In October, writing for Forbes, Catarina Bulgarella wrote about the ingrained tendency of women to cover for men who act badly. Bulgarella, a “culture architect” who studies work environments, was writing about the backlash to #MeToo, and about how women could be counted among skeptics of the movement. Donald Trump, in defending his embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, had at a Mississippi rally invoked to women the specter of male relatives being unjustly accused of sexual misconduct. “This narrative is impactful,” Bulgarella wrote, “not only because it reminds women of their roles as mothers, sisters and wives, but because it may lead them to think that they are at risk of failing one of their fundamental caregiver duties – protecting the reputations of their families.”
Indeed, just as Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia had twenty-seven years earlier, Kavanaugh’s wife Ashley – and his mother and sister – sat behind him during the pre-confirmation hearings on the sexual assault allegations against him. In both cases, the women appeared stricken but defiant, presenting to the world not a doubt that they believed in their male relations’ innocence. Many of us may believe that their conviction was genuine. Humans are complicated, especially regarding loved ones. So too is the social fabric centered around marriage and family. Women often feel loyal to systems they are both stifled by and dependent on. For her part, Bulgarella did not mention the women in Kavanaugh’s family, but she did speak of women’s protective instinct: “The care-giving expectations of women sheds light on why the #MeToo movement has never earned high marks of approval. If exposing the sexual misconduct of men risks ruining their reputations, and if women, who are responsible for protecting the feelings of their families, are the ones imposing this new climate of accountability, then we have all the ingredients for an extraordinary role violation…”
Bulgarella doesn’t claim to be the first writer to explore the complicated terrain of women holding men to account while also sharing their workplaces, homes, and beds. Indeed, many feminist writers today are grappling with issues of forgiving husbands for past misconduct and the extent to which destructive behaviors are a part of maleness that must be accepted. Many frame the issue as conversations that are “finally” taking place, but the truth is there have been those who have been trying to advance these conversations for years and even centuries. One such person was the British author Sarah Grand with her 1893 novel The Heavenly Twins.
Though published with difficulty and condemned as immoral, The Heavenly Twins was a commercial hit, and cemented Grand’s standing (at least in her own mind) as the creator of the feminist “New Woman”. Born to a respectable military family, Grand (real name Frances McFall, nee Bellenden Clarke) married an army surgeon at age sixteen and became stepmother to two sons, the eldest of whom was only six years younger than herself. She would also have a son of her own. Grand interested herself in feminist causes, and self-published her first novel in her thirties. By the time The Heavenly Twins was published, she was nearly forty and separated from her husband. In at least two important ways, her marriage had provided her the material for the novel. The first was that it had shown her the ways in which marriage could be not only stultifying to a woman, but violating — at least one source says her husband’s increasingly bizarre sexual demands were part of why she left him. The second was that her husband’s career had given her greater knowledge than a lady might otherwise have obtained of the effects of venereal disease.
The plot of The Heavenly Twins has several threads. One of the most prominent concerns Evadne Frayling, a wise, well-born young woman who falls in love and marries Major George Colquhoun, an attractive and eligible suitor she believes she loves. Her illusion of her husband is obliterated on her wedding night when she discovers that he has a past. We are not told exactly what that past is, but we can be certain it has involved premarital sex and can infer that a woman – but of course not the man – has faced worldly ruin for it. Evadne finds this so unacceptable that she refuses to consummate her marriage or live with her husband. “It was a mere affair of the senses,” she reflects, “to be put off by the first circumstance calculated to cause a revulsion of feeling by lowering him in my estimation…”
Her family is scandalized. No one thinks to blame her husband for his history, only her for objecting to it. “This is very hard on you, Colquhoun, very hard,” her father tells her husband. “But it just shows you what would come of the Higher Education of Women! Why, they’d raise some absurd standard of excellence, and want to import angels from Eden if we didn’t come up to it.” Her mother writes to her, “We have grave fears for your sanity…” Her mother then delivers a lecture on her duty as a wife:
And, Evadne, remember: a woman has it in her power to change even a reprobate into a worthy man–and I know from the way George talks that he is far from being a reprobate now. And just think what a work that is! The angels in heaven rejoice over the sinner that repents, and you have before you a sphere of action which it should gladden your heart to contemplate. I don’t deny that there were things in George’s past life which it is very sad to think of, but women have always much to bear. It is our cross, and you must take up yours patiently and be sure that you will have your reward. Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.
Evadne’s aunt, to whose house she has fled, is more sympathetic, but still suggests, “I should think only of his future. I should forgive the past.”
“That is the mistake you good women all make,” Evadne responds. “You set a detestably bad example. So long as women like you will forgive anything, men will do anything.” As society would not forgive a woman for sexual transgressions, she will not forgive her husband. “You think I should act as women have been always advised to act in such cases, that I should sacrifice myself to save that one man’s soul,” she tells her aunt. “I take a different view of it. I see that the world is not a bit the better for centuries of self-sacrifice on the woman’s part and therefore I think it is time we tried a more effectual plan. And I propose now to sacrifice the man instead of the woman.”
She makes a stand against hypocrisy, and sees it through. Though she eventually bows to the concerns of her scandal-phobic family and husband by agreeing to live with him, it is only a platonic arrangement. It is not an easy one, and the rift with her family is never healed. Her parents never see her again, and declare that her younger sisters’ access to books will be severely limited as a result of their older sister’s exposure to ideas having almost ruined the family. And in a life that lacks productivity and fulfillment, Evadne will ultimately suffer a deterioration in mental health.
The Heavenly Twins has genuinely moral male characters, but Grand exposes a society that allows men in general to believe themselves moral in spite of their actions. Or it should be said, some of their actions. The men in Evadne’s world are faithful custodians of the British Empire and its institutions, including the institution of family. Major Colquhoun is a respected army officer and churchgoer, and intends to make her a decent husband. That he has apparently caused another woman to become an outcast is not a part of his self-image, and he is perplexed and dismayed that Evadne should so profoundly object to it when he himself has put it comfortably out of his mind.
Such compartmentalizing may have been apparent in Brett Kavanaugh, the Catholic father, husband, and respected jurist as he defended his nomination with a rage that seemed born from a genuine sense of aggrievement. “This has destroyed my family and my good name,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee with visible bitterness. “A good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.”
Perhaps he was innocent. Perhaps he was guilty. Novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld tweeted, “I don’t think Kavanaugh is lying per se. I think he has no memory of the event, because a 15 year old girl screaming for him to get off her literally made no impression on him. (Which tells you everything you need to know.)”
Or perhaps he assaulted Blasey Ford and remembered it, but – like Evadne’s husband – regarded it and similar behaviors — Blasey Ford was not the only woman who accused the younger Kavanaugh of sexually indecent behavior — as “youthful hijinks” that should not define a man in a position of social and legal authority.
Grand shows us the dangers that might lie in store for a woman who fails to hold her husband to a high standard. Evadne is unsuccessful in persuading her friend Edith Beale to break off her engagement to a titled and captivating man who also has immorality in his past.
“I can make him all that he ought to be!” Edith declares. Edith’s mother, a bishop’s wife, is moved by her daughter’s resolve. “Love is a great purifier, and love for a good woman has saved many a man,” she tells Evadne, echoing Evadne’s mother.
“It is you good women who make marriage a lottery for us,” Evadne responds.
Just how dire the stakes of that lottery becomes apparent. Edith’s marriage goes forward, and within a year she is dying from syphilis, as is the child she has given birth to. Her aristocratic husband seems little troubled by guilt. Apologies for the spoilers, but the reader has had 126 years to read the book (and Edith’s story is a small part of the plot).
Of Edith’s deathbed, we are told, “The mental torture was extreme; but she fought for her reason with the fearful malady valiantly; and all the time presented outwardly only the same dull apathy, giving no sign and speaking no word which could betray the fury of the rage within.”
Each of the novel’s female characters contends with such rage. Some embrace it, most sublimate it. “It was really too much trouble to cherish anger,” we are told of how Evadne’s mother copes with her self-centered husband. The prospect of women as a class finally realizing their anger and acting upon it is floated in a conversation between two of the novel’s more sympathetic male characters.
“I assure you, sir,” the more progressive one says to his friend, “that the indignation which has long been simmering in whispers over tea tables in the seclusion of scented boudoirs, amongst those same delicate dames whom you have it in your mind to keep in ignorance of the source of most of their sufferings, mental and physical, is fast approaching the boiling point of rebellion.”
“Do you know this for a fact?” his alarmed friend asks. He replies in the affirmative, and says society will disintegrate if the double standards that wrong women to cover for men are not redressed.
This conversation regarding female anger mirrors a discussion happening today. The past year has seen three high-profile books released on the subject: Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Female Anger, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, and Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Rediscovers Her Superpower. Largely sparked by these releases, numerous outlets have run articles with titles like “The Power of Enraged Women” (The New York Times), “The Perils and Possibilities of Anger” (The New Yorker), “All the Rage” (The New Republic), and “Why Women’s Rage is Rational, Healthy and Necessary for America” (The Washington Post).
Much of the discussion frames female anger as an historic driver of change, citing female French revolutionaries, Rosa Parks, and militant suffragists as examples. We do not see the middle-aged Evadne win the vote, but it is her generation of women who will accomplish it, and The Heavenly Twins traces the kind of personal awakening that must have begun the journey for many. Some now believe that the rage of today’s women will foment lasting change, but others are less sanguine. Writing in The Guardian a year ago, Charlotte Wood said, “There’s a reckoning taking place now, we’re told. Female anger is at last finding its mark and its moment. I hope this is my primitive anger-shame speaking, or jadedness, or simple exhaustion – but I can’t trust it. The speed of the avalanche, its force, feels too dangerous. It feels like a runaway train that’s going to crash off the rails, and soon. My own cheering at the sight of the bastards going down feels too much like the delinquent ecstasy of a classroom run amok, and beneath this lurks the fear that when the frenzy’s over, that will be that. And then we’ll all cop it worse than before.” If Sarah Grand knew these conversations were being had 126 years after her novel was written, she might agree.
Grand might also be dismayed to see that in the twenty-first century, some feminists continue to insist that safeguarding men’s virtue all too often falls to women. Feminist Jessica Valenti has written, “This widespread cultural message could not be clearer: Men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and therefore not their responsibility. It’s a fairly insulting view of male morality and sexuality, but it’s also one that allows the culture to put the blame for men’s bad (and criminal) behavior on women’s shoulders.”
It is just such a custodial role that Evadne rejects. “[A]lthough reforming reprobates may be a very noble calling, I do not, at nineteen, feel that I have any vocation for it,” she tells her mother. “So long as men believe that women will forgive anything they will do anything. Do you see what I mean? The mistake from the beginning has been that women have practised self-sacrifice, when they should have been teaching men self-control.”
Evadne’s virtuous aunt sees that this would require women to face uncomfortable truths, and is terrified of what such a future might represent. “You may be right, but yet–the consequences! the struggle, if we must resist! It is best to submit. It is better not to know,” she says tremulously. It seems prophetic today that she uses the word resist.
Sarah Grand, of course, did not submit. The success of The Heavenly Twins elevated her writing career and secured her independence from her husband, who died five years after its release. She acquired a plush home in Tunbridge Wells, stayed at her desk every day from nine until one whether she was having a productive writing day or not, and campaigned for reforms largely connected to conditions for working women. In gratitude, eight thousand women contributed to a fund to buy her a diamond necklace. In 1901, Grand crossed the ocean to give a widely publicized lecture tour of the United States in which she delivered a talk titled “Mere Men.”
One has the impression, in reading her contemporaries’ coverage of her, that Grand expanded the popular perception of what a feminist could be. In a profile of her at home the same year as her lecture tour, Rebecca A. Insley commented that she had a “pleasant personality with no bluestocking cloudiness about it.” During the tour, Lillian Gray wrote, “She dresses carefully, handsomely and in exquisite taste, which is no more than every woman should do.” Gray added that Grand had built a career exposing the consequences of men’s frailties, “…yet she herself is fond of men”. She mused, “Women who are the hardest on man as a sex generally in their hearts themselves like men and men’s society. Perhaps they have so high an ideal of the masculine sex’s possibilities that they wish to make the actual specimens live up to it.”
It seems Grand found in her own life both the interior and exterior equilibrium that she sought for her characters. She lived to see women get the vote, and died of natural causes during World War II. Her novels have been largely out of print for decades, and her place in the literary canon is small. Her existence will surprise many young feminists. That she explored themes that are still discussed today will cause inspiration or gloom. Grand’s advice to them might be words she gave to Evadne: “It seems to me that those who dare to rebel in every age are they who make life possible for those whom temperament compels to submit. It is the rebels who extend the boundary of right little by little, narrowing the confines of wrong, and crowding it out of existence.”