Editions: “A Sweet Revenge” British Workwoman no. 234

A Sweet Revenge

An Annotated edition by Anne Blombach, Nele Leitolf and Alina Pohlmann

April 2020

The numbers in brackets below refer to the notes below the text.

For commentary on this and on “Curse Not!”, click here.

“Clara [1], what sort of night is it?”

“I’ve told you over and over again, dear father.”  “Tell me again, my memory fails me.”

“There was a moon, but it is now hidden by clouds. [2] The air is close, and heavy drops of rain are falling.”

“I die in darkness, as I have lately lived.”

“But you are not going to leave me.”

I’m not afraid of death, were it not for you, poor child, left without friend or protector. God is good; and I dare hope that my sins will be forgiven. A dying man should forgive his greatest enemy. I am trying to forgive Stephen Sexton, but it’s hard. He has ruined me, killed me; I might say ; and if I leave you a beggar it will be his fault, not mine. Listen!”

With his dying breath George Renshaw told his wrongs to his only child. He had had little money, enough to last him for life (for poor George was consumptive) and to keep his child from starving when he was gone; and he had trusted his old schoolfellow, Stephen Sexton, with the investment of this money. [3]

The latter, a stock-broker, had absconded, cheating George Renshaw and many more.  

“We should forgive our enemies,” whispered Clara. [4]

“I forgive him the wrong he has done me; but to think that my darling child should be a pauper when I had toiled so hard to her a competence.” [5]

George Renshaw died, and Clara was left a penniless orphan. She was seventeen, and had been brought up and educated as a young lady. [6] Some friends got her an engagement as a nursery governess, and here her trials began. The Marlows were most unpleasant people, and treated their governess as if she were a servant. The children were cross and disagreeable, and had no respect for the young lady who tried to be their friend, and the servants were unpleasantly familiar. [7]

Now, Clara Renshaw was very sweet-tempered [8], and the last person to give way under trouble; still she couldn’t help now and then saying to herself: – “I owe all my present misery to Stephen Sexton. Had it not been for him I should now be independent of these cruel, unkind people.” [9]

She was not one to bear malice; but if Clara had an enemy in the world it was this Stephen Sexton, whom she had never seen. But she often heard of him, for Stephen was “wanted” by the police, and there were bills posted about the neighbourhood offering a large reward for his capture. [10]

Late in the autumn Mrs. Marlow said –

“We intend going abroad, Miss Renshaw, and you will have to look out for another situation.”

Thus a few weeks afterwards poor Clara [11] found herself alone in Rivermouth – alone in the world. She had a few pounds in her possession; not much clothing, and she had not a friend in the world. [12]

It was a sad, uncertain life, just then. But she had patience. In her enforced leisure she would wander in the direction of her once happy home, and sometimes sitting on the green bank gazing towards the old place, would wonder what her life would have been if Stephen Sexton had not ruined her father. [13]

A Mrs. Wallace kept a small general shop at Rivermouth, and here Clara took a room, hoping to earn a little money by teaching music to the children of the neighbours. But it was very little she made – hardly enough to pay for the room and keep body and soul together. [14] Mrs. Wallace was very kind to Clara, and when Arthur Wallace, who was a telegraph clerk, came home to see his mother, Clara and he were the best of friends.

Months went by, and Mrs. Wallace became too ill to entirely manage her business.

“She must have some young woman to assist her,” said Arthur.

  “Why not me?” asked Clara. 

“You – a young lady?”

“What nonsense you talk! I shall only be glad to make myself useful.” [15]

More months went by, and poor Mrs. Wallace died. 

The business was really worth nothing, and Arthur Wallace said to Clara Renshaw –

“What will you do now?” “Get a situation or a place somewhere, I suppose.”

“You are not fit to rough it, Clara. I am only a clerk, earning thirty shillings a week; still you might do worse than marry me.”

Arthur Wallace was then working at Liverpool, and there he took his wife. A few months’ happiness ensued – and then came more trouble. Arthur, weak in the chest, was only able to work “short time”; so there was not much money coming in. [16]

To add to their income the Wallaces advertised for a lodger.

Presently a middle-aged man, with a great yellow beard, took their apartments. He was very quiet and well-behaved, paid his way, and said little about him or his affairs, until one day, when Mrs. Wallace asked him if he would remain with them long, the gentleman, who called himself Mr. Watson, said –

“I am going to America soon. I have done wrong in England, and sincerely repented. In a new world I hope to lead a new and an honest life.” [17]

Clara Wallace was dusting her lodger’s parlour on a day when she by chance opened an old Bible; and on the fly-leaf was written “Stephen Sexton.” She looked into other books, and there was the same name on the title-page. [18]

“My enemy!” she murmured. “The man who wronged my father and has deprived me of my inheritance. Under the assumed name of Watson, he is hiding her until he can escape to America. He ruined us, now I can have my revenge. One word to the police and this man is arrested, and I obtain the reward.”

They wanted money very badly. [19] Arthur came home ill and tired that evening.

“This city life is killing me,” he said. “If we had only a little money to open a shop of some sort in Rivermouth, I think I should be a new man.” [20]

“And the money you can have,” thought Clara, “the money the Government will give me for the apprehension of Stephen Sexton.” [21]

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” And Clara didn’t feel very comfortable as she said her prayers that night. What right had she, a sinner, to punish a fellow-sinner, though that man had wronged her and hers? [22] She passed a sleepless night, and in the morning was determined upon a sweet revenge.

* * * *

Three months later a man with a great yellow beard stood on the deck of a ship in Liverpool Docks. By his side was a woman who had helped carry his luggage; for the man was weak, having just recovered from a serious illness. [23]

“Mrs. Wallace,” said the man, “I can never repay you for your kindness. Your attentive nursing saved my life; and knowing how poor I really was, you have refused to take any money for my rent. I go to commence a new and better life. But why were you so kind to a stranger?” [24]

She gave him a letter, saying – 

“This will tell you; only don’t read it until you are out at sea.”

With the Atlantic breezes blowing about him, Stephen Sexton read that the woman who had saved his life was the daughter of the man he had ruined. Yes, this was a sweet revenge. [25] Instead of destroying her enemy (the reward was a great temptation) [26], Clara had helped in every way, and him her debtor for life.

A year afterwards Clara received a letter from America, with a cheque for a hundred pounds [27] enclosed. [28]

“I am doing well,” wrote Stephen Sexton, “and I will make what atonement I can to you and the others.” [29]

With this money Clara and her husband were able to return to Rivermouth, and take a shop near the sea. [30] The prospered; Arthur’s health improved, and at intervals further monies came from America. [31]

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord;” and no mortal has a right to be revenged upon another. Christianity teaches us to be merciful, forgiving, and to pity where we cannot respect. We should forgive other; for what pardon for many things do we not all require in ourselves? [32]


[1] The feminine form for the Latin name Clarus, meaning clear and bright, having become popular due to Saint Clare of Assisi, founder of Poore Clares, the colloquially known Order of Poor Ladies;an enclosed religious order of nuns. She was dedicated to holiness and poverty, reflecting the impoverished circumstances of Clara and her father. This given name reinforces the strict religious belief George Renshaw lives by, and is suitable for the primarily Christian audience of Britain in the 19th Century, focusing their values on obedience and morality.

[2] The moon symbolises compassionate feminine qualities, as well as natural oppositions in the world; emphasising the significance of Clara’s role of a woman within this narrative, suffering from patriarchal dependency, similar to correspondence of the sun and the moon. The fact that the moon is hidden, besides indicating an atmospheric imminence of George’s death, reflects Clara’s forthcoming independence.

[3] Poverty here is aligned with the value of his life, that with his dignity and his money, his life is ending. As the male sphere in the 19th Century was centred around providing for the family, and leaving an inheritance, all his gendered ideals have been taken from him. Moreover, with the absence of a mother figure, consumption forced him into the domesticity of a woman who is unable to provide for a child without income.

[4] Clara’s Christian upbringing is depicted here as being the roots for her understanding of the world, as she indirectly quotes “As we forgive those who trespass against us”, from the Lord’s Prayer.

[5] “Competence”, in this context, referring to an income sufficient to secure the necessities and moderate comforts of life, that will not be available to her in the future.

[6] “Lady”, emphasising the privilege of having been educated as a woman; contrasting the ideals and expectations of George, who has no hopes for her, despite that privilege, stressing the struggle of women to proof themselves in a male-orientated society.

[7] The figure of the governess, for example known from Jane Eyre, displays the status of a wealthy family, and is being portrayed as an outsider due to being a subordinate without being a servant, and a childless mother figure. The familiarity of being treated unequally highlights her working-class origin, and devalues her educational background that symbolises the hard work of her father.

[8] Clara’s “sweet-tempered” nature allows to justify the reason for her foreshadowed vengeance on Sexton, and presents her as the moral compass of the narrative. It also alludes to the ideals of the Victorian woman, who were anticipated  to be gentle and kind, and therefore strengthens the ideals of The British Workwoman.

[9] The definition of “independent” meaning not being influenced or controlled in matter of opinion or subject to authority or jurisdiction, as well as being self-sufficient. In this context, Clara wishes to be an equal, and regards the opposite to be unjustified.

[10] Indirectly describing her feelings towards Sexton as malicious displays an internal moral conflict, that is being supported in the next section, as a person that is being unlawful can be debated to be deserving of vindication, regardless of the malevolence of her own actions.

[11] Repetition of “poor” reinforces the compassion that the reader feels for Clara, and help their comprehension of her actions throughout.

[12] Possessions and lonesome feelings are aligned in a syndetic list, placing her into a vulnerable position in which a man would be able to give her financial and emotional safety, and suggests that both feelings depend on one another.

[13] This section alludes to the front-page illustration of the issue, where Clara, looking modest, gazes at “the old place”, illustrated in the corner of the page. It signifies the reminder of injustice and loss of identity, as she is appropriately dressed, still as a governess, in a gown, adorned with a brooch, a bonnet, gloves, and a collar.

[14] Within existentialist philosophy, which we are more familiar with now, the body represents an essential part of existence in connection with the world, and the consciousness as the abandoned individual that is in need to exploit other beings as part of determinism (cf. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle/Philosophy-of-mind ). In this context, Clara is hurled into her fate, and needs to survive by reacting to her environment. From religious perspective, however, holding body and soul together could be a metaphor for keeping her faith.

[15] Characterised as the non-traditional force of female emancipation, Clara is in this instance described as displaying similar values as the New Woman, who pursues education and employment opposed to marriage. The fact that the “nonsense” comes from Mrs. Wallace herself, who owns the business as a woman of the working class, demonstrates that in matters of class a “young lady”, who received an education, is frowned upon delivering unfeminine duties.

[16] “To rough it”, by definition: to live without the usual comforts of life, recommends an ultimatum, made from a male-centred perception of unmarried women, suggesting that dependency is the only solution to poverty. The lack of romantic connection furthermore depicts their conversation as a transactional necessity, as happiness only lasted as long as they were financially stable.

[17] The American Dream, an ideology of individualism and self-made wealth, was a reaction to the newly attained independence of Britain’s Colonies, which is implied to be the aspiration of Mr. Watson. His remorse towards his actions of the past serve as an example to Clara, who is later on conflicted about the repentance of Sexton, as atoning for his sins would attain God’s forgiveness.

[18] The way that the stranger’s identity is revealed to Clara, through his name on his copy of the Bible, is emblematic of the truthfulness of his guilty conscience. This is emphasises by the fact that his honest feelings are disclosed to her anonymously, without an intent to profit from the conversation, as he is also unaware of her identity.

[19] Clara uses her judgement, and her choice to disregard the Lord’s Prayer, to take advantage of Sexton’s situation. She neglects the idea that his remorse is true, and pictures a man of evil in order to rationalize her actions to avenger her father. However, it is uncertain whether or not she would have made the same decision, if desperation hadn’t led her to act out of self-interest; implying that she utilises vengeance as a moral excuse in the eyes of God, placing her into the same position as young Sexton himself, and creating a chain of exploitation in the industrialised world. 

[20] The British Workwoman began to be published in the time of the first wave of mass consumerism, and urbanisation, likewise, was an expanding result of commercialisation, basing the increase of business and labour around cities. With this expansion, a new work ethic, which represented social progress, could be the reason for the oppressed feeling of Arthur in the city, opposed to the freedom to own a shop further out.

[21] Here, Clara’s character shows signs of opportunism, generally attached to villains in literature, for example in Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth, and is a trait that is deemed evil. The mentioning of the government, who project lawfulness and control, convey that apprehension is an ethically appropriate pursuit.

[22] Determining herself as a sinner suggests that her own conscience is not clear because of unrepresented factors, or perhaps she considers all human beings to be sinful. The only contradicting opponent is the personal effect Seton’s decision had on her life, and presents her decision “upon a sweet revenge” to be an emotional reaction, rather than a justified one.

[23] Resemblance of illness of her father, indicated to be the reason for her change of heart.

[24] By narrating the kindness of her own heart from the perspective of Sexton underlines the positive effect and appreciation of her morality, which the British Workwoman pushes towards to create the illusion of ethical women, who uphold the household for instituting a conforming society based on Christian principles.

[25] The term: “vengeance is sweet”, was first utilised by Homer in his Greek classic Iliad, and later revised by Lord Byron in his epic satirical poem Don Juan, which states at one point: “Sweet is revenge – especially to women”. Don Juan was published between 1819 and 1824, and was, despite its popularity, criticised for its immoral content. In the poem it is indicated that the reason for revenge being particularly sweet to women is that men explicitly betray women the most, as they are, from a misogynistic perspective, the vulnerable sex, as women are socially rendered, like Clara, to be reliant on men.

[26] In Don Juan “sweet” is repeated in multitude throughout the cantos, and are primarily in correlation with desire. The sweetest of them all, as he writes, is “passionate love”, which he compares to “Adam’s recollection of his fall”; implying that sin is the sweetest temptation, and consequently exemplifying Clara’s misleading description of a sweet revenge.

[27] As money is a currency invented for the trade market, and constructed to the needs of the economy, it carries the symbolism of value, power, and history, and is demonstrated as being the driving influence of the story, and, as reflected in the working-class, regulates the commodities of life.

[28] The reward for her forgiveness, given by Sexton, conveys the message of the church, affirming that human decency will be rewarded by the Lord. To receive the money through forgiving her enemy, as an alternative of retaliation, restores the equilibrium from before her father had been ruined. This ending recommends an orthodox option to sin; though the outcome of either are presented as identical. This may communicate that morality is complex and individual, as whether the revenge would have been sweet rather than bitter was depending on Clara’s personal reasoning.

[29] Due to her nursing, he is able to make the atonement, exemplifying the repercussions of goodness, and placing her character into the position of a Victorian heroine.

[30] Being able to move back from Liverpool to her hometown, “the old place”, furthermore outlines that the balance is re-established, and improved her life.

[31] America is continued to be illustrated as defending the fulfilment of the American Dream, and reinforces the appraisable work ethic of men. [32] The rhetorical question at the end evokes the acceptance of Clara’s moral determination of compassion, which The British Workwoman utilises to insinuate into the female sphere of society. By not offering another solution to her deprivation in the beginning of the narrative; for example. to work for her income, to demand reimbursement from Sexton, or to rebuilt her life in America as the embodiment of the New Woman, she is placed in the traditional role of a “Lady”, who lets her environment decide on her fate, and whose only characteristics are to be kind and gentle.