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Elsie Inglis
Chapter V - The Solved Problems


"It is the solution worked out in the life, not merely in words, that brings home to other lives the fact that the problem is not insoluble."

It may be truly said that special types of problems come before the unmarried woman for solution—problems as to her connection with society and with the race, which confront her as they do not others. Though few signs of a mental struggle were visible on the surface, there is no doubt that Elsie Inglis met these problems and settled them in the silence of her heart. It is a fact of much interest in connection with the subject of this memoir that amongst the papers found after she had died is the MS. of a novel written by herself, entitled The Story of a Modern Woman, and one turns the pages with eager interest to see if they furnish a key to the path along which she travelled in solving her problems. The expectation is realized, and in reading the pages of the novel we find the secret of the assurance and happy courage which characterized her. Whether she intended it or not, many parts of the book are without doubt autobiographical. In this chapter we propose to give some extracts from the novel which we consider justify the belief that the authoress is describing her own experiences.

The first extract refers to her "discovery" that she was almost entirely without fear. The heroine is Hildeguard Forrest, a woman of thirty-seven, a High School teacher. During a boating accident, which might have resulted fatally, the fact reveals itself to Hildeguard that she does not know what fear is. The story of the accident closes with these words:

"Self-revelation is not usually a pleasant process. Not often do we find ourselves better than we expected. Usually the sudden flash that shows us ourselves makes us blush with shame at the sight we see. But very rarely, and for the most part for the people who are not self-conscious, the flash may, in a moment, reveal unknown powers or unsuspected strength.

"And Hildeguard, sitting back in the boat, suddenly realized she wasn't a coward. She looked back in surprise over her life, and remembered that the terror which as a child would seize her in a sudden emergency was the fear of being parted from her mother, not any personal fear for herself, or her own safety.

"Such a pleasurable glow swept over her as she sat there in the rocking boat. 'Why, no,' she thought; 'I wasn't frightened.'"

A similar accident befell Elsie Inglis when a young woman. Whether the absence of fear disclosed itself to her then or not cannot be said, but she is known to have said to a friend after her return from Serbia: "It was a great day in my life when I discovered that I did not know what fear was."

Benjamin Kidd in The Science of Power gives (unintentionally) an indication where to look for the secret of the childless woman's feeling of loneliness—she has no link with the future. He affirms that woman because of her very nature has her roots in the future. "To women," he says, "the race is always more than the individual; the future greater than the present."

As we follow Hildeguard through the pages of the novel, she is shown to us as faced with the problem of becoming "a lonely woman," the problem that meets the unmarried and the childless woman. And the claims and the meaning of religion are confronting her too. The story traces the workings of Hildeguard's mind and the events of her life for a year.

Christmas Day in the novel finds Hildeguard a lonely and dissatisfied woman with no "sure anchor." She has had a happy childhood, with many relations and friends around her. One by one these are taken from her—some are dead, others are married—and she sees herself, at the age of thirty-seven, a forlorn figure with no great interest in the future, and her thoughts dwelling mostly on the joyous past. Two or three of Hildeguard's friends are conversing together in her rooms. None of them has had a happy day. Each in her own way is feeling the depression of the lonely woman. Frances, a little Quaker lady, enters the room, as someone remarks on the sadness of Christmas-time.

"'Yes,' at last said the Quaker lady; 'I heard what you said as I came in, dear. Christmas is a hard time with all its memories. I think I have found out what we lonely women want. It is a future. Our thoughts are always turning to the past. There is not anything to link us on to the next generation. You see other women with their families—it is the future to which they look. However good the past has been, they expect more to come, for their sons and their daughters. Their life goes on in other lives.' Hildeguard clasped her hands round her knees and stared into the fire."

"Their life goes on in other lives"—the thought finds a home in Hildeguard's mind. When, soon after, the little Quakeress dies, Hildeguard, looking at the quiet face, says to herself: "Dear little woman! So you have got your future." But in her own case she does not wait for death to bring it to her; she faces her problems, and, refusing to be swamped by them, makes the currents carry her bark along to the free, open sea. She flings herself whole-heartedly into causes whose hopes rest in the future. She draws around her children, who need her love and care, and makes them her hostages for the future. In all this we see Elsie Inglis describing a stage in her own life.

But before the story brings us round again to Christmas, something else has helped to change the outlook for Hildeguard; she has found herself in relation to God. Her religion is no merely inherited thing—not hers at second-hand, this "link with God." It is a real thing to her, found for herself, made part of herself, and so her sure foundation. It has come to her in a flash, a never-to-be-forgotten illumination of the words: "The Power of an Endless Life." She faces life now glad and free.

In her "den" on that Christmas Eve she is described thus to us by Elsie Inglis:

"Ann had put holly berries over the pictures, and the mantelpiece, too, was covered with it. Between the masses of green and the red berries stood the solid, old-fashioned, gilt frames of long ago, the photographs in them becoming yellow with age. Hildeguard turned to them from the portraits on the walls. She stood, her hands resting on the edge of the mantelpiece. Then suddenly it came to her that her whole attitude towards life and death had altered. For long these old photographs had stood to her as symbols of a past glowing with happiness. Though the pain still lingered even after time had dulled the edge, yet the old pictures typified all that was best in life, and the dim mist of the years rose up between the good days and her.

"But now, as she looked, her thoughts did not turn to the past. In some unexplained way the loves of long ago seemed to be entwined with a future so wonderful and so enticing that her heart bounded as she thought of it.

"'Grow old along with me;
The best is yet to be.'

"Only last Christmas those words would have meant nothing to her. Then her bark seemed to be stranded among shallows. She felt that she was an old woman, and 'second bests' her lot in the coming years. There could never be any life equal to the old life, in the back-water into which she had drifted.

"But to-day how different the outlook! Her ship was flying over a sunlit sea, the good wind bulging out the canvas. She felt the thrill of excitement and adventure in her veins as she stood at the helm and gazed across the dancing water. It seemed to her as if she had been asleep and the "Celestial Surgeon" had come and 'stabbed her spirit broad awake.' Joy had done its work, and sorrow; responsibility had come with its stimulating spur, and the ardent delight of battle in a great crusade. New powers she had discovered in herself, new possibilities in the world around her. She was ready for her 'adventure brave and new.' Rabbi Ben Ezra had waited for death to open the gate to it, but to Hildeguard it seemed that she was in the midst of it now, that 'adventure brave and new' in which death itself was also an adventure.

"'The Power of an Endless Life'—the words seemed to hover around her, just eluding her grasp, just beyond her comprehension, yet something of their significance she seemed to catch. She remembered the flash of intuition as she stood beside Frances' newly-made grave, but she realized, her eyes on the old pictures, that it would take ćons to understand all it meant, to exhaust all the wonder of the idea. She could only bring to it her undeveloped powers of thought and of imagination, but she knew that stretching away, hid in an inexpressible light, lay depths undreamt of. To her nineteenth-century intellect life could only mean evolution—life ever taking to itself new forms, developing itself in new ways. At the bed-rock of all her thought lay the consciousness of 'the Power not ourselves, which makes for Righteousness.'

"No mystic she, to whom an ineffable union with the Highest was the goal of all. Never even distantly did she reach to that idea. Rather she was one of God's simple-hearted soldiers, who took her orders and stood to her post. The words thrilled her, not with the prospect of rest, but with the excitement of advance, 'an Endless Life' with ever new possibilities of growth and of achievement, ever greater battles to be fought for the right, and always new hopes of happiness. Doubtingly and hesitatingly she committed herself to the thought, conscious that it had been forming slowly and unregarded in the strenuous months that lay behind her, through the long years, ever since the first seemingly hopeless 'good-bye' had wrung her heart. She began dimly to feel the 'power' of the idea, the life of which she was the holder, only 'part of a greater whole.' Earth itself only a step in a great progression. Ever upward, ever onward, marching towards some 'Divine far-off event, to which the whole creation moves.'"

If another pen than Elsie Inglis's had drawn the picture we should have said it was one of herself. Surely she was able to weave around her heroine, from the depth of her own inner experiences of solved problems, the mantle of joy and freedom with which she herself was clothed.

The causes to which Elsie Inglis became a tower of strength; the "nation she twice saved from despair"; the many children, not only those in her own connection, on whom she lavished love and care, are the witnesses to-day of the completeness and the splendour of her power to mould each adverse circumstance in her life and make it yield a great advantage.


 


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