This is a commentary on, and reflections prompted by, my annotated edition of a short story in the British Workwoman.
by Lucas Melo Braga
Published in number 272 of the penny weekly British Workwoman (dated May 1886), ‘Strength Out of Weakness’ is a short story about an episode in the life of a married couple, Susan and Mark Evans, in which there is the seeding of confrontation, then an argument, followed by an eventful aftermath. At its core, it can be read as a lesson, or at least, as an example that could serve as teaching, in surprising ways.
At the beginning of the story, Susan finds herself trapped. Her extreme level of devotion for Mark in itself gives the sense of fear, as she second-guesses herself, anxious about what her husband’s reaction will be to her attempts to defy what is essentially an order. But the imprisonment
that is Susan’s domestic life makes itself known bluntly with her actions, and also the off-handed remarks she makes while narrating events from her point of view: the constant comparisons to slavery, mentions of shackles and chains, as well as the fact that she is confined to her window almost
as if she had nowhere else to go. Even the use of her name appears to be out of her control, as she is introduced as Susan Evans, but called indifferently “Susie” or “Sue” by the narrator and characters for the remainder of the story.
How Susan perceives her own life is illuminating of her mental state. The idea of her behaving like a child, or like a domesticated animal, whicha re repeated comparisons or implications, tells us that she has no freedom, or the capability of making her own choices. Her friend, Mrs. Smart, comes across as the antithesis of Susan: a bold, journey-organizing, forward-thinking free spirit who gets the gears turning in Susan’s brain, but also someone whose very existence in the story – starting from her name – create a contrast that shows Susan’s lack of free will even further. Mrs. Smart is an example of the “Shrieking Sisterhood” or modern woman who seeks to free herself from the shackles of domestic slavery: for the British Workwoman she plays the part of the serpent in Mark and Susan’s marital garden of Eden. She is supported by a chorus of neighbours who watch and judge Susan unseen and heard only once when they (literally) echo Mrs. Smart’s condemnation of Susan as “ungrateful” for refusing her attempts to help her grow up.
In terms of genre, the story is uncertain: is it a kind fairy story or ideal moral tale designed to inculcate a message (as many stories in the British Workwoman and British Workman very obviously are – see the annotated stories on this site) or is it an example of realism?
Certainly the influence of realism is strong. Not only are there colloquial speech patterns and lexical items familiar from realist fiction about working-class life, but social situations as well: the collision of the traditional with the modern, the private home versus the public house, gender tensions, the real threat of accident to life and livelihood, the way small matters can all too easily escalate out of proportion to become potentially disastrous. The narrative is sophisticated, for while the focaliser is very definitely Susan, the narrator also allows us to see beyond her point of view and her weakness, to that of her husband. Both have weaknesses, both must recognise them and both, through recognising their weaknesses and their dependency on each other, are able to turn their weaknesses into strength. It is this appreciation of the weakness in everyone that lends this story such an an air of verisimilitude.
The story has such direct simplicity and even power that one might be tempted to believe that parts of the story stem from personal experiences or observations, this cannot of course be determined given the lack of details about the author: “Aunt Rena” is certainly a pseudonym, and it could even be a man. What are important are the gendering and family positioning of the pseudonym. These suggest an older woman who, more objectively than a mother might, offers advice based on life experience. They lend the story a peculiar kind of authority anchored in what seem to be experienced social situations – exactly the realism that by the time this story was published (around 1885) was so established as to seem old-fashioned by the literary elite. But that is the point: how the style seems to anchor the story in experience is a rhetorical technique to make its message more convincing: women must not act independently of their men, while at the same time men have a duty to behave as adults and not indulged children who have temper tantrums the moment their will is thwarted. .
Yet one also wonders how convincing the ending is. For a realist story of the 1880s the ending too suddenly becomes hopeful for the marriage, moving the genre into fairy story away from a psychologically realistic tale of redemption. How long will Mark and Susan remain “humbled in spirit, but very happy, and strong in their renewed faith in one another”? It is this tension between realism and moral fairy story that enables us to resist the overt message of the story.
British literary critic Gillian Beer (1989) asserted that “literary history will always be an expression of now: current needs, dreads, preoccupations. The cultural conditions within which we receive texts will shape the attention we bring to them,” and texts should not be read “helplessly,
merely hauling without noticing, our own cultural baggage.” (p. 67) Despite the power that ‘Strength Out of Weakness’ might exert on us, it is possible to envision it in a new light that offers a more ironic tone, managing to instil in its new audience an example of how not to behave. We can note the generic clash between the happy end and the preceding realism and resist both, thereby “creating textual meaning that is contrary to the meaning intended by the text’s author, creator, or producer.” (Ott and Mack, 2020, p. 268)
This possibility of resistance is open to a wide range of readers and my annotated edition, which can be found here, aims at making the story accessible. I have thought particularly about what help less advanced readers of Victorian English might need, whether their hesitancy derives from age range or from a different mother tongue (as is the case in my situation). Difficulty with the mechanics of reading is not the same as obedience in reading: ignorance is not the same as stupidity. Even hesitant readers can refuse, play with, or subvert an intended message.
Beer, G. (1989) “Representing Women: Representing the Past.” In: Belsey, C. and Moore, J. (eds.) The Feminist Reader. Basingstoke: Macmillan, p. 63-80
Ott, B. and Mack, R. (2020) Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. 2nd edition. New Jersey: Wiley.