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- 60 As she is not a born lady, his wife is rather uneducated compared to himself and not used to certain conventions and formalities of the upper classes such as answering cards, which results in communicational problems in their relationship.124 At times, she even seems childlike, she hides behind curtains to give her husband a start,125 ties a handkerchief over the Colonel’s eyes,126 and continually bursts into laughter. She appears to be rather naïve and ignorant of her status. In an account to Lady Wargrave of her married life so far, Margery states, [a]t any rate, I make people laugh. Isn’t that being witty? Then I laugh as well, although I don’t know what I’m laughing at, I’m sure! (Laughs) Oh everybody laughs at me – but Gerald. (New Woman, II, 35) In the notes to the play, Jean Chothia also points out that ‘the astuteness of Margery’s perceptions about the social code here and subsequently in the scene sit uneasily with her pranks, naiveté, and silly laughter’ (Chothia, Emancipated Women Plays, 269). Gerald realises that Margery can never be an equal companion to him.
Moreover, it is this inner moral guide that leads Margery to the resolution to leave her husband and to return to her father in the country. In this respect, she is different from the married women previously analysed. She does not act out of a sense of revenge or hurt pride, but does what seems to be right for her own wellbeing and conscience. In her position as a former maid, she is less constrained by the codes of social propriety even though she seems to be aware of them.128 Her main motivation to go away lies is the fact that she has ‘had enough of half a home and only half a heart. [She’s] starving, withering, dying [t]here with [Gerald]!’ (New Woman, III, 47). Still the model of a traditional woman, she does not blame her husband for anything that has gone wrong but Mrs Sylvester, the ‘other’ woman, by declaring, ‘[i]t’s she who’s robbed me of your love! It isn’t I who’ve lost it; she has stolen it!’ (New Woman, III, 48). It could be argued that criticism of a woman by another, almost idealised, woman is targeted to have a stronger influence on the audience or readership than criticism by a raisonneur character as it subverts the struggle for the emancipation of women from within. Along these lines, one could interpret Margery’s words to her opponent at the end of the third
Mrs Sylvester, in turn, does not seem to understand the attraction that emanates from Margery. As a conversation with her husband reveals, she is ignorant of the fact that Margery apparently holds all the qualities a man is looking for in a
Mrs Sylvester cannot simply be counted among the caricatured New Women in the play, who untiringly talk about the inequality between the sexes, muse over the importance of latchkeys, and smoke out of principle. She is a married woman, who is not particularly happy in her relationship due to a lack of common ground.129 She has doubts about the concept of marriage itself, as a conversation with Gerald
No comparable open criticism of matrimony has been uttered by any of the characters in any of the other the plays.
Like Mrs Fergusson in Penelope, Mrs Sylvester falls in love with a married man.
This time, though, the husband is close at hand and not stationed in another country.
Throughout the play, New Woman characters are ridiculed and their endeavours to promote equality between the sexes is made fun of by the male characters. In her introduction to the play, Chothia points out that ‘[t]hey might be thought of as modern humours figures: once set before the audience, each will respond in an exaggerated and predictable way’ (Chothia, Emancipated Woman Plays, xv).
Cf. New Woman, II, 37. - 63 -
Right at the beginning of the play Colonel Cazenove, Gerald’s uncle, expresses the viewpoint that ‘[a] woman, who is a woman doesn’t want to be anything else.
These people are a sex of their own. […] They have invented a new gender’ (New Woman, I, 5). The notes to the play elucidate that, as Grundy does not make any efforts to subvert this attitude, the Colonel can be considered to be a raisonneur figure.130 Repeatedly, he embodies the voice of common sense asserting that the New Women’s endeavours and dissatisfactions all come down to their not having a husband.131 In general, Grundy’s play is more outspoken than the works discussed so far. Miss Enid Bethune, Miss Victoria Vivash and Dr Mary Bevan, the New Women in the play, and notably all unmarried, rather openly discuss gender issues as in Dr Bevan’s words, [a] morbid modesty has too long closed our eyes. But the day of awakening has come. Sylvester, in her Aspirations after a Higher Morality, Bethune, in her Man, the Betrayer, Vivash, in her Foolish Virgins, have postulated the sexual problem from every conceivable point of view. (New Woman, I, 17) Furthermore, Dr Bevan represents the first occurrence of a working middle-class woman in any of the dramatic works. According to the explanatory notes to Grundy’s comedy, ‘medicine was one of the few professions in which women had, despite much opposition and ridicule, made some advancement at this time’ (Chothia, Emancipated Woman Plays, 269). In this context, it is interesting to note that ‘The London School of Medicine for Women’ was established in 1874, and by the year 1891 there were 101 female doctors in London.132 Owing to her capacity as a doctor, it seems that through her voice forthright allusions to reproduction are more sanctioned and less provocative than through any other voice in the play.133 Moreover, the New Woman characters’ constant verbal attacks on the wrong that is done to their gender always seem to serve comic purposes. Their way of reasoning often appears to be exaggerated and illogical, which is usually pointed Cf. Chotia, Emancipated Woman Plays, 266.
Cf. New Woman, I, 18.
Cf. Chothia, Emancipated Woman Plays, 268.
Cf. ‘DOCTOR […] The truth amounts to this: the one mitigating circumstance about the existence of Man is, that he occasionally cooperates in the creation of a Woman’ (New Woman, III, 42).
- 64 out or reduced to absurdity by the male characters. Notably, in a discussion about the state of the theatre at that time, those on the side of female emancipation claim
It can, therefore, be argued that placing lines such as these in a play, meant to be performed in front of people who are generally likely to be in favour of theatre, elucidate Grundy’s attitude towards the whole debate.
If the characters’ actions do have any social consequences, they seem to concern Margery first and foremost. Considering the marriage to Gerald inappropriate, his relatives take the temporary measure of shunning her.
As for the other characters concerned, the amorous entanglements do not seem to have any negative consequences regarding their status in society. It is rather a reconsideration of their sense of right and wrong that takes place. Gerald, for example, is stricken with a bad conscience when he realises that his wife has been downhearted ever since after she found out that he is likely to be in love with another woman. In a rather long vindication in front of Mrs Sylvester, he blames only himself for Margery’s misery, as it was he who took her away from her accustomed station and did not cherish her love for him enough. As he says, he ‘mistook a light heart for an empty head’ (New Woman, III, 44), and Chothia notes that his ‘speech signals the turning point in Gerald’s attitude to feminism as well as to love and Margery. From here on he thinks and acts as a ‘true man’’ (Chothia, Emancipated Women Plays, 297).
This insight of his, leads him away from the principle that men and women ought to be companions instead of different poles. In an almost anachronistic turn, he begins to favour the model of the separate spheres of the genders, and tells Mrs Sylvester,
The general tone of this play, therefore, appears to be a rather moralistic one. In the end, Gerald repents having not valued his wife enough and Margery rejects Mr Sylvester’s approaches. Mr Sylvester, in turn, who has left Agnes, is expected to go back to his wife after Margery urges him to do so. Moreover, at least one of the New Women marries, as Miss Bethune becomes engaged with the Colonel.
A principled order is restored and the traditional belief that marriage is one of the most important pillars of society or, in the words of the Colonel, that ‘[t]he institution of marriage is the foundation of society; and whatever tends to cast discredit on that holy ‘ordnance’ saps the moral fibre of the community’ (New Woman, IV, 55), is reaffirmed. It is interesting to highlight the Colonel’s slip of the tongue here, as he certainly meant ‘ordinance’ instead of ‘ordnance’, which is a military term for artillery.134 Margery and Gerald become reconciled on the grounds that he has found out what he loves about her and what he looks for in a relationship. Before the curtain descends, he tells her that ‘[he] want[s] [her] to be nothing less or more – only a woman!’ (New Woman, IV, 59). Recapitulating, it could be argued that even though issues of female emancipation are touched upon throughout the play, they are never treated in a serious way and, ultimately, traditional ideas about love and marriage are affirmed.
Double standards are now openly pointed out by the New Woman characters and are not simply implied between the lines. A recurrent theme is the opinion that a woman is entitled to know everything about her husband’s past concerning the liaisons he might have had before marriage. In Act Two, Miss Bethune and Miss Vivash are surprised at finding out that Margery did not care to ask Gerald about his pre-marital life,135 and in the third act the conversation centres around the same
However, their egalitarian attitude always appears to be flawed to some extent, as it is either underplayed by one of the other characters or unconsciously laid bare by the these women themselves. On the one hand, they seem to stand in for the belief that men and women are completely the same On the other hand, they are of the opinion that women are morally superior.136 In their eyes, therefore, a man with a past is considered a rascal whereas a woman with a past is regarded as a ‘[p]oor tempted creature’ (New Woman, III, 43).
Generally, as Carolyn Christensen Nelson points out, the play shows that the New Woman already had a place in the audience’s mind as a comic figure that was an easy target for mockery and caricature.137 Moreover, The New Woman was one of the great theatrical successes of 1894.138
4.3.4. Iris – Iris Bellamy
The initial situation of the plot of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Iris has not been encountered yet as the eponymous character is a young widow. The play was first performed at the Garrick Theatre in London in 1901. The setting described in the first pages suggests an upper-middle-class household once again. The scenery conveys the impression of wealth. The audience learns that, like Penelope O’Farrell and Susan Harabin, Iris is soon to receive guests. Moreover, it is soon established that she has been a widow for five years and that her husband’s will contained the condition that she would only receive money if she stayed unmarried. ‘[W]ed again, and you cease to be of independent means’ (Iris, I, 245), it states. She is ‘well-off, as far as her heedlessness in money-matters will permit of her being so’ (Iris, I, 238) and because of this financial security she is the first Cf. New Woman, II, 41.
Cf. Nelson, 295.
Cf. Chothia, Emancipated Woman Plays, xiv.