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  • Sex, Religion, and the New Woman in China:A Comparative Reading of Sarah Grand and Alicia Little
  • Ann Heilmann (bio)

Victorian Feminists often invoked such tropes as the Chinese woman’s bound feet, the Arab woman’s veiled seclusion, or the American slave as metaphors of women’s social and legal confinement in Britain. In this essay, I explore how two British New Woman writers with personal experience of China, the doyenne of British New Womanhood in the 1890s, Sarah Grand (1854–1943), and the lesser-known Alicia (Mrs. Archibald) Little (1845–1926), drew on and transformed the first of these tropes to universalize feminist concerns and relativize the Western claim to moral, religious, and political supremacy. As Elizabeth Chang and Shanyn Fiske have illustrated, China, as a “field of imagined visual possibility” (Chang 1), had a considerable “spectral presence” in Victorian literature and frequently served as a “mirror for Western projection” (Fiske, “Orientalism” 222, 219). The complexities of this projection hold particular significance for the work of New Woman writers who were familiar with Chinese culture and indigenous reform movements and at the same time had an investment in representing the Western feminist project as a quasi-religious mission for moral and social advancement.

Grand spent her apprenticeship years as the wife of a British army surgeon in China and southeast Asia in the 1870s (Kersley 37), utilizing this experience in her journalism (“The Great Typhoon,” 1881; “Ah Man,” 1893), her first novel-tract, Two Dear Little Feet (1873), and her feminist “coming-out” novel, Ideala (1888), in which the heroine takes up social purity activism after encountering Chinese women reformers. While Grand dramatized the New Woman’s rejection of marriage and Little depicted her effort to reform marriage from within, both writers explored the sexual double standard and became suffrage supporters. Born nine years before Grand, Little authored a spate of society novels, cautiously exploring women’s desire for an object in life and the legal plight of wives and mothers in the late 1870s to mid-1880s, including Margery Travers (1878) and Mother Darling (1885) (Fiske, “Asian” 16–17). Her move to China in 1886, where she joined her businessman husband, shifted her attention to Chinese culture and indigenous women’s condition, inspiring A Marriage in China (1896), two further novels, and nine travelogues and factual accounts of [End Page 61] Chinese society. Relatives thought her eccentric in her “ardent enthusiasms. The rights of married women to their own money, Women’s Suffrage and … the unbinding of Chinese girl children’s feet.… We never quite knew what to expect” (Bewicke 19–20). As the founder of the Natural Feet Society (Tien Tsu Hui), Little engaged in a form of feminist activism comparable to Grand’s social purism (Fiske, “Asian” 12, 19; Thurin 164, 182–87; Young ii–vi; Little, Blue Gown 253–304 and Intimate China 134–63). The reformist spirit of both writers had its conceptual roots in Christianity. If social purity feminism developed from the earlier nineteenth-century evangelical movements of temperance, moral reform, and abolitionism (see Banks 11–27), the notion of “natural” as “heavenly” feet (the Chinese word tianzu encompasses both) was, as Dorothy Ko notes, grounded in “Christian doctrines while appealing to native belief and terminology” (16).

Ideala and A Marriage in China correlate the personal with the political and the sexual with the religious, embedding Victorian social reform concerns within an examination of Anglo-Chinese relations. Both tender quasi-utopian resolutions that posit female authority in the regulation of the family (Little) and society (Grand) as the linchpin of (inter)national renovation and exalt the heroines as figures of Christian salvation. While Grand’s Ideala finds spiritual purification in China and becomes a “saintly” woman who combines Eastern wisdom with a Western sociopolitical mission inspired by indigenous women, Little’s Lilian travels to China in search of companionship, missionary humanitarianism, and romantic love, only to discover the human sacrifice of religious, cultural, and sexual imperialism. Like Ideala, Lilian returns with a mission, here individualized rather than collectivized; her adoption of her husband’s mixed-race children born to his Chinese mistress gestures toward the creation of a multiracial society. Both writers...


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