An addendum to the previous post on Grant Allen's Under Sealed Orders. Anyone considering giving the novel a read are warned that there be spoilers. The image above may have already spoiled things, for which I apologize. In my defence, it spoils things in the Grosset & Dunlap edition, too – the plate coming one page before we learn that Blackbird has committed suicide.
The most interesting character in the novel, Blackbird is modelled on poet Amy Levy (1861-1889), herself a suicide. I wrote about this connection in my book Character Parts, so won't go on about it here, except to say that I perhaps oversimplified Allen's views on the New Woman. Blackbird is one of at least three of the movement's members to die in his novels; the most famous being Herminia Barton, heroine of The Woman Who Did (1895). All are depicted as victims of higher education, the female pursuit of which ran contrary to Allen's evolutionist beliefs.
A frail slip of a thing, forever exhausted, Blackbird fairly struggles to stay upright, as this detail from another plate shows.
How vibrant Sacha and Ionê are!
New Women both, what differentiates them from Blackbird is their level of education. It isn't that Sacha, a painter, and Ionê, an adventuress turned writer, aren't educated, rather they have received the proper amount of schooling. Only Blackbird, the most highly educated character in the entire novel, properly understands her misfortune, as she explains in a chapter titled "The Higher Education of Women" :
"It was my people who educated me. You see, they thought I was clever – perhaps I was to start with; and they crammed me with everything on earth a girl could learn. Latin, Greek, modem languages, mathematics, natural science, music, drawing, dancing, till I was stuffed to the throat with them. Je suis jusque là," and she put her hand to her chin with some dim attempt at feminine playfulness. "Like Strasbourg geese," she added slowly in a melancholy after-thought; "it may be good for the brain, but it's precious bad for the body."Blackbird's single desire is for endless sleep undisturbed by dreams. To this end, she uses her chemistry skills in making poison distilled from laurel leaves provided by an innocent suitor. Amy Levy killed herself by inhaling charcoal fumes.
Allen knew Levy and, as I write in Character Parts (consider that one a plug), exploited her life and death. In his essay "The Girl of the Future", published in The Universal Review eight months after her suicide, he uses her death to argue against higher education for women: "A few hundred pallid little Amy Levy’s sacrificed on the way are as nothing before the face of our fashionable Juggernaut. Newnham has slain its thousands and Girton its tens of thousands."
His verse, "For Amy Levy's Urn", is as smug as it is sympathetic.
|The Lower Slopes: Reminiscences of Excursions round the Base of Helicon|
London: Bodley Head, 1894
|The London Plane-Tree and Other Verse|
London: Unwin, 1889