In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the pioneering and half-forgotten writer of the modernist short story
A bridegroom waits in the hall, while his bride sobs upstairs in her mother’s arms. Married off to an older man against her wishes, the seventeen-year-old Flo leaves home to take up married life with Philip, her husband. Five years later, she makes the journey she has been putting off ever since she got married: she returns home by train and tells her mother that she leads a miserable life married to the repulsive adulterer Philip, who has recently taken off to Paris with a girl from the Alhambra.
What’s more, Flo tells her mother that she blames her for this wretched existence she now leads: her mother failed to prepare her daughter for the realities of men and married life, and she had to find out the hard way. She announces her intention to leave her husband. The next day, having slept in her childhood bed, she departs for the railway station and leaves ‘in the opposite direction’ to begin a new life.
This much constitutes a brief plot summary of ‘Virgin Soil’ (1894), one of George Egerton’s most celebrated short stories. Not that any of them are that celebrated: although Egerton has begun to receive more attention and analysis from literary critics interested in women’s fiction and the history of modernism, she remains a little-known figure in English literature.
And yet with ‘Virgin Soil’, ‘A Cross Line’, ‘Wedlock’, and a handful of other short stories published in the 1890s, Egerton – who had been born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Melbourne, Australia in 1859 – pioneered a new kind of English fiction, influenced by Scandinavian writers such as Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, and Henrik Ibsen.
Egerton – who, on account of her birth name, had been duly nicknamed ‘Chav’ before chavs were a thing – was also a complex mixture of different nationalities: born in Melbourne, Australia to an Irish father and a Welsh mother, she would later live in Germany, Norway, and Ireland.
Ibsen is particularly relevant for ‘Virgin Soil’, which appeared in Egerton’s 1894 collection Discords, the volume that followed her ground-breaking volume of the previous year, Keynotes. The much-discussed ending of Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House – which sees the married Nora walking out on her husband and their children, slamming the door defiantly behind her – seems to lurk behind ‘Virgin Soil’ with Flo’s long and impassioned denunciation of nineteenth-century attitudes to marriage and her decision to leave her husband.
But Egerton’s focus is different from Ibsen’s: in a masterstroke, she pushes the husband to the background of the story, instead focusing on the confrontation between Flo and her mother, who represent two very different kinds of Victorian women: whilst her mother is God-fearing and cannot countenance the breaching of marriage vows, Flo sees through such patriarchal ideologies which are designed to serve the husband well and put the wife at the mercy of his ‘conjugal rights’:
I don’t blame them; it must be so, as long as marriage is based on such unequal terms, as long as man demands from a wife as a right, what he must sue from a mistress as a favour; until marriage becomes for many women a legal prostitution, a nightly degradation, a hateful yoke under which they age, mere bearers of children conceived in a sense of duty, not love.
Shortly after this, Flo denounces her mother: ‘I say it is your fault, because you reared me a fool, an idiot, ignorant of everything I ought to have known, everything that concerned me and the life I was bound to lead as a wife’. In other words, Egerton doesn’t set her sights so high as to try to bring down the whole patriarchal system, with its odds stacked in the man’s favour.
Instead, she focuses on the way that, to borrow from and adapt Philip Larkin, ‘woman hands on misery to woman’. Flo’s issue is not merely that she, as a woman, is doomed to live the life of a wretched wife, but that her mother didn’t prepare her for this.
Egerton’s title, then, carries a double meaning: ‘virgin soil’ is both the terra incognita of marriage on which Flo embarks at the start of the story (and it is literally ‘unknown land’ to her thanks to her mother’s conspiracy of silence around the realities of wedded life), but it is also a gruesome pun on the seventeen-year-old Flo’s virginity, which is ‘soiled’ by her coerced marriage to the odious Philip.
But ‘Virgin Soil’ also points up George Egerton’s aim in this story, as in her other stories such as the ground-breaking ‘A Cross Line’: what Egerton herself called, in relation to all women, the ‘terra incognita of herself’. And by focusing on the cult of silence surrounding matrimony (a grimly ironic word given the patriarchal world which this mother and daughter inhabit), Egerton helped to show what married life was really like for many women.
Symbolically, autumn is coming when Flo leaves her mother and her married life behind at the end of ‘Virgin Soil’, and there is a sense that the ‘summer’ of her life is already prematurely over. She is just twenty-two. Now, having abandoned her lawful (but awful) husband, she has made herself a social pariah? What sort of life she had before her, Egerton does not tell us – she doesn’t have to. But what is clear by the end of ‘Virgin Soul’ is that, for Flo, it cannot be worse than the life she leaves behind.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.