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The Old Woman’s Farcical Rejuvenation in The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore (1897)

Le rajeunissement farcesque de la Vieille Femme dans Le Rajeunissement de Miss Semaphore
Somi Ahn


Dans le récit comique The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore [Le Rajeunissement de Miss Semaphore] (1897) de Charlotte O’Conor Eccles, une femme bourgeoise célibataire boit un élixir de jouvence dans l’espoir d’échapper à la solitude. Mais au lieu de devenir une belle femme de vingt ans, elle régresse au stade du bébé, et se trouve mise en nourrice (cette pratique était un sérieux enjeu social à la période victorienne). Au premier abord, le texte semble tourner en dérision la « vieille fille » célibataire, mais il lui permet aussi de transgresser les barrières du genre et de l’âge. Dans cet essai, j’examinerai la façon dont cette comédie permet à l’héroïne de vivre à rebours et de devenir une militante, qui vient témoigner au tribunal des violences qu’elle a subies. À première vue, l’héroïne et sa sœur ressemblent à des Femmes Anciennes, mais lorsque Miss Semaphore se transforme en bébé, elle se trouve mise en danger. Ironiquement, en rajeunissant, les Femmes Anciennes se transforment en des Nouvelles Femmes militantes, qui s’élèvent contre un système qui rejette les femmes qui ont eu des enfants hors-mariage. Le rajeunissement opère la transformation comique de la Femme Ancienne en Nouvelle Femme, mais il permet aussi aux idéaux féministes de s’exprimer. Dans un premier temps, j’analyserai les essais que Eccles et d’autres écrivaines féministes ont consacrés aux conditions de vie des femmes. Je me pencherai ensuite sur la façon dont le roman envisage la question de l’âge et de la vieillesse des femmes, avant d’examiner comment le roman constitue aussi une critique des injustices infligées aux femmes et aux enfants à l’époque victorienne.

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1Charlotte O’Conor Eccles might not be a famous author today, but at the turn of the last century, this Irish female author’s work Aliens of the West (1904) was regarded as one of ‘the best modern books of short stories on Ireland yet written’ (Times 11). Born in Ireland in 1860, Eccles was a pioneering woman journalist in Dublin in the 1880s. In the 1890s, as her professional career unfolded in London, she became a popular journalist in England as well. In this period, she produced a New Woman essay on how to age well as a woman in Victorian England, titled ‘How Women can Easily Make Provision for their Old Age’ (1895). Her other article ‘Experiences of a Woman Journalist’ (1893) discusses how difficult it was for her ‘to look for work on a newspaper’ (830). Since her ultimate goal was to ‘write a good novel’ (‘Journalist’ 830), she practiced writing novels during her journalistic career and finally published her first novel The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore (1897) (henceforth, Rejuvenation) under a male pseudonym, Hal Godfrey, which gave her a sense of gender neutrality.

  • 1 Eccles was inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne’s story ‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ (1837), in which fo (...)

2Rejuvenation is a farcical narrative in which an egoistic middle-aged spinster, whom I will interpret as an Old Woman, drinks an elixir, ‘the Water of Youth’ (47),1 which is advertised by a New Woman explorer in a magazine aimed at middle-class women. Through the spinster’s statement that ‘eight-and-twenty’ is the best age for a woman—because she can be ‘at once young and experienced’ in her late twenties (47, 49)—Eccles lets her readers speculate on the ways in which women perceived and experienced aging in Victorian society. Contrary to her expectation, however, the spinster turns into an infant instead of a beautiful and intelligent woman in her twenties. She then experiences child abuse at the workhouse and later stands in court where she reverts to the older version of herself. Here, she accidentally plays a major role in uncovering the truth behind the baby farming scandal by giving her testimony. The humorous irony is that Eccles allows a greedy and vain middle-aged woman—not a rebellious young New Woman—to make a difference in the Victorian world.

3Notably, the interplay of old and new in Rejuvenation is a satirical continuation of Eccles’s feminist perspective on the female aging question expressed in her New Woman journalism. Humorous satire was not substantially associated with the New Woman although her male contemporaries used it as a means of attacking her agenda. As widely known, Punch was saturated with images comically framing her as a youthful fighter who is too serious at the turn of the century. In this sense, Marion H. Spielman, in The History of ‘Punch’ (1895), wrote that New Woman writers generally ‘cannot take . . . a joke’ (392). However, recent scholars such as Margaret D. Stetz claim that ‘New Women of the 1890s’ refused to take advantage of humour because they ‘were too clear-sighted to imagine that merely laughing at men or male-generated institutions would solve their difficulties’ (220). Katy Birch also states that there were ‘different kinds of humour that were possible’ for some women authors (352). Eccles’s humorous novel is an apt example of how comic elements indeed ‘allowed [fin-de-siècle women writers] to comment on their society and satirise aspects of the status quo’ just as effectively as ‘serious journalism’ (Birch 362). Eccles’s use of humour lays the foundation for her imaginative production of a new female life course, which is led by a protagonist one might call a ‘New Old Woman’ whose fantastical aging experience transgresses the patriarchal marriage frame, in Rejuvenation.

4Admittedly, pre-existing criticism has not focused much on Eccles’s writing, and accordingly, her interest in female aging as shown in Rejuvenation has not been explored much. The only critical analysis of the text is Teresa Mangum’s essay, in which she differentiates the New Woman rejuvenescence plot from the conventional Bildungsroman one centred on the young male subject’s straightforward progress: ‘Unlike authors of these popular forward-moving narrative forms, rejuvenescence writers must delineate borders demarcating age from youth both to mark the loss of youth and to imagine either its repetition or unnatural endurance’ (79). Most of all, fin-de-siècle comedic rejuvenescence fiction by New Woman writers does not indeed ‘go the didactic route’ in playfully evincing that ‘we can only fully experience the joys of youth by acquiescing to the losses and miseries of age’ (Mangum 82). Building on this line of work, I claim that Rejuvenation certainly arises out of the New Woman writer’s ability to make a serious story about the Victorian female life course humorous. Hence, in what follows, I look closely at how Eccles’s rejuvenation narrative playfully depicts a ‘New Old Woman’ whose identity as an Old Woman spinster unexpectedly gets exchanged for that of a New Woman icon.

The Old and the New Woman at the Fin de Siècle

5Before delving into the New Woman’s response to the female aging issue, it is necessary to touch on W. R. Greg’s influential essay Why are Women Redundant? (1869), which shows how the latter half of the nineteenth century understood female aging as a social problem that needed fixing. The book expresses deep concerns about ‘women . . . retiring to a lonely and destitute old age’, and in so doing, it particularly considers difficulties of ‘old maids, with just enough income to live upon, but wretched and deteriorating’ (Greg 6). Greg’s concern arose out of the demographic reality marked by ‘the excess of grown women over grown men’ in the second half of the nineteenth century (Greg 11). Declaring that ‘106 women are about to be found for every 100 men’ (Greg 11), he goes so far as to suggest that those redundant women should migrate to the colonies instead of seeking employment in England.

6Greg’s perspective reflects the general perception of the Victorian era that aging single women are a nuisance. Within the Victorian ‘capitalist, middle-class, success-oriented’ paradigm (Zwierlein 38), it was inevitable for single women to be categorized as an unproductive social group. This perception was closely tied to eugenics, which emerged in the 1880s. For example, in ‘Plain Words on the Woman Question’ (1889), Grant Allen highlights how ‘unnatural’ it could be for aging spinsters not to use their reproductive potential for collective regeneration (175). Arabella Kenealy’s ‘Woman as an Athlete’ (1899) also claims that young women should consider themselves as potential mothers who can bring about national regeneration in performing ‘the function of child-bearing’ at the right time (642). In this eugenicist worldview, the stereotypical Victorian old maid’s ‘nightmare’ would likely involve experiencing ‘[o]ld age’ without her own child, as an 1888 article titled ‘The Glorified Spinster’ famously states (375).

7However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, not everyone unquestioningly accepted this patriarchal notion of female aging. The approach of many fin-de-siècle New Woman writers was certainly different: their writings on the Victorian aging female gravitated toward attacking the male-oriented system of the world, challenging the ways in which it marginalizes those who do not conform to the norms of patriarchal marriage. Intriguingly, the New Woman writers rebuked not only patriarchs but also their female counterparts—the Old Women—who would disapprove of their young daughters’ adventurous attempts to liberate themselves from the control of patriarchal marriage. For example, in ‘The Revolt of the Daughters’ (1894), B. A. Crackanthorpe criticizes old-fashioned mothers who restrain their daughters from seeking adventure, and points out that they have aged into ill-tempered old ladies within their married lives. In their effort to conform to the conventional norms of womanliness, they have become supportive of patriarchy in Victorian England. To be sure, this kind of female aging under patriarchy is the target of Crackanthorpe’s criticism. Opining that these mothers are indeed ‘in their hearts enduring the torture of remorse for neglected opportunities and wasted chance’ but still not ready to help their daughters prepare for an independent life (Crackanthorpe 27), she condemns the aged mothers for their inability—or reluctance—to clearly see what it means to be young and to grow old as a Victorian woman.

8The late nineteenth century, however, witnessed the rise of young radical New Women who, unlike old-fashioned spinsters, voluntarily opted to stay unmarried. According to ‘The Glorified Spinster’ (1888), this new generation was ready to age alone with ‘good health, good spirits, few worries, few restraints, and a keen appetite for amusement’ (376). In ‘Why Women are Ceasing to Marry’ (1899), Ella Hepworth Dixon also discusses what she calls New Women’s ‘privilege’ to ‘live alone’ (394). In these articles, the young New Woman generation’s lifestyle was portrayed as markedly different from her older counterpart’s, which was inseparably tied to marriage and motherhood.

9Nevertheless, this choice to ‘live alone’ was just one aspect of the New Woman ideals. On the one hand, a considerable number of New Woman activists—such as Sarah Grand and Frances Swiney—engaged in the social purity movement, based on the belief that ‘the future of the British race [might] be secured’ through ‘the eugenic intervention of women’ as mothers (Richardson 57). On the other hand, the new lifestyle was severely attacked by some anti-New Woman female writers, such as Eliza Lynn Linton, who placed women’s graceful aging in the frame of marriage and motherhood. Linton claimed that the young New Woman often lacks inner maturity, which she thought could be accumulated over the course of aging. Her essay ‘The Girl of the Period’ (1868) mirrors this perspective inasmuch as it harshly mocks young women who are ‘far too fast and flourishing to be stopped in mid-career by . . . low old morals’ (3). Above all, in emphasizing the importance of inculcating young women with ‘slow old morals’ here, Linton suggests that they can benefit from their mother generation’s—the Old Woman’s—mental maturity. In ‘The Partisans of the Wild Women’ (1892), Linton continues to warn the New Woman generation to recognize the importance of ‘the old ideal of womanhood’, highlighting that the power of ‘age and knowledge’ could guide the generation into the right direction (463). Significantly, as indicated by her other essays such as ‘La Femme Passée’ (1868), Linton’s ‘old ideal of womanhood’ is rooted in the paradigm of heterosexual marriage and motherhood, where a woman is required to ‘consent to grow old’ as a ‘[w]ife and mother’ (313).

  • 2 To name one such essay on the New Woman: In ‘Experiences of a Woman Journalist’ published in the Ju (...)

10Eccles also takes an interest in the dynamics of female youth and age in her writings, though her approach is more pragmatic than Crackanthorpe’s and Linton’s rather ideological ones. Among Eccles’s articles on the New Woman,2 her view on the ideal life course of a single woman is best expressed in ‘How Women Can Easily Make Provision for Their Old Age’ (1895) (henceforth, ‘Provision’). Here, Eccles suggests the practical solution of introducing a pension plan for aging single New Women in the late Victorian era. She asserts that young New Women need to accept the fact that all of them will eventually grow old, taking a path to retirement throughout their life course. Indicating that ‘[f]rom five-and-twenty to five-and-fifty the able and intelligent woman may earn a fairly large amount’ by getting ‘profitably employed’ (316), she argues that women above fifty-five should be provided with a pension. Her central argument is that the New Woman generation should not avoid discussing old age and start ‘considering the question of how best to provide for their old age’ as early as possible (317). Most of all, throughout this piece of New Woman writing, Eccles reminds her readers that the New Woman cannot remain young forever and therefore should attempt to broaden her outlook by offering a practical perspective to the female aging question.

The Old Woman’s Age Consciousness

11Unlike ‘Provision’, Rejuvenation is a humorous fable where its New Woman author’s progressivism does not appear to take centre stage. However, this comic narrative is deeply concerned with the female aging issue, for it features an Old Woman spinster whose age consciousness serves as the driving force behind her rejuvenation. Augusta Semaphore is a fifty-three-year-old woman living with her younger sister in a boarding house in London. Though she has not entered senescence yet, she can be seen as an Old Woman, who is already deeply self-conscious about her aging and takes a conservative stance toward social changes. Notably, Eccles’s contemporaries defined the Old Woman not only in chronological but also in cultural terms. Sarah Grand—who popularized the term New Woman—indicates that the Old Woman can be anyone who ‘abdicate[s] all claim to youth’ and ‘g[ives] up any pursuit which might bring upon her the reproach of youngness’ even at the age of thirty (‘What Age’ 163). The New Woman journalist Hulda Friederichs similarly suggests that the Old Woman ‘is not necessarily old in years’, for her oldness could be visualized even when she is just ‘sweet seventeen’ (Friederichs 203). These New Woman writers’ emphasis on the non-chronological aspect of female aging in Victorian society invokes what Margaret Morganroth Gullette says about cultural aging—‘[a]ging through a particular century’—which applies to Eccles’s old-fashioned heroine in her fifties (9–10).

  • 3 This concern about the physical signs of age would be shared by a vast majority of Victorians at th (...)

12The culturally aged Augusta’s self-perception mirrors the aging single woman’s feeling of alienation. Augusta ‘carefully examine[s] her face before and discover[s] a new wrinkle’ (17).3 In ‘contrast[ing] the life she ha[s] led with the lives that young women . . . le[a]d’ (43), Augusta never stops feeling that there is not much she can do freely as a middle-aged unmarried woman. This Victorian woman’s self-perception is suggestive of ‘the intersection of ageism with sexism’, which can be ‘devastating in circumscribing [aging women’s] activities and controlling their self-image’ (Rosenthal 1). Augusta’s age places her in the awkward position in fin-de-siècle Victorian society. She feels that she is in the middle of nowhere, for she is neither a marriageable maiden nor an experienced mother. Thus, recent critics such as Andrea Charise would consider Augusta as an example of ‘the female body positioned within the senile topography of fin-de-siècle culture, particularly in light of that massified body of women who refuse to participate—or were denied participation—in the hegemonic ideals of Victorian heteroreproductive futurity’ (105). Augusta keeps envisioning herself as an older woman leading a meaningless life in her constant attempts to measure herself against others who are younger.

  • 4 In his 1857 book titled The Change of Life, the physician E. J. Tilt states that ‘the average date (...)

13Augusta has apparently gone through ‘the passage from reproductive to nonreproductive life’ (Heath 74), which takes the form of menopause. As this shift to the nonreproductive phase was believed to occur around the age of 45 years4 during the Victorian era, it is inevitable for Augusta in her early fifties to consider herself as a nonreproductive being. In this respect, not only is she dissatisfied with her current state, she also regrets her past experiences. The postmenopausal woman feels that her midlife without a family of her own is ‘monotonous’ (42). She is terrified of growing older, believing that her postmenopausal life ahead might be even more monotonous, stating that ‘life is youth, and that youth was over’ (42).

14Through the middle-aged spinster’s regrets, we can see how she adheres to the conventional norms of age and gender. Augusta’s reminiscence about her wasted youth does not necessarily mean that she will be sympathetic toward younger women. She is not on good terms with a New Woman boarder—referred to as a ‘medical lady’—at the boarding house and keeps suggesting that she sticks to the old-fashioned way of thinking. With regards to the gender norms of the time, Augusta never asks how and why the New Woman generation fights against the existing system of the world. For example, when the sisters are having a cheerful conversation with the other residents of their boarding house, the younger sister Prudence boasts that she has explored London ‘by [her]self in an omnibus’, and Augusta reproves her, telling Prudence that she ‘should not go into the City unescorted’ (13).

15Adding that it is her ‘dear father’ who ‘strongly objected to girls going about alone’ (13), Augusta makes it clear that she has never questioned her father’s conservatism. Taking pride in her own dogmatism, Augusta seems to perceive herself not as a vulnerable victim but as a strong supporter of patriarchy despite the fact that she herself never had a chance to reproduce or to look after someone else within the patriarchal frame of marriage. Having seen ‘little of the world’ and avoided too much reading, Augusta establishes herself as an old-fashioned woman who is ‘prim’ and ‘formal’ (42). In other words, always trying ‘to do [her] duty’ without criticizing the patriarchal system that dictates her life (42), Augusta has become an Old Woman incapable of sympathizing with the younger generation of women.

16Eccles implies that Augusta’s concern for the young women may not be completely groundless by showing that the Old Woman figure’s conservatism has at its roots a sharp awareness of reality; that is, besides being headstrong, Augusta is portrayed as also being pragmatic. Having obeyed her realistic father’s instruction not to use her imagination, she has not lost touch with reality. She has aged into a practical person who is able to manage ‘the property and investments from which their income was derived’ (43). In this light, it appears inevitable for the prudent Augusta to keep criticizing her younger, more rebellious, and less prudent counterpart, the New Woman.

17Augusta’s pragmatism is associated with an accurate understanding of her precarious social position as an aging unmarried female in late Victorian England. When she sees some girls living in the same house as herself, she speculates on their difficulties not only in familial terms but also in financial terms: ‘[t]he few girls who lived in the house . . . had no lovers, no interests, no society, no prospects, and incomes that required management’ (21). Initially, these single girls in London may enjoy what Dixon refers to as the New Woman’s ‘privilege’ to ‘live alone’ (394). However, as Augusta points out, lying behind their seemingly fashionable single life in the city is their lack of the financial means to support themselves. In this sense, Augusta argues that aging single women have to look ‘rigidly after the proprieties’ as a means of making their own way in the world (2). Augusta’s remark therefore invokes Eccles’s argument that ‘a fortune is extremely useful to spinsters’ in ‘Provision’ (315). This paradigm overall governs Rejuvenation’s depiction of how aging single women are eventually labelled as ‘ineligible’ (21). Like Eccles herself, the protagonist knows well that superfluous women will be ‘treated with a nonchalance’ in Victorian society and that those women ‘could not expect the same consideration as young women outside who lived in their own homes and had parents who entertained’ (21).

18Here, the comical irony lies in the fact that the heroine ‘know[s] the value of youth’ better than her younger counterpart and that she herself has the right to ‘enjo[y] the mere being young as no one could who had not been old’ (41). This Old Woman thus decides to buy ‘a single bottle of water from the Fountain of Youth’ from a ‘widow of an eminent explorer’ who is a New Woman (30). Most of all, in her imagination about being young again, Augusta reveals that she has indeed wished to lead a radical life as a singer or dancer. However, she makes it clear that she does not want to lose her mature intelligence if she ever turns back to her younger self.

She argued, and with truth, that dangerous though the stage might be, she would have the experience of over fifty years to guide her, and would therefore be in a different position from other girls of twenty. In a lurid but delightful vision she saw herself gay, beautiful, famous, the delight of the stalls, the admiration of the gallery, the recipient of bouquets and billets-doux, her photograph in every shop window . . . . (52)

19In the above passage, Augusta implies that she longs for physical youthfulness, which she thinks could lead to many romantic relationships that do not necessarily involve marriage and motherhood. Augusta’s refusal to age into a wife or a mother in her imagination about ‘her renewed youth’ makes it difficult for us to reduce her merely into a stereotypical spinster whose ‘nightmare’ is to age alone without her own family (50, ‘Spinster’ 375). Her longing to be admired on stage may be an indication that her desire for youth arises out of self-love. Furthermore, it may be noted that this middle-aged woman hopes to retain her knowledge of youth and age, believing that it is the key to her survival as a young woman. Fully aware that Victorian society will not establish a safety net for youthful and ignorant women as well as aged and experienced women, the vainglorious yet mature spinster tries to keep a balance between physical youth and mental experience, self-consciously wishing to be ‘at once young and experienced’ (49).

20Augusta’s perspective on female youth and age lets the readers rethink her identity. Although she admittedly has some conservative traits of an Old Woman, ‘what she hope[s] to do with her renewed youth’ runs beyond the territory of the Old Woman (50). When she hopes to make her way into the Victorian world as a young, ‘gay, beautiful, [and] famous’ single woman who ‘would avoid the misplaced gravity of . . .  youth’ (52, 51), we can indeed see that her fantasy about rejuvenation would position her as a New Old Woman, as the narrative progresses.

From a Crying Baby to a New Old Woman

21Whereas the first half of the novel revolves around the Old Woman’s age awareness, the second half throws light on what happens to the sisters after the older one’s transformation into ‘a little, shrivelled, red-faced baby’ after consuming an excess amount of elixir (73). Once Prudence discovers a baby in Augusta’s place, she hands it over to baby farmers, fearful of being mistaken for its unmarried mother.

  • 5 In Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Age (1995), Peter Laslett suggests that the average (...)
  • 6 This Act legalized adoption in England and Wales.

22The sisters’ amusing blunders lead to a comically adventurous journey through serious late Victorian social problems such as baby farming and infanticides. Through this lampoon of the sisters’ social engagement, Eccles highlights not only the sisters’ character flaws, such as Augusta’s vanity and Prudence’s timidity, but also the larger context of the latter half of the nineteenth century, where biological parenthood did not always guarantee responsible parenting. Although the rise of eugenics functioned to highlight the importance of blood relationships in the late nineteenth century, Victorian homes were not always an organic whole where children were safely protected by their biological parents. Above all, many Victorians still could not survive into old age,5 and many children therefore were left behind. In this light, canonical narratives of the time, such as Great Expectations (1861), Silas Marner (1861), and Jude the Obscure (1895) depicted orphaned children’s struggles to find their place in the world. These texts were written against the demographic background in which nearly ten percent of the children lost both parents ‘by age fifteen’ (Behlmer 299). Thus, adopting orphans was not uncommon during this period, and until the passage of the Adoption of Children Act of 1926,6 it was carried out in ‘private and informal’ ways in Victorian and Edwardian England, as Claudia Nelson puts it (145).

  • 7 Amelia Dyer was one of the murderers who took advantage of newspaper advertisements to adopt babies (...)

23During the time Eccles was writing Rejuvenation, numerous infants were sent away to strangers’ homes or foundling hospitals, but the worst-case scenario for them involved being handed over to baby farmers, most of whom were working-class women who adopted babies in exchange for payment. Aside from the cases in which parents died too early, babies born out of wedlock also ended up with baby farmers, some of whom murdered the babies. Between 1870 and 1910, six baby farmers were executed for murdering infants in England.7 It is this social background that informs Prudence’s reckless decision to sell Augusta to Sal Brown in the East End, a baby farmer involved in several infanticides. When Brown’s crimes are brought to light, Prudence’s integrity is also questioned, as she testifies in court to abandoning Augusta.

24In depicting Brown’s disclosure of abuse and murder of babies, the last three chapters of the novel provide a detailed description of Victorian society’s response to the crime. Above all, newspapers—‘anticipative of scandals’—publish sensationally speculative articles about the mothers of the abandoned children and ‘formally exhibi[t]’ the abandoned children to remind the Victorian audience that ‘[p]eople of good position do not hand over babies to a Sal Brown without strong reason’ (221). This description highlights how the baby farming problem as represented by the media provided ‘a thrill of excitement’ to the Victorians (220). Admittedly, when baby farm murders were brought to light in the late Victorian era, they instantly became a popular subject matter for the media scrutinizing the scandalous aspects of the cases.

25However, many New Women’s response to the abandoned babies was indeed different. In particular, those who were involved in the social purity movement highlighted the importance of ‘holy and sublime’ motherhood for resolving the baby farming issue (Swiney 56), instead of sensationalizing it. The suffrage campaigner and biologist Lydia Becker, who edited Women’s Suffrage Journal, discussed the dangers of baby farming from a female-centred perspective in such a way as to prompt society to ‘enforce more stringent responsibility on the fathers of deserted infants, and hold out a hope of redemption and restoration to the mothers’ (118). Taking a step further, Frances Swiney—the author of The Awakening of Women: or, Woman’s Part in Evolution (1899)—claimed that many social degeneration problems can be fixed by ‘divine’ women, especially mothers (197). The suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and the Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth went so far as to adopt abandoned children themselves, thus turning themselves into adoptive maternal saviours (Walker 211).

26As a New Woman author herself, Eccles too deals with the issue of the abandoned babies in her farcical narrative, but in so doing, she does not offer a heroic maternal figure. Instead, she transforms a greedy spinster into an abandoned baby, who grows up to become a New Woman icon attempting to solve the social problem. In Rejuvenation, as Augusta is rescued from the baby farmer and placed in court (175), she rapidly gets back into the older version of herself and walks the judgmental audience through what she witnessed and experienced at the workhouse for infants, as though she were given a grave mission to root out such social evils. She admittedly feels that she is in ‘a most disagreeable position for a lady’ in court, but this feeling does not restrain her from starting a new life as a New Woman speaker, who is given a mission to expose social injustice after finishing her ‘painful . . . rapid, journey towards maturity’ in front of the curious audience (231). ‘[A]s a valuable witness’ (232), the spinster—who has had no interest in feminist politics and no experience of wifehood and motherhood—announces that she will ‘bring before them’ what she knows about ‘the workhouse management of infants’ to raise awareness (233).

27Arguably, the egoistical spinster’s accidental involvement in the baby farming scandal complicates the aforementioned link between motherhood and New Womanhood established by the social purists. In effect, it was already a complicated issue inasmuch as the overemphasis on ‘divine’ motherhood in the abovementioned New Woman essays was questioned by Punch’s caricatures of the New Woman suffragette. For example, F. H. Townsend’s 1909 cartoon titled ‘Hereditary Instinct’ shows two kinds of suffragettes: one is a ‘Suffragette Mother (snatching a spare moment from really important things to visit the nursery)’, and the other is a crying ‘Infant’ who wants nothing but ‘A Vote’. In keeping with many other cartoons of the time, which depict the New Woman as ‘a comic fictional figure’ (Schaffer 39), this cartoon highlights the flaws of New Woman suffragettes’ in visualizing them either as an exhausted mother who clearly lacks maternal instinct or as an immature daughter. It thus weakens the efficacy of the New Woman’s idea of ‘holy and sublime’ motherhood and reduces her into a fictional figure.

28Interestingly, the sense of comic fictionality inherent in the fin-de-siècle representation of the New Woman was highlighted not only by her critics but also by her supporters. According to Talia Schaffer, by assigning the fictitious aspect to the New Woman, her critics attempted to ‘marginalize the movement’ (40), but ‘the New Woman’s supporters were equally concerned to assert the figure’s fictionality’ as a way of making her a grand symbolic figure who could ‘answer for every aspect of British life’ that seemed questionable (40, 50). I find this tendency in Eccles’s fiction which transforms its heroine fantastically into an abandoned baby. Admittedly, Eccles’s heroine is different from the vast and mythic New Woman character created by many New Woman writers. However, Eccles’s own comedic use of the trope of a crying baby still enables her to safely yet effectively expand the range of the New Woman. Eccles dismantles the existing boundary between old and new embedded in those critics’ negative perception of the New Woman. First, she transforms not the New Woman but the Old Woman into a crying baby daughter; that is, Eccles adds a comical twist to the trope of the crying baby to invalidate the established connection between the New Woman and the angry daughter. The dissatisfied baby who would fight against social injustice is therefore the Old Woman in this novel. Second, through her reinvention of the crying baby trope, no mention is made about heroic motherhood that New Woman’s supporters would glorify and that New Woman’s critics would vilify. Rather, it vividly portrays how the Old Woman’s vanity accidentally provides the vital momentum for social changes. Playing a wide range of roles—an unhappy middle-aged spinster, a vulnerable infant, and a victim and witness—the vainglorious Old Woman in court grabs an opportunity to influence the ways Victorians think and behave.

29The humorously ironical aspect of the Old Woman’s adventure gets amplified when New Women are depicted generally as not fully ready to enter the real world. For example, the novel farcically depicts a young ‘medical woman’—living at the same boarding house as the sisters—as a busybody who ‘marche[s] to the door of Prudence’s room, open[s] it, passe[s] in, and enter[s] the sleeping apartment of the elder Miss Semaphore’ in pursuance of her self-imposed mission ‘to visit that poor, suffering sister’ as a New Woman (130). Given this character’s professional engagement in the field of medicine in Victorian England, it is not difficult to see that Eccles suggests her as being part of the revolting daughter generation. Yet when the medical lady seeks to create a just environment merely within the boarding house rather than the world outside, Eccles satirizes the New Woman’s short-sightedness and prompts her readers to contrast it with her Old Woman protagonist’s unexpected yet powerful experience in the world outside.

30The Old Woman heroine’s adventure culminates in her rebirth as a speaker full of ‘[t]he joy of being able to speak’ in court (231). Upon getting back to the older version of herself in front of many people, Augusta ‘find[s] perennial satisfaction in contrasting her present state with that she ha[s] so unwillingly endured’ (237). She therefore happily evolves into a New Woman speaker who plays a central role in exposing the social ills in court. The Old Woman’s secret fantasy about being on stage as a young, ‘gay, beautiful, [and] famous’ single woman has not been fulfilled in the way she has expected (52). Yet standing in court instead of on stage, her failed rejuvenation arouses the Victorian audience to enthusiasm: ‘[a] wax model of Augusta was set up at Madame Tussaud’s, and the baby clothes she was wearing when taken to the workhouse were shown in a glass case’ (238). This comedic description of Augusta’s rebirth invokes her earlier remark that she wants to see herself become ‘the delight of the stalls, the admiration of the gallery [and] her photograph in every shop window’ (52). Though the vainglorious old-fashioned spinster’s ‘temporary’ rejuvenation has not occurred as planned (239), it allows her to speak out and raise awareness against baby farming as well as achieve fame. In this sense, Augusta’s rejuvenation may not be a complete failure inasmuch as she has metamorphosed into a New Woman in the public imagination. Consequentially, her contemporaries would never stop applauding her comedic adventure to the workhouse for infants and eulogizing the sisters’ bravery.

31Most importantly, it should be noted that Augusta herself changes her self-perception. Despite her failure to attain physical youthfulness, she shows signs of symbolic progress by boldly sharing with others her awful experience in the workhouse ‘in a constant flow of good humour’ (236). No longer full of regrets and secrets, she embraces her new identity as a New Old Woman. Her mentality as an Old Woman is kept intact, and her social status remains that of an unmarried woman, but she is not the same person that she used to be. No longer in need of an elixir, she has been liberated from the age consciousness that has tormented her for a long time. ‘[F]eeling that she [i]s once more in command of the helm’ (236), she opens up a new chapter in her life as a New Old Woman.

32In essence, Eccles highlights the New Old Woman’s comical contribution to society in Rejuvenation. Considering Eccles’s emphasis on the necessity of a pension plan for aging women, as a pioneering New Woman journalist, it is apparent that her interest in the female aging question governs her lampoon of the Old Woman’s journey to youth in the novel. Importantly, by blurring the boundary between the New and the Old Woman in her fiction, Eccles suggests her New Woman agenda in less radical ways. In this sense, her strategy is reminiscent of Schaffer’s opinion regarding the New Woman writers who wanted to frame their identity as moderate within the social atmosphere where the New Woman’s literary status itself was perceived as a political threat to the established order of the world. Thus, those writers had a tendency to express their ‘own political ideas without being branded a radical . . .  via conservative language’ (Schaffer 46). I argue that this tendency is certainly present in Eccles’s self-conscious dramatization of the conservative Old Woman’s unintentional yet exuberant revolution. Choosing the Old Woman—instead of the New Woman—as the main character of this farcical narrative of rejuvenation, the New Woman author presents a new female aging model not merely safely but also effectively. It is the old-fashioned old maid’s funny mistake that ironically gives her a chance to make herself known to the Victorian world as a ‘New Old Woman’ with the courage to speak up against injustice. As such, the fin-de-siècle text written by a New Woman author illustrates how an Old Woman’s rejuvenation into a ‘New Old Woman’ may be a fantastical yet playfully powerful way to change the world.

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1 Eccles was inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne’s story ‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ (1837), in which four friends drink magic water from the fountain of youth (1837).

2 To name one such essay on the New Woman: In ‘Experiences of a Woman Journalist’ published in the June 1893 issue of Blackwoods Magazine, Eccles discussed how difficult it was for her to begin her career as a journalist. She says: ‘The immense difficulty a woman finds in getting into an office in any recognised capacity makes a journalistic beginning far harder for her than for a man. Where a man finds one obstacle we find a dozen’ (1893, 831).

3 This concern about the physical signs of age would be shared by a vast majority of Victorians at the turn of the century, with beauty industries such as Sunlight using youth-glorifying slogans such as ‘How to Keep Young’.

4 In his 1857 book titled The Change of Life, the physician E. J. Tilt states that ‘the average date of cessation’ of menstruation is 44.6 to 46.8 years (26).

5 In Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Age (1995), Peter Laslett suggests that the average life span in 1801 was thirty-six years, and it rose to fifty years in 1901 (19). This indicates that Victorian medicine had not sufficiently advanced to ensure a dramatic increase in life expectancy.

6 This Act legalized adoption in England and Wales.

7 Amelia Dyer was one of the murderers who took advantage of newspaper advertisements to adopt babies in exchange for money. She killed many of the babies placed in her care and was executed in 1896.

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Somi Ahn, « The Old Woman’s Farcical Rejuvenation in The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore (1897) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Somi Ahn

Somi Ahn is an assistant professor at Pusan National University, South Korea. She received her PhD in English from Texas A&M University. Her areas of interest include Victorian and Edwardian Fiction, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Life Course Theory. She got published in Neophilologus, Children’s Literature in Education, and Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She is currently writing an article about George Egerton’s New Woman short stories.
Somi Ahn enseigne à Pusan National University en Corée du Sud. Depuis son doctorat, soutenu à Texas A&M University, sa recherche porte sur la fiction victorienne et édouardienne, les écrits de femmes, les études de genre, ainsi que dans le domaine « Life Course Theory ». Elle a publié des essais dans Neophilologus, Children’s Literature in Education, and Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Elle travaille en ce moment sur la fiction courte de George Egerton.

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