The Love Ideals of a Suffragette by Claire de Pratz
W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. XXXIX, May, 1909, pp. 468-469
This is a remarkable book, inspired by a great theme greatly handled, by a woman almost sublime in the frankness with which she discusses the deepest problem with which the world is confronted in this new century. We hear on every side that this is the Woman’s Century; we hear of Feminism, of Suffragettes, of International Parliaments, of women claiming equal civic rights. These are but bubbles on the surface of the great deep. They are signs and symbols on the surface of a vast and far-reaching evolution in the nature of woman. The eternal feminine is no doubt eternal. But the women whose feminity is their all are being succeeded by new women who, besides their sex, have developed brains, consciences, and a sense of individuality as a thing in itself. The whole modern development was latent from of old; latent, indeed, ever since the fatal earthquake of an admission was made that woman had a soul. From the old conventional, conservative point of view no heresy more damnable has ever been promulgated for the uprooting of the established order. Once admit that woman has an immortal soul, and the whole zenana system, in all its semi-demi dilutions which survive amongst us, must ultimately go by the board. That it is going by the board signs multiply and increase all around us. And in the shape of a printed book I have come across no sign more significant, no portent more portentous than the romance of modern love which Mlle. Claire de Pratz has just given us in “Elisabeth Davenay.”
When woman ceases to be a mere sexed thing, and wakes up to discover that it is neither necessary, nor indeed, in many cases, even possible, for her to become the ancillary complement of a man’s life, she may follow one of two lines of development. She may take the line of the bee and become an unsexed neuter, or she may become more passionately conscious than ever of the divinity of sex. In the latter case she will infallibly attempt to remodel law and social usage so as to enable her to realise her love ideals without sacrificing the pride of individuality, independence, or losing her liberty as a woman or her rights as a human being. “Elisabeth Davenay” is a study of the women of the latter class. It is a veritable cry from the heart of one who, having lived in the midst of the modern movement, has the courage to portray with unfaltering brush the outline—the glorified and idealised outline—of her own nature, her own struggle, her own temptations, her own victory. Elisabeth Davenay is not Mile. Claire de Pratz, but she is Mlle. Claire’s conception of the fate which would be in store for her if, being altogether so charming and glorious a woman as her heroine, she had to make the great election between Duty and Sentiment. The story as a story is a remarkable, almost photographic, reproduction of that section of Paris in which the authoress has spent her life. The scenes are admirably faithful to reality. Many readers will immediately recognise the originals of many of the characters who, from the budding Cabinet Minister to the triumphant courtesan, are sketched with firm but sympathetic touch. The story is interesting, and the only criticism I have to offer is that “Elisabeth Davenay” is a little too much like “The Stranger in the Third Floor Back”—she is almost too monotonously successful in every effort which she makes to enable her friends and protegees to realise their higher selves. But it is not in the descriptions of the social and professional incidents in the life of a teacher in a Parisian Lycee nor in the plot of the story that the importance of “Elisabeth Davenay” really lies. Its interest, and it is a deep and absorbing interest, consists in the fact that more intrepidly than in any other English book that I have read the great question is faced and answered as to the change which the emergence of the soul and intellect of women will effect in the realm of love.
I have called the book “The Love Ideals of a Suffragette,” because Suffragette is the nearest English translation of what the French call a feminist. French women do not adopt the picturesque and somewhat bizarre methods of militant politics favoured by the Suffragettes. But the Suffragette is the nearest type that we possess to the French feminist. They are women who have waked up, in different directions, it is true, but their eyes are open. They see—what is more, they reason; and as they have not ceased to feel, they are face to face with all manner of complex problems due to the increased complexity of of their nature. If they had no souls it would be so simple. Equally simple it would be if they had no sex. But as they have both, the difficulty of reconciling the relative claims of each opens up a great field for ethical and social discussion.. Hitherto, most writers who have taken part in the controversy have been swayed too much in one direction or the other. Some who vindicate the authority of the soul have been apt to commit the blasphemy of denying the divinity of sex. While others who assert the rights of sex have been tempted to simplify the proposition by ignoring altogether the authority of the soul. In “Elisabeth Davenay” we have an attempt to hold the balance even, and to reconcile the conflicting claims of the rivals. The theme is handled with a boldness that never degenerates into coarseness. Although Mlle. de Pratz never flinches, she writes with delicacy that is unsullied by even a passing shadow of the impure. She is a woman handling the greatest of all woman’s questions without any false shame or prudish impurity of thought phrase. We may not agree—I personally very strongly dissent from one at least of her conclusions—but I pay my tribute of homage to a writer who has evidently thought so seriously and who expresses her conclusions so lucidly upon the burning question of the century.