The Yoke (1907) by Hubert Wales

Cover of the 1908 cheap edition

I’ve been thinking again recently about Kipling’s literary treatment of syphilis, so am looking around to see how other writers treated the theme during his lifetime. The most common approach is the moralistic: a sinner receives the wages of sin. There were alternatives, though, and I’ve just been reading The Yoke, a scandalous novel of 1907, by Hubert Wales. It was a book that disturbed several of its contemporaries; here is the review in the Dundee Courier and Argus:

The book was published by John Long, who made a speciality of the ‘advanced’ novel on sexual themes. One of his controversial authors was Victoria Cross – I must try one of her books sometime.

The Yoke is an odd book. Angelica is forty and unmarried, and conscious that her chances in life are slipping by. As a young woman she had been engaged to a soldier, ‘a man of deep humanity and strong and striking personality’, but he had died before they could marry, asking her to ‘Look after the kiddie’, his two-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Angelica had done her duty by the child, and had brought him up and now at twenty-two he is ‘eating dinners’, a stage preparatory to becoming a barrister. He is a young man of normal instincts and appetites, however, and Angelica worries that he may be led astray, and especially that he will have relations with women that could ruin his life. One evening when he is talking of going out with a friend, visiting the Empire and possibly ‘making a night of it’ she is distraught at the thought of what might happen to him. In a chapter that I gather was severely truncated in later cheap editions she offers herself to him as a sexual substitute. The novel does not show this as being seedy. Throughout the novel, Maurice and Angelica both remain exceedingly noble.

This arrangement works very well, and its wisdom is shown when Maurice’s friend Christopher begs him to visit one day. Christopher explains:

‘I’ve been caught – badly.’
‘Caught?, said Maurice, barely apprehending.
‘The other night, you remember-’
Maurice sat up in his chair, gripping the elbows. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked hoarsely.
‘It’s – it-it -it.’
‘The worst?’ The words came hardly above his breath.
‘The very worst,’ said Chris.

The disease is never named (for a ‘frank’ novel this one is consistently euphemistic) but it was caught from a young woman met at the music hall, and it will ruin Christopher’s chances of an Army career, or of marriage. Christopher commits suicide.

After this, Maurice falls for Cecil, Christopher’s beautiful sister. He feels that to propose to Cecil will be unfair to Angelica, and so nobly renounces her. Angelica is not to be outdone in nobility, however, and in turn renounces any claims on Maurice. When he and Cecil marry, the author moralises on the position of Angelica:

Do you feel sad for her, reader?
Her golden summer – an Indian summer, it may be, had come and gone.
She was not sad for herself. She no longer stood where she had stood before. She had eaten of the tree of knowledge and it had not turned to ashes in her mouth. She was equal with her fellows; her life had not been a senseless thing, an inversion of instincts; she knew herself. And over and above – in excess of that abundant measure – she had fathomed the great truth, which so few have fathomed, that the recognition of the natural law calling man to woman and woman to man is everlastingly right.

The author frequently lectures the reader on various subjects, such as the position of servants but mostly on questions of morality, about which he is consistently sex-positive.

The novel’s melodrama is fairly ridiculous, but the character of Angelica is rather interestingly done. There is a chapter early in the novel when a new-married couple come to stay with her, and she overhears their enthusiastic lovemaking, which reminds her of what she has missed in life. The novelist makes clear that giving herself to Maurice is not just a matter of keeping him from diseased woman, but is a way for her to fulfil herself as a woman, an opportunity that life has so far denied her. The author is clear that she is not in any way punished at the end, despite her having had illicit sexual relations. In the course of the book, Maurice comes across a novel called The Wages of Sin, and scornfully complains that in fiction, sexual ‘sin’ always leads to the woman’s death. This book pointedly avoids that.

‘I fearlessly assert that there is no vice in the temperate gratification of any appetite.

The book’s style is sometimes odd. There is a fair bit of direct address to the reader, and a frankness about sex that steers very clear of physicality, though womanly figures are admired. There are steamy scenes that are at the same time suggestive and euphemistic. It is very much a novel with a purpose, and the characterisation to some extent suffers. Would this near-incest really be resolved and packed away in life as easily as it is at the end of the book? I don’t know. Incest is one of the sins I’ve steered very clear of.

Who was Hubert Wales? All I’ve found out about him so far is that his real name apparently was William Piggott. He is unknown to Wikipedia, despite being a best-seller. The Yoke went into at least eight impressions even before the cheap edition came out in 1908.

It was the appearance of the cheap edition in 1908 that roused the National Vigilance Society to mount a private prosecution of the novel. It had already featured in a campaign in the Academy Magazine’s campaign against the publisher John Long’s list of ‘advanced’ novels. Most of the Academy’s articles were written by Lord Alfred Douglas, once Oscar Wilde’s lovely Bosie, but now grown moralistic, vengeful and nasty. He lambasted Long for immorality in several pieces written in 1908, egging on the police to prosecute. The police did not, but the National Vigilance stepped in. When the case came to court, Long immediately caved in and offered to remove the book from publication. Presumably this was to avoid the cost and uncertain outcome of a long trial. (If found guilty, he might have been imprisoned.)

The novel was filmed in 1916, but from what I can gather the movie has Angelica saving Maurice from drug addiction rather than V.D.


    Posted September 3, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    V.D. – and syphilis especially – was a common interest then – and a common phenomenon. As well as Kipling’s concern and Ibsen’s Ghosts, Eugène Brieux wrote about syphilis and its effects in his didactic Damaged Goods and there are several short stories by Conan Doyle involving syphilis and its effects.

    • Posted September 3, 2020 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      I’ve also read a melodramatic novel by Warwick Deeping which uses syphilis to punish an unpleasant character.
      And in Victorian fiction, aren’t the themes of hereditary insanity and family curses also a coded way of talking about syphilis?

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 3, 2020 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you – another good read!

  3. Posted September 3, 2020 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    I have Staff Inspector Kennedy of the Toronto Police Morality Department for my introduction to The Yoke. In April 1910, he seized copies of it and Wales’ Cynthia in the Wilderness from two Toronto bookstores. Since reading of the raid, some year’s back now, I’ve been hoping to come across a review with synopsis. Thank you!

    I now feel I must read it.

    • Posted September 4, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, do read it – it’s a page-turner, as well as an insight into advanced thinking a century or so ago.

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