Dora B. Montefiore, New Age February 1904

Women’s Interests

Women in the past

Source: New Age, p. 106-107, 18 February 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In a recently translated book called The Buried Temple, by Maurice Maeterlinck, the writer, philosophising on the extraordinary picture of long-vanished civilisations as revealed in the Arabian Nights, quotes some of the words of wisdom for all time attributed to the women folk of those days. “Formulas of morality,” to which, as he says, “we have to-day nothing to add.” And yet they who pronounced those words were slaves. “A merchant buys them, I know not where, and sells them to some old hag, who teaches them, or causes them to be taught, philosophy, poetry, all Eastern sciences, in order that one day they may become gifts worthy of a King. And when their education is finished, and their beauty and wisdom call forth the admiration of all who approach them, the industrious, prudent old woman does indeed offer them to a very wise, very just King. And when this very wise, very just King has taken their virginity from them, and seeks other loves, he probably bestow them on his viziers. ... And we who marvel at this – we who also reflect on justice and virtue, on pity and love – are we so sure that they who come after us shall not some day find in our present social condition a spectacle no less disconcerting?” A strange picture, surely, this that the great Belgian writer reconstructs for us of the slave woman, whose body is bought and sold, but whose soul, speaking from the inner sanctum of the “Hidden Temple,” the secret heritage of all mankind, ponders over the loftiest and grandest problems of justice, and counsels the King, her master, and her absolute owner: “Learn to know thyself! And do thou not act till then. And do thou, then, only act in accordance with all thy desires, but having great care always that thou do not injure thy neighbour.”

Women in the present.

Let me call up a scene of actual, present-day life in which a woman slave in this pitiless London offers a spectacle no less disconcerting to those “who also reflect on justice and virtue, on pity and love.” The story was told me, by a friend, who, having occasion to consult his lawyer (who he was told was engaged on a police court case), followed his legal adviser to the Police Court, and became the involuntary witness of the lonely agony and shame of a wretched woman victim of our present social conditions. My friend was consulting his lawyer in the body of the court when the court was suddenly cleared for a fresh case to be called, and none but of officials, police, detectives, magistrates, and lawyers remained. My friend, standing amongst the group of lawyers, was mistaken for one by the officials, and was not removed. The scene was Clerkenwell Police Court. The persons charged were a wretched, half-starved, anĉmic-looking young married woman, holding in her shawl a wizen-faced baby, and a rough-looking working man. The charge was immorality in the public streets. The woman, who cried bitterly during the whole proceedings, was the only person of her own sex in court.

“Poverty with all its crushing sorrows and transmitted degeneration.”

I quote another line from Maeterlinck’s Hidden Temple as summing up the real accusation against this poor luckless slave and scapegoat of our present social conditions. Police and detectives gave their evidence, the magistrate’s clerk made out his notes, and the case was proved against her. When asked what she had to say for herself she could only sob out that her husband had sent her into the streets to earn money, as he was out of work; and she, poor, dumb-driven soul, was remanded, with the puling baby in her arms, for a week that the case might be inquired into. And so the curtain fell on a squalid twentieth century London tragedy, and the public are once more admitted to the court to hear what passes for justice in a few dozen other almost as squalid, but less unsightly, cases. And the English literary critics cry out against Gorki, and write as if the scenes he describes with the pen of genius could only happen in Russia! Think of it, you women! A fellow-woman, whose only crimes are poverty and transmitted ignorance, undergoing alone that horrible ordeal before magistrate, police, and lawyers! Hunted out into the street by a husband whom the law and the marriage service had bidden her obey; hunted down by a strange man, needing a woman for his prey; hunted after by police and detectives, armed with power given them by society; and finally having to stand alone before a court of strange men, and listen to the terrible words from which other women’s ears are protected! “Need we,” exclaims Maeterlinck, “at the sight of unmerited wretchedness look to the skies for a reason, as though a flash of lightning had caused it? Need we seek an impenetrable, unfathomable judge? Is this region not our own; are we not here in the best explored, best known portion of our dominion; and is it not we who organise misery, we who spread it abroad as arbitrarily; from the moral point of view, as fire and disease scatter destruction or suffering? ... Truly, we are strange lovers of an ideal justice, we are strange judges!”