The Yellow Leaf by Sarah Grand

One of the joys of belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and exploring that particular imprint, is the sheer range of women authors and the books to be encountered. One name I’ve been aware of for ages is the author Sarah Grand, known in Virago circles for her work “The Beth Book”. It’s a *long* book – over 500 pages – and I recall reactions on the group being mixed; so that, despite Grand being a pioneering feminist author, I’ve never had the courage to pick up a copy of the book. However, when Mike Walmer revealed recently he was releasing one of Grand’s shorter works, a novella called “The Yellow Leaf”, I realised this was the perfect way to explore her writing without having to commit to a chunkster… ;D

“The Yellow Leaf” was first published as a serial in 1893, and in book form a year later, and it tells the story of three young women and their different paths through life. As the book opens, our narrator (who is a rather unwordly person) is travelling by train on her own for the first time to visit an old school friend in the country. On the journey she encounter Adalesa, the cousin of her school friend, also on a visit to the same place. The two girls bond, and Adalesa’s forthright ways are in contrast to the more reserved nature of the narrator; and when the girls arrive at the country house of Lady Marsh they are met with a stifling, repressive atmosphere as well as some very conventional attitudes about how women should behave. Evangeline, the cousin and school friend, is charismatic, yet soon revealed as entirely self-centred and focused on obtaining a good marriage.

… They are not womanly pursuits. You will not be fit for the duties of a wife and mother by-the-by if you injure your constitution now.

Her mother Lady Marsh is infuriating, full of ridiculous ideas about women’s education and the detrimental effects on their brains – I confess I wanted to slap her most of the time. Initially, our narrator is charmed by Evangeline, but soon begins to have her doubts; feelings which have already been expressed by Adalesa. As the first part of the narrative comes to a climax, the three young women prepare to attend a ball, at which will be attending a young man who is of significance to one of them. To find out how things play out, you’ll just have to read the book….

Part two, the shorter of the sections, revisits the country house a good number of years later, when the women are no longer young. Travelling back to see the ageing Marshes, the narrator and Adalesa have moved on, forging lives and careers; but will they find Evangeline changed, and what effect will the reunion have on all of them?

When one is young, one is never satisfied. One looks back and lives those delights over again; but at the time we did not understand, and so lost the full flavour. Later one has realised how precious it is just to be alive; and then, I think, it is that one begins to live.

I shall say no more about the plot, but I have to say I did find the book fascinating. It’s fairly easy to recognise the narrator as representing Grand herself, with her “New Woman” viewpoint and her determination to make a career for herself writing. The contrast between the views of the older ladies and their resistance to change and advancement for their sex, as opposed to the views of the narrator and Adalesa, is striking; and if it represents the real attitudes of the time, it’s shocking to think of the battle all the pioneering women and Suffragettes had to gain recognition. Both the narrator and Adalesa have grown and matured as people, and the point is fairly heavily made that this is a healthy option for a woman, as opposed to the infantilisation of those who follow the ridiculous, old fashioned beliefs.

Sarah Grand by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I say heavily made, because I recognise that one of the criticisms of “The Beth Book” is that it does tend to be hampered by the didacticism in it; Grand is an author who was using her work to make a very necessary point about the status of women. However, in a shorter work like “The Yellow Leaf”, that didacticism is not overpowering, as Grand has to let her plot develop and has a limited space in which to do so. The result is a gripping read which explores the changing state of women on the eve of the twentieth century and the restricting attitudes with which they had to grapple, as well as the destructive effects of those attitudes on a woman’s development. It’s also a very dramatic tale and I didn’t quite foresee the climax!

So my first experience of reading Sarah Grand was a very positive one, and I’m glad I started with this one rather than “The Beth Book”! Grand had a fascinating and inspiring life, making her living from her writing and cutting her own path through life. “The Yellow Leaf” is an eye-opening glimpse of what it was like to be a New Woman and kudos to Mike Walmer for bringing it back into print.

“The Yellow Leaf” is from Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint, a series of classic short works in hardback (I’ve reviewed other entries in the series here and here). Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy