What do you do when you realize you’re reading a book only because you “should”? I had high hopes for The Beth Book, a Virago Modern Classic first published in 1897 and billed as “the story of all Victorian women who rebelled against the conventions imposed upon their sex.” Oh yeah, that’s right up my street. Bring it on!
Sadly, this autobiographical novel suffered from a dialogue-heavy style that insisted on telling, not showing. The story opens the day before Beth’s birth, and author Sarah Grand wastes no time showing her reader the reality of women’s lives in the late 19th century. Of Beth’s mother, she writes:
She was weak and ill and anxious, the mother of six children already, and about to produce a seventh on an income that would have been insufficient for four. It was a reckless thing for a delicate woman to do, but she never thought of that. She lived in the days when no one thought of the waste of women in this respect, and they had not begun to think for themselves. (p. 1)
Later, when Beth is old enough for school, Grand tells us how society felt about women’s education:
The education of children was a more serious matter, however — a matter of principle, in fact, as opposed to a matter of taste. Mrs. Caldwell had determined to give her boys a good start in life. In order to do this on her very limited income, she was obliged to exercise the utmost self-denial, and even with that, there would be little or nothing left to spend on the girls. This, however, did not seem to Mrs. Caldwell to be a matter of much importance. It is customary to sacrifice the girls of a family to the boys; to give them no educational advantages, and then to jeer at them for their ignorance and silliness. (p. 114)
At each milestone in Beth’s life, Grand makes points about societal conventions, the constraints women faced every day, and the views men held about women. This was probably revolutionary in its day, but oh my, it just took her forever to tell a story. Notice in the quotes above, that after 100 pages Beth is only just starting school. The “blurb” on the back cover promises a romantic story of a bad marriage and Beth’s eventual escape to “a room of her own, a career of her own and to a man who loves her for the New Woman she becomes,” but first we have slog through a narrative describing “this happened, and then this, and then this.” After 300 pages the bad marriage is finally upon us, but there are still 225 pages to go before the book delivers the promise on the back cover.
When I realized the writing wasn’t working for me, I tried to focus on the message, and the courage that writing and publishing The Beth Book required. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to turn this novel into a pleasant reading experience.