MONA CAIRD

Vita Alice Mona ALISON (1852-1932)

Alice Mona Henryson Caird

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 Novelist, essayist, critic, social reformer, ardent campaigner against vivisection,  Mona Caird believed that marriage led many women into a virtual slavery, limiting their destiny and subordinating them to their partners.  She became widely known after 1888 for advocating change in the marriage laws to grant women greater equality and more freedom.  She warned of the dangers of the authoritarian mix of eugenics and social dictatorship that was to emerge in the next century:

the danger, the evil and the unsurmountable vice of absolute power”.

 

 

Mona Caird (née Mona Alison, also called Alice Mona Henryson-Caird) (1854-1932) was a Scottish novelist and essayist whose feminist views sparked controversy in the late years of the 19th century. Her publications included Whom Nature Leadeth (1883), The Wings of Azrael (1889), Beyond the Pale: An Appeal on Behalf of the Victims of Vivisection (1897), The Morality of Marriage, and Other Essays on the Status and Destiny of Woman (1897).  Mona Caird's friend Elizabeth A. Sharp stressed that though her writings about marriage had met acute hostility, they did a great deal to alter public attitudes on women’s rights.

 

She was born in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, daughter of the 40-year-old John Alison, Midlothian inventor of vertical boilers and retorts, and the 19-year-old Matilda Ann Jane Hector. Too little is known about her parents. Mona’s father may have hailed from Portobello or Duddingston. In amassing a substantial fortune he undoubtedly spent some of his life in Australia.  Mona’s young mother was born in Sleswig-Holstein, in those days part of Denmark, Whether she was related to the Edinbugh legal and trading Hectors (like the surveyor of New Zealand and Canada, Sir James Hector of Kicking Horse fame) remains uncertain.  Mona wrote stories and plays beginning in her early childhood, and was at ease in French and German as well as English. She published her first novel, Lady Hetty, anonymously in 1875.

 

After the Isle of Wight, Mona’s family moved on the strength of John Alison’s landholdings and investments, spending some time at Gatton Road, Reigate in Surrey during her early school years. Later, the family moved comfortably to take their place in central London at 90 Lancaster Gate, now the Thistle Hyde Park Hotel.

 

In 1877, Mona Alison married farmer James Alexander Caird, the oldest son of eight children of the well-known agronomist of the day, Sir James Caird FRS.  Mona’s father-in-law was a few years younger than her own father. Sir James had been active in politics as MP for Dartmouth 1857-9, and the Stirling Boroughs 1859-65, later becoming a member of the Inclosure Commission, of the Board of Agriculture, and a Privy Councillor.   Sir James was a widower, his wife Margaret Henryson, a distant descendant of the Scots poet, died in Nice in 1863 after twenty years of marriage.

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Sir James and his famiy came from Wigtownshire, and his own landholding in that county, at Casencary, he had purchased after his name as an agronomist was well-known.  James Alexander Caird, Mona’s new husband, had been given charge of the farm management of the estate of about 2000 acres from empty moors to the lines of stakenets along the Cree estuary.  The fourteenth century mansion was an oddly romantic range of buildings, notable for its two libraries, and as “Woodbourne” had been used by Sir Walter Scott as a setting for his novel Guy Mannering.

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So on 19 December 1877 Mona Alison married James Alexander Caird of Cassencary, Creetown, Kirkcudbrightshire.  He was eight years older than she was.  In her first year of marriage she joined the National Society for Women's Suffrage.  James Alexander Caird was supportive of Mona’s independence, and although he lived mainly at Casencary, she spent only a few weeks a year there, spending much of her time in London and travelling abroad. At the 1881 census the couple were together visiting  Mona’s parents at 90 Lancaster Gate, along with an older friend, Georgina Clarke.

 

The 1880s were the years of Mona Caird’s ascendancy.  As a married woman, houseguest and hostess from her parent’s base in Lancaster Gate, she associated with a wide circle in the literary and social world of the time.  A generation before Bloomsbury, its way of life first began to take shape around Hyde Park where the future Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf  might be seen in their perambulators. With no real court influence in the decades of Queen Victoria’s withdrawal from society after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 the social life of London had come to be led by a series of society hostesses. Old aristocracy, intelligence, colonial money, industrial wealth and political power rubbed shoulders in conversation, ideas, gossip and wit. 

 

One of the leading hostesses of the day -just a few years older than Mona Caird- was the energetic and well connected Mary Lady Jeune, active in social issues through the Primrose League. Through Lady Jeune and others, Mona became a member of literary and political circles and expanded her knowledge of the humanities and science. Thomas Hardy regularly dined at Lady Jeune’s (staying there when in London) and was soon an admirer of Mona Caird’s work and ideas.

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Thomas Hardy 1840-1928 admired her work        

In 1883 Mona Caird published the first of two novels, Whom Nature Leadeth (1883) under the name "G. Noel Hatton", but these were hardly noticed.  In 1884 the Cairds had their first and only child, Alister James.  With due allowance for her new role as a mother, Mona continued to divide her time between London, Cassencary, and travel, between parents, husband and son, but generally leading an independent, intellectually stimulating life.  Her marriage continued unspectacularly until James Alexander (once unkindly referred to as “No-one Caird”) died in 1921. 

 

After One That Wins (1887) was published under the name of Hatton, Mona Caird’s next writings were published in her own name, a name that suddenly came to prominence in 1888 when the Westminster Review printed her long article "Marriage".

 

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

The US women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw Mona Caird’s views on the subject taking shape:  “Toward the last of February, 1888, we went again to London to make a few farewell visits to dear friends. We spent a few days with Mrs. Mona Caird, who was then reading Karl Pearson's lectures on "Woman," and expounding her views on marriage, which she afterward gave to the Westminister Review, and stirred the press to white heat both in England and America. "Is Marriage a Failure?" furnished the heading for our quack advertisements for a long time after. Mrs. Caird was a very graceful, pleasing woman, and so gentle in manner and appearance that no one would deem her capable of hurling such thunderbolts at the long-suffering Saxon people.” Chapter XXIV Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 (1898) Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

 

In the Westminster Review, Mona Caird was passionate about the indignities women had to suffer in marriage. The relative responsibilities of the sexes in marriage were demonstrably unfair. She called its present state a "vexatious failure" and advocated the equality and autonomy of marriage partners. The widely circulated Daily Telegraph responded with a syndicated series of its own: "Is Marriage a Failure?" which ran for three months and brought it thousands of letters from around the world.  Disturbed that her views had been misunderstood and sensationalised, Mona Caird published another Westminster Review article on "Ideal Marriage" at the end of the year.  In it she looked forward to the day when “a mother’s affection will show itself, not in industrious self-sacrifice, which reduces her to a pulpy nonentity, and generally ends in bringing a child to a similar condition ; but in a resolve to take the full advantage of all that science is busily providing for those who will accept her bounties.”  

 

Essays on The Emancipation of the Family came out in 1890: "Meanwhile, the spirit of liberty among women is increasing rapidly, and as soon as an approach to economic independence gives them the power to refuse, without harsh penalty, the terms which men have hitherto been able to dictate to them, in and out of marriage, we shall have some just right to call ourselves a free people.  It is then that marriage -at present a mere moldering branch of the patriarchal tree- must alter its nature and form”

“The 'contract' can no longer remain unequal, when women have some say in the making of laws which they have to obey, and it remains to be seen how tight and irrevocable men will be willing to make the bond which they, too, must literally carry out”

“In short, so amazing, so overwhelming are the demands made upon the woman, and so meager the rights granted to her, that the sense of the stupendous injustice is almost swallowed by the sense of the stupendous absurdity, and -as fortunately often happens in the study of English law and English opinion- the stress of indignant feeling finds timely relief in a burst of laughter."

"Equal rights for the two sexes; the economic independence of women (hanging in a great measure on the progress of our industrial evolution); the establishment, rapid or gradual, as may prove desirable, of real freedom in the home- this at last would bring us to the end of the patriarchal system.  May we speed the parting guest!"

 

Mona Caird’s “A Defence of the So-Called Wild Women” followed in 1892. The pieces she wrote on marriage and women's issues in these years were collected together in 1897 in “The Morality of Marriage and Other Essays on the Status and Destiny of Women”.

 

At the same time, Mona Caird had continued to express herself through fiction. In the aftermath of the Westminster Review articles she published her next novel “The Wing of Azrael” in 1889 under her own name. It includes marital rape, and Viola Sedley murders her cruel husband in self-defence. A short story collection followed in 1891: “A Romance of the Moors”. In the title story, a widowed artist, Margaret Ellwood, advises a young couple to lead independent and self-sufficient lives. In her well known short story "The Yellow Drawing-Room" of 1892 Vanora Haydon defies traditional notions of separate spheres for men and women.  Mona Caird’s best-known novel “Daughters of Danaus” appeared in 1894.  In it Hadria Fullerton hopes to become a composer, but finds herself hemmed in by the family duties expected of her as a woman to her parents, husband and child.

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Daughters of Danaus -a modern edition

 

Behind all her writings, Mona Caird had been continuously pressing for votes for women, from her beginnings in the movement as a member of the National Society for Women's Suffrage to the Women's Franchise League, the Women's Emancipation Union, and the London Society for Women's Suffrage. Her essay "Why Women Want the Franchise" was read at the 1892 WEU Conference. In 1908 she published "Militant Tactics and Woman's Suffrage" and took part in the second Hyde Park demonstration.

 

She was also an increasingly active opponent of vivisection, writing extensively on the subject, including "The Sanctuary Of Mercy" which appeared in 1895. In "Beyond the Pale" published by William Reeves in 1896 she wrote: “…So that in civilised countries, at the present day, only the animals remain completely below the line; but they seem to be sinking even lower, to be pushed farther away from human mercy and protection, as the desire to further the interests of humanity increases. Our luckless dumb companions are doomed to suffer increasingly at the hands of man, who claims to be their moral superior, and proceeds to prove this superiority by torture and mutilation.”

The question she posed in Beyond the Pale: "Does anyone really believe that our race must seek its redemption in torture, its health and happiness by the infliction of anguish unspeakable?" she developed in her play "The Logicians: An episode in dialogue" in 1902, where the characters argue opposing views on vivisection. 

 

Her views on vivisection formed a part of a letter she wrote to the press in March 1897.  But it was the fate of powerless patients at the hands of men who could exercise absolute power in their own domain that worried her here:

MRS. MONA CAIRD AND HOSPITAL EXPERIMENTS.

TO THE EDITORS OF THE LIVERPOOL MERCURY

Gentlemen, - Will you accord me space in your columns to draw the attention of your readers to certain probable consequences of the Prince of Wales's hospital scheme?  The scheme of course is conceived in the most benevolent spirit; but what would its success involve?  That the governing bodies of the hospitals and their medical staffs would be placed in a position of even more irresponsible power than that. which they occupy at present; and it is significant that, even as it is, so many scandals have arisen o that there is an increasing demand, on the part of those who have looked closely into the matter, for bringing the hospitals more under the jurisdiction of the public.  The hospital fund, on the other hand, -would entirely free the governing bodies from all necessity to consider public opinion at all, and we know that these bodies have been much harassed by unwelcome criticism of late . Therefore their dearest ambition is, naturally, to stand in a position which will enable them to snap their fingers at popular feeling.  Now, such a position of absolute power is one that no body of men can enjoy with safety to those over whom it is exercised, or, for that matter, with safety to their own moral characters, for the temptations to abuse it are overwhelming,  In the case we are considering, these temptations are of an especially dangerous and insidious kind.  Medical men are presumably not more than human, and it is not necessary to take a particularly harsh view of them in order to realise what I can only call the insanity of placing at their mercy a number of poor, helpless, and ignorant people, who are utterly without means of protest, even if they should know when their medical attendants are (perhaps) subjecting them to treatment for purposes other than the cure of  their ailments.  The doctor has his science as well as his patient to think of; he has his name and his living to make; and if he is an ardent student, the temptation to swerve a little from the line of treatment best suited to the invalid, or to allow his recovery to be delayed for a time in order to glean a little wayside knowledge,  must be overwhelmingly strong. And it would be so easy for the doctor to argue with himself that through a little pain and inconvenience to a one patient, he might save the lives of many, and, above all, make some discovery of value to science. But would the public give their  money to hospitals if they knew that it might be supporting such practices? If they render the hospitals independent of their opinion by means of this fund, what hope have they of even making an effective protest against such abuses, should there be reason to know or to fear that they exist?  If this fund fulfil its ob ject of paying off the debts of the hospitals, the governing bodies can treat all subsequent objections of the public to the use of hospital patients for experimental purposes with scientific scorn.  They do so now, but not quite so openly as they will hereafter.  Dr. De Watteville, who, some years ago. wrote in the " Standard," November 24, 1883, urging that subscribers should make the hospitals very comfortable for patients, in order to compensate them for having to be used as a clinical material (he uses the term "corpora vilia ") will, in time to come, have a large following; only then, the I question of comfort for the patients will be regarded as obsolete.  The appeals will then be made for subscriptions solely on the ground that further medical knowledge is urgently needed. and that the beds for experimental patients are insufficient. The trend of medical feeling is at present all in this direction.  Let us not forget the significant fact that a Bill to vivisect criminals was lately brought before the legislature of an American state, and only thrown out by a small majority. The prevalence and awful nature of the vivisectional experiments in America on animals fully accounts for this natural progress of sentiment; but we must not forget that we ourselves have animal vivisection in England, nay, in the medical schools attached to our very hospitals. I do not think that we can claim such radical superiority over the Americans as to feel perfectly secure that similar education may not in course of time lead to similar results in ourselves.  At any rate, it can scarcely be denied that the perpetual familiarity with the idea of torturing sentient creatures for scientific ends, and the sight of their suffering, must inevitably tend to make the idea of sacrificing one human being for the good of the many, or of science, seem less heinous and less terrible.  As a significant sign that many people are alive to this danger, a society has lately been started whose sole object is the protection ofi hospital patients from such treatment.  The matter is one of very grave public peril, and it is sad to think that our successors, perhaps fifty years hence, may have cause rather to curse than to bless the benevolent people who are coming forward so liberally to support what they believe to be a scheme of widespread beneficence.  This misfortune could perhaps even yet be averted if public meetings could be held with the object of rousing attention to the subject, and of devising some means by which the public could safeguard their own rights.  It ought to be possible to take some precaution by which they could prevent their money being put to purposes of which they disapproved, and to protect from possible illtreatment the poor and helpless who trust themselves within the doors of our hospitals.  If only a powerful enough protest could be made, and the issues rendered sufficiently plain, thousands of intending subscribers might be induced to give their donations only on condition that the fund should be administered by certain bodies in which the public could have representatives, and under certain restrictions which vwould entirely obviate the danger to which attention has been drawn.  Meanwhile no stone should be left unturned that may serve to bring the danger home to the general public.              MONA CAIRD.    Cassercary, Creetown, N.B.

-It was not fifty but a hundred years hence that the wave of Mona Caird’s warning broke across Liverpool: The Alder Hey organs scandal involved the unauthorised removal, retention, and disposal of human tissue, including children’s organs, during the period 1988 to 1995. During this period organs were retained in more than 2,000 plastic formalin-filled containers containing body parts from around 850 infants. These were later uncovered at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool, during a public inquiry into the organ retention scandal.

 

Mona Caird was a member of the Theosophical Society between 1904 and 1909. She saw her life energised by twin engines of love and intelligence. For years she had warned of the dangers of a totalitarian, male-dominated approach to eugenics by the few, and -worse still- of its passive acceptance by the many.  The popular writings of Grant Allen and H.G. Wells were not to her taste, with their implied approval of women's subordination to the collective purpose of mass-produced, state-controlled motherhood.

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Grant Allen (1848-1899)                          H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

 

She published a large illustrated volume of on Romantic Cities Of Provence in 1906, but her thoughts were never far from women’s increasingly militant struggle for the vote.  She wrote approvingly in a special women’s suffrage supplement of the New Age in 1911 “These militant measures have, I think, brilliantly succeeded in bringing the subject in a few short years into the region of practical and immediate questions. The public has been forced at least to attend to the matter. Previously it was ignored, except by a few thinkers, and even these placed it in the category of the unessentials. Every other question had to come first. We have had to make enemies in order to make friends. How far all the militant measures are justifiable is a different question, and not one to go into here. But it must be remembered that many things are justified to those who are politically weaponless -especially when they have patiently tried and tried quieter measures for nearly half a century -which would be unpardonable in those who possess political representation either as a class or as a sex.  Alternatives are indeed difficult to suggest for weaponless fighters. Election work seems to offer the best hope, in unison with propagandist effort.  But this has already been done on a large scale. Still further concentration in this direction might be perhaps advisable. The difficulty in all these measures (other than the sensationally militant methods) is that they do not make much quick effect beyond their immediate radius of effort. The papers will not report the quieter kind of work. They want something exciting; something to enable the British householder to denounce “these disgraceful women,’’ and to suggest mediaeval methods for suppressing them. One newspaper actually stated frankly that it was not possible to give space to report quiet meetings and educational work which the public took no interest in. It was only militancy that was worth reporting. Yet women are urged to try quiet and constitutional measures as if this were to them quite a new idea!  If they don’t make a noise they are told they obviously don’t want the franchise; if they do make a noise they are told they are not fit for it! Many no doubt have been alienated by militancy, but in any case the cause would never have made an inch of progress by the help of those who held it so cheaply and understood it so little as to be turned aside because some of its advocates adopted measures which these luke-warm friends happened (rightly or wrongly) to disapprove.”

 

For over a decade the Caird surname Mona was known by in London had differed from the Henryson-Caird name the rest of the family had now adopted and to which she deferred at Cassencary. After old Sir James’s death in 1892 his children and grandchildren had become Henryson-Caird to belatedly honour their maternal connection. Mona continued to write as Mrs Caird.  Her brother-in-law Robert Henryson-Caird was prominent on the Board of Management of the London Homeopathic Hospital in Great Ormond Street since 1904. He became Chairman of the hospital’s House Committee from 1908, and supervised the building of the new wing and nurses’ home in the years that followed.

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In a late novel “The Stones Of Sacrifice” in 1915 Mona Caird wrote of the bad results which come from women’s self-sacrifice. She herself was not the “pulpy nonenity” she’d feared seeing others become, but a woman who had led an intellectually stimulating life. Her ideas about sexual equality were finally gaining acceptance and could be celebrated with other emancipated women in the Sesame, Pioneer and Lyceum Clubs to which she belonged.  But at Cassencary that same year she was also Mrs Henryson Caird.  As a wife and mother she regretted the death of local Private Robert Anderson of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, drowned in the Aegean Sea, age 20 when his troopship was sunk on the way to Gallipoli. The Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser reported: “The death of this young soldier has brought many letters of sympathy to his father and mother. Among these are two from Mr and Mrs Henryson-Caird of Cassencary, and their son, Captain A.J. Henryson-Caird. Mr Henryson-Caird says he and Mrs Henryson-Caird can never forget the deep debt of gratitude they owed to the deceased soldier for what he did towards saving the life of their son at the time of the Solway boating accident (when the "Sirius" was burned). They felt very much for Mr and Mrs Anderson, and offered their sincerest sympathy.”

 

Ann Heilmann of the University of Bradford, in her "Mona Caird (1854-1932): wild woman, new woman, and early radical feminist critic of marriage and motherhood" points out some of these strains and paradoxes in her life: “Judging from her critique of motherhood in her writings, she must have faced considerable difficulties with taking up a maternal role in her life. Whether the nervous breakdown she seems to have suffered sometime in the early 1890s resulted from an overwhelming sense of conflicting desires and duties, can only be surmised. Not surprisingly, she was not considered to be a good mother. There are pictures of father and son; none of mother and child.  Her son's bedroom, although charmingly organised, was situated at the opposite end of the mansion - in the guest wing. One of the few anecdotes the family remembers about her is that when her son left for the First World War, she presented him with a phial of poison, urging him to swallow it in case of injury or captivity. What from her anti-militaristic and fiercely realistic perspective may well have been intended as a last resort against horrific suffering, was interpreted as the ultimate gesture of cynical indifference. Alister James did not follow his mother's advice and returned from the war as a major, albeit with substantial injuries. The frail and timid-looking child had developed into a man who stood for the exact opposite of everything his mother represented. She forbade her gamekeeper to set traps and snares; her son's one professed interest was shooting...”  Mona’s husband died in 1921. Ann Heilmann comments “Whether she regretted her choice of partner must remain open to speculation. Acquaintances of the couple may have held the belief, voiced by one, that because James was "a most unassertive person", their marriage must have been "happy enough". A family anecdote records that at a dinner party a guest once stated that while everybody was aware of what Mrs Caird thought about marriage, Mr Caird's views were sadly unknown. Significantly, his answer has not been handed down.  Caird's fiction provides the only clues to the existence of marital problems in her life. In her novels, she provided a brilliantly prosaic script for marital breakdown: simple incompatibility, all the more tragic for its banality.”

 

Mona Caird’s last work, “The Great Wave” appeared in 1931. It is a social science fiction in which she warns against the racist policies of negative eugenics, and their too ready acceptance by modern women with votes at their disposal.  In her novel the male eugenicists plan and manage their marriages in strict accord with reproductive purposes, advocate the vivisection of animals and "lower" humans such as criminals and rule their immediate circle of supporters just as autocratically as they propose to govern state affairs.  And despite their overt misogyny, they have a huge female following. Prophetic to the last, Mona Caird died at Hampstead in 1932.

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“It is only by love, led by knowledge, that the world can be saved.  We are all actors in this great and mysterious tragedy, and our hope is in each other.” –Mona Caird 1888

 

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