In The Beth Book (1897), we feel that we are reading two very different, at times irreconcilable, books: a powerful coming of age novel and a dry, moralizing treatise. I cannot help but feel that, in a way, the book falls victim of the very double standard it sets out to criticise.
We follow our protagonist, Beth, through her formative years. From her early childhood, she shows a deep intimacy with words and a fierce tendency to resist social conventions. Beth was a very imaginative girl and spent much of her time in a fantasy world.
When she was eight years old, her father, a British officer posted in Ireland, passes away. Lacking the proper means to bring her children up, Beth’s mother takes them to live with relatives in England. With little money, Beth and her sisters have to learn to go without food and comfort, so that their brothers can go to school and have proper clothes.
Despite being a gifted child, Beth receives no formal education: she is too poor to have a tutor or governess, and her mother doesn’t want her to mix with the working-class girls at the local school. The little they have must go to the boys – even if the girls must undergo poverty and hunger so that the boys may have enough money to waste with alcohol and friends. To make matters worse, Beth has to contend with an abusive mother, who takes out all her frustrations on the poor girl.
Beth struggles to assert herself, in spite of the limitations of her dysfunctional upbringing. She frequently challenges social conventions and expectations, and strives to learn whatever she can. She even helps her starving family by secretly hunting rabbits in the nearby forest.
Language plays an important role in her life: it is the means through which she can escape the limitations imposed on her spirit. From an early age, images and poems simply come to her, and words become her playthings. Beth is particularly fascinated with the power her words can have over other people: “‘I like to feel,’ Beth began, gasping out each word with a mighty effort to express herself – ‘I like to feel – that I can make them shake their fists’”, she says, as she sings to Irish peasants, so as to arouse their rebellious feelings. Moreover, Beth seems to be frequently breaking the protocol by saying what the others don’t dare to express out loud.
Our protagonist is very outspoken about social inequalities, particularly with regard to female education: she soon realizes that the assumption of superiority of the men around her rested on their deliberate choice of denying women access to education on equal terms. Female education, as understood by her contemporaries, limited itself to a few accomplishments (cooking, calligraphy, learning French and the piano), sufficient to enable women to make good marriages and to be good housewives. Any aspiration to have an autonomous professional career was out of the question. As Beth comes to realize, in these terms, education, for women, was much more a source of alienation than of personal development: women were invariably left feeling inferior, inadequate, and unable to do anything except to get married.
After a brief period in a boarding school, Beth is encouraged not to pursue further education, as something expensive and useless, and to make what seemed to be an advantageous marriage at the first opportunity. Needless to say, this proves to be a terrible decision: Beth’s husband turns out to be a morally corrupt, abusive man, who wastes her money, belittles her talents, controls her correspondence, carries on love affairs, and even performs vivisections on a secret lab.
There is a clear shift in tone from the first part – Beth’s childhood and early youth – and the second part – her adulthood and married years. While in the first part, we have a more outspoken girl, with a keen eye for the inequalities and hypocrisy of her day, on the second part we have a woman locked up not only in a bad marriage, but in her own self-righteousness. While in the beginning we are made to keenly feel the injustices suffered by Beth, in the second part we are left alienated from these injustices by her self-counciousness and didacticism.
It feels very much as if, for you, the injustices themselves were not enough to morally justify Beth’s desire to end her marriage; as if her desire to pursue her true calling and to have a career were not enough to morally justify her decision to leave her husband. Instead, you seem to be saying that her choice was only valid, because her husband was a brute. Had he not been so morally repulsive, she would have stayed with him, in spite of herself. In this sense, we cannot help but feel an irreconcilable tension between the first and second parts of the book.
The standards Beth sets for herself seem to be much higher than the ones she sets for the men in her life. While it is clear that the novel attacks gender inequalities and moral double standards, it also traps our protagonist in a kind of self-protective civic virtue: the purpose of Beth’s self-improvement seems to be, in the end, primarily to serve the community – either through marriage or self-sacrifice.
While it is true that our protagonist ends up by finding a room of her own, we cannot help but wonder whether its walls are not too narrow for the truly wild girl we came to love at the beginning of the novel.
“Just like the mountains, all jumbled together when you view them from a distance, had Beth’s impulses and emotions already begun to be in their extraordinary complexity at this period; and even more like the mountains where you are close to them, for then, losing sight of the whole, you become aware of the details, and are surprised at their wonderful diversity, at the heights and hollows, the barren wastes, fertile valleys, gentle slopes, and giddy precipices- heights and hollows of hope and despair, barren wastes of mis-spent time, fertile valleys of intellectual accomplishment, gentle slopes of aspiration undefined, and giddy precipices of passionate impulse and desperate revolt. Genius is sympathetic insight made perfect; and it must have this diversity if it is ever to be effectual- must touch on every human experience, must suffer, and must also enjoy; great, therefore, are its compensations. It feels the sorrows of all mankind, and is elevated by them; whereas the pain of an individual bereavement is rather acute than prolonged. Genius is spared the continuous gnawing ache of the grief which stultifies; instead of an ever-present wearing sense of loss that would dim its power, it retains only those hallowed memories, those vivid recollections, which foster the joy of a great yearning tenderness; and all its pains are transmuted into something subtle, mysterious, invisible, neither to be named nor ignored- a fertilizing essence which is the source of its own heaven, and may also contain the salvation of earth. So genius has no lasting griefs.” ―
“But Beth learnt a good deal from her young men that summer – learnt her own power, for one thing, when she found that she could twist the whole lot of them round her little finger if she chose. The thing about them that interested her most, however, was their point of view. She found one trait common to all of them when they talked to her, and that was a certain assumption of superiority which impressed her very much at first, so that she was prepared to accept their opinions as confidently as they gave them; and they always had one ready to give on no matter what subject. Beth, perceiving that this superiority was not innate, tried to discover how it was acquired that she might cultivate it. Gathering from their attitude towards her ignorance that this superiority rested somehow on a knowledge of the Latin grammar, she hunted up an old one of her brother’s and opened it with awe, so much seemed to depend on it. Verbs and declensions came easily enough to her, however. The construction of the language was puzzling at the outset; but, with a little help, she soon discovered that even in that there was nothing occult. Any industrious, persevering person could learn a language, she decided […].” ―