25 October 2012

James Prior's Forest Folk: A Novel Construction of the New Woman and the New Man: Chapter Three

Prior's New Man

In Daughters of Decadence Showalter states that 'on the whole, [...] New Women writers were pessimistic about their chances of finding New Men to share their lives'.1 Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, New Woman literature is frequently filled with villains. This chapter, on the other hand, is in part designed to show how closely James Prior's New Man and New Woman share the views of the more optimistic New Woman writers. One of the key New Woman writers of the fin de siècle was Sarah Grand, whose particularly important earlier books are interesting in their depiction of villainous men. But Grand could be optimistic as well as pessimistic, and the views of her New Women often echo the co-operative ideas of Prior:

'That is the right new spirit! Let us help one another. Any attempt to separate the interests of the sexes [...] is fatal to the welfare of the whole race. The efforts of foolish people to divide men and women make me writhe – as if we were not utterly bound up in one another, and destined to rise or fall together!'2

These are the words of Angelica Gilroy, one of several New Women in Grand's loose trilogy, of which this – the largely autobiographical The Beth Book – is the final volume. Angelica is speaking about the future accomplishments of the Women's Movement, which she believes had an important role in the evolution of both women and men: 'It is an effort of the race to raise itself a step higher in the scale of being.'3 Where this language differs from the ideas expressed in Prior's novels is in the presence here of the historical and political context of the fin-de-siècle New Woman, but what makes it similar is its emphasis on the co-operative imperative: men and women have to work together on equal terms. This is the major defining characteristic of Prior's New Man, although it does not come naturally to him – he must be taught to develop it. A number of canonic New Woman novels which include the New Man share this idea of the necessity for teaching him.

1 Elaine Showalter, ed., Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de siècle (London: Virago, 1993, p. xvi.

2 Sarah Grand, The Beth Book: Being a Study from the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure: A Woman of Genius (London: Heinmann, 1898 [1897], p. 412.

3 The Beth Book, p. 413.

The central character in The Beth Book is Beth Maclure, who walks out on her husband, a doctor who runs a Lock hospital and who once, without his wife's knowledge at the time, brought his mistress to live in the marital home. Grand also features New Men in her work, of whom Beth later meets an example. What amazes her, as she nurses her sick fellow tenant Arthur Brock in the cheap lodgings she had taken, is that Brock appears to be a different kind of man from those she had known in the past: 'She had never before realized that there could be such men, so heroic in suffering, so unselfish, and so good.'4

However, partly to buy medicine for the invalid, the destitute Beth is forced to sell her hair. When he discovers this, Brock, in an allusion to the androgynous New Woman stereotypes, exclaims '[a]re you going to join the unsexed crew that shriek on platforms?' This is an obvious reference to the 'shrieking sisterhood', another expression used by Linton of the 'wild women' briefly mentioned in Chapter One.5 Beth retorts that she is surprised that Brock is 'taking the tone of cheap journalism. There has been nothing in the woman movement to unsex women except the brutalities of the men who expose them'.6 Arthur shuts up and stares at the fire: he has been given a lesson in the dynamics of the New Woman and the developing New Man, as Arthur Skrene and Tant will be too. As Angelica has previously told Beth: 'Man [...] has his faults, you know, but he must be educated; that is all he wants.'7

No doubt, but initially, Arthur Brock's unthinking comment separates the couple, although in their later reunion he becomes a knight from Camelot in Beth's imagination: hardly fin-de-siècle sexual equality, but the transformation at least makes a point about the New Woman's power vis-à-vis the New Man. Prior's books also contain positive transformations of men, although perhaps not quite as dramatic as the one seen by Beth.

In Forest Folk, outside the ideal world of the New Woman and the New Man there is a great deal of general antagonism between the sexes. I have already dealt in Chapter Two with the domestication – even partial feminization – of Tant, but the first time he appears in the book is when he comes home drunk and Nell thrashes him with her hunting crop. Male and female working-class discourses are at loggerheads, and this is a common theme in Prior's work. In a belittling remark about Tant's Luddite activities and at the same time an allusion to the cheap broadsheets of the day, Nell says that his speech on the scaffold will be 'bought for a penny'. The befuddled Tant counters, 'I wain't mek no speech; I'll die like a man' (p. 28). Throughout the book, references such as this are made about the stereotypical garrulous woman and as in this instance are generally sympathetic to the female working-class discourse.

Occasionally, though, this is not the case at all and the narrative discourse appears to be subverted by the male working-class discourse. As Tant watches over the Foats before secretly terrorizing them again with eerie noises as they try to go to sleep, the narrator says 'on the rack men have been known to sleep, even under a wife's tongue' (p. 227). If this is an attempt to introduce humour into the narrative, it is a joke lost on twenty-first century sensibilities; if the reader is to understand that the thoughts of Ben Foat, representative of the male working class, are being voiced through the narrator, Prior is far from successful in conveying the idea. The narrative discourse seems to reveal conflicting loyalties, the kind of 'different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy' of which Foucault speaks.8

4 The Beth Book, p. 505.

5 Sexual Anarchy, p. 24.

6 The Beth Book, p. 509.

7 The Beth Book, pp. 411–12.

8 Foucault, p. 102.

But although Forest Folk begins with male–female conflicts, there is a gradual movement away from antagonism and towards enlightenment, tolerance and mutual understanding. Soon after the fight between Nell and Arthur 'Arthur took up the swaling lantern and returned to the place where he and she – terrible pronouns! – had encountered', the narrator is expressing Arthur's horror at hitting a woman (p. 62). But there is perhaps also a hint that the words 'he' and 'she' are'terrible pronouns' because they represent two warring factions that for Prior should be a harmonious whole. This harmony is clearly seen in the two main couples who slowly come together towards the end of the novel.

There are two New Men as well as two New Women figures in Forest Folk and I begin with Tant and Lois, although Lois is rather less satisfactory as a New Woman figure, or at least she is certainly too middle class for a New Woman of Prior's. She is also too dependent on her brother, frightened of many things, including cows – and on the journey to Nottingham with the Rideout sisters she is almost treated as a child: hardly the stuff of which either the conventional, or even Prior's more off-beat, New Woman is made.

Nevertheless Lois is capable of moments of surprising boldness in relation to Tant and seems to possess the primordial force with which the New Woman is associated, and she deals the ox-like Tant, who has just beaten up Arthur, a hefty blow merely by looking at him:

'Tant trembled before [Lois's gaze] as he had not trembled before her brother's; he shrank again as at the touch of magic from the fighting man into the mere lout (p. 75).'

Tant's reaction to the power of woman is later echoed by Spettigrew, who says: 'I'd sooner be fisted by a man any day nor tongue-battled by a woman' (p. 86). This is of course yet another example of female stereotyping, but of interest in Tant's above sentence is the word 'magic', which again associates the New Woman with the supernatural world. Like Arthur, Tant is becoming bewitched: he may be a fearless fighter who has given Arthur a boxing lesson, but it is Lois who is giving Tant a moral education in New Manhood. Initially, though, Tant is frightened of the unknown power which Lois represents and attempts an alcoholic antidote. But in the following chapter – 'As Others See Us' – he staggers out of the last pub into Lois's gaze again. The female working- and middle-class discourses are for the moment mortified by each other, and then Tant flees. Bizarrely, Lois at the same time pleads for help from Josh Towers, one of the greatest drunkards in the village. His verdict on Tant is male and working class, although Josh seems to be a little starstruck by the middle-class discourse, and uses an unnecessary aitch for the occasion: 'It's Sunday, you see, an 'huz working-men had to mek the best on't' (p. 79). Tant, however, has made the worst of it, and he feels as though he is going insane. He is distressed that he should have such an effect on people, particularly Lois, and the questions pile up as he struggles to make sense of the situation:

'Surely he had not been born so? When had the changes come upon him? During his late drunkeness? or at the moment of his sudden awakening from it? [...] Could it be that yesterday he was a man among other men, negligent, manly, selfish, well enough liked? (p. 83).

These and other questions – involving madness, heredity and male stereotyping – continue until Tant is forced to question his very existence in the world. Living for a long time without parents, he has had few checks put upon his excesses: 'the early removal of a father's restraint had been detrimental' (p. 30). He has sought a retreat into the substitute womb of the public bar with its heady mix of easy cameraderie and alcoholic oblivion. But the time has come for him to sever the umbilical cord that links him to the irresponsible and destructive male working-class discourse. He is undergoing a variation of Jaques Lacan's 'mirror stage' and he rushes home to gaze at his likeness. He throws the mirror outside, his ego shattered. A young child might look into the glass and see itself as a unity, but for the drunken Tant there is not even an illusory unity – only the horror of a fractured self and Other too horrifying to be accepted as an image of himself. It is left to Lois to repair his self-image, serve as his superego, and work towards making him whole.

And she, or rather Tant's image of her, is very effective. When Nell is busy nursing her ailing great-grandmother, Tant had become a new man – although certainly not yet a New Man. He works tirelessly at the harvest now and is even considering renouncing his Luddite activities, although he 'could not do enough between dawn and dark to tire his remorse. The lady's face, disgusted, horrified, was always before him' (p. 110). He continues to go badger-baiting at the roughest pub in Blidworth, but as Nell remarks, is 'as sober as rent day' (p. 112). Tant tells a representation of the real Nottingham Luddite James Towle that he has not been drunk for months: 'It's wunnerful what a difference that meks to the colour o' things' (p. 118). But as Tant appears to have been drugged by Towle and cajoled into joining in with the destructive activities, the colour of things soon loose their difference. Tant's brute force is needed by the Luddites, although in a revenge attack on the Skrene farm the same night Tant meets Lois again and regains full consciousness. He turns from her and fights back against his former friends the attackers. At great risk to his own life Tant saves hers.

In an action that will find a parallel in the story of Arthur and Nell, just as Tant has saved Lois's life so Lois will save his. She testifies before the court in Nottingham that Tant fought against his own friends to save her. Furthermore, Lois again saves Tant, as mentioned in the previous chapter. When the treacherous Ben Foat accuses Tant of machine breaking some months previously, Lois makes a kind of citizen's arrest and hides him from the police in a locked room in Arthur's farmhouse. In performing this action she is of course switching discourse allegiances, and at the same time she is doing so with the complicity of Arthur, who has thrown away the warrant for Tant's arrest and pretends to ignore his sister's intrigues. For a moment here – and there seems to be a strong suggestion that this is a special moment – there appear to be only two discourses: the dominant (represented not only by the rather stupid and almost voiceless but ever-present police, but also the indifferent lawyers), and the reverse (now represented by Nell and Tant, but also Arthur and Lois, supported by the narrator and Prior).

Tant makes progress at Arthur's farm. The budding New Man must learn like a child, and the giant Tant soon adopts a subservient position in relation to the tiny Lois. His housework is improving, as shown when the couple are for a time alone together at High Farm house: 'they removed dish and platter together, he carrying not at all clumsily, like most men-folk, she doing little beyond directing where and how to place' (p. 235). Again we see the narrator siding with women against men, and again lapsing into gender stereotyping. If the female working-class discourse is preferred by the narrator, the middle-class discourse expressed by the woman seems to be superior to the male working-class discourse. Any female discourse civilizes the male of any class, Prior seems to be saying. Traditional gender roles have been reversed and Lois remarks that Tant's bedroom is in perfect order. She calls him a 'strangely unequal man' (p. 237).

But Tant decides that no matter how much progress he is making towards New Manhood, it is still not enough. Near the end of the book he opts for the discourse defended by the middle class and chooses to fight in the Peninsular War. The narrative discourse, on the other hand, does not seem completely convinced about the wisdom of his action, and nor does Tant: 'he showed no sign in partaking on the hop-hip-hurraing patriotism of the day, either before or after he had taken the King's shilling' (p. 297). Lois is distressed that Tant has enlisted and asks him why he has done so. He replies: 'It gies me a chance to come back sommat different. I ayther come back different or I stay there' (p. 303). So speaks the existential male, but what Tant fails to realize is that the change has already taken effect: he has already become a different person.

Enlisting at the same time as Tant are Jack Whitehead and Nommer Brooks, men whose behaviour can hardly be more different from that of the reformed Tant, and whose clear function is to show how far Tant has come in his education by Lois. The two men spend their time 'guzzling gratuitous beer and admiration by illustrating by turns each of the various valorous moods between half tipsy and dead drunk' (p. 298). Shortly before he leaves for the Iberian Peninsula, Tant does not even consider going into the pub but instead joins Lois in church. Both of them sing hymns in perfect harmony, a symbolic – though rather trite – manifestation of their short union.

Lois briefly experiences a kind of pantheistic mysticism, a brief surrender to the cosmos. In church with her New Man 'She saw through the window in the roof, she regarded neither the past nor the future; she was as God is, who has only a present' (pp. 306–07). In contrast to Tant's present self, Whitehead and Brooks have to be almost carried out of the pub and when Tant sees them as he leaves Blidworth he wishes he were back in church with Lois. And a little later he dies in combat, fighting for the dominant British discourse. Lois goes onto mourning. The relationship has come to an end due to the external political situation, and although Schreiner wrote the comment below about evolutionary sexual politics, it is nonetheless relevant to Tant and Lois:

'I know that the loveliest thing that has blossomed on the earth is the binding of man and woman in one body, one fellowship, and I know all the failures are only the broken steps which Humanity builds in stairs she is shaping for herself to climb by, which she will have to rebuild in the future'.9

Social Darwinists may have emphasized competition and violent struggle, but Joyce Berkman says Schreiner 'concluded that species evolution was contingent no less upon cooperative and mutually protective behaviour.10 Later, Berkman devotessic] was one of the most original and subversive features of her social thought'.11

9 From Man to man, p. 297.

10 Joyce Avrech Berkman, The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts, 1989), p. 78.

11 Berkman, pp. 140–49 (p. 142).

I now move to the New Woman/New Man relationship that is Nell and Arthur. Arthur's confrontations with Nell are at first always the middle- against the working-class discourse, and perhaps in no clearer way does this manifest itself than in the conflict between the languages they use. The working-class characters present an undiluted Nottinghamshire dialect and seem completely at ease with it – after all, Prior made a great study of it. But Arthur is a southern snob and hates the way Nottinghamshire people speak. He admires Nell, but, for instance, 'at the same time [...] regret[s] that she should say 'yo' when she might have said "you" (p. 95). Prior (or the narrative discourse at least) is again taking sides, and it is clear that the reader should feel unsympathetic to Arthur's prejudices. The scene between Nell and Arthur standing outside the Methodist chapel marks the beginning of Arthur's journey towards becoming a New Man, a person of understanding and tolerance as opposed to one of petty prejudices. Most of this early nineteenth century congregation is illiterate, but it is clear where the narrator's – and Prior's – allegances lie:

'We may have better psalmody now-a-days, irreproachably unemotional and empty, from our Mus.B's and D.'s, [but] we have no such singers as those lusty enthusiasts who made the windows of that humble little meeting-house tremble' (p. 100).

The narrator seems to be looking bck with nostalgia to a no doubt illusory golden age, but he is certainly siding with the working class. Arthur, on the other hand, objects to a preacher attaching superfluous aitches to his words and hates the general anarchy of the service. He complains to Nell about the 'ignorant' preacher and wonders why 'anybody can prefer such minstration to that of an educated and properly ordained gentleman' (p. 106). Nell rebukes the priggish Arthur for criticizing the language of the service and for his generally supercilious manner: 'Yo're allus of hoss-back. Coom down a bit, do' (p. 107). She is affected by the service in a similar pantheistic way to Lois, and implores Arthur to calm himself into the world of nature, the hawthorn and the song of the blackbird. This encounter is significant in several ways. It reaffirms the relationship between the New Woman and the natural world, it is a direct confrontation between the female working-class discourse and the middle-clas discourse, and it shows Nell preaching class tolerance to a future New Man. Prior's New Woman has teeth, and the New Man is beginning to feel bitten: 'The sky was still luminous but the discoloration of the earth had begun. He felt a change too in the values of his judgment' (p. 107). The beginning of Arthur's conversion is not so much of the earth but spiritual. Enlightenment is on the horizon with a loss of materialistic middle-class values, or 'frippery' as Arthur will later call it.

Local dialect is seen by both Nell and Prior as part of the timeless existence of the working class, and any attack on it is important. Its significance as the voice of the working class is evident in Tant's long court case in which the narrator ridicules the lawyers. Here, the 'little King's Counsel' criticizes Nell for using dialect, and Nell retorts: 'Did yo mother my tongue? Did yo larn it to talk?' (p. 173) Nell is again defending her discourse as she defended it against Arthur's. And Prior is of course making a strong criticism of the pretensions of the middle-class discourse, represented here by members of the legal profession.

When the gang of Luddites are roaming the countryside, Nell urges Arthur the volunteer policeman not to be too eager with his rifle. With clumsy ambiguity, Arthur replies that he will be so if the priming of his rifle is damp – or because she has requested him to do so. Nell says: 'Do't for your own sake. 'Twill be a more human sort o' reason nor the one and a more accountable sort nor the tother' (p. 130). Teaching is vital to the relationship between the New Woman and the prospective New Man, only Nell's teaching comes more through working-class words (in dialect) than through the horrified middle-class looks of Lois. In Cholmondeley's middle-class world of Red Pottage, Lord Newhaven says of Rachel West and Hugh Scarlett: 'That woman loves him, and if she marries him she will reform him.'12 Nell reforms Arthur before their marriage. It is evident that the female working-class discourse is having a mellowing effect on the middle-class one. There is less antagonism. Nell begins to eat into Arthur's consciousnes and the New Woman's words have a powerful humanizing and equalizing effect such as that experienced in Grand's 'The Undefinable: A Fantasia'. In this short story a male artist is overcome by the change brought about by the strange 'model' who has invited herself into his house, and significantly he quotes from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in his comment:

'[E]ven my [...] manservant, to judge by his counternance, felt her effect. Her mere presence seemed to be making him, "the reptile equal" – for the moment in his estimation – "to the god", that is to say, to me. Under the strange, benign influence of her appearance as she stood there, I could see that he had suddenly ceased to be an impassive serving-machine, and had become an emotional human being'.13

One point of interest here is the fact that the woman is bringing the working class and the middle class together, as Prior will do in a sexual context. Grand's 'model' (of the New Woman?) later proudly proclaims: 'I am a woman with all the latest improvements. The creature the world wants. Nothing can now be done without me'.14 The tone seems over-dramatic and hardly sits well with equality, but the general message is plain: the New Woman is essential to the New Man.

12 Cholmondeley, p. 223.

13 Sarah Grand, 'The Undefinable: A romance', in Daughters of Decadence, pp. 262–87 (p. 277).

14Daughters of Decadence

By the time he rescues Nell from the clutches of Spettigrew and his drunken drinking partners who want to murder her for being a witch, Arthur is already bewitched. He saves her life by intervening at the right time, and the voice of Prior's New Man in defence of the female working-class discourse resonates across the countryside: 'If you murder this woman [...] you will also murder me' (p. 324). A week later the couple walk together holding a milk container from which the milk has been spilt – a clear symbol of the new union, although for the present-day reader there is perhaps a little more symbolism than Prior ever intended.

Vicinus states that Egerton's outdoor scenes involve 'men and women who fish meet[ing] as comrade-in-arms, recognising and appreciating each other's skill'.15 The same of course applies to farmers. When Nell says that Arthur 'has summat to larn about the management of our light forest land', the now humble New Man meekly replies, 'You'll teach me, Nell' (p. 338). The couple now meet on equal ground. Nell even stands in the gutter so they can kiss more comfortably, and she is protective and conciliatory towards her 'little un'. She tells her family: 'Arthur's more nor my match a'ready. And he's a very good height-th, a very good height-th indeed; it's me that's a deal too lanky for a woman' (p. 339). But the most important change Nell has brought about to Arthur has been to make him recognize the unimportancce of external appearances, such as clothes. With Lois, Arthur had laughed at Nell's bizarre clothing, but he now says clothes are mere 'frippery, which anybody's money may buy, with something inside to walk them about'. He touches Nell's 'country-made bodice' and says: 'There's a woman in this [...] and that unpurchasable'. He goes on to say that Nell has taught him that, and adds that she must be an extrordinary teacher because all his years at school have taught him 'nothing in comparison' (p. 346). The match is complete, and so begins a partnership which Schreiner would have recognized, although she of course historicized it in terms of the Women's Movement. She says: '[N]ot only is it not a movement on the part of woman leading to severance and separation between the woman and the man, but [...] it is essentially a movement fo the woman towards the man, of the sexes towards closer union.' (Schreiner's italics.)16

Ignoring the context, the aim is exactly the same as the narrator is advocating in Forest Folk/ but what Schreiner constructs in Woman and Labour she sees differently. For her, both the New Woman and the New Man have always existed, but over time various factors have intervened to cause them to lose their way. Both must undergo a process of social evolution. Prior's New Woman, however, has never lost her way, but his new man is an existentialist who must create himself with her assistance. However, the goal is the same, according to a typical long sentence of Schreiner's:

'If anywhere on earth exists the perfect ideal of that which the modern woman desires to be – of a labouring and virile womanhood, free, strong, fearless and tender – it will probably be found imaged in the heart of the New Man; engendered there by his own highest needs and aspirations; and nowhere would the most highly developed modern male find an image of that which forms his idea of the most fully developed manhood, than in the ideal of man which haunts the heart of the New Woman.17

The sentence is bulky and clumsy but the message is clear and continues the theme of co-operation. Being a New Man, and a New Woman, is about breaking down barriers. For New Woman writers these barriers are largely concerned with sexual inequality. For Prior, there are also barriers between the classes, and not just the physical barriers such as the gates on Arthur's farm to which the working class has been excluded access. There are also, as between the sexes, deep psychological barriers between the classes. which are manifested by the intolerance of many things, an important one for Prior being dialect. Prior seems to want to heal the rift between working and middle class as well as man and woman, and he shows this above all in his New Men and New Women in Forest Folk.

15 Egerton, p. xi.

16 Woman and Labour, p. 252.

17 Woman and Labour, p. 258.

The links below are to the posts I've made on James Prior:

James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Introduction
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter One
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Two
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Three
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Conclusion
The Grave of James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham
James Prior's Parents' Grave, Nottingham
James Prior: Three Shots from a Popgun (1880)

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