Clara Dollmann: ‘It was dirty weather for a young fräulein to be out alone in’

When Davies finds out on October 4 that Clara Dollmann has been looking for him, he gets very hot under the collar:

‘When I last saw him he was still so engaged, but motionless, the lantern under his left arm. and his right hand grasping the forestay and the half-knotted lanyard; his eyes staring fixedly down the river, a strange look in his face, half exultant, half perplexed.’

It’s probably fair to say that the romantic element in the ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ sometimes feels a bit bolted on – or ‘spatchcocked’ into the book as Childers himself once described it (thanks to Club member Jeff for digging that reference out). One can’t help feeling that Childers didn’t spend that much time in the company of women, so there’s a limited number of real-life models he could have used for Clara.

Molly Childers: on board the boat ‘Asgard’ helping to smuggle German guns into Ireland in 1914

One obvious candidate is Childers’s wife Molly.  She was an independently-minded outdoorsy East Coast Irish-American, but also an invalid who couldn’t walk without the aid of sticks (she’d had a serious skating accident as a child).  Extremely active politically and personally, and a fairly keen sailor, there’s little doubt in my mind that Molly is the kind of girl who, like Clara, would have looked good ‘crossing the ebb in a chop of tide’.

During the 1890s and 1900s, there were more and more women like Molly: outspoken, sporty feminists who Edwardian gentlemen of a liberal persuasion could get quite excited about.

R L Stevenson ran off with an American woman called Fanny who – amongst other things – spent time with her first husband silver mining in Nevada. Jerome K Jerome couldn’t help commenting on the sporty young women of Germany in his book ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ (1900):

‘If anything change the German character, it will be the German woman.  She herself is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it.  Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands.  The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. 

She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

Brilliantly educated she always has been.  At eighteen she speaks two or three languages, and has forgotten more than the average Englishwoman has ever read.  Hitherto, this education has been utterly useless to her.  On marriage she has retired into the kitchen, and made haste to clear her brain of everything else, in order to leave room for bad cooking.  But suppose it begins to dawn upon her that a woman need not sacrifice her whole existence to household drudgery any more than a man need make himself nothing else than a business machine.  Suppose she develop an ambition to take part in the social and national life.  Then the influence of such a partner, healthy in body and therefore vigorous in mind, is bound to be both lasting and far-reaching…

… everywhere throughout Germany one is confronted by unmistakable signs that the old German Frauen are giving place to the neuer Damen.

Cycling rather than sailing seems to have been the most liberating sport for women of this period. In 1895, Annie “Londonderry ” Kopchovsky caused enormous excitement in the United States by cycling around the world, and using the publicity to talk about womens rights, notably womens suffrage. 

Just three years earlier in London, the Lady Cyclists’ Association had been formed (in Victoria St btw, where Carruthers buys his prismatic compass) and the ‘rational dress movement‘ was in full sway, encouraging women to don practical outfits for cycling and other sports, releasing themselves from their corsets and voluminous skits, and wearing Dr Jaeger woollens and bloomers instead. 

Gertrude. “My dear Jessie, what on earth is that Bicycle Suit for?” Jessie. “Why, to wear, of course.” Gertrude. “But you haven’t got a Bicycle!” Jessie. “No: but I’ve got a Sewing Machine!” By [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you want to get a sense of how important cycling had become at this time as a core activity for feminists, check out Frances Willard’s 1895 book ‘A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle’

I can’t find much equivalent material about women and sailing in this era, I’m afraid. By the time Childers died, there were plenty examples of women jumping into motor cars and planes, but not much record of them jumping into boats. Was boating still too much of a male preserve?

Clara, then, may not be as much a ‘new woman’ as others of her generation who’d taken to their bikes. She is, after all, still under the thumb of her dad in our story. But she does sail her own boat, stands up to her dad in the end and very obviously likes the idea of an unorthodox boyfriend such as Davies. We’re not told whether she wore bloomers, but to my mind she’s definitely more of a ‘neuer Damen’ rather than an ‘old Frauen’.


Ahoy People of ROTS

Not sure if this is likely to trump the spatchcocking of women into the novel, and it’s a little after the Childers period, but there’s a rich vein of material dating from the interwar period covering the experience of woman at sea, both as crew and passengers, in the dying days of tall ships. This article, from the wonderful Mariner’s Mirror, brings a bit of local colour to it all, and if you feel like pushing the boundaries of the adventure club being a family show, footnote 51 conjures up one or two visions…
If you haven’t come across it before the Society for Nautical Research ( has an array of interesting and predictably nautical related material – might well be worth a nose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: