30 January 2017

Review: The Beth Book by Sarah Grand

My review of the new reprint of the 1960s Avengers comic strips is up at USF. Read it!

Trade paperback, 571 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1897)
Acquired June 2016
Read July 2016
The Beth Book by Sarah Grand
"I don't believe in celibacy at all," Beth said cheerfully. "Celibacy is an attempt to curb a healthy instinct with a morbid idea." (494)
This novel concerns the life story of a girl named Beth, who grows up into a woman named Beth. Beth is one of those delightfully sassy female protagonists: there's not a little bit of Jane Eyre in her youth, especially when she is shunted off to a conservative girls' school, to which she turns out to be totally unsuited, but manages to bring under her control, almost. For example, many of the younger girls find their ways into informal "families" managed by the older girls, but Beth does not. A teacher suggests she ought to be, so Beth forms her own: making herself the "mother" to a group of older girls, the worst-behaved ones in the school. When the teacher expresses concern that they are a bad influence, Beth responds that she will straighten them out. And she does. This phase of the book was probably my favorite, combining as it does jokes with some good early feminist contempt for Victorian women's education, which left you unable to do anything except get married.

I hate to be one of those people who diagnoses fictional characters who were invented before the relevant mental illnesses were discovered, but I wanted to read both a mild autism spectrum disorder and bipolar disorder into Beth. Beth has "bright eyes" with "phenomenal receptivity" (42) and "learned to read a countenance long before she learned to read a book" (43), but sometimes struggles to pick up on unspoken social cues. When she's chastised for speaking with her mouth full by her uncle, she rejoins that he never told her this rule, and she will abide by it now that she knows (126-7). She has a similar complaint when at school. We're also told at one point that she suffers from "depression of spirits" but that she also has phases of great activity and excitement. By all accounts, Beth is pretty squarely based on Sarah Grand's life, and I know little about her.

I picked up this book because it features a vivisectionist, but it's not a anti-vivisection novel in same way as, say, Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science. (Incidentally, Beth reads Collins's The Moonstone at one point.) Rather, the middle of the novel is an extended and effective tale of a bad marriage, of Beth being psychologically abused by a terrible man, reminding me of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Shuttle. Virginia Woolf famously formulated that a woman needs "a room of one's own" in order to write, and Beth has to go through an awful lot of work to find such a room for herself under the gaze of her husband, a doctor who controls her finances, belittles her intellect, reads her mail, won't let her talk to other people, carries on affairs, and accuses her of infidelity. It's horrifying, and very effectively done.

"Dr. Dan" works in a lock hospital, a hospital for the treatment of veneral disease in women, though Beth doesn't know this when they get married. You might think looking out for women's health is good, but I guess early feminists were against this because of the double standard. Women would essentially be locked up without trial, but nothing ever happened to the men they slept with, something Beth criticizes Dan for here, who can only justify it on the basis that "[i]t’s a deuced awkward thing for a man to be suspected of disease" (417). It ruins his prospects! But part of the reason Beth is against Dan's occupation also seems to be, unfortunately to a modern reader, moral revulsion: Beth calls him a "pander" (i.e., a pimp) and their entire social circle shuns both of them for it. The novel criticizes their social circle, but only on the basis that Beth didn't know she married such a man. But, I want to know: surely someone has to treat these women? The novel doesn't really offer an alternative, though everyone does cheer when the Contagious Diseases Act is repealed, closing the lock hospitals, in 1886.

Part of the book's opposition seems to rest on a thesis that some people absorb the morality of their surroundings, and when Dan looks at degradation all the time, he becomes degraded himself, and soon begins to delight in it, and delight in trying to degrade Beth alongside him. Also it gets kind of weird and eugenicist at one point, when Beth complains that Dan is working against nature by encouraging the survival of the unfittest: "Let the unfit who are with us live, and save them from suffering when you can, by all means; but take pains to prevent the appearance of any more of them. By the reproduction of the unfit, the strength, the beauty, the morality of the race is undermined, and with them its best chances of happiness" (458).

Like I said, it's not an antivivisection novel per se. Rather, vivisection is just a quick way to establish that Dan is just even more despicable than you thought: he has a secret lab in their home where he vivisects dogs, supposedly "in the interests of suffering humanity," but Beth rejoins that he does it "[i]n the interests of cruel and ambitious scientific men, struggling to outstrip each other" (456). She hopes for the day that vivisectors will be ejected from society, and that's vivisection's whole role here-- just a way to establish that Dan is really nasty.

Outside of this, the last 150 or so pages of the novel get kind of dull, unfortunately. There are a lot of discussions between Beth and her friends (many of whom originate in a different Sarah Grand novel, The Heavenly Twins) about what makes good novels and bad novels, which initially I found interesting, but soon got tedious, and then there's this whole thing about Beth nursing a sick lodger which I found uninteresting except for when it taught me the origin of the Salisbury steak. But on the whole this was an enjoyable read, for its depiction of a prodigious child, of a horrendous marriage, and of the limits of Victorian women's education. Plenty of jokes, too.

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