Nonsuch High School, London
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
In my story, I wanted to explore the impact of a lack of work on individuals, which is particularly prevalent in light of the pandemic. I also wanted to probe 19th objections to women working, which seem so obscure to our modern society, yet were more grounded than we give them credit for.
I was inspired by stories in the British Workwoman which describe girls who are not allowed to work despite a strong desire to do so. With such widespread loss of work following the pandemic, a restless feeling of wanting to be useful is relatable to many, although the contexts differ. In addition, I wanted to address the issues set out in Dr Debbie Canavan’s article on the presentation of women in the British Workwoman. Mr Radnor’s views reflect those which permeate the magazine: that a woman’s ‘real’ work is in the home and that long hours spent labouring out of the house would be of detriment to her husband and children. Moreover, it was thought women were being corrupted by working alongside men and began to drink and swear which was unmaidenly. It is easy to antagonise the patriarchal Victorian. Hence in my story, Mr Radnor’s views are well-grounded beliefs that domestic life thrives under female care. In the end, Edith comes to understand his viewpoint, and he hers, easing tension within the family – which of course is the real key to happiness at home. In the 20th century, with the workplace opening up to women, society devalued work at home, although attitudes are beginning to shift the other way again. It is interesting to compare Victorian views of domestic work to those held today. My story focusses on the innate human need to have a purpose and the conflict of this with Victorian ideas of women’s work. In the end, it is a change of setting for Edith and an illness which allows her and her uncle to be reconciled, both understanding the others’ views.
Rallying her strength for another day, Edith Radnor set about pouring her uncle’s tea for breakfast. A trickle of sunlight waned its way meekly through the net curtains – even the dawn had lost its radiance. Beyond the window, a bird was singing over the gentle rolling hills, its freedom a mockery of Edith’s entrapment. She ought to be grateful. Her uncle had provided a home and education for her when she would otherwise have lacked both; his care sufficed for physical sustenance, but could not sustain her spirits. Deprived of society and employment as she was, the yellowing walls of his tidy cottage were becoming like a prison cell. Her world had shrunk to consist of the lanes leading into the village and surrounding fields, just at a time when she longed to discover more.
On her return from school, Edith – although never a becoming child – had been pronounced a fine young woman on account of the eagerness in her eyes and readiness of her smiles. Her figure was pleasing; her manners proper; her accomplishments laudable. Obliged as she was to her uncle for sending her to the institution, she could not reconcile her duty of gratitude with the strict discipline. The harsh punishments and strict routines had frightened her as a child. Nevertheless, she had been much transformed in her last year. Beginning to excel in needlework, she enjoyed the praise of the teachers and consequently the respect of the younger girls. When Edith had been asked to stay on as a teacher, she had been sorely tempted but knew her uncle would never consent, and so had hastened home ruefully. How she now wished she had taken up the offer!
Across the breakfast table, Mr Radnor sighed as he opened the morning post, which brought no happy news of his finances. Always the picture of prudence, her uncle had historically managed well on his modest income due to his exact management of the household. He kept a small library and a small squadron of servants. Had there been no Edith to care for, he would have been rather well-off. Shortly after his niece’s return, the publishing firm in which he was employed suffered a series of losses, a consequence of which George Radnor had been obliged to practise the strictest economy. The young maid was laid off, and then – much to Edith’s dismay – Mrs Bisley, the housekeeper, was given notice. A kindly, wise older woman, she had served the family long before Edith joined the household and been a caring friend to the girl in the early days. It veritably broke his niece’s heart to see Mr Radnor give up all the comforts he so treasured and had worked so hard to maintain. In her vitality and youth, she longed to earn an income to help. Still, he would not permit her to work.
Mr Radnor surveyed his niece as they sat across from each other at the breakfast table. Ever one to be bound by duty, he strongly desired to provide for her, yet ideas of propriety and diffident reserve had prevented him from kindling a friendship with the girl. His sister – Edith’s mother – had married beneath her to a charming man rather fond of the bottle, and hence was quite unable to care for her ten small children. Hence, she had asked him to adopt Edith, who had been devasted to leave her family, particularly her beloved older brother Tom. For all his niece’s charms, Mr Radnor was rather bitter about the intrusion to his bachelor life. Just now, he was particularly begrudging towards her, seeing the encumberment of a dependent as the main reason for his forced economy.
The thought of her working – however – was most unwelcome. Mr Radnor’s strong sense of independence forbade him from allowing his niece to earn an income, when his own should be sufficient to provide for her. A woman’s work was in the home, where her gentle presence should be a balm to husband and children. Who else would keep the home in order and care for the family? In his mind’s eye, he saw Edith flocking to factories in town to labour all day alongside the menfolk. Shuddering, he thought of how inherently tender females were being corrupted, beginning to drink and curse. Such work was unsexing them. Although he knew of women forced to work to supplement a husband’s uncertain income, he persisted that the work should not take them from the home where they were most required. No child under his care would be subject to the corruption of this age.
Summer slipped into autumn without a change in the Radnor household. As the leaves fell in an auburn ostentation, so too did Edith’s resolve to be cheerful fail. The daily monotony of household work became almost unbearable: she would spend long hours bent over her workbasket, threading her attention through the eye of a needle to keep it from wandering into despair. She was forbidden even from keeping company with the kindly Blake sisters, her childhood companions, who had begun to work in the local textile factory. Mr Radnor feared an undue influence. She began to feel that something must happen – and soon – to save her from such a state of depression.
One Tuesday morning in November, an unexpected letter arrived for Edith. Her brother Tom, from whom she had not heard in years, asked if she might visit him. Having recently gained a position as a clerk in Clapham, he asked her to keep house for him in his new lodgings. The proposal was an agreeable surprise to all parties. Edith sorely longed to remove from her Uncle’s abode: any change of scene would be welcome but to be with her brother was a joy she could not conceive! To Mr Radnor, the idea was positively pleasing. His bank balance would be more buoyant without a cumbersome niece to provide for; perhaps she would even find a suitable young man from amongst her brother’s connections.
A few weeks later, the coach drew up outside a tidy looking red-brick house just off the high street. Edith was too fatigued by the journey and enthralled by the rumble of horse-drawn trams in the streets to feel much trepidation, as she was shown into the parlour of her brother’s lodging, which consisted of a few rooms reached by a narrow staircase. The tall, beaming man bore little resemblance to the impertinent boy she remembered from her childhood home.
‘Edith, is it really you? How you are grown!’
Bread and meat were swiftly procured; a brass kettle was boiled, and tea was poured. The pair sat in cosy chairs before the fire all evening, and talked of past and present, until the initial shyness on the young girl’s part left. She felt as if she had come home.
The next morning, Edith awoke to foreign sounds: a tram clattered along the street below rattling the windowpanes. Instead of the rural landscape to which she was accustomed, a maze of red brick met her eyes, which slashed the sky into small portions, punctuated with trendles of smoke from chimneys. With a thrill of trepidation, she reflected that she had never seen such poverty and pollution so concentrated. Over their breakfast of bread and tea, Tom caught Edith craning her neck to watch the workers on the coaches. There were women as well as younger girls among the workers, whose eyes looked dull and empty.
‘Every day they pack into those carriages like cattle, which take them to the washhouses and factories in town. In many a family, the women must go out to work leaving children at home by necessity. Edith, I am so fortunate to have this job.’
‘I am so glad for you. I only wish I could have as much employment as you; things are very restricted with my uncle, who forbids me to earn a wage despite his need of money.’
Tom’s perceptive eye met his sister’s as he replied,
‘More than a job, you need society. Mr Radnor is kind, but his company alone is not enough for a young girl.’
Indeed, Tom made it his mission to enliven his sister by introducing her to his friends. They were not rich or fashionable but chosen for their welcoming nature. The other tenants of his house, his fellow clerks, and friends he had trained with all took kindly to her. The next few weeks passed in felicity: Edith was a diligent housekeeper, delighting in caring for her brother. Together they walked on Clapham Common, and she spent a great deal of time sitting with the wives of his friends.
Edith did not forget her uncle but wrote frequently detailing her little adventures. She never mentioned the haggard gait of the washerwoman she watched board a tram, fearing that it would antagonise him further to the idea of her employment. Nor did she pass on the stories of mistreated governesses, who could not say a word against the raucous children they looked after for fear of upsetting their employers. Aided by distance, she began to have a change of heart towards him. She could better understand his objection to her working.
Presently a letter arrived which was to cast a spanner in the works of her blissful state.
‘Tom, my Uncle has been taken ill. He has a fever and fears for his survival.’
‘Well, you must go to him, Edie,’ came her brother’s simple reply as he sat by the fire that evening.
Just as suddenly as her visit had begun, so it came to an end. Neither sibling welcomed the change, yet both understood her duty. Each passing mile felt like the turn of a jack-in-the-box handle, forcing her away after a spectacular burst into the world. The thought of returning to her previous solitude was painful after the life and usefulness she had felt in Clapham. Nevertheless, she resigned to do whatever she could for her poor uncle.
Entering the darkened room where he lay, she was overcome with tenderness for her guardian in such a weakened state and kneeled down to kiss his pale forehead. Mr Radnor was moved by the change in his niece; never before had she shown such affection.
In the weeks which followed, Edith took to the role of nurse with relish. She was brisk and alert in administering the prescribed medicine, washing and caring for her uncle, and the picture of tenderness as she sat beside him to talk through the long evenings. The old man was sensible to her improvement and pondered over it. Where before she had been despondent, there was a new note of cheerfulness in her demeanour. The period of illness brought the two closer together: he came to wonder whether her independence would be such a bad thing. After all, she had done very well with the Clapham society and her employment now as a nurse gave her a new sense of purposefulness.
Both uncle and niece came to a new understanding of each other’s perspectives. The differences in viewpoint, which before had seemed so impenetrable and caused such a miserable situation, were melting away like butter on toast on a winter’s day. Edith appreciated that work could be a double-edged sword: being employed would not take away her problems, but merely replace them with a new set. She also appreciated the security she enjoyed in her uncle’s house. Although restricted and dependent, she had a steady maintenance. For his part, Mr Radnor came to think of his niece with fondness and entertain the idea that she could play a wider role in society, although he still shivered to think of her labouring in a factory. Perhaps a post as a governess would not be such a bad thing… Both looked forward to a brighter future that was yet to be written.