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International Women’s Day: Mona Caird

Today on OUPblog we’re celebrating the 100th International Women’s Day with posts about inspirational women. Here, OUPblog Contributing Editor Kirsty Doole writes about why she’s chosen 19th century writer Mona Caird and brings us an excerpt from Caird’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry.

These days, not many people outside of academia seem to know who Mona Caird was. I certainly didn’t until I was studying for my Masters degree and decided to write on the New Woman writers of the late 19th century. Through that I came to read her novel, The Daughters of Danaus (1894), which is the story of Hadria, a girl from the Scottish Borders who wants to be a composer. However, the pressure to fulfil the traditional roles of wife and mother is insurmountable and her musical ambitions are ultimately sacrificed to her family obligations. The book is rightly regarded as something of a feminist classic, and it has become one of my very favourite books.

Caird is most often remembered as the woman who wrote an essay in 1888 for the Westminster Review on marriage and the many injustices that she believed it forced onto women. The Daily Telegraph, in response, asked readers to write in with their answers to the question ‘Is Marriage a Failure?’, which prompted something in the region of 27,000 responses from readers (male and female). She went on to write more essays on marriage, as well as on anti-vivisectionism and animal rights. Both her feminism and her animal rights position made her very controversial in her day, and it’s for her bravery and outspoken ways that I admire her.

As far as I can tell, there are only two of her novels still in print (The Daughters of Danaus and The Wing of Azrael), which is a shame as I really think she deserves to be better-known. So, in the spirit of International Women’s Day (which didn’t exist in Caird’s lifetime, but of which she would surely have approved) here’s an excerpt from her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. You can read the full entry here.

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Caird [née Alison], (Alice) Mona (1854–1932), writer, was born on 24 May 1854 at 34 Pier Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, to John Alison, an inventor from Midlothian, and Matilda Ann Jane, née Hector. As a child she wrote plays and stories. It seems that she spent part of her childhood in Australia and she uses this experience in her first novel, Aunt Hetty, published anonymously in 1877. On 19 December 1877 she married James Alexander Caird (d. 1921), son of Sir James Caird, at Christ Church, Paddington, London. The couple resided at Leyland, Arkwright Road, Hampstead, London, for the remainder of their forty-four-year marriage. Their only child, Alison James Caird, was born at Leyland on 22 March 1884.

At the beginning of her writing career, Caird briefly used the pseudonym G. Noel Hatton, but of the five novels she published between 1883 and 1915, The Wing of Azrael (1889), A Romance of the Moors (1891), and The Daughters of Danaus (1894; repr. 1989), published under her own name, have received the most attention from literary critics…

…Her general ideas are focused on equality for women in marriage and for equal partnerships in the home which will ‘bring us to the end of the patriarchal system’ which she described as repressive both for men, who were trained to see only ‘the woman’s-sphere and woman’s-responsibility condition of things’, and for women, whose ‘best qualities … will disappear’ if they keep within such a system. Her essays are frequently derisive and she employs irony to make her points about the repressive order of society which cannot separate wives from other types of property. As a progressive thinker, Caird sought legal reforms in childcare and divorce which would improve women’s social positions by removing the stigmas of irresponsibility and ignorance. Her views have been the subject of late twentieth-century feminist literary criticism concentrated on how she approached the issue of social change in her fiction and her essays. Her efforts earned her the label of ‘feminist’ in her lifetime and she has been described by John Sutherland as ‘one of the most aggressive of the New Woman novelists’. She was also active in the temperance movement, and was an outspoken antivivisectionist, publishing two works on the subject in 1894 and 1896.

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2 Responses to “International Women’s Day: Mona Caird”
  1. Thanks for helping to bring Caird to a wider audience!

    It’s a shame that the entry is riddled with basic errors – both the title (Wing, not Wings) and the protagonist’s name (Viola, not Victoria) of The Wing of Azrael, for instance. Also, Caird didn’t write Lady Hetty; I forget who did, but I remember that when I was tracking down the author, his own entry in the ODNB correctly attributes this.

    Still, this is perhaps an endemic problem with writers who didn’t earn full biographical treatments in their own time, and doubly so for women. Sarah Grand was lucky enough to have a Boswell, but so many fell through the cracks. The ODNB is definitely a step forward.

  2. Maura Dunst says:

    I believe Lady Hetty was written by John Service. It’s too bad that so little is known about Caird’s life, but at least we know a bit about this extraordinary woman!

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