by Anne Blombach, Nele Leitolf and Alina Pohlmann
This story is our response to reading The British Workwoman, having read New Woman short stories written around the same time. For explanation of our thinking behind this story, see our annotated editions of The British Workwoman stories “Curse Not!” and “Sweet Revenge” and our commentary on them.
Note: we imagine the writer Amy Levy living beyond 1889 and enjoying a happier fate. The story we allude to at the end is “Suggestion” by Ada Leverson, published in The Yellow Book, April 1895, just before the Oscar Wilde trials.
The echoes of the blows could be heard all the way down the street. Or, at least, that was how loud they sounded to Mary Stone. It might have felt that way because it was her whom they were aimed at. Sometimes she woke up at night from hearing them ring in her ears. When that happened she turned around only to find her husband quietly snoring next to her. That was how she knew it had only been a dream.
Mary had been given no choice in whom she was to wed. Her father, a successful businessman from London, had chosen each of his three daughters’ husbands. James Stone was a young carpenter, about to open his third workshop in the capital, when he and Mary were introduced. He was a charming bachelor, promising Mary all the happiness in the world upon their first meeting. The girl was flattered. She had seen her parents’ marriage survive hardships and, ever since she had been a little girl, she had dreamed of a life like theirs. James Stone promised to make her dreams come true.
Two months later, they were married and moved into a two-storey house just off Clapham High Street. Their happiness disappeared as quickly as it had developed. Mr Stone was a man with a short temper and Mary was still adapting to life as a married woman. Her mother had taught her the essential tasks that a woman was meant to do around the house. When she was old enough, her father would buy her a magazine every month, The British Workwoman, that included stories of women like her. Mary enjoyed reading about her hard-working fictional peers, about being a crucial part of society by maintaining a stable home life. She wanted to be one of them and tried her hardest to meet the expectations of her husband. For Mr Stone, this wasn’t enough.
One night, Mr Stone had arrived home from work, the lines on his young face telling a tale of hardship. Mary had already prepared dinner, not knowing how bad her husband’s mood would be this time. She had taken all the precautions; she had checked the turkey in the oven every five minutes, scared of it burning or being undercooked. She had poked each potato with a fork, making sure they were soft enough inside but still firm to the bite, just like Mr Stone liked them.
“There you go, dear.” Mary said, setting a plate down in front of her husband. She would always wait for him to take his first bite before settling down in front of her own dinner. Too many times, she had had to get up again and run to the kitchen because there had been something wrong.
She was watching Mr Stone anxiously. He loaded his fork with potatoes and a piece of turkey, putting it in his mouth and chewing slowly. Mary held her breath, as always. Mr Stone closed his eyes. Mary could never read his face.
“How many times” began Mr Stone quietly, getting louder with each word, “does it take you to get those bloody potatoes right?” He looked up at his wife with a fury in his eyes that she knew all too well.
“You know how hard I work every day and this is the one thing you have to do! A decent dinner for your husband, why is that so difficult for you? You are no good for anything!”
He was shouting now. Mary looked at the floor, bracing herself for the blows that her body was to receive next. She felt James’ flat hand hit her cheek and how it started burning. The next punch was directed at her stomach which made her groan and bend over in pain.
“I cannot believe that you are making me do this after the day I have had.” Mr Stone said, while continuing to throw his fists at her. Mary was ducking away, trying to escape while knowing that there was no escape for her. She was stumbling backwards, edging closer to the door.
“Get out of here!” Mr Stone shouted, opening the front door and pushing Mary onto the cold pavement. She hit the floor and heard the door slam shut with force. Hot tears were streaming down her bruised face and she was shaking. Hurting even more than the blows to her body was the guilt that she felt creeping up her neck. She had failed as a wife and as a woman. She had nothing in common with the women in her magazine. They were strong and here she was, weak and injured in the dark street, all alone. James was right, she wasn’t good for anything. She was worthless.
Slowly, she tried to get up, making sure not to make too much noise. Although her body was in pain, her legs didn’t betray her. She stood up shakily, trying to brush off the dirt on her dress with her hands. She looked around. It was the evening, all of the neighbours were in their houses having dinner, there was nobody on the streets. Where was she to go? Her parents lived all the way in Walworth, making it impossible for Mary to travel through the night by foot. Her father was not likely to let her in anyway. Her only option was to wait on her doorstep. She untied her apron, folded it neatly and laid it on the ground as a cushion to sit on. There was not much hope that Mr Stone would let her in again, at least not tonight. Mary could almost hear the neck of the whiskey bottle clink on the rim of the glass. Her failure to stop him drinking was another way she was different from the heroines in Workwoman.
It was a cold November night. Mary wrapped her arms around herself, trying to protect herself from the biting autumnal breeze that was blowing through the streets. It was whirling up the rubbish of the capital, loose paper bags and ends of cigarettes that had been smoked hours, if not days, earlier.
Suddenly, something caught Mary’s eye: a piece of paper that had something written on it. She got from the doorstep and tried to pick it up. The wind kept playing a game with her, snapping it from her grasp at the last second. She leapt forward, her aching body forgotten for just a moment. She grabbed it.
She stepped closer towards a streetlight, squinting her eyes to make out the letters on the crinkled page. Mary had learned how to read at a young age but the darkness and her trembling hands made it hard to decipher the text.
The page didn’t have a headline. It seemed to be an extract from a longer story. On closer inspection, Mary could see that the page seemed to have been ripped out of a notebook. She could not make out what the story was about but something caught her eye. It seemed to be told from a woman’s perspective as she meets and dines with a man she is attracted to. Something about it seemed odd to Mary, though; she had never read anything like it, certainly not in her magazines. It felt outrageous. The woman telling the story seemed to be rude and judging: not typical lady’s features, especially not if she wanted to impress a man.
“I think you have something that belongs to me.”
Mary jumped. She looked up into the face of a woman with dark hair that was about her age. She was carrying a small bag in one hand and held out the other.
“Well?” said the woman, nodding towards the paper in Mary’s hand.
“Oh,” she said and handed the page to the stranger. “I am terribly sorry, I just saw this flying about and it caught my attention, so I -”
The woman smiled. “Not to worry. Thank you for picking it up.”
That was when the woman noticed the injuries on Mary’s face.
“Good God, what happened to you?”
Mary looked down. She felt embarrassed.
“Oh, I just fell.” It was the excuse she had used so many times before whenever her mother spotted a bruise on her.
The woman eyed her closely. It must have been a confusing sight for her: Mary was dressed well enough to not be considered homeless yet she was out on the street by herself in housewife’s clothes at dinner time, with dirt and bruises all over her, still shaking like a leaf.
“Where do you live?” The woman sounded concerned. Mary pointed towards the house they were standing in front of. The woman looked up and saw the lights on in the window. Did she know what was going on, Mary wondered. How could she?
“Amy Levy,” said the woman after a moment and held out her hand again.
Mary looked at it for a moment.
“Mary Stone.” The woman’s hand was warm, despite the cold night. Her smile made Mary forget her physical and emotional pain for just a second.
“Miss Stone, what are you doing out here all by yourself on this cold night?” Miss Levy asked.
Mary hesitated. She could not possibly tell this strange woman the truth. After all, she could have asked her the same question.
“Good God, you are shaking like leaves on a London plane. Come, let me bring you somewhere warm.” Miss Levy put her arm around Mary, leading her into the High Street. After a few meters, they stopped.
“This is my parents’ house,” Miss Levy said, and opened the door. Mary followed her. Inside the house did not look so very different from her own. When they had reached the kitchen, Miss Levy motioned for Mary to sit down at the big oak table in the middle of the room and, after serving up two glasses of water, settled in across from her.
“Tell me why are you so nice to me? I am but a stranger to you.” Mary said after a moment.
“You seemed to be in despair. What kind of person would I be to leave you in the cold night all by yourself?”
Mary smiled shyly. She had never experienced such hospitality from a stranger before. She waited for an uncomfortable feeling or even fear to settle in her bones, but somehow Miss Levy had a calming effect on her.
“You have been so kind to me, how can I ever repay you?” asked Mary.
“Nonsense, I don’t need any reward. It is my duty as a woman to help other women. We have to stand together,” Miss Levy replied.
Mary was confused and not sure what Miss Levy meant. One question did hang on her lips, however, and she had to ask it.
“What is that story about?” she asked, nodding towards the small bag that Miss Levy had set down on the table and that Mary suspected contained the accompanying pages to the one she had found.
“It is a story of a friend of mine. Did you like it?” Amy sounded excited.
“I am not sure. It is certainly not something I have read before.”
“What is it that you normally read then?”
“The British Workwoman. My father first bought it for me. Now my husband…” Mary swallowed. “He normally brings it home every month.”
“Oh, my dear Miss Stone!” Miss Levy exclaimed with a worried look on her face.
“I don’t understand.” The more Miss Levy spoke, the more confused Mary became. How could a woman not be longing for a life as described in the magazine?
“Oh, I cannot help but pity you.” Amy replied, “but it does make sense to me.” Her eyes rested on Mary’s dirty dress for a moment.
Mary felt something that could only be identified as offense. “I beg your pardon?”
Miss Levy beamed a sympathetic smile at her. “My dear Miss Stone, that magazine embodies everything that is wrong with our society. It is degrading and frankly, offensive. You have fallen victim to this system and that is why you like this kind of literature.”
“I don’t understand, I…what do you mean? There is nothing wrong with our society!” Mary exclaimed, feeling her eyes fill with tears. Deep down she knew exactly what Miss Levy was referring to, but she did not want to admit it to herself, and even less to this strange woman.
“You did not fall, did you?” Miss Levy asked.
“What? I…yes, I did…I mean…” The words had left her.
“Your husband, I assume?”
Mary nodded slowly. A tear was falling down her cheek.
“Then why do you stay? Why do you still cook him dinner and care for him?”
Miss Levy’s tone was so serious, it made Mary laugh.
“What choice do I have?” She replied. “I am not very good at it after all, so it all makes sense.”
“Oh, Miss Stone. Can’t you see it? You are being used!” Miss Levy grabbed onto Mary’s arms as if she wanted to shake her.
“What? Nonsense! I am doing my part. I am being a wife, as God wants me to be. It is my duty to maintain the household. It – empowers me,” Mary said confidently as she thought of the women in her magazine, and trying to use a word she thought would make her sound impressive.
“Can’t you see it, Miss Stone? This is how they want you to feel. That way they can have control over you. And look where it led you.” Miss Levy carefully reached for the bruise on Mary’s cheek. Mary flinched.
“I deserved it. I am a woman who is failing at her duties to her husband and society.” Mary said quietly.
“And this is where you are wrong, my dear Mary. You do not deserve any of this.”
Mary felt the words reach not only her ears but also her heart.
“I can tell you are an intelligent woman that has been told all her life what she is to do with her life. Find a husband, take care of him and the household and never object. But that is not all there is.”
Mary thought about that for a moment. Miss Levy was, perhaps, not wrong.
“What about the woman in your story?” She asked.
“What, Cissy? Oh dear, he is a boy!” Miss Levy laughed.
“But he is talking to a man and seems to be attracted to him. Did I get it wrong?”
“No, you are absolutely right, my dear Mary.” The wide grin on Miss Levy’s face would have been contagious had it not been for Mary’s utter confusion. She was not sure what to say.
“I know that is not something that is possible in your world but it is mine. And it should be in everyone’s world.” Mary thought she could almost make out a sad tone in the other woman’s voice.
“But it’s illegal,” Mary said quietly, instantly regretting her words. Amy’s eyes were now shadowed with pain.
“Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”
Mary did not want to seem rude, so she agreed. What did she have to lose? Miss Levy shuffled around in her bag and pulled out a small sheaf of papers. She browsed through them until she found what she was looking for. She cleared her throat and gave Mary one more of her lovely smiles.
The image which heads this page is of Amy Levy.