Born in 1854, Caird's feminist views sparked controversy and debate in the 19th century.
One of the most prominent figures of the New Woman movement (the beginnings of organised feminism), Caird (née Alice Mona Alison) was one of the most important feminist writers of her generation and yet her name is now known only in academic circles (this is how I was first introduced to her). Born to wealthy parents on the Isle of Wright, Caird wrote stories and plays from early childhood. She married James Alexander Henryson-Caird in 1877 and their only child, Alister James, was born in 1884. Caird spent little time at her marital home in Creetown, Scotland, instead preferring to immerse herself in the literary world of London and travel abroad.
After the limited success of her first two novels, Whom Nature Leadeth (1883) and One That Wins (1887), Caird gained prominence in 1888 when she attacked the patriarchal institution of marriage in her essay, ‘Marriage’, published in the Westminster Review. Citing modern marriage to be a 'vexatious failure' founded on the subjugation of women as private and public property, Caird argues that marriage is little more than a legalized form of prostitution. She contends that the emancipation of women can only be achieved when the 'obvious right of the woman to possess herself body and soul, to give or withhold herself […] exactly as she wills' is acknowledged through the free union of men and women. Capturing the public buzz surrounding Caird’s controversial article, the Daily Telegraph drew on the morally sensitive subject to pose the question ‘Is Marriage a Failure?’ By the end of September they had received twenty-seven thousand responses from the general public, many of which expressed a similar dissatisfaction with marriage and lamented the stringent attitudes towards opposite-sex friendship and divorce.
The majority of Caird’s novels dramatize the repressive patriarchal institution of marriage depicted in her essay: Wing of Azrael (1889) vividly portrays a woman’s experience of marital violence; the short story ‘A Romance of the Moors’ (1891) demonstrates the importance of self-sufficiency prior to, and instead of, marriage; and Daughters of Danaus (1894) represents marriage as suffocating to a woman’s intellect and independence. Caird’s critique of marriage is far removed from the standpoint of many other New Woman writers including Sarah Grand who repeatedly defended the 'sacred institution' in her writings. In many ways, as also evidenced by her approach to eugenics, birth control, female suffrage, free love, motherhood and female self-sacrifice, Caird was a more radical figure than many of her contemporaries.
Caird's novels still possess a poignant relevance to modern day readers. This is eminently clear in The Wing of Azrael. In love with Harry Lancaster, Viola Sedley, the heroine of the novel, is forced by her family to marry the arrogant and sadistic Sir Philip Dendraith in order to prevent their financial ruin. Viola is repeatedly subjected to both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband. Unable at times to comprehend and articulate the horrors she faces at the hands of her husband, Viola's story is shockingly still relevant and deals with the same questions which arise in modern debates on domestic abuse.