The Daughters of Danaus - Mona Caird, Margaret Morganroth Gullette Daughters of Danaus is a good but not a great novel. For one thing, it’s melodramatic and predictable. The villains (Hubert & Henriette Temperley and Professor Theobald) are too villainous to be entirely believable, and the hero (Professor Fortescue, Hadria’s mentor) too saintly. Caird is capable, however, of creating complex characters as evidenced by Valeria Du Prel, a woman who lives the liberated life Hadria yearns for but desires the comforts of life she observes in more traditional women. The ultimate evidence is in the novel’s protagonist, Hadria, who – when we first meet her – is a young woman who dreams of becoming a musician and composer, and whose family is reasonably liberal. Unfortunately, that liberality only goes so far. It can tolerate Algitha, the older sister, leaving for the city and not marrying but two such pariahs is too many, and Hadria finds herself under enormous pressure to marry Hubert Temperley, who mouths progressive ideas but whose attitude – and that of his sister, who’s the real manipulator of the two – is thoroughly traditional.

The novel falls into three parts. The first introduces Hadria, her family and friends, and the invidious social milieu that promises to condemn her to a stultified, wasted life. The second part opens several years later. Hadria has married Hubert and has had a child. She evinces little affection for her son but she takes Martha, the illegitimate baby daughter of a dead woman, under her wing (scandalizing the locals, whose Christian charity has limits). Hadria and the child get a chance to escape these circumstances and they flee to France, where Hadria impresses the musical world with her talent and comes under the instruction of a famous composer.

Her idyll doesn’t last. Hadria’s mother falls ill, and her doctors strongly suggest that it’s because of Hadria’s actions. With all the doctors insisting that Hadria come back to England lest her mother die, she feels compelled to return, which opens the third part of the novel.

Caird piles on the tribulations now, the worst being the revelation that Professor Theobald is the father of Martha and he maliciously takes her from Hadria. For all the melodrama and the soap operatic quality of the story, the climactic scene where Hadria realizes that she’s lost her Muse and her life has been wasted is still gut wrenching. It’s Caird at her best, and I quote it here in full:

Today, for the first time, the final ordeal had to be gone through. And her imagination had never conceived its horror. She was to be taken at her word. The neglected gift was beginning to show signs of decay and enfeeblement. It had given fair warning for many a year, by the persistent appeal that it made, the persistent pain that it caused; but the famine had told upon it at last. It was dying. As this fact insinuated itself into the consciousness, in the teeth of a wild effort to deny it, despair flamed up, fierce and violent. She regretted that she had not thrown up everything long ago, rather than endure this lingering death; she cursed her hesitation, she cursed her fate, her training, her circumstances, she cursed herself. Whatever there was to curse, she cursed. What hideous nonsense to imagine herself ready to face this last insult of fate! She was like a martyr, who invites the stake and the faggot, and knows what he has undertaken only when the flames begin to curl about his feet. She had offered up her power, her imperious creative instance, to the Lares and Penates; those greedy little godlets whom there was no appeasing while an inch of one remained that they could tear to pieces. She clenched her hands, in agony. The whole being recoiled now, at the eleventh hour, as a fierce wild creature that one tries to buy alive. She looked back along the line of the past and saw, with too clear eyes, the whole insidious process, so stealthy that she had hardly detected it, at the time. She remembered those afternoons at the Priory, when the restless, ill-trained power would assert itself, free for the moment, from the fetters and the dismemberment that awaited it in ordinary life. But like a creature accustomed to the yoke, she had found it increasingly difficult to use the moments of opportunity when they came. The force of daily usage, the necessary bending of thoughts in certain habitual directions, had assisted the crippling process, and though the power still lay there, stiffer than of yore, yet the preliminary movements and readjustments used up time and strength, and then gradually, with the perpetual repetition of adverse habits, the whole process became slower, harder, crueler.

“Good heavens! are all doors going to be shut against me?”

It was more than she could bear! And yet it must be borne – unless – no, there was no “unless.” It was of no use to coquet with thoughts of suicide. She had thought all that out long ago, and had sought, at more than one crisis of desperate misery, for refuge from the horror and the insults of life. But there were always others to be considered. She could not strike them so terrible a blow. Retreat was ruthlessly cut off. Nothing remained but the endurance of a conscious slow decay; nothing but increasing loss and feebleness, as the surly years went by. They were going, going, these years of life, slipping away with their spoils. Youth was departing, everything was vanishing; her very self, bit by bit, slowly but surely, till the House of Life would grow narrow and shrunken to the sight, the roof descend. The gruesome old story of the imprisoned prince flashed into her mind; the wretched captive, young and life-loving, who used to wake up, each morning, to find that of the original seven windows of his dungeon, one had disappeared, while the walls had advanced a foot, and tomorrow yet another foot, till at length the last window had closed up, and the walls shrank together and crushed him to death.

“I can’t, I can’t endure it!”

Hadria had leaned forward against the keyboard, which gave forth a loud crash of discordant notes, strangely expressive of the fall and failure of her spirit. (pp. 396-7)

If Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen are the A students in the English class, Caird would be the B student. She writes well enough, with the occasional flash of brilliance. Well enough that I’m definitely interested in reading more of her work. So a guarded recommendation. If you like 19th century feminist authors (or feminist works in general), you may get some enjoyment out of reading The Daughters of Danaus. Even if you’re not looking for a new feminist author, I still think a reader can profit from this book.