Generation VF

 

At the start of the second half of the novel, both female protagonists have given birth to male progeny. As per usual, Becky and Amelia’s approaches to this newest life development differ greatly. Amelia, still mourning the loss of that vain scoundrel, George Senior, smothers newborn Georgy, as only the suffocating, simpering gal can. The narrator tells us that the doting mother “nursed him, and dressed him, and lived on him” (349, italics mine). Oh that’s right, in case you missed the italics let me say again, the mother is actually subsisting off of her child (talk about an early-era pageant mom). Amelia’s dependence has been kicked up a notch since the loss of her neglectful husband and the narrator details how the “Widow and Mother” exists solely for her child, indeed he says (and I think we all agree the narrator is in fact, a ‘he’), “This child was her being” (349).

Becky on the other hand is less attached to her spawn, and by less attached I mean that she literally abandons the poor kid with a French maid who loses him at the beach for an entire day during which time he “very narrowly escaped DROWNING on Calais sands” (361, caps mine). Apparently children in the Victorian era are considered about as human as a pomeranian, if you lose track of them just say fiddlesticks and move on (seriously, nobody at the beach thought the imperiled urchin was worth investigating?!). Luckily for Junior, Colonel Crawley “rascal” as he was “had certain manly tendencies of affection in his heart” and treated his son “with a paternal softness” (372).

Though this set up could create very interesting discussion of gender roles, i.e. Becky shuns her gender’s biggest role by despising her child and Big Rawdon invertsparental stereotypes by acting the nurturing mother figure (while still retaining Victorian era ‘ashamed’ness about this sissified affection for his only son[389]), I bring up the two boys because I wonder how their respective childhoods impacts, if indeed it does, their maturation and adult lives.  Georgy is given up to curmudgeonly Grandpa Osbourne when his mother realizes she will not be able to provide for the little angel, and even though the old man lavishes “more luxuries and indulgences than had been awarded to his father” in an effort to make amends for his behavior towards the late George Sr., Georgy is a relatively well-adjusted young man and adult.  He also inherits the Osbourne fortune (549). Rawdon Jr. also makes good in life despite his mother’s neglect, and his father’s imprisonment, spending his weekends away from school haunting the grounds of Queen’s Crawley and  eventually inheriting the Crawley fortune after the death of everyone named Pitt (548).

Thackeray’s next generation is far more successful than their forerunners. However, it is interesting that this new generation seems to share similarities with the previous generation (in addition to the genetics), namely Rawdon Junior is deprived of his parents just like his mother was, but he turns out A-okay, George Junior loses his father just like George Senior lost Old Osbourne after he married Amelia, and he too has a much happier ending. Are we to understand then, that Thackeray believes that kids will inevitably turn out peachy keen deprived of one or both of their biological parents  for a good deal of their childhood as long as there is a steady stream of revenue providing them with ponies and ‘tips’ and at least one stand-in guardian at hand? Or maybe we are not to look to answers beyond the fact that male children inevitably fare better than female adolescents in Vanity Fair and Victorian England at large. It is encouraging after all the mischief of Becky Sharp and the infuriating impotence of Amelia that their children have a bright future, but I am not sure that I am convinced with the neatly tied bow that this new generation puts on Thackeray’s tale, are you?

Vanity Fair’s Scheherazade

 

When the young Miss Sharp first makes her appearance on the stage of Vanity Fair our faithful narrator paints her a pernicious and impudent little wretch hurling the goodwill of Miss Jemima back out the departing carriage window at the unoffending schoolmistress.  No doubt Rebecca Sharp, or ‘Becky’ as she is affectionately known to her schoolmate Amelia, has her less flattering characteristics, lying, hypocrisy, jealousy, scheming, to name just a few, but it is also equally as evident that life has not always been kind to the young lady.

At the time of the novel Becky has recently been orphaned and given over to the care of the stuffy Miss Pinkerton.  As a result of her poverty, Becky is treated with no small amount of disdain at school as she explains to Amelia, “For two years I had only bad insults and outrage from her. I have been treated worse than any servant in the kitchen. I have never had a friend, or a kind word…”  (12). And indeed, the previous scene wherein both young ladies depart the school is marked by an outpouring of grief for the one and a general disinterest in the other. Yet school is not the only place where life has treated Becky unkindly; even when she was under the care and protection of her parents her life was troubled. The narrator tells us that Mr. Sharp was “a clever man, a pleasant companion, a careless student; with a great propensity for running into debt, and a partiality for the tavern. When he was drunk he used to beat his wife and daughter, and the next morning, with a headache, he used to rail at the world for its neglect of his genius” (12). Constantly in debt, Becky’s artist father marries a French opera-girl (which I think the reader is supposed to understand is euphemism for some sort of saucy dancer) who promptly dies in Becky’s early childhood and is then followed to the grave by Becky’s father.

With this chronology in place it is more difficult to fault Rebecca Sharp for her less than charming behavior, in fact once we learn more of Becky’s history it is clear to see that many of negative character traits can be seen to be borne of necessity in order to aide her in not only her survival, but her advancement. Once settled at Amelia’s house the narrator tells us that “our beloved but unprotected Rebecca determined to do her very best to secure the husband who was even more necessary for her than for her friend” (21).  And then the narrator tell us, in the manner of details revealed that are pertinent to the development of the story, that “She had a vivid imagination; she had, besides read the Arabian Nights and Guthrie’s Geography” (21).  It can be easily concluded then that the young girl has a familiarity with the storyteller’s ability to affect and improve her own fate.  We have seen that the young girl already has practice amusing her father and his friends with caricatures, dialogues and mimicry, why not put those talents to a more advantageous use, namely procuring a husband and a social position for herself?

To this ends, our Victorian Scheherazade tells stories of herself, her parentage, her peers and her elders to woo and charm several figures, each occupying King Shahryar’s position of power over the girl to weedle herself into more favourable positions. Becky’s ability to enchant her listener mirrors the Persian princess of the tale who saves her own life by wooing the paranoid King through the telling of tales.  Though we condemn Becky for her willful misleading of others, her ‘storytelling’, it is obvious that in a society that gives little thought or assistance to those without social or monetary connections this storytelling is as vital to sustaining Becky’s life as it was Scheherazade’s.

 

Aside: Dobbins is also revealed to have read and loved the tales told in Arabian Nights but I am less sure of the connection to draw here, except that these unloved kidlets are doing some serious escapism?

Mason Jars Jane Fan

In light of Harris’ insights into inclusive and discursive criticism, I will begin my post by saying I very much liked and found myself agreeing with the argument forwarded in Chris R. Vanden Bossche’s article, “What Did Jane Eyre Do? Ideology, Agency and Class in the Novel.” Furthermore, it seemed to me as if Vanden Bossche approaches criticism from the same school of thought as Harris, namely, instead of attacking his fellow scholars and eviscerating their arguments by drawing attention to and then widening the holes in their argument, he acknowledged the value of each and attempted to bring disparate views of the novel together in a more comprehensive approach to the novel as a whole.

Vanden Bossche’s literature review gave the uninitiated reader a brief, yet helpful lay of the critical field, so to speak, by responding to several popular approaches to reading Jane Eyre.  From Armstrong and Kucich’s advocacy of Jane’s agency to Gilbert and Gubar’s questioning of feminine roles in the novel to Spivak and Kaplan’s expansion and response to 2G’s article, explaining the marginalization of the minority and 2G’s conflation of the female figure in the novel, Vanden Bossche responds briefly but conscientiously (taking into account the authorial intent, background and ultimate achievement individual article) to each. Having said this, (and maybe it’s just because I’m a tad too contrarian for my own good), I do not believe that Vanden Bossche gave the minority female enough attention

In his own argument Vanden Bossche asserts that in order for a novel or a character to be “as Bakhtin put it, ‘internally persuasive’’ its “discourse must incorporate, in order to supplant, opposing internally persuasive discourses” (48).  We see this incorporation of the opposing element, VB argues, in the way in which Jane works within class strictures, gender strictures and power strictures to achieve the revolution and reform she is ideologically forwarding from the inside out. And I do believe this is true for Jane’s situation. We see her affect change in her own life by playing by social, class and gender rules and roles to achieve her comparative independence as a teacher at Lowood School , a Governess at Thornfield, a teacher in the small country school under Rivers, and even independence (though it seems the wrong word for the context) in her marriage with Rochester. According to VB the novel “will be either subversive or reactionary depending on which markers of identity, field of experience, or discursive constitution one brings to bear on interpretation, and reception will similarly be divided depending on whether one focuses on Jane Eyre’s widespread popularity or its resistant readers” (54) again a valid statement, however can we view Jane as a repressive actor as well?

I believe Jane’s role in silencing the voice of Brenda Mason has too long gone unquestioned.  I understand VB’s amendment to Spivak and Kaplan’s post-colonialism fueled argument for a limited feminism that their view validates the author’s class experience. However, I am still deeply troubled that the view of feminism cannot be complete if one does not address Bertha Mason’s predicament. Bertha is female, minority, and mad, she is therefore triply marginalized and yet we do not make enough of Rochester or more troubling to me, Jane’s treatment of her. I wonder if VB would validate Jane’s support of a social norm such as neglecting and hiding the Bertha Mason’s of the world as merely the embracing of ideology in order to rework it from an internal position. If this is true, why do we not see proof of this at all? Jane does not attempt to correct, rebel against, or even address the social,economic and gender standards that dictate what Bertha’s life looks like in the nineteenth century, in fact when she is faced with the grim reality, she flees the scene.

I believe Vanden Bossche does a thoughtful and insightful reading of the text, as well as covers a great deal of critical ground in his own work. However, I believe that in order to cover so much ground he necessarily gives certain topics too short of shrift, Jane’s accessory to the crimes against Bertha Mason is one of those topics I would like to discuss further.

Scooby Doo and Jane Eyre Too

Since I was a child I have suffered from a very low fear tolerance (uh, yes this is a real thing). I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I spent chanting “Jesus Loves Me’ in whispered tones to ward off the boogey-sandman hybrid that undeniably spent his vacation time underneath my bed.  So heightened was my fear of all things creepy that even the children’s cartoon Scooby Doo and that lovable gang of “meddling kids” gave me the willies. The teeming parade of ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, creeps, monsters and an unbelievable amount of eerie groundskeepers  kept my active imagination plenty occupied when the lights went out at night.  Therefore I was predisposed to be spooked by the haunting cast of ghosts and ghouls lurking in Jane Eyre.  Upon my first reading, I found myself immediately relating to young Jane’s terror of all the things that can, and do go bump in the night.  Though the number and variety of spooks rivaled Scooby and the Gang’s lineup I believe that Bronte didn’t include these gothic elements in her novel just to scare the jelly out of a jellyfish like me.  The addition of these supernatural elements in Bronte’s fiction actually serves severally purposes; first it creates suspense and interest in the tale she is telling, second it subverts (*somewhat) the stereotypical Victorian ‘marriage plot’ she is engaged in, and third it allows Jane Eyre as narrator and Charlotte Bronte as author to participate in a world that offered escape and power.

Imagine if the episodes of Scooby Doo were filled with the autobiographical tales of four friends and their talking Great Dane – no ghosts, no mysteries, just “The guy with neckerchief pairs off with girl in similar neckerchief, nerdy girl takes solace in books, slacker swears he sees ghosts whilst under the influence,” Hanna-Barbera would have effectively reduced their genius cartoon into animated reality TV.  The tales and trials of a homely orphan had already by covered time and again so Bronte distinguished her novel by blending the social realism of the orphan’s tale, with the gothic elements of horror stories.  We felt for little Jane Eyre when she was cruelly confined by Aunt Reed in the red-room but once we realized that this particular place held unidentifiable horrors our imaginations have been conscripted on the side of this terrorized child and we are doubly sympathetic.  Vicky Simpson in her article “The Eagerness of a Listener…” (here abbreviated because she isn’t kidding about that quickened tongue), says that “Ostensibly Jane deviates from the strictures of memory…by jumping over certain periods of her life and including stories in order to interest or entertain her reader, whom she refers to as a ‘Romantic Reader’ “ (5). The reader’s romanticism here should not be read as an indulgence in the eros-centric idea of romance but rather as a reader with a keen sense of sentiment and emotion.  However, it should be understood that there is a selection process at play with our narrator, Jane is picking the most interesting/spooky bits of her life’s tale in order to capture the attention of the reader.

Obviously the reduction of the story to a more straightforward ‘marriage plot’ does not interest Bronte, nor does she seem to think that it would hold the attention of her reader. Even Jane evinces disinterest in the classic ‘marriage plot’ popular in the books of her time. In conversation with Mr. Rochester as gypsy woman she explains that the plot ending in the “catastrophe” of marriage does not interest her in the slightest,  she even goes so far as to object to any relationship passing between her  and the master of the house other than the appropriate employer/employee exchange (224). Since Bronte is still endeavouring to throw the reader off the scent of the ending of her novel she introduces gothic elements that keep the reader invested and unsure about the progression of the novel.

However, the most interesting theory as to why Bronte incorporates the gothic is Simpson’s notion that the plot of Jane Eyre involves these elements because these kinds of fantasy allowed the marginalized women artists of the nineteenth century to create worlds in which they were  not restricted by the stifling Victorian Era code of socially acceptable behaviours.  According to Simpson Jane is employing an “active agency” by working these elements in her storytelling (6) Jane’s alterations of not only the ‘marriage plot’ but the typically male genre of the autobiography shows that she “value[s] elements of magical fairy tales and gothic romances because of the multiple possibilities they represent,” namely the possibility of escaping the “sterility” of the “conventional Victorian woman” (6) By so doing, Jane and Bronte claim for themselves the power of agency normally reserved for males by males.  So instead of a ‘meet-cute’ and subsequent courtship we have a dark and brooding older gentleman employ the plain but intelligent Eyre in his house full of mystery and strange occurrences. The Scooby gang itself couldn’t ask for a better setting.

Extra! Extra! Reade all about it!

In D.A. Miller’s article, “The Novel and the Police” he discusses the way in which the nineteenth century created an idea of discipline that moved emphasis away from a centralized police force and towards Focault’s “ideal of an unseen but all-seeing surveillance” (542). Similar to the idea of the Panopticon we saw in earlier discussions of Charles Reade’s text, Miller’s ultimate policing force is not, in fact, the police itself but rather an amoebic, unnamed body. I would like to tease out the parallels between Miller’s ‘delinquent police force’ and Reade’s corrupt guards and resolve my brief examination by giving a name to one of the regulatory bodies at work in Reade’s fiction (547).

Miller asserts that the police in Victorian novels such as Oliver Twist, far from being morally superior to those offenders that they are policing are actually part of the community of delinquency, “The world of delinquency encompasses not only the delinquents themselves, but also the persons and institutions supposed to reform them or prevent them from forming” (546).  Miller uses the example of two policemen from the novel who belong to the criminal world and are linked to its lower occupants through a cycle of dependency and understanding that cannot be broken or escaped. Likewise, the guards of Newgate Prison belong to a cycle of delinquency that far from separating the guards from the prisoners identifies every man as a reprobate in need of reformation.

We see this indiscriminate grouping of criminals and policing force in It’s Never Too Late to Mend, in the way in which Mr. Eden ministers to both factions, reforming the behavior of the guard Evans and the mindset of the enraged Robinson with the same type of ministrations and appeals to the men’s better natures.  Furthermore, it is clear that just like Dickens’ cops that facilitate as much as frustrate criminal enterprises, Reade’s Mr. Hawes encourages criminal misbehavior so that he may punish it and make it all the more likely to emerge yet again, as with the cycle of violence carried out on the prisoner Robinson.

However, on the other end of Miller’s spectrum is the unnamed disciplinary force that, without help from the police, regulates the actions of characters in the novel. For Miller it seems this role is amorphous -it can be occupied by the novel itself and by society, amongst other things. For example, when Miller explains how “when the law falls short in the novel, the world is never reduced to anarchy as a result” it is clear that this is true because the novel is acting as the “informal and extralegal principle of organization and control” dictating with its form what can and cannot take place within its boundaries (546).  Society acts in a similar way to regulate behaviors that are unworthy of police attention or beyond the scope of police duty, by punishing offenders of societal norms and mores with “prolonged mental mortifications of a diffuse social discipline” (552).

In Reade’s novel, one of the bodies appealed to when the ordinary “policing” of the guards, wardens, and CR (to borrow David’s term) is proven insufficient is the media.  Mr. Eden threatens all the above reprobates with exposure in the Nation’s newspaper saying that if his requirements are not met then he shall “lay the whole case before her majesty the queen and the British nation, by publishing it in all the journals” (Reade 272).  It is obvious by this repeated threat that when the normal avenues of discipline prove impotent then the priest’s only recourse is to this more powerful regulatory body, the newspaper.  (Need I remind you of the power of the press in this little dandy). If Eden were to publicize the details of the scandalous treatment of the prisoners than he is confident that the British public, acting as a policing force, would demand retribution,  therefore print media acts as a regulatory force of public opinion in Reade’s novel.

Disruptive Disparities

 

After endeavoring for ninety-odd pages to interest myself in the pious lives of George, William, Susan, Eden and the devilish ways (in varying degrees of strategy, treachery, and cruelty) of Levi, Meadows and Crawley I was delighted and relieved to return, in chapter ten, to the only character I had up to that point felt any sort of camaraderie with, the cheeky good-hearted criminal Tom Robinson.  Imagine my dismay, therefore, when it became evident that my man Tom was doomed to a much worse fate than living out a life of unspeakable dullness like his fellow characters (although, come to think of it, that is part and parcel of the prison punishment).  The prison narrative, comprised of Tom Robinson’s experiences and observations while in Newgate Prison (as well as the transplanted clergyman Eden’s impressions), make up the better part of the next one hundred pages. Though Robinson is far and away my favorite character I had to wonder what purpose his narrative served in a story deemed by the narrator to fall into the category of “matter-of-fact romance” (98). Furthermore, what could Reade have gained by spending a hefty chunk of his novel’s beginning in introducing a plot and characters that would then take a back seat to a seemingly unrelated Shawshank focus at the tenth chapter?  Perhaps this abrupt departure from the comparatively idyllic setting of Grassmere and The Grove into the sterilized walls and fixtures of Newgate is meant to shock readers into reform (similar to the bucket of water’s desired effect on Josephs No. 15 [113]) and I believe it is the reader’s task to ascertain whether or not this narrative break is effective in achieving this aim.

In Charles Dickens’, “The Great Penal Experiments” he describes the disparities in prison systems in London, referencing both the near opulence of Pentonville prison and the utter squalor of Smithfield prison, the two institutions Dickens says though just two miles apart are “antipodes” in every way (252).  For Dickens, it is this inconsistency in prison life that is to blame for the stagnant state of criminality in London rather than the individual deficiencies of these two institutions.  In Reade’s novel, the two existing strains of narrative function in much the same way-they stagnate the text’s effect on the reader.  Moving focus from the petty romantic concerns of Susan and her paramours to the bodily torture being inflicted upon Tom and his fellow prisoners is too much of a narrative disparity for the narrative to function effectively as a whole.

The prisoners of Newgate belong to a prison system like the one Dickens describes, broken and inefficient, prone to dole out punishments disproportionate to the crime.  The description of the treatment of the prisoners, led by Hawes and his acolytes, the incomprehension and cruelty of the Justices, and the incompetence of well-meaning men like the Mr. Jones is grounds aplenty for Reade to make a case for reform of the prison system that would naturally coincide with the intended reformation of the prisoners incarcerated there, however, the organizational placement of this concern makes it less effective than it could be.   If we were to get glimpses of the prison narrative spliced within the descriptions of the evil Mr. Meadows’ endless scheming than I believe it would be easier for the reader to draw parallels between wrong-doers (namely men in power who outwardly appear moral, I’m looking at you Hawes et Meadows), as well as parallels between the injustices taking place in the narrative.  Would we pity Robinson’s plight more if we had his narrative of pain and want coming on the end of the crotchety old Giles’ realization of his blessings and good luck? I believe we would. I think it is obvious that Reade wants to pick up Dickens’ exhortation to reform a flawed penal system, perhaps even as Dickens advises through the implementation of national education, however Reade’s narrative structure does not suggest an emphasis on prison reform or even character reform because it is too fragmented to make a cohesive statement, or at least as of yet (253).

Dickens, Charles. “The Great Penal Experiments.” Household Words.1.11 (1850):250-253. ProQuest. Web.

Reade, Charles. It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Miami: HardPress, n.d. Print

“Alas! But that sentence is all a puzzle is it not?”

Throughout the novel Dracula a strange emphasis is put on the spoken word. HeHe, punny. But really! The levels of English speaking by three characters, Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing and (strangely enough) Quincey Morris have a lot to tell us about the Victorian anxieties the text is laboring under, specifically the fear of “reverse colonization”.

While reading this novel what began as amusement with Van Helsing’s quaint turn of phrase, soon devolved into confusion and then into disbelief. Dr. Van Helsing, a man who’s education is made MUCH of and who apparently has a command/knowledge of multiple languages (French, German, Latin, Dutch and English), is forever portrayed to the reader as speaking broken, hobbled English. (The examples of this are numerous, simply look at any portion of the novel where Van Helsing makes a prolonged speech, and I defy you not to want shake the book in frustration!). In a discussion with Lindsay Fenton (who is apparently a muse for many of us, keep it up L!), she pointed out that the pattern of the good Professor’s errors is inconsistent with that of other learners of English. For example, the Professor makes numerous blunders when it comes to verb conjugations and yet can still construct complex-compound sentences, and convey scientific theories and lingo without difficulty.  I believe it’s clear to many that this broken speech is indicative of an English language speaker attempting to create a speech that betrays the speaker’s foreignness, but why would Stoker so tax himself with this cumbersome dialogue? (An answer after the break!)

Before we answer that question I think it would be pertinent to consider Dracula’s speech in the novel.  Though our villain has limited opportunities for speech because he too, is an outsider, in fact possibly “the strangest of all strangers” with his dual foreign identity and vampiric identity, what he says when he does speak and how  he says it is very interesting.  When Jonathan remarks on how well the Count speaks English the Count replies, “I thank you, my friend for your all too flattering estimate, but yet I fear that I am but a little way on the road I would travel. True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them” (28).  The Count’s linguistic sophistication (though he still uses the foreign “my friend”—like Van Helsing) is impressive here, as well as his knowledge of the importance of language learning in moving to his new dream-home.

Third, and probably strangest of all, we have Quincey Morris, the cowboy American with his charming and direct mode of speech.  Though Quincey is obviously an English speaker, it is American English that our British gentlemen do not use and which sets him apart (subtly, albeit) from his compatriots.  When Lucy first describes him to Mina she says “I must tell you beforehand that Mr. Morris doesn’t always speak slang—that is to say, he never does so to strangers or before them, for he is really well educated and has exquisite manners –but he found out that it amused me to hear him talk American slang, and whenever I was present, and there was no one to be shocked, he said such funny things” (78).  Apparently, in polite company Quincey’s Texan English is inappropriate, ya’ll. In order to fit in and be considered educated and well-mannered Quincey, like Dracula, must linguistically assimilate.

Of these three characters, two of them pose a threat to the British Empire. Unfortunately, I don’t have Stoker’s  ability to build suspense, so I’ll just tell you, it’s the Count and the American. In Steven D. Arata’s article, “The Occidental Tourist: “Dracula” and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization” he analyzes “The decay of British global influence, the loss of overseas markets for British goods, the economic and political rise of Germany and the United States, the increasing unrest in British colonies and possessions, the growing domestic uneasiness over the morality of imperialism” and concludes that this “combined to erode Victorian confidence” (Arata 622).  Unlike the good doctor, Dracula and Quincey Morris  have as “the marauding, invasive Other,” adopted British culture and in the case of Dracula “mirrored [it] back in monstrous forms” (624).   Though the rough and tumble cowboy is ostensibly on the side of the good he poses too much of a threat, through the ease in which he assimilates and works with in the British* language and culture, to be allowed to live. So, of our Vanquishing crew ,he is the only casualty.  Dracula overtly states that his passion for English is caused by a desire to forever be “Master” in whichever area he finds himself (28), thus he too must die.  Luckily, Dr. Van Helsing does not scare readers of the Victorian era with a firm grasp of the language and through his muddled speech presents himself (though easily the smartest and most capable among them) as lovable (almost laughable) and most importantly, non-threatening, he will not try to colonize the British by learning their own language! And so Van Helsing, “live to fight another day, no?”

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-45.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Glennis Byron. Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

“What would an angel say, the devil wants to know”

At the risk of exposing myself to categorization and thereby being easily dismissed as one of those girls I am going to post a second consecutive blog entry protesting the villianization of our novel’s females. (Cross my heart it just caught my attention twice; this isn’t my agenda…at least not all of the time).

In Dracula, the lovely Lucy and the steadfast Mina are both consistently praised for their sweetness, their goodness, their angelic qualities, but as soon as either of these women evidence sexuality, or too much cleverness, or worst of all—a  ghastly combination of both, they are immediately bitten by the beast and demonized.  I believe that this dichotomy can be directly related to the one Gilbert and Gubar establish in their article–in patriarchal literature women are either angel or monster.

Unfortunately, length restrictions will only allow us to examine one example of this in any depth (and also saves me from a spoiler alert) so we will focus this observation on our first lady with a biting problem, Lucy.  Lucy, with her great beauty and playful, loving nature is quickly marked as a female in a dangerous position.  A woman can be beautiful as long as she is ignorant of her beauty, and meekly accepts what fortune and fate bring her way; but as we saw with Gwendolen in previous weeks an ownership/possession/manipulation of that beauty is a capital crime that will get a girl damned quicker than you can say ‘malignant male gaze’.  I believe that Lucy is punished by Dracula’s bite BECAUSE she is beautiful, playful and loving, or what some modern readers would call a flirt.  We read in Lucy’s correspondence to her friend Mina that she is not at all vain about her trio of proposals that take place during the course of a SINGLE DAY, and yet in the same breath she settles down to a detailed account of each (70).  Furthermore, her exercise of her not inconsiderable powers over the crusty Mr. Swales and later the good (if foreign) Dr. Van Helsing shows that she recognizes her influence over men (80, 137-38).  This female power must not be born, G&G forecast what is in store for Lucy if she begins to fail in her performance of ‘the angel’, “If they [women] do not behave like angels they must be monsters” (53). Lucy’s awareness of her beauty and her affect on men needs to be punished by making that sexuality perverse and evil.  Therefore she is transformed from the angel of men’s imaginings to a seductive devil attempting to bestow life-threatening kisses on unsuspecting admirers. We witness the physical transformation as she is described in heavenly language in one sentence:  “and she looked her best, with all the soft lines matching the angelic beauty of her eyes” and just one short sentence later a “strange change” comes over her as she crosses from a pure women to a sexualized monster with eyes “dull and hard,” breathing “stertorous,” and a “soft, voluptuous” voice (192).  (The word ‘voluptuous’, seems to become her main characteristic post-change as it is used no less than a million* times to describe her in the next half-dozen pages.) The final showdown in the graveyard between the white knights of morality and the hissing Lamian beast can easily be seen as a crusade against sexuality when Lucy’s most sinister attack on the men is the attempt to lure her fiancée into an embrace.  Thankfully, Lucy takes a line from Fiona Apple’s book, admits her criminality and her monstrous appetites and then dies a terrible death in retribution.

As the novel goes on we see this pattern played out again with Mina, though she is not demonized as much for her sexuality as she is her cleverness, because as Gilbert and Gubar point out, “for women in particular patriarchal culture has always assumed mental exercises would have dire consequences,” such as, I don’t know, literally becoming a monster. This condemnation of a female with mental acuity presents a whole other nest of problems, but it is Lucy’s demonization and subsequent vanquishing that is most troubling in the first part of the novel. It proves that there is no space for a woman to be something other than angel or monster.

Post Script: I may be on board with my aforementioned categorization if this guy is the spokesperson

*Admittedly an exaggeration, however I did count at least four uses of the word which seems a bit excessive to my mind.

Gwendolen Golightly

In the course of my reading I admit that my feelings towards the novel’s taxing heroine have run first hot and then cold. I sympathize with her desire to assert her will and create a life of her own fashioning, and yet I find her happily admitted self-love despicable at best (seriously, who says things like: “How can you help what I am? Besides, I am very charming” STOP YOURSELF (84).  However, after reading Mary Poovey’s enlightening and empowering (This one’s for all my ladies!) chapter “The Ideological Work of Gender” I am more convinced than ever of the necessity of Gwendolen’s actions. In fact, those same self-serving actions called to mind a favorite on-screen persona, the one, the only, Miss Holly Golightly

I know it seems a connection purely for pop culture’s sake but I beg that you humour me – Holly and Gwendolen are soul sisters separated by a hundred years, a continent, and access to an upscale jewelry store. Both women work within gender constructions that immediately place them at a disadvantage, both make ample use of their good looks and considerable charms to achieve the most advantageous ends for themselves and they both are largely unapologetic about doing so.  For some, this last similarity is unforgivable and damnable in a female. A sign of what our darling Mr. Grandcourt would term “all coquetting” (119).  And this makes sense if we are to agree with the picture of Victorian mindsets as Poovey explains them in her chapter, namely that the main role of the female was to marry and reproduce and in so doing add to the domestic bliss of a household. Based on a bizarre and erroneous binary constructed partially on biological differences it was decided that “women were governed not by reason (like men), but by something else, then they could hardly be expected (or allowed) to participate in the economic and political fray” (Poovey 11). It follows then that if women were not to participate in economics or politics on a large scale than there will be disapproval when women take an active interest in securing their own personal finances and political autonomy, through the “coquetting” of previous note.

Naturally in an era where women can expect to enjoy the full fruits of self – realization and independence it seems cold, calculating and downright cruel to watch Gwendolen enjoy the attentions of the pleasant-enough Rex and then reject him out of hand as someone unsuitable to her needs. Likewise we recoil as Holly rapidly uses and discards her many paramours in an attempt to catch the biggest fish, but upon second glance I find our judgments (or hey, maybe just my own) built upon the same faulty binary as the despicable Mr. Greg of Poovey’s chapter. I expect that the women in these stories WILL be married, that this role in fact is the ultimate fulfillment of their being. (G, too accepts this fate as we see in her exchange with her uncle on page 125.) And as if that isn’t frightening enough I expect them to accept this fate with no resistance or attempts to make the most of it. So far removed am I from a life that is run explicitly on these terms that I find it possible to condemn their behaviours.  But surely, this condemnation is ill-conceived. Should it not be the gendered constraints that I find at fault? Should I not applaud these women for asserting a personality and preference where few others dare to? I say, I have judged Gwendolen to harshly, she is making the best of a horrible situation (albeit obnoxiously).  We can take some comfort in Holly’s end with the delightful Paul Varjak (a huge departure from the original text but one I love all the same), as well as the direction of the novel which hints at a similarly favourable match for our Gwen, but until that time I say GOLIGHTLY, GWEN! And YAYA!

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Mary Barton and the Value of Neighborly Love

From Friedrich Engels’ disheartening report on the living conditions of the working class in England one would think that spirits in the working-class districts of Manchester would be similarly dire. However, we find that this is not the case in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. For sure, there is some degree of grief and discomfort, as is natural with the quality of life one condemned to poverty may expect to enjoy, but Gaskell takes pains to avoid allowing her main characters to fall into wretchedness.  I think one of elements that keeps the working-class from utter despair is the community of neighbors and friends that seems to have organically formed around most of our main characters.

When you read Engels assessment of the working-class districts and hear tell of the conditions that faced the workmen and their families in what Engels terms “The Industrial Epoch (584), it is easy to wonder how any individual could withstand things such as the “lone string of the most disgusting blackish-green slime pools…from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable” (584). Yet for Mary Barton and her ilk, though they are not exactly living in the lap of luxury there seems to be a certain contentment afforded to those beings that live within a community.

The practical implications of living well within community are obvious and examples of such are replete in the novel, but to name an instance of neighborly assistance in action that is particularly vivid: we have repeated statements and evidence that Jem’s Aunt Alice is a tireless care-giver and nurse to the sick in her community (even those she does not hold as personal friends or relation) and is often out of her house for days on end tending to those in need, in addition to the manual labour and other domestic duties she performs daily.  Or if we are desirous of a less selfless example of neighborly good we can examine the practice of neighbors keeping their neighbors house keys and/or relaying messages or receiving packages for the occupant when he or she is unavailable as we see with both the Wilson’s neighbor Mrs. Davenport and the Barton’s neighbor (whose name slips past my recollection at this point).

But beyond practical assistance this community of people (mainly women though not entirely) also offer a great deal of psychological assistance in the form of frequent and varied social visits. At the beginning of the novel Mary Barton seems to be constantly engaged in the making of visits or reception of visitors, both male and female.  It seems that after a long and tedious day, in the mills and warehouses for men and possibly at the factories, shops or homes for women, it is some sort of balm to a worn body and mind to chat amicably over tea and tea-stuffs (what do they eat here anyway?) by the fire, or share a meal or merely to pop-in to commiserate over some misfortune or celebrate some triumph.  This friendly practice allows those who have little in the way of monetary comforts to offer comfort to their fellow workpersons in a more intangible but just as meaningful (could we argue moreso?) sense.

Because, as Engels illuminates in his article, the abodes of many of these working-class people were literally built right on top of one another it was less of an ordeal to go a-visitin’ then I imagine it would be for those bourgeoisie folk whose living quarters were less spread out and their visitations more ceremonious.  So even the architectural design of the working districts encourage this practice.

It is to this sense of neighborly obligation and affection that I attribute the unbelievably bright outlook of most of our main characters in the first half of Mary Barton.