In This Article Mona Caird

  • Introduction
  • Portraits
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Editions
  • Caird’s Engagement with Contemporary Science, Philosophy, and Literature
  • Caird as New Woman, Feminist, and Anti-Eugenics Activist
  • “The Morality of Marriage” (1890)
  • A Romance of the Moors (1891)
  • “The Yellow Drawing-Room” (1891)
  • Romantic Cities of Provence (1896)
  • The Great Wave (1931)

Victorian Literature Mona Caird
by
Lisa Surridge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0106

Introduction

The feminist novelist and essayist Mona Caird (b. 1854–d. 1932) was propelled to fame in the summer of 1888 when her Westminster Review essay “Marriage” became the focus of the great marriage debate in the Daily Telegraph. When the newspaper posed the question, “Is Marriage a Failure?,” twenty-seven thousand respondents weighed in. Caird, however, had not asked whether marriage was a failure; she had stated unequivocally that it was one. A married women herself, she argued that marriage should be conceptualized not in terms of duty or sacrifice, but as a contract freely entered into by equals and dissolvable at the will of the parties. Her views were attacked by those who accused her of “balderdash” and by those who punned that “no one Caird”; indisputably, however, she had touched a raw nerve, as the sheer volume of correspondence indicated. During the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s, Caird developed in essays her views on marriage, the family, and gender relations. Delving into histories of past societies, she argued for the constructed nature of gender relations, citing historical examples of women’s rule, power, and inheritance. Writing in the post-Darwinian era, Caird was deeply disturbed by the implications of contemporary debates about evolution and the future of the race. She fought against contemporary eugenicists, defended women’s right to use birth control, and argued that the race would evolve not by the right of might, but by cultivating compassion and adhering to principles of freedom and individual rights. From the mid-1890s forward, such principles led her to an antivivisectionist stance; presciently, she warned against justifying experiments by social gain, arguing that if such eugenic principles were accepted, the rights of the weak would be imperiled. During World War I, she wrote against brute force as a means of social progress, advocating instead education, international communication, and travel as a means of fostering global citizens. A deeply original thinker, Caird was also an experimental novelist, recognized in 1894 by the Review of Reviews as a founder of a new genre, the “Modern Woman novel” (what would later be called the “New Woman” novel). Experimenting with form, imagery, mythography, and temporality, Caird created novels that are aesthetic forms in their own right, not mere dramatizations of her political principles. Since the 1990s, feminist scholarship has hailed Caird’s achievements as new woman essayist, novelist, historiographer, and anti-eugenic feminist, placing her work in relation to contemporary debates on gender, sexuality, and eugenics. While Caird’s biography remains shadowy, her writings have come into the scholarly light.

Biography

There is a paucity of information on Mona Caird’s life; no full-length biography exists. Moreover, a number of modern articles and entries rely on unattributed or potentially unreliable biographical information or reproduce errors or possible errors from earlier sources. Research is frustrated by the fact that Caird’s grandson sold the library at her Scottish home, Cassencary, preserving only two or three of his grandmother’s works. However, recent primary research by Ann Heilmann, which includes interviews with Caird’s descendants, has added considerably to knowledge of this writer.

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