Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bed of Roses

By W.L. George, with an Introduction by Edgar Saltus
Publisher: The Modern Library, Inc., by H.Wolff
Copyright 1919, by Boni & Liveright, Inc

This is the story of a widowed, British woman around the turn-of-the-century, and the limited choices of a poor woman with little education.  It's the story of a "harlot" as Mr. Saltus states.  This book was evidently much maligned in Great Britain as well as the United States, with protests against the author for promoting prostitution.

Walter Lionel George (1882 – 1926) was an English writer, born and brought up in Paris, France. He was known for novels and writings on feminism.
He was working as a journalist in London, when the success of A Bed of Roses (1911), about a woman's descent into prostitution, allowed him to write full time.[1]
George Orwell included him in a 1945 list of "natural" novelists, not inhibited by "good taste".[2] According to Alec Waugh, he was commercially successful, helpful in practical terms to upcoming authors, but unpopular in the literary world for his subject matter, his hack journalism, and his left-wing views.
Wikipedia shows he had 33 novels published.

Much more interesting than the story to me is the introduction and especially the preface, subtitled, "Which the Author would like You to Read" 
George not only stands up to criticism but calls the moralists, immoralists, "for they allow evil to flourish without protest, the evil and the ugly disappear when exposed, they are things that shine best in dark places; thus the people who refuse to allow light to be shed upon the life of a courtesan, upon the factors that make her a courtesan, are maintaining the conditions which are every day creating yet more courtesans.  All this is so simple that it hardly seems worth printing, but then there are more stupid people in the world than most of us think."  His preface goes on for 10 pages and is highly entertaining.

Mr. George met heavy criticism for this, his third book, yet went on to publish 29 more novels.   

The story by today's standards is mild, no sex-scene descriptions of any kind, just illusions to behavior she is forced into later in the book.  He devotes a bit over half of the 321 pages to Victoria's struggle to stay respectable.  The suffering she, along with the other women she waitressed with, is papable.  The poor are underpaid and ignored in society.   Her platonic fellow friend in poverty, Farwell, sees her  job is crippling her physically, while she fights the daily unwelcome advances of her boss.  As a poor woman she must stay quiet or lose her job.  

Victoria finally has another choice and she defends it thus, ". . .A man may command respect as a wage earner; a woman commands nothing but what she can cheat out of men's senses. . ."

Farwell  shows her through a window examples of what will happen to her if she is not strong.   "if you must choose, then be strong and carve your way into freedom.  I have not done this, and the world has sucked me dry."

The writing stands up very well yet today.  I cannot say that about many books written well after this, and even those today.  George is obviously writing about a subject he believes in strongly, and it comes through on the page.

Biographies of royal personages and their opulent lifestyles are glaringly gross examples of a caste system which made life so difficult for so many.  Very few people enjoyed the luxury of servants, clean, pretty dresses, and balls.  Those who did, did so at the expense of the poor, made so by lack of education and as  this book illustrates, the contraints put on women just because of their gender.

This book made me realize that in those pretty movies I've liked so well, I would have been the cook or the scullery maid.