by Aunt Rena
transcribed and annotated by Lucas Melo Braga
While a few of the notes give context, this edition of a short story from the British Workwoman no 272 (May 1886) has notes intended to help readers who may not be familiar with the now archaic vocabulary of Victorian texts. For the same reason I have added links to websites. ‘Strength out of Weakness’ is quite long for a short story in the magazine and covers three pages: 58, 59 and 60.
My commentary and reflections on the story can be found here.
Susan Evans sat in the neat little room that served her and Mark as parlour and kitchen. Her work for the day was over, and there was no sign of the kitchen; all the working utensils were cleaned and put out of sight in the cupboard; a bright cloth and some books, together with Mark’s concertina , adorned the table in the window, and everything was as neat and tidy as she knew Mark liked to have it.
“Susie,” as her husband called her, sat at the table near the window where she always sat on the look-out for Mark as he returned home from his day’s work, and was occupied in retrimming her bonnet. It was the bonnet she had worn on her wedding-day, just a year ago, which had served her during the last and present summer without alteration, for Sue was a plain, simple, not a gay, young woman, who loved finery. But she had promised “friends” to go with them by the excursion train to Brighton the next day, and thought she would just “smarten up” her bonnet a little.
Neither the smartening up of the bonnet, nor the purposed trip on the morrow seemed pleasant subject for contemplation to Sue; for her usually pale, calm face was flushed, and her soft eyes troubled.
She was having a struggle within herself; a struggle between her sense of duty to her husband, and obedience to his wishes, and a desire to let her neighbours see she could do what she liked, and was not such a slave to Mark as they thought.
When the trip was proposed, she said she would like to go, but could not promise before consulting Mark. Mark said he could not leave his work just then to go pleasuring, as they were busy at his “shop,” and Sue felt very disappointed, but never thought for an instant of going without him, till Mrs. Smart, the mover in the affair, said there was no reason why she should not.
“I don’t think Mark would let me go without him,” said Sue.
“Let you! My dear, who ever asks her husband’s permission to do anything now-a-day?” replied Mrs. Smart, with a short laugh. “ I don’t know any one, and I’m glad I don’t count any such fool amongst my friends. The men are all set up enough without having us not daring to go out of the house without asking their leave. My husband is one of the best of husbands, and why? Because he knows whom he has to do with. A man is what his wife makes him. Submit to every whim and fancy, and you make your husband a tyrant, who will squeeze every drop of spirit out of you, then leave you to find amusement elsewhere. Assert yourself and be firm once and for all, and you will secure your husband’s respect.”
“My dear ma’am,” continued Mrs. Smart with an assumption of affectionate interest, laying her hand on Susie’s arm, “take the advice of one who is experienced in the ways of men; don’t let yourself be sat upon any longer. It’s the talk of the neighbours what a little goose you are to let your husband rule you as he does.”
Sue shrank as from a blow, but made no reply.
“Now take my advice,” pursued Mrs. Smart earnestly; closing her eyes, and opening her mouth wide to be impressive, “cast off your chains. You couldn’t have a better opportunity than the present to free yourself. Set your feet down firm , and don’t be moved from your purpose. Go with us to-morrow. No doubt your husband will make a fuss about it, but my dear,” she said, with an airy toss of her head, “he’ll soon get over it, and will always recollect he has a woman not an infant to do with.
“We women are greatly responsible for our state of slavery as I must call it,” she continued, stopping a moment to take breath. “As Mrs. Jones was saying to me only this morning. ‘It’s the women like Mrs. Evans that spoil the men, and bring reproach upon us.’ Now do, my dear, come with us to-morrow, show you can act for yourself, and stop the neighbours’ mouths.”
She had seen Sue shrink at the mention of the neighbours, so she once more used the neighbours as the probe that would effect her purpose which was two-fold, for increasing her profits as the provider of the feast, and for liberating Sue from the shackles of the oppressor—her husband.
Sue’s face burned with shame. She had always shrunk from remarks or observation, and now to find she was the talk of the house! A feeling of anger rose up towards him to whose strong will she had always submitted with pride and pleasure towards Mark.
“I don’t see why I should not have my way just this once,” thought Sue. “I’m not a child and can take care of myself. The idea of being the talk of the neighbourhood! I’ll let them see I can do as I like.” Then she said, “I shall go with your party to-morrow Mrs. Smart, and hope we shall have a fine day.” So the money was paid for the dinner on the morrow which Mrs. Smart was to “see to,” and Sue went back to her rooms.
But still she was not happy. A feeling of having done wrong followed her throughout the day; and she dreaded having to tell Mark what she meant to do. She knew he would not like it; would be dreadfully angry, and she hated the thought of doing anything to make him so. But she had said she would go, and go she must now, or the people would laugh at and ridicule her worse than ever.
“Well, if he is angry, his anger can’t last for ever,” she said to herself as she got out her bonnet and began the smartening process; but she could not be her own calm self, she was angry with Mark, angry with the neighbours, and uncomfortable in her self, in the consciousness that she had done wrong in promising to do what she knew her husband would disapprove. The supper table was set, and the kettle singing on the hearth, the room looked the abode of quiet, peace and happiness, and Sue had arranged her last bow, and was sitting with her cheek resting on her hand thinking, and trying to nerve herself for the encounter with Mark, when quick footsteps were heard coming up the stairs, and Mark swung himself into the room.
“I didn’t see you at the window, Sue; what’s up? Is supper ready?” he asked in a quick but not impatient voice.
“Yes, all’s ready Mark. Fortunately I’m always ready. I don’t know how it would be if you had some of the women I know for your wife,” she answered feeling still aggrieved against Mark.
“Neither do I,” he answered good-humouredly. “But we needn’t bother about what is not. I knew what I was about when I chose my wife, if I never knew what I was about before; ha, Sue! how the fellows did envy me when they knew I’d got the nicest girl in the town, who had turned up her handsome nose at them.”
The poison Mrs. Smart had administered to Sue must have been very virulent to harden her to resist Mark’s good-humour, and loving words.
“Ah Sue, I wouldn’t live with another sort of woman,” he said, laughing and drawing Sue to him, but she was not mollified by the implied compliment, and taking her hand away she turned to pour out the tea without even giving her husband the kiss of welcome to which he was accustomed.
Mark looked at her in surprise with a shade of anger on his face. What could it mean? It was the first time in his married life she had turned from him—she had always been quick to respond to his approach, gentle and loving, so good and patient too under all she had had to put up with from his quick temper, and, as he sometimes told himself, over-exacting habits. It was her gentleness and meekness that had won Mark, and that would keep his home loving and domesticated. Another sort of woman would, perhaps, have found her home deserted, and her husband seeking his pleasure in taverns and cheap concert-halls ere this.
Mark was the only son of an indulgent mother whose delight had been to serve, and be ruled by “her boy.” Fortunately for her, the boy was not of the order of biped brutes who do women to death with kicks and blows. His worst fault was a quick, irrepressible temper, which, as his mother said, “was soon over, and then the dear boy couldn’t do enough to make up for it.”
He was undoubtedly masterful, had always got his way with his mother, and had ruled his companions. He was one of the strong natures born to influence all with whom they were brought in contact either for good or evil.
And hitherto22 Susie had been so proud of her handsome, strong-minded husband. He was so good and clever, knew so much better than herself what was right and what was wrong. And she and Mark had been very happy in that first year of their married life which she had heard people say was the most difficult of all.
She had understood Mark’s ways intuitively, and he had been so good and loving; no cloud had yet passed over their happiness.23 And now? Could she but see the misery in store for her, and stop before it is too late!
But as Mark looked at his wife his brow cleared. “She can’t be feeling well,” he thought, and a gleam of tenderness came to his face. Then, his eyes happening to rest on her bonnet, he said, thinking to create a diversion—
“Furbishing up the old bonnet I see. Time you had another, Sue. But that you shall have for the christening—ha!” And a happy smile lighted his face.
Sue did not look up from her plate.
“I’m doing it up for the trip to Brighton,” she said calmly, but with inward trepidation.
“Trip to Brighton!’ Why, I told you I couldn’t leave the shop just now, that we are too busy.”
“Yes; but that is no reason why I shouldn’t go; and I am going,” she said with decision.
“You are going?” repeated Mark, laying down his knife and fork in utter amazement, and staring at her; “you’re going!”
“Yes; why shouldn’t I? Other women go about without their husbands, and why shouldn’t I?”
“Because your husband won’t have you,” he said in rising anger, but speaking very slowly.
“That’s all nonsense, Mark. You have kept me down and treated me as if I were a child, ever since we’ve been married, and made me the laughing-stock of all the neighbours. I don’t mean to put up with it any longer,” she said, repeating Mrs. Smart’s words as a child would repeat a lesson taught her.
Mark disdained defending himself. “I believe you’re off your head,” he said with a sneer, “or just trying to see how far I’ll put up with the nonsense of the ‘other women’ you talk about, who seem to have got your ears. But you’re my wife, and shall do what I want you to do, not what other people do.”
“You forget I’m not a child,” urged poor Sue, repeating some more of her lesson.
“Child or no child, I forbid your going about with these women; the more so now that I know the good you get from them,” said Mark angrily.
“I’ll do as I like,” answered Sue, feeling sure there was at least one listener outside, and wishing to show she was not without “pluck.”
Mark looked at her in wonderment; then, seeing her flushed, defiant, he broke out in a rage.
“You may go to Brighton or anywhere else, and may stay away for always, for what I’ll care,” he cried, and jumping up from the table with so much violence as almost to upset it, he dashed his hat on his head, and went out, leaving his supper unfinished.
Sue’s “spirit” had oozed away before Mark had reached the street, and she would have rushed to call him back, but the thought of the “neighbours” withheld her, and she sank back in her chair, fairly frightened at her work, while Mark strode away, indifferent to where he went.
He was so utterly amazed at Sue’s conduct, so angry and disappointed with her, he would not have been able to express his feelings in words. She was a most abominable hypocrite, he thought, to be able to hide her true character, to deceive him for three long years, two of courtship, and one their married life! He had told her she need never come back to him if she went away; and in his anger and disappointment he felt he should not care if he never saw her again. She was not the Sue he had loved; she was a woman just like many others he had met, who cared only to please themselves and go pleasuring. The woman he had loved was too gentle to say a hard word, and was homeloving and dutiful.
“Anywhere,” was the reckless reply.
“Come on then to the ‘Raglan.’” And Mark went; while Sue sat alone all the evening shedding bitter tears of regret over what she had said and done that day. She upbraided herself for having listened to and allowed herself to be goaded on36 by the poisonous tongue of a horrid woman, to defy and anger her husband.
If she could but have turned back Time to six o’clock, what wouldn’t she have given! And Mark had been in such good spirits when he came in from work, and had alluded to the “christening” that was looked forward to some months hence37 with so much tenderness! What a wretch she had been to brave him as she had done after that! How she wished she had never heard of Brighton, or known horrid Mrs. Smart.
“Go to Brighton? I would as soon think of going I don’t know where! However could I have been mad enough to think of it? I could never enjoy myself without Mark, if he had told me to go; what would it be to go against his will? I should be miserable, more wretched than I am now! However shall I make Mark forget how bad I have been? I have spoken to him as no good woman would speak to her husband, and he is angry with, and will not care for me any more. Oh, Mark, do come home; come home to your poor Sue, and let her try to make you forget how wrong she has been!”
But hours went by, and Mark did not return home; and Susie watched and cried till she was exhausted. Then she threw herself on her bed to await Mark’s coming, and, unfortunately, fell asleep; and was only awakened by the sudden darkening of the room, as Mark put the lamp out on getting into bed.
She did not know what had aroused her, she only knew her husband had come back, was there at her side, and seemed to be sleeping soundly. She would not disturb him, but in the morning she would beg him to forgive her, and would promise, on bended knees if necessary, never again to oppose him as she had done.
She lay awake for hours, longing for morning and reconciliation with Mark; and at length fell asleep through sheer exhaustion.
“Foolish creature!” some will say; what a “to do” about nothing!
But it was a great deal to poor Susie, who was not a strong-minded woman—one of the shrieking sisterhood —but a gentle, loving soul, who was keenly alive to her faults 40 and shortcomings, and who would live only in the love and smiles of her husband.
Susie slept till the summer sun was high in the heavens, when she started up to find the place
beside her empty.
“Mark! Mark!” she called softly; and no answer coming to her call, she got up and looked in
the next room.
The fire was burning brightly in the grate, and the kettle spouted steam from the hob, but Mark was not there. Sue turned with a sigh of disappointment to arrange her hair, and dress. “He’ll surely be in to his breakfast,” she thought. But the hope was chilled by fear. For were there not evidences of Mark’s great anger with her in the fact that he had spent the evening from home, and had let her sleep all night in her clothes? Is it true she had found a blanket thrown over her, that was not there when she had gone to sleep the night before. But Mark would have taken off his coat to cover up any shivering dog or cat that came in his way.
Breakfast time came and passed, and no Mark put in an appearance. The only interruption to Sue’s dismay was Mrs. Smart’s appearance at her door, gay with artificial flowers and bright ribbons, with a crowd of chattering women and noisy children behind her.
“Why aren’t you ready? It’s time we started,” said Mrs. Smart.
“I’m not going,” answered Sue, who felt just then as if she hated the woman.
“Nonsense! And such a lovely day? Just put on your bonnet, and come.”
“I’ll not go,” answered Sue, firmly.
“My dear, don’t be foolish. I understand all about it. My opinion is, that you’re fastening your chains about you. Now, take my advice; break and throw them off at once and for ever! and be a woman, not a child!” Mrs. Smart said theatrically.
“You’re wasting time, and might lose your train,” said Sue, very quietly. “I have said I’m not going, and that is your answer. Thanks,” she added, with an inflexion of anger and sarcasm in her slightly raised voice, “thanks to you and all the neighbours for your interest in me and my affairs; but I should like you to know, your opinion is not of the least consequence to me, and I do not want advice from anybody but my husband!”
“Well, I never?” said Mrs. Smart, as she found herself facing the closed door; “that comes of trying to raise her up! the ‘ungrateful.’” And “ungrateful!” several voices echoed.
I shall not attempt to describe how Sue spent that day, for Mark did not come in to dinner, and the meal was put away untasted as the breakfast had been. Sue would have gone round to the “shop” to Mark, but she recollected she had always heard him say he disliked seeing women coming about the place, where there were often coarse jests and rude remarks being bandied about. So she waited and worried all the day long rather than do what would be likely to vex Mark further, and spent such a day of sorrow and contrition as only one of her nature could experience or understand.
Six o’clock struck, and the room was just as it was the evening before when Sue sat trimming her bonnet, the tea-table spread, the kettle singing on the fire, and Sue in her place by the window. But now her hands were idle. Her whole soul lay in her eyes and ears, looking and listening for the footsteps she had not raised her eyes to greet the night before. Seven, eight, struck, and no Mark.
“I can’t stand it any longer! I shall die or go mad if I sit here waiting another hour. I must go and look for him!” she cried, jumping up in agony of grief and dread; and tying on her bonnet and throwing a shawl on, she started out on what she feared would be a fruitless journey.
“Where shall I go? not to his mother, I couldn’t face her,” thought Sue. So she hastened to the workshop to find the doors closed and locked as she knew they must be at that hour. She stood looking about her when she noticed men coming out of and going in at the tavern at the corner.
“Perhaps he’s there,” thought the poor girl, and she went timidly towards the door and peeped in.
“Want anybody, missis?” asked a decent looking workman, who was just passing out.
“Can you tell me if Mark Evans is in there, sir?” she inquired.
“No, missis, he’s not! He’s not one of them as is often found at the public; but he has been in once or twice to-day, and will, may be, come again, for I heard him say ‘twas no good his going home as his missis had gone by the excursion to Brighton.”
“Can you tell me where I should be likely to find him?” she asked plaintively.
“Well, he and a mate went for a row on the river a couple of hours ago, and it’s about time for them to be back.”
“Thank you, sir.” And she turned away; a great sob that almost choked her rising in her throat preventing further utterance. She wrung her hand in distress at the thought of Mark driven by her to find comfort in a tavern, and enjoyment in the company of topers! Would he ever care for her again and be content to spend his evenings at home, or in strolling out for air and exercise, satisfied with her companionship only, and proud of his wife on his arm?
She turned her steps homeward, feeling weak and tottering from anxiety 48 and long fasting.
On entering the street door she heard a voice in the front room say: “Speak softly; his poor wife is upstairs, and the house is still, she might hear you.”
“I was standin’ on the embankment watching the boat they was in,” said a man in a hoarse whisper that made the words more distinct, “when all of a sudden, I see them right under the bow of a steam-boat , and before I could move my hand they was struck under; the boat knocked to pieces an’ nothin’ was to be seen of them! So, as I knew where Evans lived, I—”
His speech was stopped by a low cry and the fall of a body in the passage, where Sue was found lying insensible. They took her upstairs and laid her on her bed, and as every effort of Mrs. Todd failed to restore her to consciousness, she sent the man who had brought the ill news of Mark’s loss to a doctor.
The doctor came, and with him entered Mark. The boat he was in had been run down, but both he and his mate had caught hold of chains that had hung from the steamer, and had so saved their lives by clambering aboard her.
When Sue came to consciousness, Mark was the first object that met her gaze.
“I’m glad we weren’t separated Mark; you won’t be angry with me here ,” she murmured, smiling faintly.
“I believe she thinks you’re both dead,” said Mrs. Todd, wiping away tears that filled her eyes. Mark had to be taken from the room; and death hovered that whole night and the next day over Sue, and when morning dawned the second day, and the danger was over, Mark knelt by the chair in which Sue always sat, and sobbed like any woman in relief and joy.
“I’ll just go out a little to stretch my limbs,” said Mark’s mother, who had been Sue’s faithful nurse for fourteen days.
The tea was over, and everything cleared up, and Sue sat propped up with pillows, looking pale and wasted as the dead, but grateful to be up again.
“Now, don’t you let her talk much, Mark; she’s still too weak to exert herself,” said his mother on going out.
“All right, mum; I’ll take care of her.” And as the door closed behind “mum,” he took Sue on his knees, encircled her with his arms, and pressed his face tenderly to hers, till he felt his wet with her falling tears.
“Susie dear, don’t be a naughty child. If mum finds you crying, she’ll say I’m not a good nurse to you, and will never leave us alone again,” he said, drying her tears, talking as he would to an infant.
“I don’t deserve you should be so kind to me, Mark. When I think of all the trouble and worry and loss I have caused you, I wonder how you can be so good to me.”
“And when I think of all the suffering my bad temper brought upon you, Sue, I hate myself, and only wonder you don’t hate me too. But I have sworn that I’ll try to overcome my beastly temper, and never as long as I live will I give way to it where you are concerned. I promise you that, lass,” and he kissed her.
“And I shall never go against your wishes, since I know you’ll never want me to do what is wrong. I have had a lesson, Mark, that will serve me for my life. Oh, the misery of that day when you never came home!”
“I was a beast; I ought to have come.”
“But you didn’t know but what I was gone.”
“I ought to have known you never would have gone without me—I ought to have known you couldn’t have done such a thing . You never would have thought of it but for these women. I must get you out of this as soon as you are well.”
“You needn’t trouble yourself about them, Mark dear. I’ve settled them already, and I shouldn’t like to leave here. It was our first home, Mark, and the rooms are nice, and so near your work. Don’t be doubtful of me, Mark! Let me live on here, and I’ll show you I’ll never be so foolish again as to mind what any one says or thinks but you.”
He had never had the chance of a word in private with her till now, when he would not grieve her by telling her all he had felt and thought on that eventful day; how full his heart had been of resentment and vindictiveness against her, when he had felt he would not care if he never saw her again. It was only when turning in the boat he was rowing so recklessly, and seeing death so near in the shape of a steamboat bearing down upon him, that loving thoughts of Sue, and the utterly desolate state in which his death would leave her, gave him strength almost superhuman to spring and catch hold of the dangling chain of the steamboat before the shock came that would have thrown him into the river and into the jaws of certain death.
When on deck of the boat he sat down to recover his breath he saw at once, as in a glass,50 how it had all happened.
“It’s all the work of those women,” he thought, with clenched fists. “What a fool I was not to see it before! They baited and badgered her till she was beside herself, and didn’t know what she was saying. As I’m a living man, not another day will I leave her in that house!” And he had hurried home on landing to find poor Sue lying pale and insensible on her bed.
“And you’ll never blame me, Mark?—you’ll never tell me I killed it?” Sue asked piteously.
“My dear, how could I blame you when it was all my fault,” he answered, holding her close to his breast. “I have thought of it often and often in these last days,” he added in a subdued voice, “and it seems to me now that we were too inexperienced to have such a great charge sent us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have acted rightly by it. In another year or so, Sue dear, we may be wiser and better, and more worthy of one, when it will be sent to us.” And Mark’s eyes glistened with tears as he spoke.
“Please God!” answered Sue reverently, with folded hands.
And so we leave them, humbled in spirit, but very happy, and strong in their renewed faith in one another.
 A hat tied under the chin and with a brim framing the face. It was commonly worn by women in the 18th and 19th centuries. See the illustration at the top of the page as well as the link in the text.
 Light-hearted and carefree, but also, in Victorian times, with a connotation of promiscuousness.
 An old-fashioned way of indicating “the next day.”
 Slavery is included metaphorically in the text on several occasions. Besides the well-known capture and selling of Africans to the Americas, between the 17th century and the 19th century, forced labour in Britain’s colonies was a punishment for criminals, as well as a mandate for some citizens living in poverty. There was frequent connection in the later nineteenth century between the condition of slaves and women: one of the most famous is in John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869). Mrs Smart is implicitly showing herself to be a New Woman and, therefore, from the point of view of the British Workwoman, not a good guide for others.
 The instigator, originator.
 Archaic spelling of ‘nowadays.’
 To contend with, battle against.
 In this case, independence: a “spirited” horse was one that was hard to control.
 Oppressed: it also continues the idea of the spirited horse.
 “effect a purpose” is to accomplish a purpose.
 Comprised of two parts.
 The centre of attention.
 I knew the right thing to do
 Making excessive demands.
 Archaic form of ‘before.’
 One of the main tasks for women, according to the British Workwoman, was to keep men from drinking alcohol.
 The “indulgence” of children is always a problem for the British Workwoman. Here we see its results in how Mark cannot handle human relations if they cross his will. The narrative suggests, however, that his weakness is caused by his mother. This in turn stresses the centrality of women’s “work” towards the perpetuation of society and what happens when they fail.
 Two-legged wild animals.
 Reference to this Christian ceremony is the first indication that Sue is pregnant. It is easy to miss for a twentieth-century reader, but would have been obvious to a nineteenth-century one.
 Repairing, decorating.
 Note the irony of Susan’s repudiation of her dependent status while remaining dependent: that that has changed is who she is dependent on.
 “off your head” is slang for “mad.”
 If someone has “got your ear” it means you listen to them. The usage of the phrase is often critical or ironic.
 Spirited and determined courage.
 Period before marriage.
 “pleasuring” – going out for the day purely to enjoy oneself – was a term of reproach in this market sector. An article in the British Workman (no 25, 1857) tells the story of the dire effects of “Sunday pleasuring”: loss of jobs and then conviction for robbery. “Pleasuring” was the first step on a downward path into crime.
 Either a misprint or an archaic spelling of “Hello.”
 Term of affection between male friends, with no reference to age.
 A typical name for a public house. There are numerous taverns with this name in London in real life dating back to the 19th century, and some even earlier.
 Was angry with herself and told herself so.
 A despicable or contemptible person.
 A show of anger, worry, or excitement that is unnecessary or greater than the situation deserves.
The 1894 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “shrieking sisterhood as ‘Women who clamour about “women’s rights”’ and cites a piece from The World, 24th February, 1892, p. 25. The term had in fact been popularised by the controversy-seeking journalist Eliza Lynn Linton a piece of that name in the Saturday Review (12 March 1870): Andrea Broomfield has an informative piece on Linton in Victorian Literature and Culture.
 To “bandy about” is to talk about something in a casual manner.
 For the British Workwoman, a working-class term used to address a woman whose name the speaker does not know.
 Archaic contraction for “it was.”
 Sounding sad and mournful.
 ‘topers’ are drunkards.
 The pronoun “she” was used for ships in English.
 While “lass” has its origins in Scottish or Northern English ways of referring to a girl or young woman, in the nineteenth century it was often used as a working-class term of endearment for young women.
 Ask insistently.