The story of how I ended up finding this book and reading it will be left for another post. This post is about the book itself. It was written in 1985 and is set in what I assume to be contemporary England. The author is a sympathizer of feminism and this is his contribution to it.
I don’t know how the characters and philosophy espoused in the book should be judged in the historical context of feminism. Reading it as myself in 2013, I often felt like giving Herminia Barton (the independent-minded female protagonist) a whack on the head. Her fancying herself as a martyr and long monologues from her as well as the author, which seem to imply that all the women’s troubles would be over if they started defying the institution of marriage, can make you cringe. But the worst mistake she makes is thinking that her daughter will carry her legacy forward. It turns out that the daughter has more awareness of the miseries her mother’s principles have bought upon her than the appreciation of her principles. Despite all the whacking I want to give her, my sympathies are with the mother. Still, I don’t blame the daughter. Because I grudge any parental presumption that the children should be an extension of themselves.
In Herminia Barton’s case, it didn’t look like she even knew how exactly was the daughter supposed to carry forward the legacy. With the same doomed martyrdom? Ultimately martyrs cannot change the society. Survivors do. I am not dismissing the martyrs. My comforts of today owe too much to the martyrs of the past to do that. But martyrs play a role by drawing more people to the fold and then some more until finally there are survivors leading a changed world. Martyrs may fail, but at least there has to be a vision of how their martyrdom will change the world. Herminia Barton’s martyrdom seems to be for its own sake. She is willing to take all the miseries that comes her way by defying the institution of marriage. Fair enough. But how is it going to inspire others to follow the suit? There is no thought spared for that. I, personally, think that it is fine to live by your principles and suffer for it, even if it doesn’t help or inspire anyone else. But in such cases you should not fancy yourself as some kind of saviour for others of your creed. You don’t describe yourself as a martyr who is being sacrificed to somehow do right by other members of her sex. That’s presumptuous.
That said, even if with my sensibilities, sitting in a world that is much more receptive to empowered woman, I find Herminia Barton to be naive who could have done better for her cause, there is no denying that she is a brave, self-confident character. Even if her idea of women being meant for motherhood, and not for earning, is repugnant to me, she possesses an independent mind in a society that demands conformity, and attempts to earn for herself even if only because society isn’t “perfect” yet.