Una Lucy Silberrad
|Una Lucy Silberrad|
8 May 1872|
Buckhurst Hill, Essex
|Died||1 September 1955
|Relative(s)||Sister of Oswald Silberrad|
Una Lucy Silberrad (Burnham-on-Crouch, specifically use that term, thus avoiding both the gender-neutral term "writer", as well as the later 20th century tendency towards female 'authors'; all highly consistent with Una Silberrad's feminist views. She first lived at Buckhurst Hill, and then moved to Burnham on Crouch later in life. She was an elder sister of the chemist Oswald Silberrad, and some fragments of his scientific work appear in her fiction. She never married.8 May 1872 – 1 September 1955 ), to use her own term, was a British authoress. Both her grave slab and her memorial brass in St.Mary's
It was not until 1899 when Silberrad was 27 years old that her first novel, The Enchanter, was published. It received one of its first reviews inThe Bookman, a trade periodical published in New York and London. After 1899 she wrote and published regularly. Of her more than 40 titles, most were novels. She also wrote short stories and a few non-fictional works. Her first 26 books were published by a variety of publishers, based in London and New York, but the second half of her oeuvre came out with Hutchinson & Co. Her permanent literary agent was A. & P. Watt & Co. Apart from her fictional work, she wrote one work on horticulture: Dutch Bulbs and Gardens, a collaborative work written after a visit to the Netherlands. It contains appendices by Sophia Lyall and illustrations by Mina Nixon.
Her writing was most likely intended for a conservative middle-class, middlebrow audience. Her novels contain many allusions to other literary works and concepts, but her prose style, which might be classified as late-Victorian, is eclectic. She reused several literary topics that are closely connected with her life, including geographical locations, such as Essex, the North of England and the City of London. Another recurring theme is the sciences, particularly chemistry and alchemy, which appear in over half of her novels, undoubtedly using her brother’s professional experiences and education: Oswald Silberrad was a renowned early 20th-century chemist. Several early works feature a brother of the heroine who studies chemistry. A colophon in Keren of Lowbole (1913) describes her own attempts at making artificial lapis lazuli(ultramarine) and ether.
The requirement for economic success is one of the indicators of middlebrow writing. Silberrad’s novels “are clearly targeted to a conservative middle-class audience”. Her works were frequently published in reprint series, decent but inexpensive copies which catered for the needs of the increasing numbers of potential readers, particularly among the suburban middle classes.
Ross McKibbin defines middlebrow novels as "reasonably well written and usually (though certainly not always) about non-trivial subjects [and] at least approachable." Harold Williams' description of Silberrad's style of writing corresponds to this definition. His view of Silberrad is that she “has less gift as a stylist, and her method is sometimes crude, but she is observant, her characters live and her tales are marked by a kind of conscious energy.” Nicola Humble furthermore defines the feminine middlebrow literature of Silberrad’s time as “a powerful force in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities […].” Analogously, Silberrad demonstrates a high degree of class-consciousness and shows the typical measuring of a middlebrow world against other values. The Good Comrade (1907), for instance, reflects the negotiation of cultural and class-related values on various levels. Also with respect to gender roles, Silberrad integrates critiques of gender relations and stereotypes into her fiction, whilst retaining typical middlebrow narrative frameworks, such as the ‘romance that ends in marriage’ topos (see below).
Silberrad and the Victorian and Edwardian periods
Many of Silberrad's early works are deeply rooted in the Victorian era. Not only does she take up and mix popular 19th-century genres such as melodrama, romance and Gothic fiction, but she is also preoccupied with late Victorian and Edwardian concerns such as class and gender.
The emerging 'New Woman' and the growing universal suffrage movements led Silberrad to place different female characters in the centre of her fiction. Her women struggle to find the best possible positions for themselves in life. Often the author finally seems to advocate a middle position between the meek and obedient 'angel in the house' and the radical suffragette. She portrays women who find contentment through their independence of mind, education and the little freedoms they fight for and obtain in their homes.
From the Edwardian period onwards, Silberrad’s writing becomes more conscious of class questions. This becomes obvious in Rawson-Clew, the aristocratic hero of her novel The Good Comrade. He is most often depicted in the street or in other public places. His house in the North of England is only mentioned in passing and is never described in detail. This gives the aristocratic spaces he inhabits a certain utopian quality which is at once affirmative of the aristocracy and conscious of the fact that as a class it is far removed from the reality of life. Instead, it is the middle class that is gaining new importance.
This new middle class is represented by the novel's heroine, practical and resourceful Julia Polkington who fights through adverse situations and emerges victorious. It is her special kind of diligence and moral disposition that will determine the future society. Not only does Julia renew the aristocracy through her marriage to Rawson-Clew, she also negotiates gender relations. Before agreeing to the marriage, the young woman sets conditions for it which Rawson-Clew obviously accepts. To ensure its continuing existence, the aristocracy has to move towards the middle class. Only by combining the strengths of both classes, social stability can be maintained.
Apart from depicting shifts in the English class structure, the relationship between Julia and Rawson-Clew is also exemplary of a new orientation with respect to gender questions. Marriages in which freedom, equality and mutual respect are dominant are portrayed as the future. Silberrad perceives social changes in Edwardian society but does not treat them harshly. She rather focuses on the gradual and almost imperceptible changes that shape a future society. The only Victorian 'institution' she mercilessly exposes in The Good Comrade is the family. Its slow decline is visible in the Polkingtons, individuals who express selfish desires aimed at a good appearance rather than upholding moral values. The only exception again is Julia, the 'middle' daughter who takes charge of her own life. And again it could be said that she finally sets up a new family on her own terms with Rawson-Clew. The treatment of class as well as gender questions shows Una Silberrad's penchant for advocating gradual change and middle courses.
From her early narrative texts onwards, Silberrad consistently casts female protagonists with independent and self-determined lives, who are contrasted with sets of ridiculously unemancipated women, often ludicrous striving after the ‘good match’. Silberrad's female protagonists embody an entirely different type of femininity, moving with ease in traditionally male circles, while also working self-consciously as scientists, politicians or even self-appointed spies. They are emancipated in spirit, and fearless in the face of public opinion.
Despite this, Silberrad’s attitude towards the more political side of the issue of female emancipation seems ambiguous. In The Good Comrade she addresses the question of emancipation directly:
[…] he remarked, "I think girls are usually brought up with too much protection; I mean girls of our class, they are too much shielded; one has them for the house only; if they were flowers I would call them stove-plants." Julia laughed. "You believe in the emancipation of women then?" she said; "you would rather a woman could take care of herself, and not be afraid, than be womanly?" "No," he answered; "I would like them to be both, as you are."
This scene illustrates the way in which Silberrad implicitly scrutinises male attitudes towards the role of women in society. The cautious, tongue-in-cheek question of the female character works inductively. She aims to win the respect of her male counterpart by immersion rather than conversion. As in so many of Silberrad’s texts, a pointedly modern stance in these matters is not a question of political campaigning but remains that of a state of mind. Emancipation is implicit rather than explicit, shown through one’s small daily achievements and decisions rather than through radical speeches or political actions.
The dictate of the happy end in the middlebrow novel requires her female protagonists to settle in matrimony. However, while such an ending may cause some dismay for readers who had hoped for a more accentuated feminist settlement one cannot ignore the fact that within Silberrad’s vision of the traditional corset of marriage gender roles and their hegemonic balance are re-negotiated and thereby self-consciously re-calibrated. Modernisation takes place within the institutional frameworks of society but does not operate against them. It follows from this that Silberrad communicates what must seem small-scale changes to an existing worldview but never opts for its radical discontinuation. This may sometimes disappoint in its calm if not cautious detachment from the radicalism of the modernist movement. However, Silberrad’s writing reveals the osmotic and thus gradual domestication of modern thinking in the wider realms of British society in the early decades of the 20th century.
Silberrad was a regular churchgoer, being a staunch member of the Church of England. Apparently she was also well acquainted with a Quaker family in Buckhurst Hill, her birthplace. References to both Church of England doctrines and Quaker beliefs are a common thread in her literary works, particularly in her historical fiction. The Wedding of Lady Lovell (1905) comprises short stories depicting the dissenter Tobiah who overcomes evil in other characters’ lives, e.g. seemingly illegitimate relationships or domestic violence. Other novels dealing with Quaker beliefs are The Second Book of Tobiah (1906) and Sampson Rideout, Quaker (1911). The narrators’ comments on the Quaker characters oscillate between respect for their principles and ironic distance towards their outlandish and eccentric behaviour.
The Good Comrade (1907) discusses differences between societies following the Church of England and social circles influenced by Calvinist teachings. Again, the narrator treats both sides ambivalently. The irony, however, rests more on the restrictive, Calvinist-inspired family the main character Julia works for during her stay in the Netherlands.
Echoing her frequent comparisons of the obscure practice of alchemy with modern science, Silberrad contrasts Protestant faith with rites rooted in Catholic or pagan tradition. Simon Scroat in "The Wedding of Lady Lovell" performs a Satanic ritual in order to kill Tobiah the dissenter – only to be overcome by Tobiah. Fortune telling, witchcraft and fear of the occult powers of gypsies find discussion in Curayl (1906), Keren of Lowbole (1913) and many other texts. In general, the texts treat such practices as results of irrational superstition.
In later life, at Burnham on Crouch, Una Silberrad was also a leading member of the Women's Institute.
- Short stories
- Fox 2009: 60.
- McKibbin, Ross (1998): Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951. Oxford: Oxford UP. 513.
- Williams 2007: 467.
- Humble, Nicola. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 3. (ISBN 978-0198186762)
- The Good Comrade at Project Gutenberg. 69.
- Macdonald, Kate. "Edwardian transitions in the fiction of Una L Silberrad (1872-1955)". English Literature in Transition, 54.1 (January 2011, forthcoming).
- Fox, Tony. "Una Silberrad, Authoress, 1872-1955". Essex Journal 44.2 (Autumn 2009): 58-63.
- Kemp, Sandra, Mitchell, Charlotte, Trotter, David (eds) Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion (Oxford University Press, 1997)
- Williams, Harold. Modern English Writers - Being a Study of Imaginative Literature 1890-1914. Sidgwick & Jackson, 1918. Naismith Press, 2007. (ISBN 978-1406738100)
- The Good Comrade at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML editions).
- Works by Una Silberrad at the Internet Archive.