a critical edition of the 1935 text

edited by Ella Ophir and Jade McDougall


"New Books: A Selected List." The London Mercury, October 1935, p. 612.

This book deserves more attention than a glance might suggest. It is the private anthology of Evelyn Wilson, a London spinster who lived a Gissing-like outer life as a governess and employment agency clerk until unemployment and middle-age drove her to death. In her notebooks she copied extracts from novels, poems, papers which gave her comfort, adding her own reflections, comments, thoughts. She emerges as a very brave and inspiring personality, whose vision goes deep and whose charity is unfailing.

West, Geoffrey. The Fortnightly, October 1935, p. 509-510.

There is something oddly moving about both these books. So one writes, and then pauses to wonder whether the adjective at least is any more than the professional writer's too complacent comment upon more than usually unprofessional products. What, if so, is his warrant for superiority? Here, in each of these volumes, is the essence of a woman's life, in one case the fruit, in the other the straightforward record, of not quite half a century of joys and sorrows, the common texture of daily life. Experience, when deeply felt, creates its own expression, and both these women own the honesty, the sincerity, which is content to be simple. They tell of, in general, the most ordinary things, and yet as one reads the words of Keats, quoted by one of them, echo in the mind: "A man's life of any worth is a continual allegory, and very few eyes can see the mystery of his life". These are, we become persuaded, lives of worth, and in these pages we do begin to discern a little of their "mystery".

The book of the Woman Alone is just what its title declares it — a compilation very largely made up of brief quotations from authors living and dead, famous and obscure, interspersed with the thoughts and comments and, more occasionally, experiences of the recorder, Evelyn Wilson, who, it is said, is now dead. Her life was distressing. She was never happy at home, and later, as a governess, found much unkindness. Her gladdest days were the twenty years of her work at a London employment agency, where she plainly exerted herself to the utmost to help girls and women of her own kind, but she walked always on the verge of poverty, worried for her own future and by the distress of others, lonely, unloved, pitiful. Pitiful — and yet not pitiful! She wanted so little: a bare security, a room of her own "where I may be myself, and neither apologize for, nor justify, my presence", a place "where my failures would not matter and where my successes would count as nothing, provided I loved and let myself be loved". In their lack she found her consolation in books, in the high thoughts of others gathered from many sources, thoughts most of them which, it is plain, echo, strengthen, vindicate herself. Pitiful indeed — and yet not pitiful! For as she says she did truly find riches by the wayside; she was taught more by pain than ease could have given her; by grief she came to beauty — the beauty of a soul that faces a hard world with courage and above all with charity and kindness, "keeping strong for herself, but tender for the weak". Her book is not a happy one, not only because even she in the end preferred to die rather than fight on against steepening odds, but because her lot is too clearly that of not a few other women (and even some men) today. But it is a fine book, which may pass on its bravery, its consolation, to those who need it most. Would to heaven the world's self-satisfied might be made to read it too!

The anonymous, or rather pseudonymous, Middle Age is cast in somewhat lighter mood, as the candid unaffected chronicle of a woman born in 1885, brought up in a very happy Nonconformist household first in Hampstead and then in Manchester, amid cultured, considerate relatives and friends, and truly encountering sorrow only as she entered the stresses of love and an unfortunate marriage. It is a book whose peculiar quality is harder to define, yet in this artless rambling narrative the full character of late Victorian and Edwardian family life, restricted yet rich, innocent yet deep-flowing, is admirably rendered. The portraits of parents, brothers, sisters, schoolfellows, visitors, and later suitors and husbands are so vivid and alive that only incidental interest is added by finding among the gallery Mark Rutherford, Virginia Woolf, Rhys Davids, Yeats, Clifford Bax and such others. One goes back to the word "innocent". There is innocence here, and innocence which has survived and transcended experience, in which resentments, even for pain inflicted, die. "There should never be bitterness, or self-pity." That is the explicit mood of the book's whole writing, and the secret of its truth and beauty. "Everything had become loved and significant."

Strachey, M. C. "Jog On, Jog On The Foot-Path Way." The New Statesman and Nation, 12 October 1935, p. 504-506.

A study of these five women has brought me to the conclusion that the gift most to be desired from a fairy godmother is cheerfulness. They all went through some pretty disagreeable experiences, but the two who were crushed or maimed by life were the two whom one can never imagine, in any circumstances, having a fit of the giggles.

The Note Books of a Woman Alone is an anthology made, we are told, by a certain Eve Wilson, a clerk in a registry office for governesses and nursery maids. The extracts are embedded in the moral reflections of Eve, and a few anecdotes of the unfortunate or disagreeable people she met at her work. These stories are the best things in the book. I should read with interest some more like the blood-curdling tale of Rachel, who was shut up in the feeble-minded division of a workhouse infirmary, and nearly driven to insanity by a doctor who wished to have more patients this year than he had last. The quotations themselves are chiefly from modern writers, and would look better in a tear-off calendar. Taken in bulk they tend to be sentimental and platitudinous.

Perilous Privilege, by Janet Fergus, is called on the dustcover, though not on the title-page, an autobiography. It reads like fiction based on a few memories, and is somehow unconvincing. Janet's mother was one of the most disagreeable women I have ever read about — rather like the mother in Poil de Carotte — and her father is as ineffective as his. Janet's sister Nell was better at managing this demon than Janet, but we are given to understand that this was owing to her mental and spiritual inferiority. One of Janet's troubles was concerned with a fur hat which was unlike that of her contemporaries and was stolen the first day she went to school in it. Many children of eight have suffered similar agonies, but most of them recover in time. Janet was not so resilient — or perhaps she would wish us to say, she was more sensitive.

From this time there attacked her an antipathy to the wearing of new garments or anything which would be the cause of singling her out as being strange or unusual in the opinion of others. The antipathy remained with her all her life. It grew upon her, enlarged itself instead of diminishing, and, although she realised that a great deal of it resulted from her inability to cope with her view, she was unable to change.

It is perhaps needless to say that both these ladies had unfortunate love affairs.

It is a comfort to pass from the somewhat deplorable moans of Eve and Janet to the healthy reality of the remaining three books.

Miss Bourne is one of the half-dozen young women who have worked as a ship's boy on one of the ocean-going sailing ships that ply between Australia and Europe. Her first job was between Cape Town and Sydney on the Norwegian ship Thermopylae. One of the boys had gone sick, and when Miss Bourne offered to take his place:

"All right, said the mate, "but it is hard work. You'll have to be up at half-past five."

Neither this, nor painting the upper plates in the rigging, hanging on by one hand in a lively sea, daunted Miss Bourne, and when the trip was over she was so sad at leaving the ship that she shed tears while the bo's'n dried her eyes with a piece of cotton waste.

From Sydney she made a tour in the South Seas, this time as a passenger, visiting the Fijis, Tonga, Tahiti, Rarotonga, and finally New Zealand. Then she returned to Australia, signed on in the Herzogin Cecilie, and in her came back to England.

Miss Bourne writes easily and pleasantly, and has an alert eye for the picturesque and the humorous. As a sample, I quote a little adventure she had in Tahiti. She is spending the night on the verandah of a house on the shore:

The amorous adventures of Tahiti are much bruited throughout the world — with some reason — but when I lay down on that divan I was far too exhausted with unpacking to think of them. The moon was blazing on the lagoon, and flooding part of the verandah, but I in my strip of darkness slept the sleep of the unromantic. For how long I do not know, but I was woken when it was still night by wet and hasty kisses whose donor took small account of the position of my features. I kept my eyes shut and tried to think. It was a new position for me. Another batch of kisses blotted out the possibility of doing anything but sitting up and objecting. I sat up, suddenly and sternly, prepared to use both fists and tongue.
In the moonlight, smiling the smile of a happy discoverer, was a large yellow dog.

Miss Collyer's Life of an Artist gives the impression of a really delightful personality. Turned out of the house by her father, in the middle of the night, she started life in London as an art student with £50 of her own. Friends came to her help, but she was independent minded, and determined to stand on her own legs. The first half of the book tells of her struggles as an R.A. student, and as a painter of animals, also of the literary and artistic society of London in the 'nineties. In 1915, having achieved considerable success, she joined her sister who was farming in East Africa. The second half of the book contains an account of her life as a pioneer farmer. From the time she arrived in Africa she gave up her painting, and devoted herself entirely to wresting an existence from the earth, living entirely alone with natives, hundreds of miles away from the nearest white neighbour, in a district where the soil is unsuitable for cereals, drought destroys cattle, and the farm is infested with lions, pythons and locusts.

I tremble to think of the Jeremiads that would have poured from the pens of Eve and Janet in these circumstances. Miss Collyer is made of other metal. She finds interest and amusement everywhere, and is too much absorbed in her work, whether it is a drawing "like the finest steel-engraving done and all done with carbon-point," or hunting eland for miles, her legs covered with veld-sores, to have time or energy for laments or sentiment.

Miss Collyer's passionate love of animals is the thread that runs right through the book, whether she is in England or Africa. In her youth she used to visit the country houses of strangers to paint portraits of hunters or dogs, and had many peculiar experiences in consequence. One of the most astonishing characters she describes is Mrs. B., who appeared at dinner in a green velvet coat and skirt, and white silk waistcoat, changing after dinner into the full dress of a Highlander and dancing Highland flings with the butler, also in Highland dress, for exactly an hour by the clock. This was only one of the lady's peculiarities.

Lady Salmond's book, Bright Armour, is an account of her work as a nurse during 1914-18, which will doubtless be of interest to other women who went through the same experiences. It is redolent of Mayfair.

"Other New Books." Times Literary Supplement, 24 October 1935, p. 671.

This is an anthology compiled from note-books left by a lonely woman who, after a life spent either as a dependent in great houses or as typist in offices, died at the age of 48. She never in her life had more than £3 a week, often much less; but consoled herself for the meagreness of her opportunities by her love of books. Her choice in reading was catholic and somewhat unrelated; but her native good taste has got together a most interesting anthology of prose and verse, not the least interesting being her own comments and contributions. One would have thought that there would have been many willing to give friendship to such a delicate mind.

Shackleton, Edith. "A Room of One's Own." Time and Tide, 18 January 1936. p.2.

This is the era of the Lonely Woman. The penniless spinster no longer pines in the irritable bosom of her family, but has fled or been hustled out to earn a living. And she too often earns but a thin one and contrasts her solitary egg-and gas-ring life with those of petted and fortunate women rather than with those of the governess and poor relations of yesterday by whom her independence, her room of her own, would have been imagined as heavenly bliss. For this reason The Notebooks of a Woman Alone has interest. It is a sort of anthology of loneliness and poverty stated to have been gathered by one Eve Wilson, a lonely woman who after working hard as a governess and then as an employee in a governess' agency until middle age found herself enough money to carry her through a hopeless illness and so committed suicide while still solvent. It does not matter whether there really was an Eve Wilson. There are lots of women like her, collecting such bits and pieces of literature as this to give themselves self-respect and spiritual importance.

The extracts range from Krishna to Ethel Mannin. Not many will seem fresh or provocative to the ordinary well-read person, but with the collector's comments they do evoke the character of that Lonely Woman those existence is a sort of reproach to our common sense as a community.

The root of spinster misery is exposed with characteristic downrightness in an extract from the late Winifred Holtby — who should have died hereafter if only because of her salutary views on the Lonely Woman:

Women as individuals and as a sex are poor and their poverty has odd incidental effects on themselves and upon their whole position. To be poor in a society founded on private property means to be insecure, and insecurity breeds timidity. The traditional characteristics of the typical governess, her touchiness, her cringing to authority, her uncertain temper with domestic servants, her lack of vitality and charm, are as assuredly the symptoms of poverty as the traditional good manners of a duke are symptomatic of a lifetime of inbred self-assurance.

The gatherer of these simples for the spiritual aches and pains of a cramped life is not a complaining creature, but as a type she is no less disconcerting on that account. Life should not be something on which a normal woman, with relief and something very like pride, turns the key of a cheap bed-sitting room.

Mann, Dorothea Lawrence. "About Another Woman Who Has Lived Alone." Boston Evening Transcript, 19 September 1936, p. 7.

About Another Woman Who Has Lived Alone

The Dual Emotions of Pity and Terror Run Through Its Pages

From almost any angle this is a strangely moving book. If the reader is to like it at all it will certainly leave a deep impression. The two emotions which seem to run through it are pity and terror — Eve Wilson's all-embracing pity for unfortunates and her own terror of life. What impresses the reader as well is the small amount of happiness to be found in her life and the terrifying aloneness of this woman. We are bound to ask, as she so often asks, why life should be like this.

Often in her comments upon others we are likely to apply the same comments to herself. She tells us that if one of her unfortunates has had a happy past, it is possible to arouse hope for the future, and reading this book it seems that Eve Wilson has had very little of what the average person considers a happy past in her own life. It is easy to understand how in that final entry she can write, "I have had my certificate of release tonight. I saw the doctor, played the fool, and so got the information I wanted. I have now to keep in mind and do all he tells me not to do!"

Through most of the twenty years of Eve's story, the period in which her note books were compiled, the abiding joy of her life was the fact that she had a room alone. How small a joy this will seem to her readers! Only by inference do we get the full past which made this room alone so priceless a possession. Even the friend who writes the introduction does not know why Eve's childhood was so unhappy or why through the years she received no kindness from her family or no money from the estate of her parents. From her comments to other parents we are reminded that in England daughters are very frequently less regarded than sons. She has always to feel intense pity for those other girls doomed to lives like her own. Her first positions were as governess in three families, and this period of living in other women's houses had the effect of making her room the deep desire of her life. Once at least she speaks of how much it would mean if she could be sure that she might always have this room of hers.

Never at any time was there any element of security in this woman's life. At Miss de Burgh's Registry where she spent those twenty years working she had to deal so frequently with women who were aging and finding difficulty in securing work that she can never have lost the feeling of how certainly this fate would be hers. When she did lose her position we know how glad she was to realize that the final release of death was near. There must be large numbers of women actually in similar positions to that of Eve Wilson. In her note books she emphasizes often that the poor can never forget money, and that there is no situation which money cannot alleviate. She is often to reveal the hard mathematics of financial situations and to comment on the easy optimism of those who have security. Even the most rigid economy does not permit a woman making from thirty shillings to three pounds a week to provide for the years when she cannot work. Always Eve's fears shine through her note books. She cannot visit a hospital or an institution of any kind without seeing it through the eyes of the poor and helpless. Yet we do know that this frightened woman managed to help many people in her life. Though she could not help with money she gave her thought, her friendship and her love.

These notebooks are partly an anthology of the quotations that helped Eve in her loneliness and her fear. In the introduction we are told of the part books played in her life, of the difficulty of getting books free in England and how often she went without food to buy books or borrow them from libraries. This book of her own is itself a commentary on what she read, just as it offers the aid of the quotations which helped Eve as a solace to other women in her position. Often her own comments follow the quotations. Interesting as the quotations are, they are not so poignantly revealing as are Eve's own entries, taken from her own book of life.

"A Woman Alone." New York Times, 18 October 1936, p. BR9.

A room of her own and £500 a year Virginia Woolf said a woman should have if she was going to write creatively. This odd and appealing little book is the picture (not connectedly the story) of a woman who never had more than £3 a week and who never knew either success or any sort of creation, but to whom a room of her own was a treasure for lasting happiness, at once a strong-hold, symbol and literal blessing and comfort in a hard life.

In a world which persistently looks upon loneliness as a cause for misery, which pictures the childless and loverless woman as necessarily frustrate and eternally searching, which esteems aggressiveness, self-confidence and gregariousness as essential to success, Eve Wilson was beyond doubt a failure. She was poor. Her education did not match her native culture. She was a wornout woman when, after twenty years of office work, she lost her job through a "reorganization." But she knew how to value solitude and independence and how to give richly to others from the spiritual riches she found there.

She was sensitive, fastidious, wise. She read and she thought. In her notebooks she set down quotations from her reading — reflections of her own. On women and their place in the world; on children and family life; on books; on friends and enemies; on pain and bewilderment, and illness, and death; on vision — these are some of the groupings in these notebooks. And although its range of interest will be limited, the volume of selections as here edited has a suggestive value for thoughtful minds. It is interesting as individual portraiture. Its connotations reach out like gentle but sure fingers to touch vital spots in modern life.