This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Said gentleman-scholar has re-upped his donation, so keep pitching me, academics longing for freedom. Lara Rutherford-Morrison’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
At the beginning of Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley’s Adventures (1899), the heroine declares, “Between ourselves, I am a bit of a rebel.” She is, in fact, the epitome of the New Woman: an educated, independent, self-supporting, bicycle-riding adventuress. New Women rose to prominence at the end of the nineteenth century, when gender relations and the proper role of women were matters for heated debate (well, more so than usual.) These women rejected social codes that placed them firmly inside the home by entering into the public sphere—through education, work, and social reform— and their “rebellions,” minor and major, ranged from smoking and playing sports to campaigning for the vote and advocating for free love. The New Woman was a controversial figure; one vocal critic, Eliza Lynn Linton, argued that these early feminists, suffragettes, and reformers were “Aggressive, disturbing, officious, unquiet, rebellious to authority and tyrannous to those whom they can subdue” and, in fact, “about the most unlovely specimens the sex has yet produced.”
However “unlovely” she may have been, the New Woman became a popular figure in literature of the period. It is perhaps unsurprising that most of the famous New Woman novels and plays are tragedies. In them, women seeking freedom from social and sexual repression are inevitably punished (and at times even killed) for their resistance to the gender roles that have been set down for them. For instance, in Grant Allen’s own The Woman Who Did (can you guess what she did?), the heroine kills herself after having an illegitimate daughter; in George Gissing’s The Odd Women, the once-independent protagonists end up alone, beset by alcoholism, or dead; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure… well, we won’t talk about Jude the Obscure. Let’s just say it’s horrible.
The point is that, while these works are powerful, important commentaries on the fundamental incompatibility of female autonomy and Victorian social codes that placed sexual purity and domesticityas the defining metrics of female character, while holding men to anentirely different standard, and so on and so forth… they are also really, really depressing. In Miss Cayley’s Adventures, Grant Allen offers a welcome alternative: a heroine whose “New Woman-ness”—her independence, education, athleticism—is not the basis for some inevitable fall, but instead is the source of her success. Lois Cayley—the “Miss Cayley” of the title— always lands on her feet, always catches the bad guy, and always manages to find the absurdity in every situation. Her perfection might be annoying if she weren’t so entertaining.
Miss Cayley’s Adventures begins just as Lois has graduated from college (a feat that was in itself unusual for women of the period.) She sets off for Europe with two pence in her pocket and a song in her heart, and embarks on a series of adventures that include winning an international bicycle race, routing a variety of thieves and villains, traveling around the world, and hunting a bloodthirsty tiger. Through the course of twelve stories, she works as a lady’s companion, journalist, typist, bicycle saleswoman, and amateur detective. Lois narrates her adventures with an eye for the ridiculous and a liberal peppering of farcical one-liners (example: “teaching, like mauve, is a refuge of the incompetent.” Words to live by!) She shuns feminine ‘delicacy’ and revels in the fact that she is “a great, strong, healthy thing,” who, she likes to remind us, is very good at “rowing, punting, bicycling.” In every aspect, Lois flies in the face of attitudes held by anti-feminists like Linton, who argued that “All men whose opinion is worth having prefer the simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesties, to this loud and rampant modernization.”
Lois seems perfectly happy to be loud and rampant, thank you very much, and, so far from “pretty bashful modesties,” exercises her considerable intellectual and physical powers to their furthest extent. She rescues her male love interest, Harold, more than once, on one occasion going so far as to literally pull him to safety as he dangles off the edge of a cliff.
Harold, to his credit, seems quite content to play the role of “damsel in distress,” and values Lois precisely for her qualities that challenge the Victorian feminine ideal: her intellect, her independence, her athleticism, her ambition. In describing his ideal of marriage, Harold makes what I think is one of the more swoon-worthy speeches in nineteenth-century literature:
“I think,” he said, fumbling his watch-chain nervously, “a man ought to wish the woman he loves to be a free agent, his equal in point of action […]. I think he ought to desire for her a life as high as she is capable of leading, with full scope for every faculty of her intellect or her emotional nature. She should be beautiful, with a vigorous, wholesome, many-sided beauty, moral, intellectual, physical; […] And if a man can discover such a woman as that, and can induce her to believe in him, to love him, to accept him—[…]—well, then, I think he should be happy in devoting his whole life to her…”
Further testament to Harold’s good character is his possession of a glorious mustache. Readers of Miss Cayley’s Adventures quickly learn that, when it comes to male characters, mustaches are everything. Harold, dear man, has a mustache that Lois finds both “artistic” and “enticing.” The villains are less well endowed: Higginson, a thief and a con man, first appears with “a waxed moustache of great distinction.” But as his duplicity becomes clear, it is revealed that his mustache—like the man himself—is a fake! Lois, of course, has “suspected his moustache” from the start and proceeds to rip the thing right off his face. Harold’s cousin, Lord Southminster, is similarly betrayed by his facial hair, a “shadowy moustache” that seems “to absorb as a rule the best part of his attention; it was so sparse and so blanched that he felt it continually—assure himself, no doubt, of the reality of its existence.”
I would like to pause a moment here to celebrate Lois Cayley’s continual, inspired insults to this creature. Lord Southminster proves to be a vile, scheming jerk, so we can revel in the dedication with which Lois shreds his character. Upon first seeing him, she describes him as, “The wishy-washiest young man I ever beheld in my life [….] Perhaps he had been bleached.” Throughout the book, she refers to him as “the pea-green young man,” but he is also, at different moments, “a pallid, anaemic, indefinite hobbledehoy,” “a lump of putty!”, “a piece of moist clay,” and—my favorite— “a pachydermous imbecile.” Most scathing of all, she consistently mocks his sad mustache, which she damningly describes as simply “what he considered his moustache”—a pathetic interloper compared to Harold’s Tom-Selleck-esque abundance.
Lord Southminster is also a racist, which Lois regards as one of the worst aspects of his character (other than the mustache, of course.) This portrayal forms part of Grant Allen’s surprisingly ambivalent approach to race and empire in Miss Cayley’s Adventures. The book is a genre mash-up that melds the New Woman narrative with comedy, the detective story, and the imperial adventure. As is common in imperial fiction of this period, the view of colonized peoples in Miss Cayley’s Adventures is at times less than enlightened, and some of its scenes set in Egypt and India are cringe-inducing in their depiction of native Egyptians and Indians (in one story, for example, a white Englishwoman has been kidnapped by a barbaric “Mohammedan” and has to be rescued. Unfortunate cultural stereotyping ensues.) However, these moments are counterbalanced by Allen’s unexpectedly frank critique of the racist hypocrisy of English people abroad. In one scene, an Indian maharajah compliments Miss Cayley because, he says, “You treat a native gentleman, I see, like a human being. I hope you will not stop long enough in our country to get over that stage—as happens to most of your countrymen and countrywomen.” And while Lord Southminster’s racism is proof of his bad character, Harold’s non-racism serves as further evidence of his good one: as his friend, the Maharajah, explains, “Ebony or ivory, he never forgot we were two men together” (cue music.) (Obviously, not being a racist is a rather low bar for choosing a mate, but considering that Miss Cayley’s Adventures was published the same year as “The White Man’s Burden,” Allen seems downright progressive here.)
Miss Cayley’s Adventures is a confection: irrepressibly light, with a goofy sense of humor that often seems to anticipate the work of P.G. Wodehouse. But despite its lightness, Miss Cayley addresses many of the serious issues that haunted the New Woman at the turn of the nineteenth century: how to earn an independent living; how to fit within modern, urbanized imperial Britain; how to reconcile feminist ideals with romantic love. The key to the story is in the “Adventures” of its title. Early in the series, Miss Cayley is accused of being an “adventuress”—a woman who seeks money and social advancement by duping a rich man into marriage. She accepts the label, but insists on another meaning, declaring, “I am an adventuress […] and I am in quest of adventures.” In this simple renegotiation of the term—by taking it for its most literal meaning—Lois rejects the assumption that she can only be defined in relation to a man. Instead, she reimagines the term as a true descriptor of herself alone, of her possibilities and ambitions. She is a seeker of adventures—nothing more, nothing less. I’ll end with little life advice from the lady herself:
“Adventures are for the adventurous. They abound on every side; but only the chosen few have the courage to embrace them. And they will not come to you: you must go out to seek them. Then they meet you half-way, and rush into your arms, for they know their true lovers.”
One could do worse than join “the noble army of adventuresses.” Read Miss Cayley’s Adventures for free here.