Neglected Georgey

One of the main concerns for the characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret is that of how Lady Audley left her son and husband to go and start a new life. Little Georgey, however, was not only abandoned by his mother, but neglected by almost everyone he came across, showing how this ideal for women was one that men could ignore without any consequence.

Lady Audley herself admits to not having a connection with her son. In telling her story to Robert and Sir Michael, she states “my baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to my mother arose in me” (Braddon 361). Of course, not all mothers are happy to be so when they first become mothers and have to readjust to their new lives, but Lady Audley here never does. She sees her child as “a burden upon [her] hands” and seems to have no trouble leaving the boy with his father, even though she knows that Mr. Maldon has used up her money in going to bars (Braddon 364). She eventually does check up on her son, but only after she is forced into seeing her father by the return of the elder George Talboys. Gerogey himself never knows this woman as his mother, or at least does not remember it, and therefore is neglected by her.

The men in the novel blame Lady Audley for leaving her son, even if it seems to be only an addition to her leaving her husband, but they also neglect the boy. Mr. Maldon does not take great care of the child, as seen by his house being “shabbily furnished, and disorderly, with a child’s broken toys scattered on the floor, and the scent of stale tobacco hanging about the muslin window curtains,” (Braddon 79). That coupled with Maldons repeated sale of little Georgey’s watch to get money proves that this certainly was not the best environment for the child [Braddon 191]. Of course Mr. Maldon is poor and stuck in bad habits, but this does not excuse the fact that he is bringing up his grandson in a poor environment, even if he loves the lad.

The boy’s father, however, does the same. When George gets home from being in Australia, he is stricken to learn about his wife’s alleged death. He does not, however, think of his son until he actually sees him. In fact, at first George is only talking to his father-in-law before little George speaks, and only then does the father call out “my darling! My darling! … I am your father” (Braddon 83). He even leaves Georgey with Mr. Maldon since the boy “is very fond of his grandfather” (Braddon 83). There is no thought of how the environment is bad for the boy. !t is only when Robert, now the boy’s guardian, sees a child’s coffin being carried out of the neighborhood that Georgey is removed from it (Braddon 188). Neither George or Robert are criticized for leaving, neglecting, or otherwise not doing right by the child, however, unlike Lady Audley.

Lady Audley did wrong by leaving her son, especially in the care of her father who vexed her so much with his money issues and bad habits that she herself left. However, George did the same, leaving his wife and son to live with Mr. Maldon. Maldon himself did not take proper care of the lad, even though he did love him, and Robert Audley, the boy’s guardian, did not start protecting him until he realized the lad could die. None of these men are criticized for leaving or neglecting Georgey in the way that Lady Audley is. Only George has to bear some criticism for leaving, but he is often forgive for it mush quicker than she is. In the end, it is the woman who is blamed for leaving while the men don’t concern themselves too much with the needs of the child. Thus this standard of making women and only women in charge of the children leads, through one woman not living up to her gender norms and several men not stepping in to fill that roll, to young Georgey being neglected.The gender norms lead to an innocent child being neglected, and so the novel displays how these norms can be harmful.

Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

For much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, religion seems to play a fairly marginal role in the novel and in most of the characters’ lives (with the notable exception of Aunt Alice). However, in the climax of the story, this relative silence on religion is, in a way, identified as the primary source of the societal and personal problems at the heart of the novel. In the moving final exchange between John Barton and Mr. Carson, both men see each other anew through the Christian gospel and discover that gospel anew through one another. After this event, the reader, looking back at the novel, is led to read many of the characters through a Christological lens, identifying some characters with Christ through their suffering and some characters, often the same characters, with Christ’s crucifiers through their violence or neglect of others. This crucifier/crucified duality transcends the boundaries between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the masters, showing Christ and thus humanity in all of them. However, the titular Mary Barton does not seem to fit into this paradigm of crucifier/crucified as tidily as many other characters, particularly the male characters. This leads to the question of whether this Christological connection is reserved for male characters, while female characters enter into the Passion of the novel differently or whether Mary too can be read, in a subtler way, as being linked to Christ in her suffering.

After Mr. Carson states that he would rather bear the burden of unforgiveness himself then extend forgiveness to his son’s murderer, Gaskell writes: “all unloving, cruel deeds are acted blasphemy” (342). This is what John Barton has come to understand in the light of the murder he has committed, especially after witnessing Mr. Carson’s anguished suffering, and it is a truth Mr. Carson realizes, to some degree, after this first brutal exchange between himself and John Barton. Carson’s revelation is inspired by the example of a little girl forgiving the rough young lad who knocked her over and especially her words “He did not know what he was doing,” which send him back to the gospel account of Christ’s salvific suffering (345). In thus seeing Christ through the little girl’s action, Carson comes to see Barton’s humanity through Christ, finding the strength to forgive the dying Barton in his final moments. It might seem arrogant to say that Carson sees himself linked to Christ through his own suffering, thus extending forgiveness to Barton who has inflicted that suffering on him, but the words through which he offers forgiveness simultaneously recognize his own need for forgiveness of trespasses: “God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!” (346). Carson’s later actions reveal that he has not only seen himself as linked to Christ through his suffering but has also seen others, the poor whose needs he has neglected, as equally human by virtue of their shared connection to Christ through suffering. Thus, Carson and Barton are united as crucifiers and crucified alike.

In light of this climactic revelation, we are led to read Jem Wilson through a Christological lens as well. Jem, innocent and falsely accused, standing trial before a hostile court, is characterized particularly by his silence, much like Christ before Pilate and Herod. Indeed, Mary interprets Jem’s gaze as questioning, “Am I to do for what you know your—” (306). The unfinished words her are presumably “father did,” but the ambiguity suggests the possibility of connecting Jem’s sacrifice to the more broadly substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

So then what about Mary? She is our protagonist after all, so it might seem odd that we do not seem to be clearly led to locate her in this Christological framework, which comes to almost define the novel and in which each of the major male characters can be situated. There are a few different possible answers to this seeming issue.

One possibility is that Mary is actually linked thematically to Christ through her suffering after all. Even as Jem acts as a Christ-type in court, Mary is arguably sacrificing herself for him in turn. Mary’s successful efforts to prove Jem’s alibi, push her to a point of physical and psychological exhaustion that seriously threatens her life after the trial. While Jem, unlike Christ, goes free after his trial, it seems that Mary comes close to fulfilling the Passion by dying, and her recovery from that state of near-death resembles, perhaps, a kind of resurrection.

However, Mary’s return to life can, probably more compellingly, be read as a rebirth into new life. To be sure, this too is a kind of resurrection, a resurrection of the believer with Christ in traditional Christian theology, but the language of new birth is associated with the role of the Christian rather than Christ, the saved rather than the savior. When Mary first wakes up after her long feverish delirium, Gaskell writes, “Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant’s” (324). Gaskell continues to describe Mary in this way, remarking later that “she smiled gently as a baby does” and describing her gaze as “infantine” (325). Clearly, Mary’s recovery and return to life are linked to a rebirth and, given the religious reading suggested by the climax, it seems natural to link that language to the idea of spiritual rebirth in Christian soteriology.

Might Mary then be thematically related to one or both of the two major Mary’s of the gospel accounts: Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene? Mary’s appearance in the court is compared not to any madonnas but instead to Guido’s Beatrice Cenci, an interesting connection in the ways that it positions Mary as a potential victim of her father and of a detached aristocracy. However, the choice to describe Mary’s melancholy beauty in terms of the Guido painting, when plenty of madonnas could fit the bill, suggests that the Marian connection is not one Gaskell was particularly pursuing. Mary Magdalene, however, seems to offer a more promising parallel. After Jem’s arrest, many try to cast Mary as sexually wanton. She is judged and denied grace by others, linking her perhaps to the reputed backstory of Mary Magdalene. This, in conjunction with the emphasis on Mary’s baby-like birth into new life, might seem to connect Mary to Christ in a more removed and more passive way, linking her to a woman adjacent to Christ rather than to Christ himself.

However, we might be falling into something of a false dichotomy if we reach this conclusion. Carson’s and Barton’s connection to Christ through their suffering and to his crucifiers through their cruelty does not conflict in any way with their simultaneous identities as believers, being born again into new life. To the contrary, all of these aspects of identity are part and parcel of being a believer, and thus we are not constrained to choose one of these several options for reading Mary’s identity. Mary can be linked at once to Mary Magdalene and to Mary Magdalene’s redeemer, just as Mary Magdalene herself was before Mary Barton ever entered the scene.

 

Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ware, UK, Worsworth Editions, 2012.

Are You Bored to Death?

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 “My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been ‘bored to death.’” (9; ch. 2)

 

Lady Dedlock is bored with the rain, bored with Chesney Wold, bored with the fashionable society, and basically just bored with her entire existence. And so are we! If any Victorian author could manage to merge the attention span of a two year old with the disdainful elegance of a lady, Dickens is the man who could and who did. The life Lady Dedlock leads is full of nothing but the uninteresting and unimportant, and Dickens does not pass up any opportunity to highlight her dreary days: “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (161; ch. 12). In the world of Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s lethargic life contrasts sharply with the care-worn days of those who are indefinitely caught in the unending cycle of appeals in the Court of Chancery, even though she too is involved in the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Dickens clearly critiques the fashionable, upper-class through Lady Dedlock’s days of frivolity and selfishness.

 

But as Dickens depicts Lady Dedlock in all her vanity and carelessness, I wonder if Lady Dedlock could be anything more than just a spoiled social-lite? Does she serve any function in Bleak House beyond enabling Dickens to lower a social critique upon the life of the upper-class? As the fog over-saturates the streets of London and the rain over-saturates the grounds of Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock is so over-saturated with lethargic boredom that Dickens reduces her to little more than a caricature. Crafting one female character, or even a few, as over-blown caricatures is not a crime, and certainly Dickens often creates caricatures in order to address larger issues through his work. However, can we as readers identify any woman in Bleak House who is a fully formed, three-dimensional character? Are Dickensian women merely reduced to either their foibles or their virtues in order to advance the social agenda of Bleak House?

 

So many of Dickens’s female characters are larger-than-life, but perhaps the two that rise to the foreground are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. Like Lady Dedlock, they are defined by their idiosyncrasies. We are introduced to Mrs. Jellyby as the last reservoir of peace amidst her chaotic family and home: “Mrs. Jellyby whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces . . . received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if – I am quoting Richard again – they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (38; ch. 4). Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed by her pet-project of charity to African people that she grossly neglects her home and children. In her negligence, Dickens critiques the kind of missionary fervor that supersedes the duties and calls of a woman in her household. Mrs. Pardiggle appears in the story as another means for Dickens to make the same critique but through a contrasting angle.

 

Mrs. Pardiggle’s charitable projects do not prevent her from shirking her familial duties, but instead they engulf her children into the inexorable perseverance which she applies to her work. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly declares to Esther and Ada, “But they [her children] are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general – in short, that taste for the sort of thing – which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves” (108; ch. 8). Although Mrs. Pardiggle spends her time far more actively than Lady Dedlock, Dickens critique is implicit in Esther’s observation that she, Ada, and Richard had never met such wretched children before as Mrs. Pardiggle’s children: “We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shriveled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent” (107; ch. 8). In Dickens’s following depiction of Mrs. Pardiggle’s trip to the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle’s over-zealous evangelicalism is exposed as an egregious flaw rather than a Christian virtue. Like Mrs. Jellyby, she is reduced to a comical tool for Dickens to condemn Christian charity which does more harm than good.

 

Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are plainly secondary characters to the story of Bleak House, and it would not be fair to judge Dickens’s portrayal of women solely through them. However, even the principle female characters – Esther Summerson and Ada Clare – are characterized as limited, feminine types. Esther is dubbed “Dame Durden” and becomes the trope of the maternal care-giver, while Ada is the young, golden-haired angel who is cast as the virtuous and demure bride for the dashing Richard. Esther and Ada have more dimensions than Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, but their world seems to be just as narrow as Lady Dedlock’s world, although perhaps less boring than hers. They lead a happy life at Bleak House, but is it only a happy life because Dickens did not give them the complexity to desire a life different than the one readily available to them?

 

The humor and variety of Bleak Houses’s characters make them memorable and justify the popularity of Dickens’s novel. However, if we look to Bleak House for depictions of female characters that push the boundaries of stereotypical nineteenth-century women, then we may simply be bored to death.

The Traditional George Eliot?

After reading Middlemarch, learning about George Eliot’s personal life through criticism and her letters, and reading Rae Greiner’s book chapter “Going Along With Others,” I am left questioning Eliot’s treatment of her female protagonists.

Why does George Eliot not allow her female character’s the same freedom that she practiced during her life? This question is a source of emotional unrest among Eliot scholars. One argument is that Eliot was focusing on realism, and it was more “real” for women in the 19th Century to end as a married woman. However, as Greiner addresses in her text, realism is limited in scope but only in that the events of realist fiction must be restricted to what has been and what is. As Eliot’s life exemplifies, it was not unheard of for a woman to be unmarried, or for a woman and man to live as an unmarried unit – unlikely, but not unheard of. Some of my colleagues have responded to this observation that Eliot was one in a thousand, that she was an extraordinary example. I suppose my question is, did she believe in her own supreme uniqueness? Is that why she could allow herself the freedom to live a progressive lifestyle and not allow her protagonists the same? For some reason that sits with me in a very uncomfortable way. It reeks of profound egotism that I suppose I am unwilling to ascribe to Eliot at this moment.

However, while I am unwilling to throw Eliot under the proverbial horse and carriage, I am also unwilling to drop the subject completely. Towards the end of her chapter titled “Going Along With Others,” Greiner discusses how sympathy becomes a public experience. Not only is it necessary to know others in order to understand the do’s and dont’s of society, but understanding communal sympathy ensures normative morality: “one’s moral judgments are mediated by community” (39). Therefore, realist fiction, with its restriction on what is and what has been, regulates and promotes traditional ideas and ways of thinking. Greiner makes this idea even more complicated when she argues that this public authority “cannot supply a fixed standard of judgment” and the authority is a “fiction that must continually be reproduced” (43). This reasoning implies that the traditional authority that propagates the ideas of normative – let’s call them – female endings is only allowed to thrive through the continued reproduction of traditional marital imagery. In this way, Eliot is promoting the traditional narrative as the “real” by refusing to grant one of her many, many, many female protagonists an alternate (nontraditional but not impossible) ending.

Why couldn’t Dorothea and Will love each other, live together, and not marry? That solution would even get around the whole no-money-for-you-if-you-guys-get-married situation. This solution would reflect Eliot’s “real” life. So why not? Did she think of herself as above the norm, as a special exception? Did she find dissatisfaction in her progressive lifestyle (considering the length of the relationship I tend to think not)? In perpetuating traditional, or “realistic” endings, Eliot leaves the female reader without a new possible “standard of judgment,” and thereby (thoughtfully or not) upholds the narrative of traditional authority.

Georgie Pordgie Pudding and Pie, Criticized the Women and Made Them Cry

“The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species — novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories.” Eliot, 148

“The strength of Mrs. Stowe’s own religious feeling is a great artistic advantage to her here; she never makes you feel that she is coldly calculating an effect, but you see that she is all a-glow for the moment with wild enthusiasm, the unreasoning faith, and the steady martyr-spirit of Dred, of Tiff, or of Father Dickson.” Eliot, 380

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What is one to do with the paradox that is George Eliot? While reading her essays and reviews, I became increasingly befuddled. In my experience, Eliot is the reason nerdy feminists can justify the Victorian period. period. Glimmers of hope for the fallen ladies and a push for the education of the gentler sex just don’t cut it for most academic women, but…repeatedly…George Eliot does.

It must be my limited exposure, but what I have read of Eliot — these few assigned essays and Adam Bede — don’t thematically justify the ardor with which feminists pursue Eliot. Though I was “lol”-ing at Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, I was also dismayed. In an era where women sought expression, sought to assert their right to participate in written society, Eliot only scoffs, and urges the romance-peddlers to give up their trashy writing and leave it to the women geniuses.

But if it were not for all these women publishing…if it were not for the increasing commonality of a lady novelist…if there were nothing but men’s writing for comparison…could Gaskell, Martineau, C. Bronte, and Eliot have succeeded? Would women be writing as prolifically today were it not for the infuriatingly chaste, marriage-chasing, mooney-eyed virgins and reformed dukes of the penny romances?

It was disappointing to read Eliot on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, though I understand the urge she felt to raise women up, to shame them and inspire them through her own genius.

These are tempered sentiments. After reading Eliot’s review of Dred, I could begin to see why all my feminist mentors and professors in the past six years, all the glasses-wearing, scarf-wrapped, cat-petting women academics geek out over Eliot (don’t worry, I’m getting there too). Its because she’s a genius, and she recognizes the genius of other women, and promotes it. She is cruel to those she finds below her own level of intelligence and perception — the novel-writing masses — and instead tries to pull and promote that in which she finds true life and great art. She compares Stowe to Scott, and becomes quite the fan-girl over both, finding the grandeur of Scott’s settings in the close quarters of Stowe’s, finding “the Negro” characters as compelling as any of Scott’s.

Comparing this review to her essay on lady novelists, a reader might begin to think that Eliot was mistaken in her own perceptions, or misleading the public. Perhaps it is not a question of genius, or who-should-and-shouldn’t be writing novels. Perhaps it is a matter of sincerity. Of ardour. Of simplicity. Eliot is not a downright sadistic critic, judging from her ruling on Stowe. Rather, she cannot support the insincerity of romance, the moralizing without strong moral feeling, piety without realistic representations of both martyrdom and hypocrisy.

In such ways, Eliot is the genuine realist. Adam Bede is not…Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is not…but her review of Stowe, a glowing, critical recognition of a fellow genius and — more importantly — a genuine, passionate writer, renders Eliot more likeable, though perhaps not much nicer.

 

 

Eliot, the Homosocial Bond, and the Male Power Structure

In Eliot’s literary reviews, as presented in the Selected Essays, she seems to stay relatively positive, expressing what the authors do well and only occasionally using a backhanded approach to briefly touch on the authors’ weaknesses:

Of what comparative importance is it that Mr Ruskin undervalues this painter, or overvalues the other, that he sometimes glides from a just argument into a fallacious one, that his is a little absurd here, and not a little arrogant there, if, with all these collateral mistakes, he teaches truth of infinite value, and so teaches it that men will listen? (368)

She lets the reader know that she understands the weaknesses in the writing, but seems to find a greater meaning; whether this is due to her true feelings of the value of the work or because the Westminster, with its socially liberal leanings, required certain writers to be treated more gingerly, as Dillane argues in Re-reading George Eliot’s “Natural History,” is unclear – this last suggestion seems incongruous in the case of Ruskin, as he was quite the opposite of liberal minded.

However, the article that stands out most is the one in which she does not continue this act of veiled criticism, but she openly attacks the value of an entire class of writers, in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Laurel Brake describes how the Westminster, the journal Eliot contributes to and ultimately edits, was greatly concerned with issues pertaining to women: marriage, prostitution, “women’s stake in the public sphere,” etc (88). Therefore it seems odd that Eliot would so openly discount a multitude of female writers in that particular journal, no less as a liberal woman. While she focuses her wrath on three specific categories of female literature (she seems to have invented these groupings), she widens her scope to women writers in general:

In the majority of women’s books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination of feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness. (161)

Eliot believes that “the majority of women’s books” cause societies perception of women to plummet: “the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature” (162). While it may in fact be that the mass of literature written by the women of the time is inferior, she makes no attempt to account for the reason, or find moments of merit, as she does with her other reviews. Perhaps women writers had less peer support and less opportunities for improvement, having only recently been allowed into the public sphere of authorship. Whatever the reason, Eliot falls victim to female in-fighting, which only distracts from the goal of equality.

Brake quotes Taylor and Mill’s discussion of the brake of the female homosocial bond: “‘Successful literary women are just as unlikely to prefer the cause of women to their own social consideration. They depend on men’s opinion for their literary as well as for their feminine success'” (94). It is this dependency on the male opinion that leads Eliot to so harshly denounce these “silly”. She is ultimately concerned that women’s worth is being represented in an unflattering way. But to whom is it being represented to? The patriarchy. Those who have the power to make the ultimate decisions on what has value and what doesn’t. So instead of searching for value in these female novels (as there must be some in the collective novels she mentions), or expressing concern outside of the negative portrayal to the male audience, Eliot unconsciously continues to empower the male power structure by allowing them to dictate female worth by male perception.

 

 

Mary Barton and Manly Tears: Why Women Should Stay Home and Men Shouldn’t Cry

“But he stayed long there, nad at last his sturdy frame shook with his strong agony. The two women were frightened, as women always are, on witnessing a man’s overpowering grief….Mary’s heart melted…putting her hand softly on his arm, said:

‘O Jem, don’t give way so; I cannot bear to see you.’

Jem felt a strange leap of joy in his heart…when her soft hand’s touch thrilled through his frame…he could almost hate himself for it; with death and woe so surrounding him, it yet was happiness, was bliss, to be so spoken to by Mary” (Barton 78-79).

Jem, you better not be crying! I'm the only one allowed to pout in this novel!

Gaskell’s portrayal of sensitive men and acute women is a strange flipping of tables throughout Mary Barton. The first half of the novel — though concerned with the plight of the poor and the sad, frequent deaths of those without luxury — spends a considerable amount of time creating sensitive men and hardened women.

Gaskell gives ’em tears and pouts, none of which do any good. It is as if an industrial town and the forced awareness of economy creates men and women incapable of becoming their fullest selves through experiences that challenge and change their accepted, gendered behavior in subtle ways. The two most obvious examples are Mary’s vanity and Jem’s tears. Now, plenty of the women in Mary Barton are a bit vain, but Mary’s vanity is encompassing and self-deluding, softened only by Gaskell’s repeated attempts to remind the reader that Mary will cry when a baby dies (this is so she can save Mary at the end for the reader). In contrast, the men are sensitive and generous, and cry. Alot. The men are always weeping, and though they are manly tears, they are frightening to the women (which is within the scope of a properly gendered reaction to manly tears).

A tender young woman aspires to a higher match and is cruel in the face of manly tears. The poor young gallant is stricken with grief, and still can’t get laid. These mildly warped genders are the sign of a society warped by political economies gone bad, and by the inclusion of both sexes in a system Gaskell finds to be broken and unnatural. Where men must nurse the poor while the women meet rich young dandies in the lane, Gaskell’s novel is a portrayal of the evil an over-participation in the economy can be for women, and the unnaturalness of a system in which men cannot properly care for their families or pursue love. Industrial work, bone-breaking hours and the avoidance of them through dressmaking and marriage, the terrible terms of a contract for women’s labor and apprenticeship, men faced by repeated deaths of children and fainting women, by fires, and economic frustration — these are the conditions under which society crumbles into sad, genderless chaos.

The scene above, in which Mary tells Jem she cannot bear to see him cry (though she herself weeps a-plenty at his family’s deaths), and he — in his moment of grief — experiences a rather revolting (though perhaps natural?) emotional-physical arousal at her comfort, is the exact example of a situation which in any other Victorian novel would result in Mary swept into the tear-soaked arms of Jem and discussing when they should break the news of their engagement to the family mourning twin boys. But no, not here. The unnaturalness of Mary’s situation in her motherless existence, her lack of empathy, her vanity and materialism, and her proximity to industry create a situation in which her womanly instincts are perverted and cause pain, rather than comfort. A match which is so natural to the community is scorned by the upstart wench who values her looks and pouts at the mention of a match between her and the sweetest, manliest scalawag Gaskell could conjure.

Ultimately, Gaskell takes her dear sweet time in the first half of the novel to build a confused pathos, one in which all the readers may be horrified — but empathetic — at the sight of the Vainly Sympathetic Mary Barton and the Valiantly Weeping Jem Wilson. The havoc industry wreaks on the natural order of things is highlighted by the “acutely” intelligent and sallow-faced industry girls, and the economically frustrated, crying men.

And what Gaskell really wants to say is, fix that economy, because ain’t nobody got time for all that…

Pushing but not Bursting the Spheres

What I found most interesting about Martineau’s piece “On Female Education” is just how aware she is of her audience and the context she is writing within. She approaches the topic of women’s education in a manner that would likely make modern feminists cringe, but in her social context gave her room to speak.

It is clear that Martineau writes with an acute awareness of the separate spheres dictated by Victorian society, arguing each of her points artfully as ideas that begin to push against the traditional views of women’s education, without entirely alienating her audience by rejecting all strictures. As in her other pieces, it is clear that Martineau writes with rhetorical finesse—aware of her audience and their limits and writing accordingly.

It is difficult to see here how far beyond her time Martineau was in terms of women’s roles in society. Even as I would argue that she carefully places her argument within a palatable context for her nineteenth century readers, using the accepted language etc., she may have agreed with more of the traditional roles than we’d like to think. She emphasizes quite often that woman is intended to be a companion to man and that “her proper sphere is home” (81 emphasis Martineau’s). Indeed, she uses much of the language of the helpmeet. And yet, we cannot neglect the impressive statements that she makes regarding women’s education. She is clearly advocating for a drastic change in mentality as well as practice.

In particular, I thought her response to the third objection—that “proficiency in knowledge” might inflate “the vanity so universally ascribed to the sex”—quite clever. Martineau writes: “if the taste for knowledge were more generally infused, and if proficiency in the attainments I have mentioned were more common, there would be much less pedantry than there is at present; for when acquirements of this kind are no longer remarkable, they cease to afford a subject for pride” (80). I cannot help but read a certain level of snarkiness into Martineau’s words, as she writes that limiting knowledge in fact promotes vanity. She flips a likely prevalent concern about educating women into a clever argument for encouraging widespread education.

Thus, while I am still left with questions as to how to understand this treatise of Martineau’s on female education, one idea that I think we can walk away with is that in her precarious position as a female writer (though I’m not sure if this piece was anonymous), she understood the rhetorical situation and social context she was writing into and that ought to influence how we view her arguments.

The Others

The primary struggle of the women of yesteryear was to find a means of expression without suppression. Surprise, surprise; they were met with not only resistance, given the hegemony that reigned supreme, but also a desperately underwhelming array of options. Yes, women’s entrance into the world of literature was a feat in its own right but their subsequent ability to produce works of substance and influence was pretty stifled. So, it was interesting to me that the oldest of our readings today, “Power and the Ideology of the ‘Woman’s Sphere” chose to focus on the limited influence which women did exert, a rather optimistic assessment. Meanwhile, the more recent articles strove to find an alternative arena for acquiring agency. “Theorizing Language and Masculinity: A Feminist Perspective” and “Feminist Literary: Theory and Criticism” both examined women’s subjection through the understanding that women were used in life and fiction as the opposite rather than other sex. “Binary opposition” as Johnson called it. This, in turn, made it much easier to shoot down women’s attempts to occupy the same linguistic and literature space. Basically, if women were the opposite of men of course they would not be able to write as well as one. Instead of arguing that women do have some sort of power, these articles picked up on one of the cultural ideologies at the base of the issue.

Why We Have Too Few Women Writers

Many things that Virginia Woolf brought up in her essay “Women and Fiction” reminded me very strongly of a TED talk given by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” You should watch it here. In case you have better things to do with fifteen minutes than watch a life-altering lecture, I’ll sum up the most relevant points, but really you should watch the talk.

Woolf brings up the very important point that experience feeds creativity, and that throughout history, women have been cut off from the great majority of worldly experiences. Women’s place has always been in the home, rather than traveling the world or exploring even very far beyond her front door. “Even in the nineteenth century,” Woolf says, “a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions” (par. 10). When a woman found the time and encouragement to write, there was generally not much she could write about. She also notes the importance of the fact that of the women she considers to have been “the four great women novelists–Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot–not one had a child, and two were unmarried” (par. 7).

Sandberg points out that this is still often the case today. While women are now allowed and often encouraged to participate in the workforce, they often either a) leave the workforce or b) stop climbing the corporate ladder when they start thinking about having children, whereas men (who are far less pressured into childcare and housework than women even today) do not have to choose between family and work because it is obvious to them that work supports family. Thus, (Sandberg quotes a statistic) “of married senior managers [in the US], 2/3 of the married men had children, and only 1/3 of the married women had children.”

Although Sandberg’s talk is much more general than the topics of writing and women writers, I believe her points apply to Virginia Woolf’s observations, and to finding a solution in the here and now. We can’t go back and make more women writers in the past, and we can’t recreate the history they lived through to know why there often weren’t women writers, but we can change the history we’re living through today, and make certain that women’s voices are heard, and that our history is not mysterious to future generations.

Thanks to Newton, I like Pamela

Judith Lowder Newton describes women’s sphere in the 19th century in terms of power and relationship in her essay “Power and the Ideology of ‘Woman’s Sphere’.”  The type of woman she describes is Richardson’s Pamela, although Richardson published Pamela much earlier in 1740.  I like this essay because I enjoy seeing the connections between Pamela and women’s realm in the 19th century–it helps to make sense of Pamela.  Because Pamela was so popular and widely read, I think it is safe to assume that Richardson helped influence or strengthen what would become the “woman’s sphere” in the 1800s.  Thinking about Pamela in terms of the situation of women in which Newton describes helps me to be less frustrated with the novel, sympathize more with Pamela, and allows me to see how Richardson was somewhat radical in his portrayal of a woman at the time.  Newton says women’s agency was found in their ability to influence others not necessarily in typical forms of power, and that women’s main purpose was to “promote general reformation among men.”  This is true of Pamela as well in that her biggest accomplishment is her virtue converting Mr. B into less of a monster.  Richardson was quite radical at the time to give a woman this much influence and have it acknowledged by other characters in the novel that Mr. B’s conversion came from Pamela.  Interestingly, Newton claims that most male authors “reject the notion that women have power, but they acknowledge…that women possess…influence,” which is definitely true of Richardson.  Next Newton says that women would become defined by their service to men; Pamela in the entire novel is described in terms of her service to Mr. B.

Newton also mentions another form of power women had in the eighteenth century besides influence which was “autonomy, the power of being one’s own person.”  Richardson most certainly gives Pamela this power through her opinions and voice she gains in her letters.  The last major connection between Pamela and Newton’s ideas is in Pamela’s marriage to Mr. B.  Newton says that marriage represented a relinquishment of power and novels in the 19th century often ended with “diminished” power for the female character.  Pamela resigns her power when she marries Mr. B and then the novel ends by showing her in the marriage with seemingly less power than she had prior.  I do not think Richardson was aware that he was portraying Pamela in this way, because I am not sure he was this interested in gender issues, but I know that thinking of Pamela in these terms helps me better understand and like the novel.

Pamela, or a Blueprint Rewarded

The story of Pamela is a familiar one-through no actual fault of the heroine herself. Pamela is a victim of the ideal so popular during her time: that women were a tool for the edification and growth of a man. Pamela herself does not have any emotional growth or change, making her a frustratingly lackluster character. Mr B. has more entertainment value simply for that reason. So why doesn’t Pamela ever change in the novel? Why doesn’t she learn something? And why is her role so passive?

These questions are asked in Russ’ “What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can’t Write?” Russ makes the argument that women had a place in literature and those places were rigidly designed in order to maintain one or two types of female protagonists. Both of these figures appear in Pamela, she is the virgin love interest and Mrs. Jewkes is the evil woman that wishes to push along the heroine’s downfall.

The story of Pamela is not a dynamic one. She has a moral code and keeps it. The social and circumstances around her change, but she does not. It is because of the fact that Pamela’s society did not want to read about a drastic change in their idea of womanhood. A woman to them was statically pure, never-wavering. And thus Pamela is subject to these stereotypes.

It is interesting to me that these feminine stereotypes have not been eradicated, simply transformed. Now in literature the typical male Bildungsroman  features the stereotype nicknamed “crazy pixie dream girl”, a direct descendant of Pamela characterized by her erratic nature, beauty, and refusal for help in what is likely an extremely threatening situation that a male protagonist cannot help her with. I’ve encountered her in popular teen novels such as anything by John Green, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and novels where a shy, introverted boy is transformed by knowing this whirlwind o a woman.

All of these stereotypes of womanhood are worth pushing back again because they tell us as women to be static and unchanging, to sacrifice our growth and needs for the needs of another and thus lessening the importance we feel and enact in society.

Is Virginia Woolf Right?

In her essay “Women and Fiction”, Virginia Woolf claims that women’s fiction is now “courageous, it is sincere; it keeps closely to what women feel. It is not bitter. It does not insist upon its femininity. But at the same time, a woman’s book is not written as a man would write it” (584). Ultimately, such a statement begs the question – is Woolf’s statement still accurate or even relevant in the twenty-first century? Are not novels like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey still showing a female protagonist whose life is entirely consumed by romantic relationships? Though Joanna Russ’s staple plots may have shifted a bit to indulge a more modern society, these prototypes of women who are entirely consumed by romantic relationships are similarly dangerous to the sex. Woolf hoped that in the future “The novel will cease to be the dumping-ground for personal emotions” (584). While there are certainly novels written by women that fulfill Woolf’s expectations, the novels that are highlighted at the front of bookstore displays seem to still be consumed with perpetuating an idea of woman as incomplete without a romantic interest to occupy her every thought and motivation. Joanna Russ charges women to find new myths from which to write at the end of her essay “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write”; however, I refuse to believe novels like the two mentioned above are a solution to the problem. Rather, plots like this perpetuate a destructive stigma.

PAMELA vs. CULTURE

Was Richardson’s Pamela a charge against Culture? And by ‘Culture’ I mean the definition used in “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write” by Joanna Russ. Russ’s definition plainly states that “Culture is male” and her meaning implies that literature is patriarchal. So first we must ask: what role does Pamela serve? Then we can conclude by finding the answer.

In “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write”, Russ argues that female protagonists are limited to a small amount of genres that they can have a real presence. She demonstrates this by listing out various plot summary lines that seem strange because the female protagonist is acting in various unconventional ways. She then states that if you substitute the female protagonist with a male character, then the plot seems less strange or more conventional. Essentially, this strange and unconventional reaction is the indicator for discovering roles and genres where the female protagonist does not belong.

While reading Pamela, I noticed a similar strange and unconventional reaction that I felt towards that story’s plot. Even as a male, I felt uncomfortable with Mr. B’s advances, and I became frustrated with Pamela’s naive and reckless decisions to forgive and forget. In reality, I noticed the complete opposite of these two plot angles. Popular culture dictates that men are usually the reckless and self-absorbed figures and women are typically the persistent and flirty figures. Watch any episode of Jersey Shore on MTV to see this theory in action.

Based on indicator set by Russ, Pamela does not fit in the female protagonist role in the novel. The protagonist role would be better be served by a male along with the gender changing of the entire cast. PamelO would be a servant BOY being seduced by his late Master’s daughter Mrs. B. If the role of Pamela (or PamelO) is a male role or at least the role that belongs to a male protagonist then Richardson is writing with ‘Culture’ and not opposed. If by chance this logic is sound and valid, then perhaps Pamela is just another celebration of the patriarchal Culture that Russ highlights for us. And if that is true, then the methods of reading and techniques for understanding it’s meaning need to be reevaluated.

Women Writers: A Problematic Entity?

Russ, Johnson, Newton, and Woolf address why the women writer is a problematic entity through the lens of the world in which she resides. The first reason is culture. According to Russ, culture is patriarchal; therefore, the stories we are so familiar with require a hero, not a heroine. While there is a female culture, it is a minority compared to the apparent majority. Thus, both women and men see culture as being only male.

Furthermore, this means that heroines can’t be the protagonists of many male works by way of gender switching because they have set roles. Heroines cannot be “hard-drinking”, “hard-fighting”, “Woman as Intellectual”, nor a “Mickey Spillane private eye” (pg. 204). What Russ means is real life women are meant to be compartmentalized for the sake of a romance, a marriage (or adultery), and children.

This ties into Newton‘s article and the second reason as to why the notion of women writers is “problematic”: some women writers couldn’t fathom giving their female characters traditionally masculine roles and power; however, they did manage to make them seem powerful in their own right without completely diving headfirst into unknown territory. Power for women is something to be hidden away as if it were a devious thing. For this reason, the ability of women writers and their rebellion against the status quo is hard to see due to the cultural limitation placed on them. Also, the talk of such power among these women writers was something that made them ill at ease; they chose to disguise power instead of revealing it completely to better deal with the topic.

The third reason, the technical issues behind a woman’s wording, according to Woolf, tie into women writers’ uneasiness with power: the language could be judged as something “too loose, too heavy, too pompous” for a woman to write. She has to tweak it and reconstruct it so that it fits her thoughts and musings without completely destroying it. However, according to Johnson, this is paradoxical in and of itself because a woman writer is striving to find a particular voice for her work, but she could end up forgoing it in favor of a less direct style of writing.

All of the concerns put forth by each essayist are legitimate; women were (and still are) expected to play a role in today’s male-dominated society and this includes through their own thoughts, words, and emotions. For each essayist, the ending of their article reflects what they believe about woman writers. Overall, each is hopeful about the future of women writers and dealing with the problematic aspects of the women writer. For Russ, new myths can be created by women. Woolf notes that quality will strive over the quantity of novels. Newton notes that women writers were and are able to use their craft to carefully obscure any and all deeper meanings and their levels. Johnson believes that feminists should research why men are so resistant to changing to the status quo.