Dear friends and readers,
I recently read another Winston Graham novel, a novella really, The Forgotten Story, set in 1898, written 1945. I had not expected but found (once again) central to a Graham novel, a marital rape, and central to the atmosphere Cornwall. The heroine is a cross between Verity Poldark and Demelza Carne, married to Tom Harris, but having left him, having a boyfriend, Ned Pawlyn (who later offers to flee to Australia so they can live as man-and-wife without being known), starts the quarrel in the bar which appears to lead to her father’s death, she has no means of supporting herself decently. This is 1898 and the only professions open to a young woman still are wife or teacher. She takes a position as a strict girls’ school — we are in a mild version of Jane Eyre too.
The telling gripping incident of the story is a marital rape scene, which I’m coming to see as an obsession, a highly unusual one. Tom rescues Patricia from the bar quarrel and to assert his rights over her, rapes her. Grahame returns to this unusual motif again and again: presents a marriage scene where the husband rapes the wife and it is clear this is rape. Although Patricia has left Tom publicly, she gives testimony on his behalf in a courtroom which reveals her liaison with Ned, she is ostracized and there’s a scene of public humiliation.
All the while she is of course in her heart a virtuous heroine. We are to re-define what we mean by virtuous and it does not mean strict sexual fidelity although in fact Patricia never has sex with another man, a decent merchant marine sailor, but not because it’s forbidden, but because she does not love him enough to go off with him to Australia as a partner, though he would provide an escape from her bad situation once her father dies and spitefully leaves her nothing.
Graham chose to return to the end of the Victorian period to be able to show this paradigm, only Graham de-constructs the framing social circumstances and shows us how unfair they are. Tom Harris no longer has the right to demand Patricia back. In 1891 it had become no longer accepted since a famous court case for a husband to try to wrest his wife back to live with him. But he feels he ought to. The sense in the fiction is that this is wrong. This is at least one place where a woman should have real liberty. She is nagged by her (murderous we find) aunt to return to Tom using the conventional argument, she should. She is shamed by her community when she does not return to him. .
That this motif is returned to ceaselessly shows its centrality for controlling women in this set of social structures, and that it’s at a great price to her.
The ending shows Tom Harris who has all along been an ambivalent figure (he appears to be exploiting the boy to pressure Patricia) into a hero of integrity. He rescues Antony and brings Patricia back from the school. We discover that Tom has been responsible for her getting her job: he had the connections and respect by his family and position as a lawyer. Unlike Ned, he can take Patricia somewhere as his wife; they can afford to provide a home for Anthony.
To read more about A Forgotten Story: for a summary and coherent analysis please go to: Winston Graham as writer of the Poldark novels and A Forgotten Story.
The presentation of Patricia’s choice to return to Tom reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. How do they come to this decision. From the same standpoint as Toibin’s: the woman is married to the man and so she obeys the social convention, goes with it. In the case of Toibin’s Brooklyn he uses this obedience to convention to point up the coldness of people towards one another, how they can pick up and drop one anther ruthlessly to follow what’s their interest. The force in Toibin is grimly powerful. I have read Toibin’s The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.
For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so anxious for her. I feel the same for Graham’s heroines, all but Marnie. Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn required enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it.
Toibin’s Brooklyn‘s grim insight is what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.
In Graham’s Forgotten Story in effect this young woman does follow her economic and social interest in going back to the husband who s a rising lawyer. It was due to him she got the one job she did get, a teacher at a school; he vouched for her. She is indignant when she first hears of it, but forgets the indignation during the force of the shipwreck, and re-finding Anthony alive. And if she married Tom, she can also take the young boy with her and protect, mother him. It is to her social advantage and people obey conventions, every one does.
It’s not an emotional adherence, it’s coolly done. And we don’t see her do it, we are told it impersonally as the boy sleeps. We learn the boy after all was taken in (his father had abandoned him, sent him back to his family because the father had begun a second family where the boy was not wanted). Tom, Patricia, and Anthony head out for South Africa to make a new life for themselves taking the boy.
The forgotten story is that of this rape, of this marriage. Swept under the rug, swept away as the storm which sweeps away Uncle Perry, the uncle who colluded with the aunt, swept away as Uncle Joe, the father whose real vulnerability we are never permitted to delve. Why he married Madge? what happened to Patricia’s mother?
The fiction remains conventional (in a way Toibin’s does not): Graham treats this decision not as a violation of feeling and he presents the woman’s choice with tact and sympathy. It reminds me of the central heroine of the Poldark books who also finds security, peace, respect from the community by agreeing to marry Ross Poldark, the landowner whose servant she has been and who she has been going to bed with for a couple of weeks.
But it is the same insight: the convention the society sets up pushes people to obey it as they get rewarded for it. It does not take much in the Forgotten Story to see that those who do not have such conventions on their side suffer badly. And the curious insistence that it’s on a rape that the whole thing turns, on the rape of woman’s body — as the whole trajectory of the Poldark series finally does (I’ll write another blog on the Poldark novels after all and this is partly one). I’ve written a review of two books which argue the order and stability of socieities also depends on their willingness to murder children who do not fit in: Child Murder and British Culture.
So, to conclude not only is Graham still unusual for presenting marital rape as a central motif in his novels, he is highly unusual for doing it repeatedly. I suppose we should not be surprised that this aspect of his fiction never comes up in discussions of the Poldark novels; when I’ve talked off list or blog with people who’ve read the Poldark books, they deny Ross raped Elizabeth. Of course she was consenting 🙂 — they can’t deny the rape of Morwenna, so there is the implication in the conversation that I’m morbid to dwell on this unfortunate (highly it’s implied) heroine, when her story is meant to be not that atypical, only her reaction.
When writing my paper on Richardson’s Clarissa and rape (“What right have you to detain me here?”), I took the common view how rare is the depiction of marital rape (well, except in modern African stories, mostly those by women). I was right there, but wrong to have left out this exception.
For more on Toibin’s Brooklyn, see comments.