I’m just back from a refreshing week in the Cornish sunshine. One of the accidental themes of the holiday was discovering a series of stories about individuals who lived their lives in defiance of the conventions that surrounded their status as women, or perhaps simply without reference to those conventions.
Marlow Moss was born in 1889. She studied art, against the wishes of her family, and lived alone in London, Cornwall and Paris. In 1919, she began to wear jodhpurs, jackets and cravats, cropped her hair and changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow. She lived in Paris from 1927 until the outbreak of war, where she found love with a Dutch writer, Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. When the war made it unsafe for her to stay in Europe, she returned to Cornwall and lived the rest of her life at Lamorna, visiting Paris frequently.
The exhibition at the Tate included some heartbreaking letters written by Moss to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during World War II, when she was living at Lamorna and they were at St Ives, just a few miles away. She invited them for lunch and wanted to work with them to promote abstract art in Britain. They never replied.
It’s not possible, from this distance, to apply current labels to someone like Marlow Moss. She didn’t follow expected paths, but made her own way in the world, living by her own lights. For that she found herself excluded, by fellow artists and critics alike, and this exclusion has persisted since her death in 1958. The most complete account of her life and the significance of her work can be found in this excellent thesis by Lucy Howarth.
Just a few miles from Lamorna, another determined individual was living an unconventional life at around the same time. Rowena Cade was the driving force behind the creation of the Minack Theatre. She built it herself, alongside her two gardeners, and worked determinedly on the project from 1931 right up to her death in 1983.
The theatre is built into the cliff face at Porthcurno, with stone and concrete seating and the sea and sky as a dramatic backdrop for each production. It looks both natural and preposterous. The physical challenge of building anything in that location would have been overwhelming for most people.
There’s a frustrating lack of information easily available about Rowena Cade’s life other than her work on the Minack. Maybe she really was that single-minded. Maybe she was fiercely private. Who knows? It seems pretty certain that she was not a person who took much notice of convention.
At the Minack last week, we saw Brighton Little Theatre’s production of A Woman of No Importance, a play that’s all about how women in Victorian society were punished for breaches of convention, while men’s transgressions were forgiven, even celebrated.
Oscar Wilde’s character, Mrs Arbuthnot, didn’t choose her unconventional life. She was seduced and abandoned to bring up her son alone. Unlike Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade, her position as a mother and lack of inherited wealth meant that she couldn’t simply reject society’s norms – instead she had to internalise the shame and quietly create a respectable life for her child.
When the secret is finally exposed and she is expected to accept an offer of marriage from her son’s father – a mere 20 years too late – her defiant refusal is stirring.
It’s easy to see how much things have changed in Britain since 1893, when A Woman of No Importance was first performed. For my children, it’s difficult to comprehend the significance of a child being born out of wedlock. The marital status of people’s parents is simply not an issue for them and their peers.
The difference between the world Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade knew and the one we live in now is also vast. Wearing short hair and trousers is hardly a transgression for women where I live (though women are not so free everywhere, of course).
And yet, these rules and conventions are very resilient. Even though people resist, break, bend and ignore them, they persist and reassert themselves in new forms. What women choose to do with their clothes and hair remains the subject of intense scrutiny and judgment. The tabloid demonisation of large families claiming benefits is a direct descendant of the shaming of fallen Victorian women. Single mothers still find their choices curtailed by being left with sole responsibility for raising their children.
Now the government wants to give Victorian values a boost by attaching a financial incentive to marriage. A £150 tax break for married couples where one partner does not work is a purely ideological proposal. Like Section 28 in the 1980s, it’s more about appeasing the religious right within the Conservative Party than anything else. But the message it sends could have damaging repercussions for people already on the sharp end of vicious cuts to social security.
Being married is not a more or less worthy way of living than any other. Unmarried people – like Mrs Arbuthnot, Rowena Cade and Marlow Moss – have always contributed plenty to society. Imagining – and living – their lives outside of convention is in itself an inspiring contribution.
As Brighton Pride approaches, and the same sex marriage bill inches towards the statute book, let’s not forget our debt to all the outsiders, queers, mavericks, eccentrics and weirdos who helped make the unthinkable possible for us. I think people should be able to marry whoever they want, but it’s more important to me that people should be free to be whoever they want – whatever that looks like.
Last night I watched Amanda Palmer sing this song on Brighton beach, after an exhilarating gig with the most diverse Brighton audience you could possibly imagine. Brighton has always been a refuge for people who needed to escape the stifling conventions of their time and it still is. That’s what Brighton Pride represents for me – not a celebration of some of us being allowed in to the citadel of respectability, but a statement of defiance against all the conventions that aim to channel and restrict people’s lives.