Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lady Henry Somerset & the Chinese Shoe

My grandmother grew up in China, where she lived until she went to college. She once described witnessing little girls with newly bound feet being chased about the courtyard with switches, the older women forcing them to become accustomed to walking so bound. My grandmother loved China, spoke Chinese, believed—in spite of some of her strict Lutheran teaching—that God must surely admit some of the kind, non-Lutheran Chinese to heaven, too. She did not at all love her girlhood on the mission, but she loved Chinese culture. She was a brilliant, kind, strong woman, and, for all that, she abhorred footbinding.

All that is a long preface to explain why I was so forcibly struck by this quotation from Woolf on footbinding, from a short review called, to emphasize her metaphor, “The Chinese Shoe.” Woolf reviewed a biography of Lady Henry Somerset in the fall of 1923. She emphasizes the immense social pressures that conspired to quash Lady Somerset’s joie de vivre:

“The Victorian age was to blame; her mother was to blame; Lord Henry was to blame; even the saintly Mr. Watts was forced by fate to take part in the general conspiracy against her. Between them each natural desire of a lively and courageous nature was stunted, until we feel that the old Chinese custom of fitting the foot to the shoe was charitable compared with the mid-Victorian practice of fitting the woman to the system.”

1 comment:

Anne Fernald said...

The aftermath is as bad and sorry as you might guess:

Shortly after her marriage, she discovered her husband was homosexual and separated from, but did not divorce him. The scandal of her public accusation isolated her: “For mentioning the sin, which some said she had invented, Lady Henry was cut from a large section of society…. A man explained that his wife must cease to know her, not because she had been wrong, but because it was impossible to explain why she had been right” (CE 3.391).