In Sydney Grier’s Victorian novel about a New Woman doctor, Peace with Honour, Grier plays with gender identity in ways only subtly hinted at in popular Victorian fiction and media at the time. While most depictions of the New Woman were focused on her supposed lack of femininity, Grier’s novel also played with reader’s notions of how to define masculinity in the modern Victorian man.
To understand the fluidity of gender identity that Grier proposes in her novel, we can look at the ways in which the omniscient narrator describes Grier’s protagonists. At the opening of Peace with Honour, gender roles are disrupted when Dick North, celebrated military hero, is taken by his sister to the women’s hospital where she has been volunteering. The hospital, which is “manned entirely by women” (Grier 5), is a setting in which gender roles can be reversed, not only for the women and patrons who are doing “men’s work” by governing the hospital but also the men who are taken to the hospital to socialize and observe. While on a tour of the hospital, Dick observes that, “All the men here look as though they had been brought by their lady friends” (Grier 5). Because Dick’s sister has spoken so highly of his accomplishments to the hospital’s staff and patients, they see him as their “personal property” (Grier 4). Throughout the visit, Dick expresses displeasure at the idea of a woman-run hospital and women physicians, yet it is here where Dick runs into his childhood sweetheart, Dr. Georgia Keeling, reigniting his love for her. Dick fondly recalls the photo he has of Georgia in which she “appeared…with short hair, which made her look like a very nice boy” (Grier 16). While I want to return to the potential for a queer reading of the novel, such descriptions of Georgia in her youth may be meant to be more endearing than unsettling. In her 1894 essay on the New Woman, Sarah Grand suggests, in a positive light, that there is “a wee dash of boy in her to relieve the insipidity, but all that is not boy is gentlewoman” (672). Grand and Grier seem to be arguing for the gender fluidity of the New Woman, but to what end is unclear. Comparing Georgia, or any New Woman, to a boy nevertheless infantilizes her, even if the intention is complimentary and suggestive of her carefree personality. To infantilize the New Woman, or woman doctor, was to disarm her.
During a tete-a-tete with his sister, Dick blurts out, “I like a woman to be a woman. These lady doctors are not womanly” (Grier 13). Such a seemingly empty parallelism would in fact be saturated with meaning to Victorian readers, but it subversively leaves the word “woman” open to (re)interpretation through an equation whose variables have not been defined. In Peace with Honour, what it means to be a woman is up for reinterpretation. While Dick may go on to describe that men prefer a woman who is “gentle, soft and clinging, looking to them for protection” not a woman who is “brave and self-reliant,” he does not go so far as to say that he himself prefers a woman with those qualities (Grier 13). He feels a strong attraction to Georgia despite her inability to fit that mold and despite the fact that she makes him feel “queer” (Grier 13). Although anachronistic to suggest that the word queer meant homosexual to Victorians, the fin-de-siècle was the period during which homosexuality began to develop its modern definition. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “queer” was used in England to refer to sexuality three years before our novel’s publication, in an 1894 letter written by the Marquess of Queensberry discussing Oscar Wilde. In an essay about Nella Larsen’s Passing, Judith Butler allows for the possibility of queer readings of the word “queer” in novels written before the word had become widespread to mean homosexual:
“At the time…’queer’ did not yet mean homosexual, but it did encompass an array of meanings associated with the deviation from normalcy which might well include the sexual…“As a term for betraying what ought to remain concealed, ‘queering’ works as the exposure within language—an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language—of both sexuality and race” (Butler 130).
In Grier’s text, it is through these queer experiences that overflow with sexual anxiety, moments when Georgia and Dick’s expected gender roles have reversed, that the characters interact most. To read the use of “queer” in this novel as gender reversal allows for the possibility that to be queer is to be sexually awakened.
The most interesting use of the word queer in Peace with Honour occurs at the end of the novel after Dick and Georgia have become engaged. When arguing about whether she will continue to pursue her medical profession once they are married, a topic that is settled for Georgia but not Dick, Dick suddenly becomes ill. “I feel—awfully queer” he says before mysteriously fainting (Grier 383), like a stereotypical woman in a Victorian romance novel. As the fainting spell begins to take its hold, he feels “powerless” and “helpless.” The episode marks Dick as not only feminine but also old-fashioned, which is contrary to the femininity associated with the New Woman. The event leaves Dick’s recovery entirely in Georgia’s hands despite his belief that a woman does not have the skills to heal a man. Georgia’s attraction to Dick does not subside since his appeal relies on his continual “crisis of masculinity,” to use Gail Cunningham’s term, the result of which will be a more desirable, more progressive, and more intellectual man, one who has obtained his prize.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex,” Routledge Classics, 2011.
Cunningham, Gail. “’He-Notes’: Reconstructing Masculinity.” The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms. Edited by Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 94-106.
Grier, Sydney C. (Gregg, Hilda). Peace with Honour, William Blackwood and Sons, 1897.