“A Castaway” by Augusta Webster
“A Castaway” is a dramatic monologue in which a prostitute of the Victorian Age defends her vocation. Through her words, the reader is guided along the path that the woman in the poem walked during her fall into prostitution as she expounds on the conventionality and superficiality of her former life as well as the poor and limited options that had been available to her. As the poem moves along, the speaker defends her decision to engage in prostitution and offers rebuttals for actions that were commonly thrown at these women during this time. Important issues such as societal views of prostitution and attempts at reformation are also highlighted in the poem.
POOR little diary, with its simple thoughts,
its good resolves, its “Studied French an hour,”
“Read Modern History,” “Trimmed up my grey hat,”
“Darned stockings,” “Tatted,” “Practised my new song,”
“Went to the daily service,” “Took Bess soup,” 5
“Went out to tea.” Poor simple diary!
and did I write it? Was I this good girl,
this budding colourless young rose of home?
did I so live content in such a life,
seeing no larger scope, nor asking it, 10
than this small constant round — old clothes to mend,
new clothes to make, then go and say my prayers,
or carry soup, or take a little walk
and pick the ragged-robins in the hedge?
Then for ambition, (was there ever life 15
that could forego that?) to improve my mind
and know French better and sing harder songs;
for gaiety, to go, in my best white
well washed and starched and freshened with new bows,
and take tea out to meet the clergyman. 20
No wishes and no cares, almost no hopes,
only the young girl’s hazed and golden dreams
that veil the Future from her.
So long since:
and now it seems a jest to talk of me
as if I could be one with her, of me 25
who am . . . . . . me.
And what is that? My looking-glass
answers it passably; a woman sure,
no fiend, no slimy thing out of the pools,
a woman with a ripe and smiling lip
that has no venom in its touch I think, 30
with a white brow on which there is no brand;
a woman none dare call not beautiful,
not womanly in every woman’s grace.
Aye let me feed upon my beauty thus,
be glad in it like painters when they see 35
at last the face they dreamed but could not find
look from their canvass on them, triumph in it,
the dearest thing I have. Why, ’tis my all,
let me make much of it: is it not this,
this beauty, my own curse at once and tool 40
to snare men’s souls — (I know what the good say
of beauty in such creatures) — is it not this
that makes me feel myself a woman still,
some little pride, some little —
Here’s a jest!
what word will fit the sense but modesty? 45
A wanton I but modest!
I’m not drunk in the streets, ply not for hire
at infamous corners with my likenesses
of the humbler kind; yes, modesty’s my word —
‘twould shape my mouth well too, I think I’ll try: 50
“Sir, Mr What-you-will, Lord Who-knows-what,
my present lover or my next to come,
value me at my worth, fill your purse full,
for I am modest; yes, and honour me
as though your schoolgirl sister or your wife 55
could let her skirts brush mine or talk of me;
for I am modest.”
Well, I flout myself:
but yet, but yet —
Fie, poor fantastic fool,
why do I play the hypocrite alone,
who am no hypocrite with others by? 60
where should be my “But yet”? I am that thing
called half a dozen dainty names, and none
dainty enough to serve the turn and hide
the one coarse English worst that lurks beneath:
just that, no worse, no better.
And, for me, 65
I say let no one be above her trade;
I own my kindredship with any drab
who sells herself as I, although she crouch
in fetid garrets and I have a home
all velvet and marqueterie and pastilles, 70
although she hide her skeleton in rags
and I set fashions and wear cobweb lace:
the difference lies but in my choicer ware,
that I sell beauty and she ugliness;
our traffic’s one — I’m no sweet slaver-tongue 75
to gloze upon it and explain myself
a sort of fractious angel misconceived —
our traffic’s one: I own it. And what then?
I know of worse that are called honourable.
Our lawyers, who, with noble eloquence 80
and virtuous outbursts, lie to hang a man,
or lie to save him, which way goes the fee:
our preachers, gloating on your future hell
for not believing what they doubt themselves:
our doctors, who sort poisons out by chance 85
and wonder how they’ll answer, and grow rich:
our journalists, whose business is to fib
and juggle truths and falsehoods to and fro:
our tradesmen, who must keep unspotted names
and cheat the least like stealing that they can: 90
our — all of them, the virtuous worthy men
who feed on the world’s follies, vices, wants,
and do their businesses of lies and shams
honestly, reputably, while the world
claps hands and cries “good luck,” which of their trades, 95
their honourable trades, barefaced like mine,
all secrets brazened out, would shew more white?
And whom do I hurt more than they? as much?
The wives? Poor fools, what do I take from them
worth crying for or keeping? If they knew 100
what their fine husbands look like seen by eyes
that may perceive there are more men than one!
But, if they can, let them just take the pains
to keep them: ’tis not such a mighty task
to pin an idiot to your apron-string; 105
and wives have an advantage over us,
(the good and blind ones have), the smile or pout
leaves them no secret nausea at odd times.
Oh they could keep their husbands if they cared,
but ’tis an easier life to let them go, 110
and whimper at it for morality.
Oh! those shrill carping virtues, safely housed
from reach of even a smile that should put red
on a decorous cheek, who rail at us
with such a spiteful scorn and rancourousness, 115
(which maybe is half envy at the heart),
and boast themselves so measurelessly good
and us so measurelessly unlike them,
what is their wondrous merit that they stay
in comfortable homes whence not a soul 120
has ever thought of tempting them, and wear
no kisses but a husband’s upon lips
there is no other man desires to kiss —
refrain in fact from sin impossible?
How dare they hate us so? what have they done, 125
what borne, to prove them other than we are?
What right have they to scorn us — glass-case saints,
Dianas under lock and key — what right
more than the well-fed helpless barn-door fowl
to scorn the larcenous wild-birds? 130
Pshaw, let be!
Scorn or no scorn, what matter for their scorn?
I have outfaced my own — that’s harder work.
Aye let their virtuous malice dribble on —
mock snowstorms on the stage — I’m proof long since:
I have looked coolly on my what and why, 135
and I accept myself.
Oh I’ll endorse
the shamefullest revilings mouthed at me,
cry “True! Oh perfect picture! Yes, that’s I!”
and add a telling blackness here and there,
and then dare swear you, every nine of ten, 140
my judges and accusers, I’d not change
my conscience against yours, you who tread out
your devil’s pilgrimage along the roads
that take in church and chapel, and arrange
a roundabout and decent way to hell. 145
Well, mine’s a short way and a merry one:
so says my pious hash of ohs and ahs,
choice texts and choicer threats, appropriate names,
(Rahabs and Jezebels), some fierce Tartuffe
hurled at me through the post. We had rare fun 150
over that tract digested with champagne.
Where is it? where’s my rich repertory
of insults biblical? ‘ I prey on souls‘ —
only my men have oftenest none I think:
‘I snare the simple ones‘ — but in these days 155
there seem to be none simple and none snared,
and most men have their favourite sinnings planned
to do them civilly and sensibly:
‘I braid my hair‘ — but braids are out of date:
‘I paint my cheeks‘ — I always wear them pale: 160
Pshaw! the trash is savourless to-day:
one cannot laugh alone. There, let it burn.
What, does the windy dullard think one needs
his wisdom dove-tailed on to Solomon’s,
his threats out-threatening God’s, to teach the news 165
that those who need not sin have safer souls?
We know it, but we’ve bodies to save too;
and so we earn our living.
Well lit, tract!
at least you’ve made me a good leaping blaze.
Up, up, how the flame shoots! and now ’tis dead. 170
Oh proper finish, preaching to the last —
no such bad omen either; sudden end,
and no sad withering horrible old age.
How one would clutch at youth to hold it tight!
and then to know it gone, to see it gone, 175
be taught its absence by harsh careless looks,
to live forgotten, solitary, old —
the cruellest word that ever woman learns.
Old — that’s to be nothing, or to be at best
a blurred memorial that in better days 180
there was a woman once with such a name.
No, no, I could not bear it: death itself
shews kinder promise . . . . . . even death itself,
since it must come one day —
Oh this grey gloom!
This rain, rain, rain, what wretched thoughts it brings! 185
Death: I’ll not think of it.
Will no one come?
‘Tis dreary work alone.
Why did I read
that silly diary? Now, sing song, ding dong,
come the old vexing echoes back again,
church bells and nursery good-books, back again 190
upon my shrinking ears that had forgotten —
I hate the useless memories: ’tis fools’ work
singing the hacknied dirge of ‘better days:’
best take Now kindly, give the past good-bye,
whether it were a better or a worse. 195
Yes, yes, I listened to the echoes once,
the echoes and the thoughts from the old days.
The worse for me: I lost my richest friend,
and that was all the difference. For the world
I would not have that flight known. How they’d roar: 200
“What! Eulalie, when she refused us all,
‘ill’ and ‘away,’ was doing Magdalene,
tears, ashes, and her Bible, and then off
to hide her in a Refuge… for a week!”
A wild whim that, to fancy I could change 205
my new self for my old, because I wished!
Since then, when in my languid days there comes
that craving, like homesickness, to go back
to the good days, the dear old stupid days,
to the quiet and the innocence, I know 210
’tis a sick fancy and try palliatives.
What is it? You go back to the old home,
and ’tis not your home, has no place for you,
and, if it had, you could not fit you in it.
And could I fit me to my former self? 215
If I had had the wit, like some of us,
to sow my wild-oats into three per cents,
could I not find me shelter in the peace
of some far nook where none of them would come,
nor whisper travel from this scurrilous world 220
that gloats and moralizes thiough its leers
to blast me with my fashionable shame?
There I might — oh my castle in the clouds!
and where’s its rent? — but there, were there a there,
I might again live the grave blameless life 225
among such simple pleasures, simple cares:
but could they be my pleasures, be my cares?
The blameless life, but never the content —
never. How could I henceforth be content
in any life but one that sets the brain 230
in a hot merry fever with its stir?
what would there be in quiet rustic days,
each like the other, full of time to think,
to keep one bold enough to live at all?
Quiet is hell, I say — as if a woman 235
could bear to sit alone, quiet all day,
and loathe herself, and sicken on her thoughts.
They tried it at the Refuge, and I failed:
I could not bear it. Dreary hideous room,
coarse pittance, prison rules, one might bear these 240
and keep one’s purpose; but so much alone,
and then made faint and weak and fanciful
by change from pampering to half-famishing —
good God, what thoughts come! Only one week more
and ‘twould have ended: but in one day more 245
I must have killed myself. And I loathe death,
the dreadful foul corruption, with who knows
what future after it.
Well, I came back,
back to my slough. Who says I had my choice?
Could I stay there to die of some mad death? 250
and if I rambled out into the world,
sinless but penniless, what else were that
but slower death, slow pining shivering death
by misery and hunger? Choice! what choice
of living well or ill? could I have that? 255
And who would give it me? I think indeed
if some kind hand, a woman’s — I hate men —
had stretched itself to help me to firm ground,
taken a chance and risked my falling back,
I could have gone my way not falling back: 260
but, let her be all brave, all charitable,
how could she do it? Such a trifling boon,
a little work to live by, ’tis not much,
and I might have found will enough to last:
but where’s the work? More sempstresses than shirts; 265
and defter hands at white work than are mine
drop starved at last: dressmakers, milliners,
too many too they say; and then their trades
need skill, apprenticeship. And who so bold
as hire me for their humblest drudgery? 270
not even for scullery slut; not even, I think,
for governess, although they’d get me cheap.
And after all it would be something hard,
with the marts for decent women overfull,
if I could elbow in and snatch a chance 275
and oust some good girl so, who then perforce
must come and snatch her chance among our crowd.
Why, if the worthy men who think all’s done
if we’ll but come where we can hear them preach,
could bring us all, or any half of us, 280
into their fold, teach all us wandering sheep,
or only half of us, to stand in rows
and baa them hymns and moral songs, good lack,
what would they do with us? what could they do?
Just think! with were’t but half of us on hand 285
to find work for… or husbands. Would they try
to ship us to the colonies for wives?
Well, well, I know the wise ones talk and talk:
“Here’s cause, here’s cure:” “No, here it is and here:”
and find society to blame, or law, 290
the Church, the men, the women, too few schools,
too many schools, too much, too little taught:
somewhere or somehow someone is to blame:
but I say all the fault’s with God himself
who puts too many women in the world. 295
We ought to die off reasonably and leave
as many as the men want, none to waste.
Here’s cause; the woman’s superfluity:
and for the cure, why, if it were the law,
say, every year, in due percentages, 300
balancing them with men as the times need,
to kill off female infants, ‘twould make room;
and some of us would not have lost too much,
losing life ere we know what it can mean.
The other day I saw a woman weep 305
beside her dead child’s bed: the little thing
lay smiling, and the mother wailed half mad,
shrieking to God to give it back again.
I could have laughed aloud: the little girl
living had but her mother’s life to live; 310
there she lay smiling, and her mother wept
to know her gone!
My mother would have wept.
Oh mother, mother, did you ever dream,
you good grave simple mother, you pure soul
no evil could come nigh, did you once dream 315
in all your dying cares for your lone girl
left to fight out her fortune all alone
that there would be this danger? — for your girl,
taught by you, lapped in a sweet ignorance,
scarcely more wise of what things sin could be 320
than some young child a summer six months old,
where in the north the summer makes a day,
of what is darkness… darkness that will come
to-morrow suddenly. Thank God at least
for this much of my life, that when you died, 325
that when you kissed me dying, not a thought
of this made sorrow for you, that I too
was pure of even fear.
Oh yes, I thought,
still new in my insipid treadmill life,
(my father so late dead), and hopeful still 330
there might be something pleasant somewhere in it,
some sudden fairy come, no doubt, to turn
my pumpkin to a chariot, I thought then
that I might plod, and plod, and drum the sounds
of useless facts into unwilling ears, 335
tease children with dull questions half the day,
then con dull answers in my room at night
ready for next day’s questions, mend quill pens
and cut my fingers, add up sums done wrong
and never get them right; teach, teach, and teach — 340
what I half knew, or not at all — teach, teach
for years, a lifetime — I!
And yet, who knows?
it might have been, for I was patient once,
and willing, and meant well; it might have been
had I but still clung on in my first place — 345
a safe dull place, where mostly there were smiles
but never merry-makings; where all days
jogged on sedately busy, with no haste;
where all seemed measured out, but margins broad:
a dull home but a peaceful, where I felt 350
my pupils would be dear young sisters soon,
and felt their mother take me to her heart,
motherly to all lonely harmless things.
But I must have a conscience, must blurt out
my great discovery of my ignorance! 355
And who required it of me? And who gained?
What did it matter for a more or less
the girls learnt in their schoolbooks, to forget
in their first season? We did well together:
they loved me and I them: but I went off 360
to housemaid’s pay, six crossgrained brats to teach,
wrangles and jangles, doubts, disgrace… then this;
and they had a perfection found for them,
who has all ladies’ learning in her head
abridged and scheduled, speaks five languages, 365
knows botany and conchology and globes,
draws, paints, plays, sings, embroiders, teaches all
on a patent method never known to fail:
and now they’re finished and, I hear, poor things,
are the worst dancers and worst dressers out. 370
And where’s their profit of those prison years
all gone to make them wise in lesson books?
who wants his wife to know weeds’ Latin names?
who ever chose a girl for saying dates?
or asked if she had learned to trace a map? 375
Well, well, the silly rules this silly world
makes about women! This is one of them.
Why must there be pretence of teaching them
what no one ever cares that they should know,
what, grown out of the schoolroom, they cast off 380
like the schoolroom pinafore, no better fit
for any use of real grown-up life,
for any use to her who seeks or waits
the husband and the home, for any use,
for any shallowest pretence of use, 385
to her who has them? Do I not know this,
I like my betters, that a woman’s life,
her natural life, her good life, her one life,
is in her husband, God on earth to her,
and what she knows and what she can and is 390
is only good as it brings good to him?
Oh God, do I not know it? I the thing
of shame and rottenness, the animal
that feed men’s lusts and prey on them, I, I,
who should not dare to take the name of wife 395
on my polluted lips, who in the word
hear but my own reviling, I know that.
I could have lived by that rule, how content:
my pleasure to make him some pleasure, pride
to be as he would have me, duty, care, 400
to fit all to his taste, rule my small sphere
to his intention; then to lean on him,
be guided, tutored, loved — no not that word,
that loved which between men and women means
all selfishness, all putrid talk, all lust, 405
all vanity, all idiocy — not loved
but cared for. I’ve been loved myself, I think,
some once or twice since my poor mother died,
but cared for, never: — that a word for homes,
kind homes, good homes, where simple children come 410
and ask their mother is this right or wrong,
because they know she’s perfect, cannot err;
their father told them so, and he knows all,
being so wise and good and wonderful,
even enough to scold even her at times 415
and tell her everything she does not know.
Ah the sweet nursery logic!
Fool! thrice fool!
do I hanker after that too? Fancy me
infallible nursery saint, live code of law!
me preaching! teaching innocence to be good! — 420
Yet the baby thing that woke
and wailed an hour or two, and then was dead,
was mine, and had he lived . . . . . . why then my name
would have been mother. But ’twas well he died:
I could have been no mother, I, lost then 425
beyond his saving. Had he come before
and lived, come to me in the doubtful days
when shame and boldness had not grown one sense,
for his sake, with the courage come of him,
I might have struggled back.
But how? But how? 430
His father would not then have let me go:
his time had not yet come to make an end
of my ‘for ever’ with a hireling’s fee
and civil light dismissal. None but him
to claim a bit of bread of if I went, 435
child or no child: would he have given it me?
He! no; he had not done with me. No help,
no help, no help. Some ways can be trodden back,
but never our way, we who one wild day
have given goodbye to what in our deep hearts 440
the lowest woman still holds best in life,
good name — good name though given by the world
that mouths and garbles with its decent prate,
and wraps it in respectable grave shams,
and patches conscience partly by the rule 445
of what one’s neighbour thinks but something more
by what his eyes are sharp enough to see.
How I could scorn it with its Pharisees,
if it could not scorn me: but yet, but yet —
oh God, if I could look it in the face! 450
Oh I am wild, am ill, I think, to night:
will no one come and laugh with me? No feast,
no merriment to-night. So long alone!
Will no one come?
At least there’s a new dress
to try, and grumble at — they never fit 455
to one’s ideal. Yes, a new rich dress,
with lace like this too, that’s a soothing balm
for any fretting woman, cannot fail,
I’ve heard men say it… and they know so well
what’s in all women’s hearts, especially 460
women like me.
No help! no help! no help!
How could it be? It was too late long since —
even at the first too late. Whose blame is that?
there are some kindly people in the world,
but what can they do? If one hurls oneself 465
into a quicksand, what can be the end,
but that one sinks and sinks? Cry out for help?
Ah yes, and, if it came, who is so strong
to strain from the firm ground and lift one out?
And how, so firmly clutching the stretched hand, 470
as death’s pursuing terror bids, even so,
how can one reach firm land, having to foot
the treacherous crumbling soil that slides and gives
and sucks one in again? Impossible path!
No, why waste struggles, I or any one? 475
what is must be. What then? I, where I am,
sinking and sinking; let the wise pass by
and keep their wisdom for an apter use,
let me sink merrily as I best may.
Only, I think, my brother — I forgot 480
he stopped his brotherhood some years ago —
but if he had been just so much less good
as to remember mercy. Did he think
how once I was his sister, prizing him
as sisters do, content to learn for him 485
the lesson girls with brothers all must learn,
to do without?
I have heard girls lament
that doing so without all things one would,
but I saw never aught to murmur at,
for men must be made ready for their work, 490
and women all have more or less their chance
of husbands to work for them, keep them safe
like summer roses in soft greenhouse air
that never guess ’tis winter out of doors:
no, I saw never aught to murmur at, 495
content with stinted fare and shabby clothes
and cloistered silent life to save expense,
teaching myself out of my borrowed books,
while he for some one pastime, (needful true
to keep him of his rank, ’twas not his fault), 500
spent in a month what could have given me
my teachers for a year.
‘Twas no one’s fault:
for could he be launched forth on the rude sea
of this contentious world and left to find
oars and the boatman’s skill by some good chance? 505
‘Twas no one’s fault: yet still he might have thought
of our so different youths, and owned at least
’tis pitiful when a mere nerveless girl,
untutored, must put forth upon that sea,
not in the woman’s true place, the wife’s place, 510
to trust a husband and be borne along,
but impotent blind pilot to herself.
Merciless, merciless — like the prudent world
that will not have the flawed soul prank itself
with a hoped second virtue, will not have 515
the woman fallen once lift up herself . . . . . .
lest she should fall again. Oh how his taunts,
his loathing fierce reproaches, scarred and seared,
like branding iron hissing in a wound!
And it was true — that killed me: and I felt 520
a hideous hopeless shame kill out my heart,
and knew myself for ever that he said,
that which I was — Oh it was true, true, true.
No, not true then. I was not all that then. 525
Oh, I have drifted on before mad winds
and made ignoble shipwreck, not to-day
could any breeze of heaven prosper me
into the track again, nor any hand
snatch me out of the whirlpool I have reached;
Nay, he judged very well: he knew 530
repentance was too dear a luxury
for a beggar’s buying, knew it earns no bread —
and knew me a too base and nerveless thing
to bear my first fault’s sequel and just die.
And how could he have helped me? Held my hand, 535
owned me for his, fronted the angry world
clothed with my ignominy? Or maybe
taken me to his home to damn him worse?
What did I look for? for what less would serve
that he could do, a man without a purse? 540
He meant me well, he sent me that five pounds,
much to him then; and, if he bade me work
and never vex him more with news of me,
we both knew him too poor for pensioners.
I see he did his best; I could wish now 545
sending it back I had professed some thanks.
But there! I was too wretched to be meek:
it seemed to me as if he, every one,
the whole great world, were guilty of my guilt,
abettors and avengers: in my heart 550
I gibed them back their gibings; I was wild.
I see clear now and know one has one’s life
In hand at ftrst to spend or spare or give
like any other coin; spend it or give
or drop it in the mire, can the world see 555
you get your value for it, or bar back
the hurrying of its marts to grope it up
and give it back to you for better use?
And if you spend or give that is your choice;
and if you let it slip that’s your choice too, 560
you should have held it firmer. Yours the blame,
and not another’s, not the indifferent world’s
which goes on steadily, statistically,
and count by censuses not separate souls —
and if it somehow needs to its worst use 565
so many lives of women, useless else,
it buys us of ourselves, we could hold back,
free all of us to starve, and some of us,
(those who have done no ill and are in luck),
to slave their lives out and have food and clothes 570
until they grow unserviceably old.
Oh I blame no one — scarcely even myself.
It was to be: the very good in me
has always turned to hurt; all I thought right
at the hot moment, judged of afterwards, 575
Why, look at it, had I taken
the pay my dead child’s father offered me
for having been its mother, I could then
have kept life in me, (many have to do it,
that swarm in the back alleys, on no more, 580
cold sometimes, mostly hungry, but they live);
I could have gained a respite trying it,
and maybe found at last some humble work
to eke the pittance out. Not I, forsooth,
I must have spirit, must have womanly pride, 585
must dash back his contemptuous wages, I,
who had not scorned to earn them, dash them back
the fiercer that he dared to count our boy
in my appraising: and yet now I think
I might have taken it for my dead boy’s sake; 590
it would have been his gift.
But I went forth
with my fine scorn, and whither did it lead?
Money’s the root of evil do they say?
money is virtue, strength: money to me
would then have been repentance: could I live 595
upon my idiot’s pride?
Well, it fell soon.
I had prayed Edward might believe me dead,
and yet I begged of him — That’s like me too,
beg of him and then send him back his alms!
What if he gave as to a whining wretch 600
that holds her hand and lies? I am less to him
than such a one; her rags do him no wrong,
but I, I, wrong him merely that I live,
being his sister. Could I not at least
have still let him forget me? But ’tis past: 605
and naturally he may hope I am long dead.
Good God! to think that we were what we were
one to the other… and now!
He has done well;
married a sort of heiress, I have heard,
a dapper little madam, dimple cheeked 610
and dimple brained, who makes him a good wife —
No doubt she’d never own but just to him,
and in a whisper, she can even suspect
that we exist, we other women things:
what would she say if she could learn one day 615
she has a sister-in-law! So he and I
must stand apart till doomsday.
But the jest,
to think how she would look! — Her fright, poor thing!
The notion! — I could laugh outright . . . . . . or else,
for I feel near it, roll on the ground and sob. 620
Well, after all, there’s not much difference
between the two sometimes.
Was that the bell?
Some one at last, thank goodness. There’s a voice,
and that’s a pleasure. Whose though? Ah I know.
Why did she come alone, the cackling goose? 625
why not have brought her sister? — she tells more
and titters less. No matter; half a loaf
is better than no bread.
Oh, is it you?
Most welcome, dear: one gets so moped alone.
- Webster, Augusta Davis. “A Castaway.” http://www.uoguelph.ca/englit/victorian/HTML/castaway.html
- Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons