Saturday 4 June 2022

The 1922 Committee and Cicely Hamilton

The 1922 committee is the parliamentary committee to which Tory MPs send letters if they want to ditch Johnson. (Emails? I think not: letters written with quills on parchment more likely, but I’m not a Tory MP so I don’t know the etiquette.) The best-known members of the literary 1922 committee are T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, who in that year both published modernist masterpieces that changed … Changed what, exactly? This post celebrates the centenary of a little-known but remarkable novel by Cicely Hamilton, and also her book on men–women relations. The texts are from my 2019 book on Robinson Crusoe (hence the references to Defoe and Crusoe).

Theodore Savage (1922) by Cicely Hamilton – who worked in military hospitals in France throughout the 1914–18 war and saw what happens when bombs are dropped from the air and poison gas is released […] Theodore Savage is a civil servant who works ‘without urgence, for limited hours, in a room that looked on Whitehall’, and is knowledgeable about music and art (‘his treasured Fragonard and his bell-toned Georgian wine-glasses’). He falls in love with his boss’s daughter and, ‘red to the ears and stammering platitudes’, he asks her father’s permission to marry her in, where else, the library, while daring to hope that this father will not ‘insist upon too lengthy an engagement’. His timing is not good. The world’s dominant political organisation, a kind of gentlemen’s club of the wealthiest nations, miscalculates its response to a challenge to its authority, and war breaks out. This is war as enabled by the new technology: ‘displacement of population, not victory in the field, became the real military objective’. Driven from the cities by aerial bombardment, starving millions roam the countryside, where crops and livestock are destroyed by chemical weapons. Within weeks, the structure of society – ‘laws, systems, habits of body and mind’ – has crumbled, ‘leaving nothing but animal fear and the animal need to be fed’. ‘Man, with bewildering rapidity, was slipping through the stages whereby, through the striving of long generations, he had raised himself from primitive barbarism.’

With survival now depending on brute force, women fare badly, and ‘those women suffered most who had no man of their own to forage and fend for them, and were no longer young enough for other men to look on with pleasure’. One of these women, Ada, a former factory worker, attaches herself to Savage. The pair become a mocking echo of Crusoe and Friday (and Hamilton’s exposition of their relationship is far more acute than the saccharine version of master-and-servant in Defoe’s novel). Savage treats Ada ‘as a backward child’, ‘an encumbrance’; only after he returns one day from a foraging expedition with some women’s clothes, which she delights in, does he become aware of her as a sexual being. But they cannot enjoy each other as equals: Ada is ‘flaccid, lazy, infantile of mind’ and Savage cannot get beyond his awareness that Ada is ‘so plainly his mental inferior’. Savage beats her (‘she wriggled, plunged and howled’); she accepts the beating; she expects the beating. Only by physically acting out the power imbalance between them can they live together, forging a bond that accords with ‘the barbaric institution of marriage’ and its traditions ‘of wifely obedience’.

Savage and Ada, now pregnant, are absorbed into a ragged tribe of survivors bound together ‘not by the love its members bore to each other, but by hatred and fear of the outsider’. Before he is accepted, Savage is questioned about his background. Because in this post-apocalypse world all links to the science and engineering that have enabled the Ruin are being cut – knowledge is being undone, a revenge upon ‘progress’ – Theodore Savage, educated at a public school and then Oxford, proficient in Latin and possessing impeccable good taste, is permitted to live only because in the pre-Ruin society he spent all his working life in admin, writing letters and reports and filing them, and has no specialist skills and is essentially useless.


Writing about sex often involves writing about status, power and money. Defoe was interested in all of these, and in the links between them. Walter de la Mare, noting Defoe’s worldliness, remarks that he ‘was fully as much interested in wives as in tradesmen’ – an odd pairing, on the face of it, but a telling one. Defoe was himself a tradesman – at various times he sold wine, hosiery, woollen goods and tobacco; he owned a factory that made bricks and tiles; he bred civet cats for perfume; he invested in a diving bell to recover treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons; and he wrote extensively on the subject. Writing, for Defoe, was a trade. Trade was how a man made his way in the world and, in this early capitalist society and for more than two centuries after, a woman too – although for the latter the almost exclusive means of advancement was founded upon surrender.

In Marriage as a Trade – published in 1909, in the same decade that Thomas Godolphin Rooper was bleating about ‘the dominion of the Anglo-Saxon’ and a Cambridge University Press edition of Robinson Crusoe was celebrating Britain as ‘the greatest colonizing power in the world’ – Cicely Hamilton argues that for women denied access to both education and employment, marriage is the compulsory deal made for economic survival. She was writing mostly about middle-class women (‘a class persistently set apart for the duties of sexual attraction, house-ordering and the bearing of children’), not factory workers like Ada in her novel Theodore Savage and not ‘the prostitute class – a class which has pushed to its logical conclusion the principle that woman exists by virtue of a wage paid her in return for the possession of her person’. Hamilton was of her time (as I am of mine) in some of her assumptions: that women are more ‘fastidious’ in sex than men; that child-raising and fulfilment in work are incompatible. But she nailed it, the basic contract of marriage: ‘essentially (from the woman’s point of view) a commercial or trade undertaking’. Denied fulfilment of her own interests, it was demanded of a woman only ‘that she should enkindle and satisfy the desire of the male, who would thereupon admit her to such share of the property he possessed or earned as should seem good to him. In other words, she exchanged, by the ordinary process of barter, possession of her person for the means of existence.’

Chapter by chapter, Hamilton explores the consequences of women being raised solely to become ‘unintelligent breeding-machines’ who are ‘fed and lodged on the same principle a horse is fed and lodged – so that she may do her work, her cooking, her cleaning, her sewing, and the tending and rearing of her children’. None of those activities is more ‘naturally’ women’s work than men’s: ‘woman, as we know her today,’ Hamilton argues, ‘is largely a manufactured product; the particular qualities which are supposed to be inherent in her and characteristic of her sex are often enough nothing more than the characteristics of a repressed class and the entirely artificial result of her surroundings and training.’ The whole pattern is bizarre and illogical: women are trained for ‘sex and motherhood’ but about sex itself and the risk of STDs ‘there exists a conspiracy of silence’; and the constrictions imposed upon women ‘have defeated their own ends by discouraging the intelligence which ought to be a necessary qualification for motherhood, even if it is not a necessary qualification for wifehood’. But power trumps logic, power owns logic: given ‘the deep-rooted masculine conviction that [woman] exists not for her own benefit and advantage, but for the comfort and convenience of man’, then ‘The masculine attitude in this matter seems quite logical.’

‘One wonders,’ writes Hamilton calmly but also with anger, ‘what it has meant for the race – this persistent need of the man to despise his wife, this economic need of countless women to arrest their mental growth?’ Nine years after Marriage as a Trade was published the right to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK was granted to women (aged over 30, and there were other limitations), but Hamilton’s question has still not been addressed.

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