Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t have a favourite novel: then I read The Beth Book. First published in 1897, it tells the story of Elizabeth Caldwell, a heroine whose experiences are closely modelled on Grand’s own life. The young Beth is a bright, inquisitive and loving child who is constrained by her difficult upbringing in a remote town on the west coast of Ireland and then in Yorkshire. Her mother has no idea how to deal with an intelligent daughter and desperately tries to instil in her ideas of feminine self-sacrifice. Like many girls of the period, she is denied an education and encouraged to make an advantageous marriage as soon as possible.
Imagining that marriage might afford her at least some freedom, she accepts the proposal of local doctor Daniel Maclure. He too treats her like a child, however, and taunts her with his infidelities. Beth is able to tolerate his many faults until she discovers that he is in charge of a Lock Hospital, an institution in which prostitutes with venereal disease were effectively imprisoned. He convinces her that the local women shun her because of her eccentricities, but it is actually because they believe her to be complicit in her husband’s dubious activities. The discovery that he is also a keen vivisector marks an irrevocable breach. Through establishing a room of her own and developing her literary voice she is able to become an independent woman and achieve happiness. She is aided by a supporting cast from Grand’s two previous novels, including Ideala and Angelica (one half of The Heavenly Twins).
Although polemical in places, Grand mainly criticises masculine “morality” through the ingenuous statements of the young Beth, who innocently questions the behaviour of the men in her life. Sally Mitchell has written that “Beth from 11-14 remains one of the most compelling and convincing descriptions of female adolescence yet created,” and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve claimed in the past (controversially) that it’s superior to Jane Eyre, and I stand by that statement. It’s a long book (Madame Grand wasn’t known for her brevity), but it should be savoured as a work of true genius. It is clever, funny and moving in equal parts, and I felt bereft after finishing it.
Alas, there is no edition currently in print. But now there is! I’ve just published a new edition of The Beth Book, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor.