25 October 2012

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


The New Woman is written large across fin-de-siècle literature. Stereotypical images of the servile, decorative, and reluctantly inactive woman of the past were being overturned in an attempt to find a new voice for her which would reflect the new mood. Gender reversal was one of the characteristics of the New Woman novel, and she was exaggerated by some sources – notably in periodicals such as Punch – as being too 'masculine'. The bicycle, rational dress and the ubiquitous cigarette just some of the symbols used in these satires, but although the New Woman was a heterogeneous phenomenon, she nevertheless represented a generally concerted effort on the part of women to assert themselves. Of interest here is that in the process they gained not only sympathisers but also converts from the male camp, and in a sense James Prior was one of them. He seemed much more comfortable writing about women, and in an ahistorical way in general sympathy with their cause.

It is unknown which New Woman novels Prior had read, if any at all, although it seems certain that he was not only aware of the genre but also influenced by it. Nell Rideout is an evident New Woman type, although with significant differences. Prior dehistoricizes his New Woman, and therefore uses none of the contemporary allusions present in conventional New Woman fiction: not only is there no talk of social issues such as the Women's Movement, but there are no props such as the cigarette. In Forest Folk, Prior even sets the book outside the fin-de-siècle period as if to escape from contemporary trappings. And instead of the middle-class New Woman in the comfortable fin-de-siècle home, Prior's construction of her in Forest Folk involves converting her into a feisty working-class heroine confidently riding horses, almost always outdoors and speaking about farming or the countryside in general in a proudly expressed, broad Nottingham accent.

What clearly defines Nell as a New Woman and creates correspondences with Prior's ideas and New Woman literature – above all with Egerton's Keynotes and Discords and Schreiner's Woman and Labour – is the necessity for independence and equality. More than any other qualities, these can safely be said to be essential prerequisites of the conventional New Woman. But in a heterosexual context, which Prior's invariably is, there must be a New Man to mirror the New Woman's independence and equality. New Men are also prominent in Egerton's and Schreiner's work, but with an inevitable difference: unlike Prior's – and to a certain extent Egerton's and Schreiner's – New Woman, his New Man is not timeless, but must be taught how to become New. Particularly successful here is the New Woman Nell's Nottinghamshire dialect sparring with the budding New Man Arthur's Received Pronunciation. The conflict between these two discourses shows Prior at his most successful, and Forest Folk earned Prior some critical acclaim. His vision is one of equality, bringing together the sexes and the classes.

So to return to Lawrence's question about James Prior: 'Why is he a failure?' It is perhaps Prior's next book which would prove fatal to his continued success as a writer. Ivory Buchan simply call Hyssop Prior's worst book, and 'really so very bad that it needs no further comment'. 1 Long before Buchan's article, and when Prior was still alive, his friend Stephen Fisher evidently came to the same conclusion, as it is the only one of the six Prior novels that he does not mention at all. Hyssop was Prior's all-important follow-up to Forest Folk, and concerns a young woman suffering from amnesia as a result of a train crash. She even loses all recall of her language and has to be taught how to speak by the middle-class family that adopts her. Only towards the end, where the book for a brief spell almost reaches the wilder excesses of a temperance novel, does the reader learn that Eva was in her former life an alcoholic prostitute in a London slum. Almost the whole book is set inside a middle-class house with dialogue far removed from the lively dialect of Forest Folk, and the language is tortured and artificial. Prior seems to have forgotten, or possibly not realized, his strengths. He has forced himself to be hidebound by the narrative convention he is writing in, and of course his perception of it. It is as though Prior is now writing in an alien language: his father's 'grave and exact way of expressing himself by his pen' is now subverting him, preventing him from expressing himself freely. Prior's characters do not travel well when transposed to exclusively middle-class surroundings: there is no inter-class tension in Hyssop as in Forest Folk in particular. Ivory Buchan sums it up quite well:

'Prior was indeed far more at home in the cottage than in the hall or the self-contained villa. He was not in a position to observe the habits of the high-born, and the middle-class milieu was singularly wanting in the liveliness, poetry and tradition which his nature demanded. And so his best characters are those that speak dialect: sturdy peasants with slow caustic tongues, beggars and wandering gypsies, beside whom the well-spoken seem a little thin. [...] He has a[n] odd stiltedness and slight unreality in "educated" dialogue, and then a sudden grip and ease when it comes to country speech'.

A Walking Gentleman, which followed Hyssop three years later in 1907, was considered by Fisher to be better than Forest Folk, and I'm almost certain that it had an influence on Lawrence's Aaron's Rod, but it was too late: it couldn't undo the damage, the public had not forgiven him for Hyssop, and Fortuna Chance in 1910 was Prior's last published work.

Three years after Prior's death, Rupert Hayra published his first and last book, Amidst Green Pastures. He dedicated it 'To the memory of my dear friend JAMES PRIOR [...] who opened my eyes and enlarged my heart, when together we wandered amidst green pastures.'2 Prior's literary contribution should be remembered for its working-class New Woman and Man in the countryside, proclaiming their existence in a broad Nottinghamshire dialect and speaking out against general middle-class intolerance. They are original. As Prior said: 'I have put the best of myself into my books. They are me and nobody else.'

1Buchan, p. 8.

2Rupert Haywra, Amidst Green Pastures (London: Daniel, 1925), p. [5].


Ambler, R. W. Ranters, Revivalists and Reformers: Primitive Methodism and Rural Society South Lincolnshire 1817–1875 (Hull: Hull University Press, 1989)

Anabel-Cooper, Jean, 'James Prior – An Appreciation',Nottinghamshire Countryside, Spring 1965

Anonymous, Athenaeum, 'Forest Folk, By James Prior', 3840 (1901)

–––––, Athenaeum, 'A Walking Gentleman, By James Prior', 4168 (1907)

Barrie, J. M., Tommy and Grizel (London: Cassell, 1900)

Berkman, Joyce Avrech, The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South Afican Colonialism (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts, 1989)

Brandon, Ruth, The New Woman and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Women Question (London: Secker & Warburg, 1990)

Buchan, Ivory, 'James Prior: An Appreciation', Nottinghamshire Countryside, July 1941

Buck, Claire, ed., Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature (London: Bloomsbury, 1992)

Calder, Jenni, Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)

Cholmondeley, Mary, Red Pottage (London: Arnold, 1899; repr. London: Virago, 1985)

Chothia, Jean, ed, The New Woman and Other Emancipated Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Corelli, Marie, The Sorrows of Satan (London: Methuen, 1895; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Dauzat, Albert, Dictionnaire étymologique des noms de famille et prénoms de France (Paris: larousse, 1951)

Dowie, Ménie Muriel, Gallia (London: Methuen, 1895; repr. London: Dent, 1995)

Findlater, Jane and Mary, Crossriggs (London: Smith, Elder, 1908; repr. London: Virago, 1986)

Egerton, George, Keynotes and Discords (London: Mathews & Lane, 1893 (Keynotes, and Lane, 1894 (Discords); repr. London: Virago, 1983)

First, Ruth, and Anne Scott, Olive Schreiner: A Biography (London: Deutsch, 1990; repr. The Women's Press, 1989)

Fisher, S., 'James Prior', Bookman, November 1917; repr. Nottingham: Nottingham James Prior Memorial Committee, [n.d.]

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction (London: Lane, 1979; repr. London: Penguin, 1998)

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988–94), III: Letters from the Front

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Herland (Forerunner, 1915; repr. London: The Women's Press, 1979)

Grand, Sarah, The Beth Book: Being a Study from the Life of Elizabeth Caldwell Maclure: A Woman of Genius (London Heinemann, 1998 [1897])

Haywra, Rupert, Amidst Green Pastures (London: Daniel, 1925)

Huxley, ed., The Letters of D. H. Lawrence (London: Heinemann, 1932)

James, Henry, The Bostonians (London: Macmillan, 1886; repr. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1998)

Jordan, Ellen, 'The Christening of the New Woman: May 1894', Victorian Newsletter, 63 (1983)

Keating, Peter The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875–1914 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989)

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds, Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature (New York: Wilson, 1942)

Lane, Ann J., ed., The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Fictions (London: The Women's Press, 1981)

Lawrence, D. H., The Rainbow (London: Methuen, 1915; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949)

Leach, Maria, ed., Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, 2 vols (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1949–1950), III

Leclaire, Lucien, Le Roman régionaliste dans les Iles britanniques 1800-1950 (Paris, Société d'édition les belles lettres, 1954)

Ledger, Sally, The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)

Marks, Patricia, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1990)

Miller, James, The Passion of Michel Foucault (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Nelson, Carolyn Christensen, British Women Fiction Writers of the 1890s (New York: Twaine, 1996)

Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford Uiversity Press, 1989; repr. 1992)

Prior, James, Three Shots from a Popgun (London: Remington, 1880)

–––––, Don Pedro the Cruel: A Historical Tragedy (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1882)

–––––, John Smith of London: A Comedy in Five Acts and Live and Let Live: A Comedy in One Act (Nottingham: James Prior, 1883)

–––––, Renie (London: Hutchinson, 1895)

–––––, Ripple and Flood (London: Hutchinson, 1897)

–––––, Forest Folk (London: Heinemann, 1901; repr. Nottingham: The Bromley Press, 1946)

–––––, Hyssop (London: Heinemann, 1904)

–––––, A Walking Gentleman: A Novel (London: Constable, 1907)

–––––, Fortuna Chance (London: Constable, 1910)

–––––, 'Canticles by Vacuus', Nottinghamshire Archives Office, M16,206

–––––, Letter to W. A. Briscoe, Nottinghamshire Archives Office, M263, 17 November 1919.

Richardson, Angelique, and Chris Willis, The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-siècle Feminisms (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)

Schriener, Olive Woman and Labour (London: Unwin, 1911)

Showalter, Elaine, ed., Speaking of Gender (London: Routledge, 1989)

–––––, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London: Bloomsbury, 1991)

–––––, Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle (London: Virago, 1993)

–––––, 'Smoking Room', TLS, 16 March 1995

Trigg, E. B., Gypsy Demons and Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural Properties of the Gypsies (London: Sheldon Press, 1975)

Vicinus, Martha, ed., A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (London: Century, 1990)

Wright, Gordon, and Brian J. Curtis, The Inns and Pubs of Nottinghamshire: The Stories Behind the Names (West Bridgford: Nottingham County Council), 1995)

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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