Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane


published 1917






Alwynne had certainly looked out of place at the mistresses' table, on the day of her arrival, with her yellow hair and green gown—"like a daffodil stuck into a bunch of everlastings," as an early adorer had described her. The phrase had appealed and spread, and within a week she was "Daffy" to the school; but her popularity among her colleagues had not been heightened by rumours of the collective nickname the contrast with their junior had evoked.

Her obvious shyness and desire to please were, however, sufficiently disarming, and her first days had not been made too difficult for her by any save Henrietta. But Henrietta was sure she was incompetent—called to witness her joyous, casual manner, her unorthodox methods, her way of submerging the mistress in the fellow-creature. She had labelled her undisciplined—which Alwynne certainly was—lax and undignified; had prophesied that she would be unable to maintain order; had been annoyed to find that, inspiring neither fear nor awe, she was yet quite capable of making herself respected.

commentary: So much to say about this book and this author. The novel, Clemence Dane's first, deals with love and friendship in a girls’ school: it is very impassioned, and highly-strung, and detailed, and carries the reader along with the importance of the relationships among staff and students. For the first half it is brave and unusual – there are simply no male characters at all, and life proceeds perfectly well without them. The first man to appear is the father of one of the pupils – and he is not a nice man, completely failing to understand his daughter.

But later in the book the story becomes more conventional, and it is somewhat disappointing. Alwynne, above, has attracted the attention of Clare, the Queen Bee teacher at the school, who is truly a piece of work. She is jaw-droppingly manipulative, but Dane shows very well how attractive she is to others, and how she keeps her admirers in their places. It is a piercing psychological portrait.

Something terrible happens at the school – clearly the result of a general overwrought atmosphere, but with Clare’s carelessness very much to blame. She manages to wriggle out of any consequences and in a shocking scene (the most shocking in the book) uses a combination of lies and implications to convince Alwynne that she (ie Alwynne) is at fault; and then passes these insinuations on to the school administrator. Then, alone:
Clare, pinning on her hat, stared critically at herself in the inadequate mirror. "I think," she said confidentially [to herself], "we did that rather well."
The rest of the book tells a much more conventional story of how Alwynne needs the love of a good man to get away from Clare – it is very disappointing. Of course Clare IS a bully and a monster, and you wouldn’t wish her on Alwynne or anyone else, but still…

This is Alwynne’s aunt and companion describing Clare:
"She hardly ever speaks to a man. I've seen her at gaieties, when she was younger. She was always rather stranded. Men left her alone. Something in her seems to repel them. I think she fully realised it. And she's a proud woman. There's tragedy in it. 
"Does she repel you?” 
"Not in that way. I dislike her. I think her dangerous. I'm intensely sorry for her. And I do understand something of the attraction she exercises, better than you can, though it has never affected me. You see — eccentricity — abnormality — does not affect women as it does men. And she's brilliantly clever."

It must have been a brave and unconventional book when it was published: it is reputed to have inspired Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. It also reminded me of the 1930s novel, play and film Madchen in Uniform, by the German author Christa Winsloe.

The relations in the book might be adolescent crushes, or extreme friendships, but the lesbian overtones are there – though deniable. This is a subject of great interest round here: I contributed to the book Murder in the Closet, edited by Curtis Evans, about gay themes in Golden Age crime fiction – my essay was on Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, another book set in an all-female educational establishment, with some similarities.

Regiment of Women is mentioned in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death:
‘You may remember Miss Clemence Dane’s very clever book on the subject?’
asks Miss Climpson, discussing an ‘unhealthy relationship’ involving Mary Whittaker - a character with some resemblance to Clare in this book.

Regiment is a touch too long – a few too many loops of plot – but it is still an entertaining and quite compelling read: Dane is very good on the ways people think and behave, what goes on in their heads, the ideas they don’t like to admit to.

And as a known pedant, I must point out that (Monstrous) Regiment of Women – a famous quote from John Knox – does not mean a group of women. Regiment in this case is more like ‘regime’, and means rule by women. (And there is an excellent Terry Pratchett book called Monstrous Regiment, here on the blog.)

Clemence Dane’s Enter Sir John has featured at Clothes in Books – a fine crime story – as has her family saga Broome Stagesmy friend the writer Sarah Rayne is a great advocate for that book,and did a guest post for me.

More about Murder in the Closet here. And the Shedunnit podcast is always excellent – and in this episode looked at queer themes in books such as Unnatural Death and Miss Pym Disposes (and features me talking about the books).

The picture shows fashions of 1915, and is from the NYPL.

















Comments

  1. Well, you had me at the girls school setting, Moira. That's almost always a winner as far as I'm concerned. And I'm intrigued by the psychological manipulation. I'm not sure I like the idea of Alwynne having to 'be saved' by a good man, though. Still, books are products of their times, and for the most part, it sounds like a solid read.

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    1. Very much so, Margot, and I know that we both love books with a school setting. And, as always, the details of the time are fascinating.

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  2. War-time copies of Punch, the Strand and La Vie Parisienne reveal how attractive those WWI fashions were - immediately forgotten, and never revived.

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    1. You are absolutely right, Lucy, and I had never thought of that. I suppose the flapper fashions just swept away everything. But when I look at 1917 fashion pics (there are some nice ones at NYPL) I am struck by how lovely the clothes were.

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  3. I too love a girls school setting. Just about to reread Helen McCloy's splendid school. Through a Glass Darkly and that too features an interesting school. There is a whole book to be written about headmistresses in crime fiction - one of the few situations in which a woman could be in authority in the era of GA fiction.

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    1. Oh, yes. Apparently hard to write a bad book set in a girls' school, the McCloy is wonderful. And please write a book about headmistresses!

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  4. Very interesting. I am currently reading the non-fiction book, The Wake by Erik Larson (about the last voyage of the Lusitania) and it is the same time frame roughly, although a very different subject.

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    1. Oh, interesting, not heard of that book. I'll be looking forward to a review...

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