; of herself and others (see Woolf 1975, 19, 20, 33, 73, 207, 348, 394, 418, 427, 432, 435, 438, 440). On 31 December 1909, Woolf wrote to Clive Bell that Lytton Strachey, his sister Pernel, and their friend Irene Noel had paid a visit: “We discussed love and sex and filth” (Woolf 1975, 418). While these letters may record her bravado, they also testify to an atmosphere of open teasing about sex and its public and private manifestations in Woolf’s private life, well before the end of 1910.
Woolf’s essay “Old Bloomsbury,” which she read to the Memoir Club in 1922, records an episode which probably took place earlier than 1907, since it was before Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell:

It was a spring evening. Vanessa and I were sitting in the drawing room . . . . Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr. Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.
“Semen?” he said.
Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good. (Woolf 1976, 173)

The anecdote is suggestive about the widening vocabularies of these upper-class young women, but also raises questions about how much Woolf actually knew about sex. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf described her Duckworth step-brothers as sexual predators on the Stephen sisters in the family home, in alarming terms (Woolf 1976, 69, 150, 155). Her brother-in-law Jack Hills was the first person who “spoke to me openly and deliberately about sex” (Woolf 1976, 103), a conversation she recalled as benign, in Fitzroy Square where Woolf moved in 1907. Such biographical anecdotes indicate that greater openness in the relations between these men and women took place long before “December 1910”.
The marginalized discourse of homosexual men, and of men willing to be informative on the subject to unmarried girls, was informing Woolf’s linguistic education in private, and opening her eyes and ears. In her 1921 memoir Woolf identified 1910 as a watershed year that had signalled a greater, if partly unwilling, proximity between classes, the sexes, and women’s bodies, and their accompanying vocabularies. Fifteen years later, she returned to the idea of a division by colouring the divide with the anger of the older men towards the younger, rebellious women of their family, tinted with what we now read, as did Woolf herself, as an unhealthy consanguineous sexual interest. Some interesting ideas were emerging about women and their bodies, and who owned access to them and controlled them, in this arbitrary moment of 1910.
I decided to look at the fiction of the period, particularly the commercially successful fiction that was sold to the newly educated public which read periodical serializations and cheap reprint editions. I looked at three novels, written or published around 1910, which dealt with a vulnerable young woman and the tensions arising in her relationship with her father while she negotiated marriage and sexual maturity. H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909) and Una L. Silberrad’s Ordinary People (1909) describe this scenario in candid detail. Wells’s novel caused a scandal, while Silberrad’s far less known novel apparently caused no fuss at all, despite having a plot centred on an unmarried middle-class mother and her dead illegitimate baby. Joseph Conrad’s Chance (1913), handled the same subject from a slightly different angle, with de Barral as a malign variant of Wells’s Mr Stanley. These three novels were evidence of a literary response to the increasingly public physicality of young Edwardian women, and used vocabularies that newly connected the sexes and classes. I needed historical evidence that would support Woolf’s memoiristic assertions as well as offering social background for the novels. I needed to read some newspapers.
My newspaper research was gratifyingly fruitful, in unexpected ways. I surveyed the most popular daily newspapers for 1910 (following Lee 1976 and Startt 1986), and found that the dominant characteristic of their content was a respectful desire to avoid giving offence to readers. Adverts and editorial alike were silent or conspicuously discreet or non-specific on the subject of women’s bodies, the waywardness of the Edwardian young lady, or the rights of the father. Given the scandal caused by Ann Veronica, particularly among conservatives, this seemed predictable, yet I wondered where the facts of everyday life not mentioned in the pages of the Evening News, the Daily Chronicle, and the Daily Express, would appear. Contemporary health manuals as well as books of instruction on women’s health from the Victorian period made it clear, for example, that stockists of sanitary towels and even advice on contraception could be found by interested parties who knew where to look. As early as 1906, sanitary towels were being commercially produced by a large number of companies, and could be ordered, laundered, and disposed of in various ways. The adverts at the back of Florence Stacpoole’s health manual (see below) show that sanitary towels were available from the firms of Southall, J. H. Haywood, Mene, and Hartmann. Advertisements in the daily press indicated a market for the regular home washing of whites: “[OMO] the soap powder that bleaches, washes and purifies all at once, that needs no rubbing, no scrubbing, just boiling and rinsing, that requires no attention but washes of itself, that makes the wash dazzlingly white, soft and comfy, that is the ideal washer for all white things” (Daily Mail, 1 November 1910, 4). The vocabulary in this advert suggests babies’ nappies and also women’s sanitary towels. However, I found that information on reproductive health could be found by Edwardian women in the Sunday papers, specifically Reynold’s Newspaper.
Here ranks of advertisements for quack remedies familiar from Victorian periodicals appeared every day, with some more recent additions. Hitherto, it had been clear that public interest in remedies for muscle tone, “weakness” in men, consumption, and bodily regularity formed a profitable market in the Edwardian period: in many of the newspapers I examined the contents of the advertising columns were familiar and repetitive. But the very small notices in the family pages of Reynold’s Newspaper also carried discreet advertisements not found in any of the daily papers I examined, ostensibly aimed at the married reader. These offered an “improved sanitary towel and booklet post-free,” “volumes of information for the married,” “Malthusian advice for both sexes,” and an “illustrated catalogue of rubber surgical appliances” (Reynold’s Newspaper, 4 December 1910, 12). Here, then, was evidence of a thriving and confident market in the less mentionable aspects of an Edwardian woman’s physical life: sanitary protection and contraception. But these were not the only adverts using a specialised coded vocabulary to communicate with buyers. Contraceptive supplies were disguised as “Malthusian advice,” but what did “correction of irregularities” denote (Reynolds’ Newspaper, 4 December 1910, 12)? A large number of adverts, arranged in groups among others relating to more explicit health concerns, sold remedies to ladies and girls for “green sickness,” “obstruction,” “anaemia,” and “regulation of the system” that were guaranteed “invaluable for all disorders of the female constitution” and taking effect “almost immediately and . . . not interfer[ing] with household duties”:

Free to LADIES who need a safe, sure and speedy cure for all irregularities. Send 1d stamp for free trial, booklet and testimonials. Blanchard’s Apiol and Steel pills supersede pennyroyal, pill cochin, bitter apple etc. The safest remedy, the one used by millions and which the highest medical authorities have always approved. This remedy neither purges nor strains the system but acts quickly. The most delicate woman can take them with happy results. Sold by all chemists 1/1d or post-free same price. Leslie Martyn Ltd (R N), Chemists, 34 Dalston Lane, London. (Reynold’s Newspaper, 4 December 1910, 12.)

The coded language used was so specific in the remedies’ ingredients that it seems clear that the repeated listing of ingredients like pill cochin, pennyroyal, and apiol were intended to signify a particular cure. Apiol in particular is a very common ingredient in these adverts, as is iron, and these were frequently associated as a cure for anaemia, with the “purging of irregularities,” and the promise not to disrupt daily household routines. “Mme Constantine’s particular cure” urged its efficacy and safety, and Horton’s Original Benedict Pills were available from the “Chief Dispenser of the late Birmingham Lying-In Hospital” (Reynolds’ Newspaper, 4 December 1910, 12). Seemingly vague and innocuous, these adverts indicate a concern with menstrual regularity, which may have been reassured by the artificial stimulation of menstruation. Mothers were addressed in these adverts as having concerns for their daughters’ health. The unspoken but fairly obvious corollary to regularising the menstrual cycle of a pubertal or anaemic girl was the regularising of the cycle disrupted by an unwanted pregnancy. These adverts attest to a flourishing market for abortifacients which used extremely carefully coded formulations to avoid prosecution.
The medical authorities of the day were well aware of the trade. A survey article by Nigel Brown contains an excellent description of the rigorous investigation of these drugs’ safety by doctors throughout the Edwardian period, their conclusion being that since there were no active ingredients, no harm was being done (Brown 1977, 300). The trade was public and even notorious, easily found in 1910 by those who knew the code. But was such knowledge ever shared between mistresses and servants?
Advanced thinkers and those interested in “social” questions were ploughing their own field of investigation. By this time social reformers had been examining working-class vocabularies for many years in an attempt to speak to working-class women about reproductive health in their own idiom:

By the early twentieth century, the Neo-Malthusian Alice Vickery, who was active in the propaganda drive in working-class areas of South London, presented her audiences with both individual and social reasons for birth control. Vickery . . . in 1912, address[ed] the Women’s Cooperative Guild in Tottenham, North London, on how “married persons” could limit births. (Rowbotham 2010, 90).

More radical was the Legitimation League, founded in 1893 to campaign for free love and the abolition of conventional marriage, which sought to embrace the sexual language of the street and introduce it to the drawing-room. Its journal The Adult (sub-titled “The Journal of Sex”) was shut down in 1899 following police pressure (Royle nd). In 1897, the League debated the existence of “two forms of speech or language in connection with sex matters,” one scientific, the other “the bald, rugged phrases of the gutter and the market-place”:

This anxiety about language partly expressed a recognition of the practical threat they faced. They had to position themselves on the “higher plane” if a line between sexual radicalism and obscenity was to be drawn. (Rowbotham 2012, 68)

These intellectuals’ attempts to sanitize colloquial discourse on sex indicate a desire to make the subject acceptable to polite society. Intellectually and socially concerned women in 1908 were thinking and talking semi-publicly about menstruation as part of a discussion of whether women were physically inferior to men by virtue of their physiology. Fabian women invited the otherwise “ultra-fastidious” E. Nesbit (Mrs Hubert Bland) to speak on the topic on 29 May, as a prominent woman writer interested in gender equality:

Her paper was re-titled “The Natural Disabilities of Women.” . . . What she was actually talking about becomes clear in the subsequent minutes: the executive committee decided to devote their July meeting to “a lecture from a medical woman upon one point raised by Mrs Bland in her lecture . . . i.e. is the normal action of sex function in healthy women a serious and insurmountable hindrance to vigorous, sustained activity . . . ?” Later minutes gradually become more explicit, and another reference to “the natural periodic fluctuations in the physiological life of normally healthy women” is finally elucidated when Dr Constance Fry came to talk about “the effects of menstruation”. A further letter on the subject from Miss Alice Gardner, tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge, was also read out; both would have repudiated any claim that this “natural function” constituted a genuine disability. (Briggs 1987, 334)

The recourse on this question to authority, rather than simple common sense and collective experience, is an arresting example of the professionalization of the medical profession in this period, a process that seems to have overridden the natural knowledge of women in a climate of increasing fear about the capacities of the “New Woman” and her demands for a larger public role. From the late nineteenth century women of all classes were growing accustomed to asking experts for medical advice rather than relying on their own networks of friends and family, who in many cases may simply have been unable to provide answers. This need for information where answers were hard to come by derives from tensions in Victorian society about women and their health:

One of these tensions is between opposing constructions of women’s physical health: on the one hand, the pessimistic belief held by many medical professionals of the 1880s and 1890s that women’s health is inherently and permanently compromised, and on the other hand, the optimistic belief that women of all ages are capable of influencing, managing, and even improving their own health, with or even without the intervention of professional medical men. (Patton 2012, 111–12)

Doctors who responded to the public’s need more proactively and published health manuals were free to state their views about women’s bodies categorically and personally. Haydn Brown was a reactionary but also an enlightened practitioner, who had strong views about the damage caused to the female body by the demands of fashion—including tight lacing, cosmetics, and quack remedies—but also insisted on conventional patriarchal social constructions of that body in insisting that women marry and have children (Brown 1899; Eden and Vickers 2006). Brown’s Advice to Single Women Regarding their Health With Hints Concerning Marriage (1899, reprinted 1907 and 1908) warns against using drugs to bring on the “monthly courses” and denounces the practice of inducing “regularity” as positively dangerous (Brown 1899, 41). He also addresses other aspects of regularity, devoting twice as many pages to constipation and tight lacing (another aspect of regularity) as to menstruation itself. Brown hinted alarmingly at the existence of sexually transmitted diseases, about which he claimed he could not elaborate “without running the risks of communicating indecent information” (Brown 1899, 138). Once again, we see that a code needs to be used for certain information to be transmitted, and once again it concerns women’s bodies in a manual available long before 1910.
Obstetrician Florence Stacpoole’s Women’s Health and How To Take Care of It (1906) offers a more advanced approach, with warnings about what ought and ought not to be inserted into women’s bodies. Her warnings about glass syringes are particularly terrifying, but her focus is largely on constipation and on coping with menstruation. She was firm about censoring information, saying that girls needed to be told about menstruation but nothing about their relationship to sexual matters, “concerning which the less very young girls know or think the better” (Stacpoole 1906, 4). She, too, warned against drugs for menstrual regularity, in terms that could conceivably be decoded as a warning against inducing abortion (Stacpoole 1906, 5). Stacpoole’s observation that periods were naturally irregular—something I had not found in earlier manuals—may derive from a growing authorial openness by this date, or simply the first-hand knowledge of a woman clinician.
Both authors urged women not to respond to quack ads for “regularity” and the removal of “obstructions”. Tellingly, however, both failed to give a corresponding quantity of advice on the need for the removal of these “obstructions,” whether foetal or merely caused by a late period. Twice as many pages were devoted to constipation as menstruation, from which we may infer that wombs were less important than bowels. Societal and legal restrictions caused this gap in information that allowed the quack remedy trade to flourish and ignorance to persist. But paternalism was also an active factor. In their health handbooks the voices of male doctors are powerfully authoritative, and know best.
In 1896, freethinker and sexual campaigner Edward Carpenter had written: “The subject of Sex is difficult to deal with. There is no doubt a natural reticence connected with it. There is also a great deal of prudery” (Carpenter 1896, 7). Such concerns were radical, but also drew on current thinking, and a nascent desire for change in social conduct. As Jane Eldridge Miller notes, “Edwardian novels about women and feminism . . . entailed a radical break with social and cultural traditions” (Miller 1994, 7). In this context, Grant Allen’s notorious popular novel The Woman Who Did (1895) offers one depiction of how a woman might offer sex to a man, outside marriage, as an equal:

I am yours this moment. You may do what you would with me. . . . How could you fancy I spoke hastily or without due consideration on such a subject? Would you have me like the blind girls who go unknowing to the altar, as sheep to the shambles? (Allen 1895, 165–6)

Since the 1880s English literature had been exploring the sexualisation of young and unmarried women with increasing openness, in plays such as George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) and Getting Married (1908), and John Hankin’s The Last of the De Mullins (1908), and novels such as George Gissing’s Denzil Quarrier (1892) and The Odd Women (1893), George Moore’s The Lake (1905), John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (1906), and Gilbert Cannan’s Devious Ways (1910) Immediately following Woolf’s 1910 “moment” the subject was also tackled by Arnold Bennett in Hilda Lessways (1911) and by Anthony Hope in Mrs Maxon Protests (1911). These examples are taken from Harold Williams, Modern English Writer (1918). Williams did not care for women novelists tackling the “sex question” in fiction, and his remarks on works by Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Iota, Elizabeth Robins, and May Sinclair (Williams 1918, 451–4) make it clear that although he did not wish to discuss their contribution to this issue, their opinions were clearly expressed.  
The reviewer of H. G. Wells’s novel Ann Veronica (1909) in T. P.’s Weekly summarised Ann Veronica’s relationship with such a “sex novel”: “it shares the responsibility of a futile meddling with the marriage tie, and a tendency to glorify the woman who has had sexual adventures” (John O’London, 22 October 1909; qtd in Parrinder 1992, 164). Ann Veronica’s elder brother warns her against such conduct on the grounds that it was not a guide to behaviour in the real world (Wells 1909, 104).
The commercial success of these novels was an indicator of intense interest in their subject. Indeed, for Edwardians, Ann Veronica was the classic account. As Virginia Nicholson records, “it is hard now to understand quite how affronted polite society was by this novel, but the reaction was one of implacable hostility to the book’s liberal message” (Nicholson 2002, 35). David Smith explains that, along with Wells’s In the Days of the Comet (1906):

people did not read [these novels] in polite company. They were to be smuggled away to read alone. Mothers and aunts often forbade these books [because] reading them brings titillation. It makes no difference that this view of them is untrue. What matters is the perception. (Smith 1986, 180)

Ann Veronica had been rejected by Frederick Macmillan, Wells’ usual publisher, who called it “exceedingly distasteful,” “not amusing,” and “certainly unedifying” (qtd in Smith 1986, 231). John Buchan, then working for Wells’s Presbyterian reprint publisher Thomas Nelson, called Ann Veronica “indefensible” (Buchan 1910). After Wells sold his manuscript to T. Fisher Unwin, however, he reported to Macmillan that Ann Veronica “is selling very fast here and in New York” (qtd in Smith 1986, 112). It has never been out of print.
The most unkind depiction of women and sex in the novel is voiced by Wells’ satirical target, the prudish and foolish suffragette spinster Miss Miniver, who will only accept the idea of a relationship with a man if it is Platonic. She is repelled by the physical side of love: “‘I can’t imagine it,’ said Miss Miniver. ‘And think, think’—her voice sank—‘of the horrible coarseness!”’ (Wells 1909, 145). This caricature matches the fear of sex with its rejection in a pitiful character—Wells’s sop to his conservative audience. However, Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett is a mouthpiece for the truth:

We’re inflammable litter that mustn’t be left about. We are the species and maternity’s our game; that’s all right, but nobody wants that admitted for fear we should all catch fire, and set about fulfilling the purpose of our beings without waiting for further explanations. As if we didn’t know! The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. . . . They don’t marry most us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. (Wells 1909, 38)

Waiting daughters of 1910 were certainly inflammable. Wells’s achievement was to show what might happen were a match put to the tinder, but the fire had been inevitable for some time.
Ann Veronica’s confusion at being followed by strange men at night in London destroys her proud dream of freedom and independence as a girl alone in the city. Her father’s revulsion by her disobedience is somehow tied up with his attitude to his late wife’s fecundity, whose pregnancies were all her own doing. He “had always felt (he had never allowed himself to think of it) that the promptitude of their family was a little indelicate of her” (Wells 1909, 15). His ideas are formed from library novels: “chiefly light fiction with chromatic titles, The Red Sword, The Black Helmet, The Purple Robe” (Wells 1909, 16). While The Purple Robe is indeed the title of a 1900 novel by Joseph Hocking, the others seem to have been invented, probably intended to suggest the works of Stanley Weyman, author of Under the Red Robe (1894) and The Man in Black (1894). Mr Stanley also reads S. R. Crockett’s The Lilac Sunbonnet (1894), and The Blue Lagoon (1908) by H. de Vere Stacpoole, brother of the Florence Stacpoole cited above. Mr Stanley observes: “I have read at least half the novels that have been at all successful during the last twenty years. Three a week is my allowance, and, if I get short ones, four. I change them in the morning at Cannon Street, and take my book as I come down” (Wells 1909, 283). Such a diet of formulaic romance signifies the source of Mr Stanley’s muddled thinking: “‘Mr Stanley was inclined to think the censorship should be extended to the supply of what he styled latter-day fiction; good wholesome stories were being ousted, he said, by “vicious corrupting stuff” that “left a bad taste in the mouth” (Wells 1909, 282). Wells’s point is that “wholesome stories” did nothing to advance truth and knowledge, and that Mr Stanley is sticking his head in the sand.
In Ann Veronica, Wells makes it quite clear that women, as exemplified by his heroine, and despite his portrayal of women in college, have only one possible destiny, and it is defined by their uterus.The novelcontains one, very oblique mention of contraception. It occurs while the eloping couple honeymoon in the Alps, during which Ann Veronica wears breeches to climb mountains and talks rapturously about giving herself to Capes. Earlier in the novel, when she is nearly raped by Ramage, she gets away before harm is done but seems confused about exactly what might have happened to her. Later, she desires knowledge about sex and sexuality, and her last appearance is as a pregnant wife, aware that her aunt is just a little disappointed in her, and that her career is over, while Capes’ new life is just beginning.
The second novel under discussion, Una L. Silberrad’s Ordinary People, also published in 1909, is much less well-known. It has an “ordinary” heroine, but Catherine Santerre has a secret that prevents her happiness until the end of a complex plot of modern stratagems for survival on the edges of polite society. She has been seduced and abandoned, and had an illegitimate baby who died. This novel was published by Constable, and reprinted in a cheap edition in 1912 by Thomas Nelson, who clearly did not find the illegitimate baby or the seduction of a seventeen-year-old girl “indefensible”. Neither Nelson’s reader nor the reviewers mention these startling events in Catherine’s  life. How indicative is it of a modern attitude to women’s sexual conduct that such a morally dubious subject could be described as “ordinary” in 1909? One answer lies in the constant moral buttressing of Catherine’s life and choices. She is a classic victim of male predators in a line of fiction that began with Richardson’s Clarissa. Her father is profligate with no sense of responsibility, and she is further dragged down by a governess companion of shabby character.
Silberrad is discreet but also definite about exactly what has happened to Catherine: handed over to an older predatory man by her impecunious and uninterested father with the vague promise of marriage, which was of course unfulfilled. The infatuated seventeen-year-old was abandoned after becoming pregnant, and endured not only an unmarried pregnancy but the death of the child as well as the crushing of her hopes for happiness and security. This is a crucial part of Catherine’s character, since her subsequent need for marital respectability forces her to marry the blameless hero, while her arrested maternity freezes her emotions and leads to a near-tragic ending. Their rescue from the catastrophe caused by her hideous early experiences ends with the birth of a son. This Edwardian restoration of order completes the trope of the marriage plot with a firm statement of the rightness of maternity within marriage, yet this “order” rests on the un-rightness of illegitimacy, openly described and discussed.
While sales figures for this novel are unavailable, the fact that Ordinary People was reprinted in Nelson’s sevenpence series in 1912 argues that that this conservative and Christian firm saw nothing amiss with the novel—in contrast to Ann Veronica, which they did not offer to reprint. Both novels share several tropes: a close association of father-daughter relations and the latter’s sexual identity; a shrinking awareness on the part of the middle-class heroine of lower-class vocabulary and sexual knowledge; and the limiting of a woman’s role to that of wife and mother. Silberrad herself was actively interested in women’s careers for her heroines, and explored many different and non-standard professions in her novels for female protagonists (see Macdonald 2011). However, in Ordinary People, as in most of her other works, her heroine gives up work on marriage, as was expected for women for many decades to come. Catherine holds down a job in disguise as a secretary for her estranged husband but as soon as they are reconciled, she returns to the home and becomes pregnant.
Conrad’s Chance takes us to the other side of 1910. How much had changed by 1913 since Ann Veronica? Was Conrad’s imperative to shock and scandalize, or to sell a book based on a young woman’s struggle? From 1911 he was reworking his original idea of the novel, and it sold so well on first publication that it was into its fifth edition in two weeks. The public who responded may well have been the young working women whom Wells had urged Conrad to consider as an audience as much as 15 years earlier (Simmons 2009, 63). Ten years later, an American feminist novelist would commend Conrad’s works for their insight into women’ lives. Flora de Barral is the focus of the plot, even though Marlowe’s narrative disguises her importance for much of the story, and it is only gradually that we realise that Chance, too, is a novel about a young woman terrorized by her father about her newly acquired sexual identity (with the silent irony that Flora has not consummated her marriage); about a shared knowledge of sex between women of different classes; and about a sexualised vocabulary used to shock and offend.
I was interested in how Conrad might have reshaped Chance in the cultural climate of 1910, and turned to Conrad First for more documentary evidence. In 1910 Conrad published three book reviews, all in the Daily Mail, a newspaper I had already examined, but not for these particular months. The Mail carried no abortifacient adverts and showed no apparent interest in questioning the sexualisation of women or angrily rejecting a newly sexualised vocabulary.
However, in reading the Mail, I was reminded that the news itself can be instructive on secret and coded matters of sex. The law reports from the criminal courts, described at length every week in many newspapers, gave detailed instruction on the practical aspects of committing adultery and being caught, how to be a co-respondent, and foolish and imprudent sexual behaviour. The December 1910 issues carried multiple stories and headlines featuring women doing wrong: being drunk, committing murder, filing for divorce, arranging abductions, and appearing in court. Adverts for menstrual regularity in The News of the World were juxtaposed with reports of breach of promise cases. Sexualised activity was by 1910 already explicit in all but the most prosecutable details, if you knew where to look. One wonders how the Victorian father would expect his Georgian daughter to stay ignorant of modern behaviour, and content with Victorian conditions at home, if she had access, even second-hand, to these periodicals.
Browsing Conrad First, I found a fine example of established society’s views about the girl of 1910, and her position in society, which supported my findings about women’s bodies and their ownership. The Bishop of Stepney had published a book on the subject, puffed at length in the Daily Mail of 23 July 1910. Home Life in England concerns the antagonism of parents and children, contrasting ingratitude and indifference with a conviction of injustice and lack of understanding, particularly at this date. “It seems to be the Bishop’s opinion that home life today is passing through a time of test and strain”. The subheadings “The Treatment of Daughters” and “Mistakes with Daughters” show the Mail highlighting women, even though the book had treated sons and daughters equally. I find it significant that this example of the sensational but safe conservatism of the daily press targeted the Georgian girl in opposition to her Victorian parents at exactly the time that Wells and Silberrad were writing novels about the problem. Daughters also feature in an adjoining feature, directly underneath the Bishop’s photograph: “Dress at Seventeen: Clothes for the Young Girl,” offering further advice to parents on how to keep their daughter happy but under control. The generation gap was being addressed overwhelmingly, on a topic presented as familiar, absorbing, and relevant to all its readers. This archival evidence resonates strongly with the novels examined above.
There is immense value in having archival sources to search in depth, freely available for all. They reveal the interconnectedness of periodicals, serialisation, popular fiction and popular ideas in fiction, illustrating the age, and allowing us to read over the shoulders of the past. If Conrad had also published in Reynold’s Newspaper we might have seen traces of the startling abortifacient ads as part of his cultural context. The cultural background made available on Conrad First reveals the context of Conrad’s writing, and of Wells, and Silberrad, and Woolf.


Works Cited

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KATE MACDONALD teaches British literary history and culture at Ghent University, Belgium. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on aspects of working-class Victorian women’s periodicals, on the fiction of John Buchan and Una Silberrad, on disability fiction, on novels of witchcraft, and on masculine reading. Her books include John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (2009), Reassessing John Buchan: Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2009), The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880–1950: What Mr Miniver Read (2011), and John Buchan and the Idea of Modernity (with Nathan Waddell) (2012). She podcasts at, and blogs at



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