Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Penguin no. 102: Youth Rides Out
by Beatrice Kean Seymour

If Naomi Borden was as stupid as her husband came eventually to believe, at least he did not discover it until his passion for her was dead. As a young woman she was lovely enough to blind most men to the restrictions of her mind, and in the year eighteen-eighty-eight, when Mark Bordon met and married her, deficiencies of the female intellect counted, in the male mind, for a good deal less than deficiencies of face and figure. Moreover, if Mark had not been so impetuous he might have had time to discover some hint of that restricted conventional mind which, though it would have troubled ninety-nine men out of a hundred not at all, was to be, to Mark, a source of irritation and humiliation for the rest of his life.

This definitely seems to be a forgotten novel, perhaps one that simply isn't going to be read again. There are only four copies listed on LibraryThing, all owned by Penguin collectors, and I could find no other reviews of this book anywhere on the web, and no biographical information on its author. In many ways it is very forgettable: it is a rather tedious romantic novel with a very conventional plot which relies on a whole series of rather fortuitous events. But it is interesting as a sample of the writing of its day. A book written by a female author for a female audience, with the very clear purpose of introducing her readers to new and modern ideas. It seems to be a book that tried to change women's conception of themselves and their potential, and to shake their complacency in tolerating what the author clearly regarded as the limiting nature of men's beliefs.

Youth Rides Out is an interwar domestic novel published in 1928 that follows the story of Lindsay Bordon, and a little of the story of his father Mark, by focusing on the three major women in Lindsay's life.  It reads as a kind of feminist fairytale, but suggesting a new and different kind of feminism, one based on intellect, independence and employment, alongside motherhood, marriage and domesticity. A new vision of the modern woman, simultaneously progressive and conventional.

But as likeable and admirable as Lindsay Bordon may be, he is also male, and so his attitudes and behaviours come in for a fair amount of censure throughout the book for their typical 'maleness'. As with the new conception of feminism, there is this sense of the author having it both ways: Lindsay is simultaneously representative of his gender and a marker of a new and better type of man, someone to admire for his willingness to think independently and progressively. By the end of the novel he has matured; he comes to value exactly those qualities that modern feminism stands ready to supply, and fate obligingly to deliver.

The structure of the novel emphasises this idea of progress for women. Each of the three women in Lindsay's life represents an ideal female type for the periods in which they lived, as though they mark points on a line measuring women's potential and opportunity against time. Lindsay's mother Naomi was everything most men wanted and expected in the late 19th Century: beautiful, domestic, loyal, unambitious and unquestioning, with a conventional mind and a willingness to tolerate the sexual side of marriage as a duty. Her misfortune was to marry a man who wanted her to be something different and despised her because she wasn't:
His passion for her died slowly, giving him infinite pain; but dead it was, in the finish, certainly enough. Naomi, still absurdly young, was as lovely as ever, and a sweet and gracious woman into the bargain, but to Mark Bordon she was nothing more than a beautiful picture he had bought in a hurry and for ever after regretted. 
The remainder of Naomi's life is limited and constrained by the fact that he had chosen unwisely and she was unable to change and become the woman he wanted. It never occurred to him that she also had the right to feel aggrieved that there was no requirement on him to become what she wanted. It is the first of many complaints sweepingly levelled at Men: that they possess a certain self-centredness in which they never even question the idea that the world revolves around them and their desires.

Camilla brings to marriage with Lindsay an intelligent mind and a  passionate nature, and an enthusiasm and enjoyment of sex unknown to the previous generation. But she has been spoiled by her parent's wealth, expects that life will always deliver to her the things that she wants, and is completely ill-equipped to function in the modern world. She aspires only to a life of leisure; she doesn't know how to do anything, and so her continued existence has to be supported by other women who look after her: maids, housekeepers, cooks and servants. She is presented as an example of the woman as parasite, and the end result of one of the novel's other themes: the corrupting influence of excessive wealth. This builds on the idea of the surplus woman, one faced in the 1920s as an inevitable consequence of the deaths of so many men during the First World War. But the argument mounted here is that it's not the unmarried woman who is surplus to requirements, but the leisured woman. The modern woman is someone willing and able to contribute.

Tony is the last woman we meet, and she embodies the feminist ideal. The fairytale ending is clearly in view as the book ends, but not quite delivered. The story continues in the sequel Three Wives.

And so it is a novel is that looks forward to the coming future, and extols the virtues of progress and achievement, and outlines the changes required of both men and women in order that the promise of the future can be delivered. The author uses this romance novel to insistently spread the word: change is required of men and women, and of countries and leaders. A vote for Labour, pacifism, disarmament and internationalism are all applauded, for there is no point in progress if future wars destroy all that has been created.




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