Wednesday 3 August 2016

By Accident - George Fleming

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry spoke about her desire to write about the Victorian era ‘that wasn’t a theme park of peasoupers and street urchins. The more I looked, the more I found that not a great deal has changed – an ineffectual parliament, the power of big business and the insecurity around housing’. The process of demystifying the period began with Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2001), and has gained pace ever since, with writers questioning the staid, traditional view of the late Nineteenth century. Victorians were dealing with new developments in science, manufacturing and art every bit as challenging as those we face today, and society was being reshaped at pace. In particular, this affected the role of women in society, where the idealised image of the woman as dutiful wife and mother was challenged by the rise of the ‘New Woman’.

The term ‘New Woman’ was coined in 1894, and was popularised by Henry James to describe the growing number of independent, educated women pushing against the boundaries of traditional gender roles. New Women appear prominently in many works by male authors of the period, including Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker and HG Wells. Contemporary work by female authors is less well remembered today, but although they have come to be overshadowed by such minor novelists as Stoker and H Rider Haggard, women actually made up over one third of contributors to Victorian avant-garde literary journals such as The Yellow Book. Seeing the short story as a form which was yet to be dominated by male writers, women of the fin de siècle made extensive use of short fiction. Notable examples have been collected together by Elaine Showalter in Daughters of Decadence, reissued today by Virago.

George Fleming’s story By Accident describes the inner struggle between conformity and rebellion faced by many women of the time, and the gap between the vision of women as dutiful wives and independent people in their own rights. The story is introduced with an epigraph from Flaubert: 'we are all of us in a waste place. No one person understands another', and the theme of mutual misunderstanding runs through the story. The plot itself begins with a carriage overturning, a concussive impact which leaves horses 'cowed and limping' and the coachman whimpering that he has 'lost his head'. The female passenger is thrown free from the carriage, severely injured.

The main body of the story takes place around the woman’s death bed. Some hours after the accident, her husband, Sir Edward, returns. He has been out shooting, and there was some misunderstanding about telegraphs (the Victorian equivalent of ‘no signal’). Fleming highlights the way that, even in this extreme circumstance, their interaction is still governed by convention and habit: husband and wife greet each other in 'the way they had been in the habit of talking to one another, day after day, for years'. Sir Edward is perturbed that his wife has sent the children away, even if he takes care not to make a scene: 'it was impossible to admit that one could feel irritated by a fellow-creature, dying'. As for his wife, she seems almost relieved to be escaping the grim inevitability of her social engagements, saying to her husband 'you look... as if you will go on living for ever. And you will go to such - hundreds of dinner parties'.

Facades are vital to the performance of the couple’s social roles. At first, it seems like the wife is successfully maintaining her outward poise: although swathed in bandages, her husband notes with relief that she is ‘not in the least disfigured’. However, Fleming explores the way in which the façade of respectability and conformity gradually gives way in the face of death. In her dying moments, the wife looks back over her marriage, revealing that 'the person who interested her most in all the world' was not her husband at all, but a man named Jim Trafford. This desire was utterly sublimated: 'There was no strong passion in this woman; from first to last, there was no chance of her 'going wrong''. Even in her final moments, she remains ‘clearly, humorously aware of all the difficulties, social and material, which prevented her from sending for him,' demonstrating the power of social pressure.

Ultimately, Fleming’s subject is let down by both Sir Edward and Jim Trafford. Of her husband, she asks 'what help could he give her, even if she asked for it?' As for Trafford, he has also gone out shooting, and is out of reach. The men’s lack of urgency in attending her death-bed is contrasted with her own poignant last words: 'I wouldn't shoot if you were dying'.

By Accident is a strong example of the fin de siècle short story, outwardly conventional, but hiding a darker truth beneath the surface of the text. In the opening carriage accident, Fleming portrays a concussive moment of impact, a brief space in which patriarchal constructs collapse, and the wife is thrown free for a moment. Fleming at once acknowledges the limits of Victorian social mores (her character still experiences transgressive subconscious urges) and their strength (she can never act on them, even at the moment of her death). From the point of view of her frustrated protagonist, Victorian England is indeed a ‘waste place’, and the opportunity for understanding has passed. After the death of the frustrated wife, maybe the New Woman will rise in her place.

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