What type of novel is this? (realistic bildungsroman, concerned with social issues) What are some of its topics/expressed attitudes which might have seemed unusual or even surprising in its time?
Opening Sections: Beth in Ireland
What are features of the novel’s narrative voice? (shift from third to first person) Which issues seem to evoke the most authorial commentary?
What details and themes are emphasized in the opening chapter? What are difficulties faced by Mrs. Caldwell as she approaches her confinement?
How are these exacerbated by her family’s financial priorities? (husband’s whiskey more important than her comfort as she prepares to deliver yet another child) Her husband’s behavior?
To what extent are the difficulties of a mother of many children unable to manage her household to everyone’s satisfaction seen as a result of circumstances? Societal expectations? Her own character?
What do we learn about the Caudwell family’s childrearing practices? Which of them does the narrator/story explicitly condemn? Which, if any, seem to have had good results?
How is the marriage of Beth’s parents described? What has drawn them together? What do we learn about Mrs. Caldwell’s past and upbringing?
What are presented as the failings of each? Who seems more responsible for the strained relations between them?
Does Captain Caldwell’s treatment of his daughter seem consistent? What causes him to take an interest in her mind and character? For what actions does he reprove her?
Does Captain Caldwell have a premonition of his own death? What admonitions does he give to his daughter shortly before he dies?
What are some instances of the novel’s concern with child psychology? What do we learn about Beth’s early development?
How does she respond to natural settings? What other contexts prompt her admiration and her immersion in inward mental states? (sense of sublime, transcendent, liminal)
What are some features of Beth’s character? Are some of these features morally suspect or unattractive, and if so, what accounts for this?
As a child, are Beth’s actions entirely consistent? What may be some reasons for her changes in preferences and actions?
Why do you think the author presents a flawed and/or inconsistent heroine?
What are some of her gifts? What forms do her imaginative energies take? What is remarkable about her conversation? Her use of old ballads and songs?
Under what circumstances does Beth become self-conscious or depressed?
What is the author’s notion of “genius”? (soul, inwardness, 16) Was it unusual to describe a young girl as a “genius”?
Which characters show sympathy and understanding of the defects of Beth’s rearing? What gives their opinions weight? (the maid Kitty, the doctor, later, the Count)
What are some of the limitations of the education provided Beth? Do you think these accounts describe actual practices of the day?
What are some of the many ways in which this novel critiques contemporary gender norms and the expectations for women?
How are birds and other animals presented in this novel? Which characters treat them cruelly, and what does this indicate about their characters?
What is the political context for Captain Caldwell’s presence in Ireland? Does the narrative include any colonialist/anti-colonialist insights? How are the native Irish people described?
What do we learn about Anglo-Irish relations at this period? Are the Caldwell family sympathetic to the plight of the Irish people and their resentment of occupation? Is Beth?
What is the Caldwell family’s income range and social status? How does this affect the human relationships presented in the novel—for example, their relation to wealthy relatives, to aristocrats of the town, to their servants and to townspeople?
What things are they able to afford? What things can they manage only with difficulty?
What is the family’s attitude toward their own social status? Do you think this representation is plausible? Does the novel critique the class divisions which it exposes?
How are themes of religion presented in the novel? Notions of God and faith? Disagreements between Anglicans, Catholics and dissenters?
What role is played by the interspersed poems and verse included in the text?
Under what circumstances do members of Beth's family read aloud to each other? Was this a common contemporary practice?
How does Beth respond to the landscapes she encounters?
What positions are taken by the Caldwell family, and under what circumstances does Beth agree with them?
What religious attitudes does Beth adopt on her own?
How are servants portrayed in the narrative? Are they perceived as important, or with interesting lives of their own? (some description of the individual characters of Kitty, Jane, and Anne) How are issues of class negotiated?
Beth in England
After the move to England, what do we learn about the original Caldwell family? What are some comic aspects of the presentation of Uncle James and his family?
What is added by the depiction of Aunt Grace Mary? Of Aunt Victoria's character? How do her views differ from those of the others with whom she lives?
What incident prompts the departure of the Caldwell family to a separate home? Why does Aunt Victoria join them? Is Aunt Victoria well treated by Mrs. Caldwell?
What do we learn about the disposition of property which has made Uncle James more prosperous than his sister? Than his aunt?
What expectations for future inheritance has he created? Do you think it was wise of the Caldwell family to accept these and to encourage their son Jim to consider himself a future heir?
What function is served by her relationship to Aunt Victoria? What change does this effect in Beth's happiness and personal habits? What methods does she hold on how children should be taught?
What encouragement does Aunt Victoria give to Beth shortly before her death?
What circumstances surround the old woman's death? What forms of comfort is Beth able to provide?
What do you make of the episode in which Beth attempts to gain a boy friend in Sammy, then beats him up? How old is she at the time? (eleven)
What are some ironic features of the scene in which Aunt Victoria's will is read? Are the others happy at her good fortune?
Do you think Aunt Victoria Bench’s will is very probable? (would have been more conventional to give equally to several or all of her nieces and nephews) In what ways is Beth cheated of her income?
How does Beth's independent income change her relationship to her family and her future opportunities?
What do we learn about Beth's brother Jim's character and upbringing? Is the family wise to pin so many hopes on him?
What are some ways in which the family seeks to retain its class position? Do some of these seem needless or counterproductive?
What are some references to sexuality in the novel? (e. g., servant doesn’t approve of placing a ten year old boy in the same room as his sisters) Would some of these have been surprising at the time?
What purpose seems served by the introduction of Count Gustav Bartahlinsky into the novel? What is added by his observations of Beth's life and rearing?
What incident prompts a close relationship between Beth and Alfred Cayley Pounce? How old is she at the time? How is this relationship characterized, and how does it benefit Beth?
What does she otherwise do with her time? Does it seem well occupied?
What do we learn about Beth's responses to nature? Her abilities as a poet and artist? Her belief in her ability to foresee events?
What seem causes of friction between Beth and her mother? What incident during a music lesson causes the mother to cease her lessons?
Are we expected to sympathize with the mother as well as Beth? Do you think the novel's portrayal of the mother is entirely consistent? What may be some reasons for the former's ill temper?
What kind of educations have the women in Beth's family--her mother, Aunt Victoria, Aunt Grace Mary--received? How have these fitted them for the demands of adult life?
What changes in the education of women/education in general does the narrator advocate?
What finally prompts her mother to send Beth to school? How is the school chosen? What are some causes of her unhappiness at St. Catherine's school for the daughters of military officers?
What observations does the narrator make on bad teaching practices?
In what ways does Beth rebel against the teaching practices of the school? What causes her loss of religious faith?
What event precipitates her departure from St. Catherine's?
What effect does her attendance at a finishing school in London have on her? How does this school differ from St. Catherine's? (designed to prepare girls for marriage market)
Does it seem plausible that her mother would have been willing to pay for her attendance there?
What do we learn about Beth's gifts of musical expression? Of storytelling?
What event abruptly ends Beth's formal education?
Do we see development in Beth's character and abilities throughout this section?
How are issues of religion presented throughout the novel?
Marriage and Separation
Under what circumstances does Beth meet Dan Maclure? What does she know about him? How is he able to win over her family's good opinion, and does this seem entirely plausible?
What are some signs during his and Beth's courtship that they may not be compatible? What, for example, are Dan's expressed views on the role of women, money, responsiblity, his medical practice, and other matters? Does he seem generous? Kind?
What motivates Beth’s marriage to Dan Maclure? Does she express a desire for marriage, and if not, why do you think she agrees to marry after such a hasty acquaintance?
What role does her mother play in this union, and what may be the latter's motives for hastening the marriage of a sixteen-year old girl to a man she claims she doesn't wish to marry?
What does Beth later learn has been one of Dan's prime motives in marrying her? Were there any earlier signs of this motive?
What are some causes of the couple's marital incompatibility? Which of these are related to his occupation? His views on women and sexuality? (boasts of his unsavory sexual past)
What is revealed about Dan's character by the episode of Bertha Petterick? (brings mistress into the house, disguised as a paying patient)
What lies does he tell Beth? To what extent does she justify his behavior, and to what extent does she reprove him?
What are some other grounds for her dissatisfaction? For example, what is his response to her attempts to write? Her desire for privacy? Her small independent income? Is he honest? Faithful?
What attitude does he take toward her conversations with other men?
What role in her life is played by Dr. Galbraith? What does he encourage her to do? How are his responses to her contrasted to those of her husband? What eventually makes their relationship more difficult?
Do you think the narrator/author agrees with Dr. Galbraith's evaluation of Beth's situation? (cmp. the earlier intervention of Count Gustav)
How does Beth's writing develop? What physical space enables her to continue her work in privacy?
What does she tell Dr. Galbraith are her goals as a writer? What genres does she choose to convey them? Are these similar to the choices made by Sarah Grand?
What seems symbolic about her discovery of a secret attic room? Do you think it is plausible that her husband should fail to find this?
Can you think of earlier works of literature in which the heroine flees to a secret room? (Villette) Are there parallels with novels by the Bronte sisters? (e. g., Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
What happens to the promise that Jim should inherit Fairholm?
From whom does Beth learn about her husband's employment in a "Lock Hospital," and what does she learn? What acts are performed in these hospitals, and how are the hospitalized/incarcerated women treated?
What light does this shed upon Beth's and Dan's social position in the neighborhood? Does this distress or relieve her mind?
What is revealed about Victorian social gatherings by the episode in which she visits her neighbor briefly by invitation but leaves abruptly?
How do the other women behave towards Beth in this episode? What do you make of Ideala's rather excessive response?
What attitude does the author/narrator seem to take toward the practice of "shaming" within neighborhood society?
What are some advantages of the new social circle at Ilverthorpe which she gains through Mrs. Kilroy, Dr. Galbraith and others? Do you think it is plausible that her husband should permit her to take long absences from home?
What is Dan's response to the criticisms of his occupation? (speaks of "meddling women") What defense does he make of the maintenance of Lock Hospitals?
Is this aspect of their lives presented fully? How controversial would a discussion of venereal disease and the Contagious Diseases Acts in fiction have been at the time?
What seems to be Beth's attitude towards her mother after her marriage? How does she attempt to compensate for the money Dan had "borrowed" from her mother?
Does she feel grief at her mother's death? Do you think this event in the plot is presented rather quickly?
What discovery precipitates her departure from Dan's home? With what purpose had he begun to dissect the friendly dog, and how does Beth react to his pain?
What Victorian social cause does this episode suggest?
What arguments against the Contagious Diseases Acts does Beth make to Dan before her departure?
What does Beth (and the author) seem to think are the responsibilities of doctors in altering the health of future generations? Might this view (eugenics) be objected to, and if so, what do you think may have caused Grand and other middle-class believers in eugenics to fail to perceive its ominous possibilities?
What characterizes the group to which Beth joins herself? What views on the purpose of literature do they share?
To what extent do Beth's/Grand's literary views and ideals differ from those ascribed to the "decadents" of her day? What does Dr. Galbraith dislike about recent French literature? (naturalistic) Do Grand's own writings exemplify the tenets she espouses? Are there any parallels between her writings and those of contemporary novelists who in fact admired naturalist models? (desire to deal honesty with unpleasant truths, i. e., in her case, venereal disease and vivisection)
Do you find any contrasts between her narrative style earlier and later in the novel?
Independent Once Again:
Why do you think Alfred Cayley Pounce is again introduced? What objectionable traits does he reveal? How does Beth's rejection of him reflect her views on romance and marriage? On the literary debates of the day?
What does she advise Alfred Cayley Pounce to do? When and under what circumstances do they part? How does this circumstance later affect her life?
On her return to her husband for the last time, what changes in their lives does Beth propose? What is his response?
What event precipitates Beth's release from her unhappy marriage?
Under what circumstances does Beth become acquainted with Arthur Brock? What are some features of their romance?
In what ways are Beth and Arthur compatible? What topics do they discuss?
Does Beth assume conventional feminine roles in their relationship? Why do you think the author presented their relationship as having been formed during an illness?
Does Arthur express any opinions which might cause future problems in a marriage? What causes Arthur to doubt Beth, and how are his anxieties resolved?
In what way is Beth's financial status altered by sudden good fortune? Does this seem likely? On what grounds does she decline to return to her husband? Would separation have been a legal possibility at the time this novel was composed?
Can you think of prior 19th century novels in which an inheritance enables a desired marriage?
How will her increased income affect her future marriage? What occupation does Beth anticipate for her future?
Do the closing scenes of the novel provide a satisfactory closure? Are they too rushed?
What are some aspects of this novel which you assume may be autobiographical?
In general, what are some unusual features of this novel? Do you think its reformist intentions are well-integrated with its plot?
Does the adult Beth feel some remorse at her prior actions? How can you tell?
How do issues of class infuse the novel? Does the narrator seem to identify with the views of Beth's family? Those of Beth? (271)
How do matters of region and nationality affect Beth's experiences and identity?
Looking back on such novels as Jane Eyre, Villette, Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Middlemarch, do you find common themes and preoccupations? What are the conditions under which a happy marriage may be expected? In what kinds of independent endeavors may a woman reasonably expect to engage?
What is the thematic significance of the issue of the treatment of/cruelty to animals in fiction of the century? (Wuthering Heights, The Story of An African Farm)
How would you describe the pace of this novel and its plot?
Is the style of this book--realistic fiction with narrative interventions--appropriate for its author's intentions?
How would the novel had been changed had there been no intrusive narrator? Are the narrative interventions consistent with the scenes presented?
What aspects of this work might have seemed most original to its first audience of the 1890s?
"The Undefinable: A Fantasia"
What are some features of the narrative voice and tone of this story? How unreliable is this narrator?
What are some traits of the speaker, and of his pattern of life? What opinion does he hold of himself? How sincere are his human relationships? (calculates expenses of a possible romance)
What are some features of his rhetoric? His physical postures? His manner of describing himself?
How does he manifest his sense of social superiority? (calls his servant a lackey) What response does he expect from a woman, especially an impoverished one?
What is striking about the newcomer's tone and manner? Her departure? Why does she fail to return at the arranged hour?
In her absence, what does the narrator come to understand and regret? (emptiness of his art)
What propels the story forward and creates suspense?
What seems the purpose of the classical dinner? Why does the guest laugh at the speaker's appearance?
How is the figure of the manservant used throughout the story?
What clue to the identity of the model is given by her statement that she had visited Asclepius?
How does the visitor describe herself, and the women of the future? What does she claim must be the nature of any great art?
How does the narrator's view of his guest change? What view does he come to have? (fascination and respect)
According to his guest, what had been wrong with the speaker's past art? What inspiration finally comes to him, or the nature of great art? Of the subject he would like to paint?
On what grounds does his guest leave him at the moment, and how does he react? What has ultimately been the meaning of her advent and departure?
For Grand, what is the meaning of the "New Woman"?