- Sarah Grand’s “When the Door Opened__”: Latchkeys, Liberty, and Liminality
Sarah grand is usually associated with didactic non-fiction, primarily her provocative 1894 article “New Aspects of the Woman Question,” which is credited with having coined the term “New Woman.” She is also known as the author of novels anchored in the realist mode, such as The [End Page 192] Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897). Yet Grand’s short fiction offers a different perspective, revealing her to be an often innovative writer who plays with form and narrative in unexpected ways.
“When the Door Opened__” was first published in the Idler in January 1898, then later included in Grand’s short story collection, Emotional Moments, in 1904. The story is marked by fragmentariness, ambiguity, fluidity, and open-endedness. It begins with a reflective passage about the aesthetics of human affairs, wherein modernity is foregrounded through a series of tropes focused around crowds, transport, the bustle of urban life, and the idea of incompleteness. Grand’s method here is suggestive of later Modernist vignettes by writers such as Virginia Woolf. Indeed, certain phrases and images in this opening paragraph seem to anticipate Woolf ’s famous statements in “Modern Fiction” (1919).1 Grand writes:
What curious glimpses of life one catches sometimes unawares, scenes that flash forth distinctly from the tangled mass of movement, the crowded details, the inextricable confusion of human affairs as they appear to the looker-on in a great city. Seen amidst all the turmoil, from a hansom cab, from the top of an omnibus, from the platform of an underground station in a train that stops for a minute, from the pavement in a carriage blocked in the stream of traffic, by day and night, . . . these intervals of intensity, the beginnings of episodes—tragic, heroic, amorous, abject; or the conclusions, which make the turning point the crisis of a life. If it be the beginning, how one aches to know what the end will be; and if it be the end, what would not one give for the first part!(Grand 217)
This sense of fiction capturing mere “glimpses of life” is a decided break with the explicit coherence and confident cohesiveness of the Victorian realist novel. In its implicit acknowledgement of the necessarily incomplete nature of human experience as artistically rendered, Grand’s opening positions her story squarely within an emerging Modernist sensibility. Yet it is also cognate with certain experimental writing of the late 1890s and early years of the twentieth century—for example, with the literary impressionism of Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London (1905), which similarly emphasizes the resistance of the movement and flux of the modern city to being captured in fiction: “One sees, too, so many little bits of un-completed life” (Hueffer 60); “the constant succession of much smaller happenings . . . that one never sees completed, [which] gives to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and of dissatisfaction” (61).
Grand’s story, as alluded to in her opening paragraph and echoed in Ford’s text, problematizes the issue of endings by resisting closure [End Page 193] and leaving the reader with an ambiguous and unexplained conclusion. Following the reflections discussed above, the narrator enters into conversation with an unnamed man who is sharing the carriage. After passing comment on an unhappily married couple who have just vacated the train, the man proceeds to reveal his own domestic situation. What initially seems to be the description of a progressive marriage, founded on the husband’s trust and respect of his wife, gradually gives way to an exposure of the man’s underlying insecurities when faced with circumstances that appear to demonstrate the essential duplicity and wantonness of women. After following his wife to a masked ball, the man mistakes her for a flirtatious woman of dubious morals who happens to be wearing the same costume. With a view to testing his supposed wife’s fidelity, he takes the woman home. At the moment of discovery and realization of his own compromised position, the husband hears his wife’s latchkey in the door. At this climactic point in his...