«Verfasserin Julia Lackermayer angestrebter akademischer Grad Magistra der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Mag.phil) Wien, im Oktober 2008 ...»
- 67 of the female characters in any of the plays who is given the opportunity to lead an autonomous life unfettered by a husband to whom she would have to give account for her doings.139 Despite her self-sufficiency, Iris can not be considered a New Woman as she is far from being satisfied with the position she is trapped in. She considers the clause in her late husband’s will as ‘humiliating, cruel’ (Iris, I, 246) and seems to ponder upon marrying Laurence Trenwith, a young man without a fortune. Her interest in Laurence even exposes her to the danger of being regarded as a Fallen Woman as her solicitor and counsellor Archibald Kane insinuates.140 Kane succeeds in convincing her that luxuries are far too dear to her to give up her money. That she does not enter matrimony again does not really seem to be an option in the eyes of her friends and relatives, primarily because she is still exceedingly beautiful and has a number of admirers, an opinion which is also expressed by Aurea, one of her guests: ‘Of course she’ll marry again; she must’ (Iris, I, 253). Indeed, Iris accepts the proposal of one of her suitors, the rich Frederick Maldonado, who is about fifteen years her senior.
He seems to hold the opinion that Iris cannot help her attitude because she is ‘as God made women’ (Iris, I, 273), who consent to be owned and looked at just like a painting and in return are well provided for by their husbands.142 Thus, traditional role models are once again established – but not for long. Notwithstanding her initial anxiety about a scandal and her unwillingness to be a poor man’s wife, she ‘Six-and-twenty and independent!‘ (Iris, I, 238).
‘Allow me to remind you, then, that a lady circumstanced as you are – still youthful, beautiful – [...] [w]ho is seen constantly in the company of a young man whom she could not dream of marrying, subjects herself inevitably to a considerable amount of ill-natured criticism’ (Iris, I, 246).
Cf. Iris, I, 260.
Cf. Iris, I, 273.
- 68 resolves not to marry Maldonado and asks Laurence to accompany her to Switzerland. Furthermore, she is not without self-irony and is able to ridicule her pamperedness to some extent. In a conversation with Laurence, she describes
Your poor, weak, sordid Iris, who must lie in the sun in summer, before the fire in winter, who must wear the choicest lace, the richest furs; whose eyes must never encounter any but the most beautiful objects – languid, slothful, nerveless, incapable almost of effort. (Iris, II, 301) Moreover, a development of Iris’ character can be detected in the course of the play. Once she learns that her assets have been lost due to speculation, she does not despair but becomes more mature. She considers her sudden lack of means as a cross she has to bear in order to atone for her previous indulgence and egocentrism.143 Even her friends seem to notice the difference.144 She is also finally resolved to marry Trenwith and to follow him to British Columbia after he has managed to create a home for her there. All these signs appear to indicate that she is coping well with the new situation.
The changes within her, however, are short-lived. The correspondence between Mr Trenwith and her becomes more and more infrequent, although he resorts to coming back to England to find out whether certain rumours concerning his fiancée being drawn to another man are true. In the fourth act, indeed, the audience gets to know that it did not take long before Iris could not resist the temptations of the cheque book Maldonado has bestowed upon her. He did so quite schemingly in order to bind her to him and to make her grateful for his proposal.145 Maldonado, too, undergoes a development. At first, he was presented as Iris’ helpful friend and loyal admirer, but as the play proceeds, the honesty of his motives grows more and more dubious. As he leaves Iris at the end of the fourth act, the stage directions even mention ‘an evil look upon his face’ (Iris, IV, 402).
The consequences of Iris’ behaviour prove to be fatal for her. Even though her conduct has not been entirely socially acceptable, it is difficult to ascribe a Fallen Woman’s traits to her. Hamilton Fyfe argues that this aspect also turned the role of Iris into one that was difficult to play as ‘[i]n drama it is easy to be attractive as one who has to struggle, even though the struggle ends in failure. To drift, to fail weakly that is in itself depressing’ (Fyfe, Pinero’s Plays and Players, 212).
Her only mistake was that she accepted Maldonado’s money too readily, which marked, in her words, the moment when she began to descend ‘the path leading down to this awful abyss’ (Iris, V, 411). As the acts unfold, Maldonado lets her know that it has always been his plan to make her depend on him financially. She, then, loses the last remains of a good reputation by conceding to move into his house. In the same way as she hasn’t been aware of Maldonado’s scheme at the beginning, she does not seem to have been alert to the ramifications of such a move.146 Although her situation as an outcast of society was to a large part prompted by her liaison with Laurence, the latter is not able to forgive her acceptance of Maldonado’s support and leaves her for good in the final act.
Having overheard their last conversation, Maldonado is highly enraged. Violently and abusively, he throws her out of his house at once even though he must be aware of the fact that this leaves her without anyone to turn to. Considering that her status as a Fallen Woman is less apparent than the one of Nelly Armroyd in Lost in London,, for example, this ending seems particularly cruel. It should be taken into consideration that her behaviour was regarded as much more indecent at the very beginning of the 20th century than it would be nowadays. Hamilton Fyfe, a contemporary of Pinero, seems to criticise Iris’ attitude and to put the blame for her failing entirely on her. He disapproves of her lack of understanding that a man does not want to depend on a woman in pecuniary terms. According to his interpretation of the play, Trenwith is an honest and upright character, whereas Iris is looked upon as spoilt and reckless because ‘she has no objection to making this young man play an unpleasantly equivocal part, no reluctance to become his mistress’ (Fyfe, Pinero’s Plays and Players, 214). He even goes as far as to speculate that Iris postpones going to Canada with Laurence because she secretly speculates that a more favourable position will turn up in the meantime. All her
good intentions, Fyfe points out, have just been pious make-believe.147 Consequently, it can be argued that the character of Iris apparently did not elicit much sympathy from a contemporary critics and audiences.
Furthermore, double standards, it seems, are less perceptible in Arthur Wing Pinero’s play than in the others. To some extent, they are even criticised in a few passages, for example when Maldonado declares that ‘England is a paradise only for the puritan and the hypocrite’ (Iris, IV, 388).
Initially, Iris could have had the opportunity to be independent of men if she had wished it. Moreover, there appears to be a more critical tone concerning the treatment of women who do not precisely act according to the social conventions.
Iris is not automatically portrayed as an immoral woman just because she decides to go to Switzerland with Laurence. An equal ranking of men and women to some degree is also evident through the way each gender refers to the other. On the one hand, a woman can be ‘possessed’ by a man and be compared to a painting in this context.148 On the other hand, a man can also be ‘owned’ by a woman and be compared to one of her birds.149 Gossip about Iris’ behaviour in society certainly exists, but her friends do not abandon her all at once. Croker, one of her admirers, even states that ‘it is simply abominable that close companionships can’t exist between reputable men and women without suspicion of wickedness’ (Iris, II, 291).
Still, the play is far from postulating any equality between the sexes, which is why ‘[t]he friendship of a man is worth that of a dozen women’ (Iris, II, 293), as Iris’ friend Fanny declares. Furthermore, the idea of being kept by a woman is insupportable to Laurence. He is even prepared to leave Iris and the comfortable life she is offering in order to try his luck at ranching in British Columbia. He cannot bear the thought of being financially dependent on a woman as the
following conversation between the two exemplifies:
Moreover, Iris’ behaviour appears to have triggered off a scandal. Society avoids her because she has left for Switzerland with her supposed lover Trenwith and because she is not wealthy anymore. Even her most loyal former friends shun her because she could not do with sparse money and consented to receive allowances by Maldonado and to live comfortably in a house to which he has a latchkey.150 Only marrying a rich man could put her out of that situation and make her former acquaintances forget about the affair.151 In a marriage, a wife should still be close to the ideal of the Angel in the House as the following passage, where Iris’ friend
Croker describes what he asks of a woman, indicates:
[t]hat she should be beautiful to the eye and gentle to the ear; that her face should brighten when I entered, her hand linger in mine when I departed;
that she should never allow me to hear her speak slightingly of any honest man, thereby assuring me she indulged in no contemptuous criticisms of me when I was out of her company; that she should be bountiful to the poor, unafraid of the sick and unsightly, fond of dumb animals and strange children, and tearful in the presence of fine pictures and at the sound of rich music. (Iris, IV, 393) Angel-like characteristics of a woman are not only desired as internal virtues, but also appreciated when they can be detected in external features. At their reunion, Trenwith directly states that Iris ‘resemble[s] the pictures of angels one was familiar with in childhood’ (Iris, V, 406). Other stereotypes about female character traits are mentioned throughout the play. Maldonado, at one point, declares that obstinacy is typical of women,152 and Iris is compared to a child153 – a motif already encountered in other plays.
With regard to the reception of Pinero’s play, the opinions were divergent. Fyfe notes that the reception of Pinero’s play varied to a great extent among the audience.154 The general verdict, according to Fyfe, was that it was ‘[n]ot an edifying story […] but no doubt a lifelike picture’ (Fyfe, Pinero’s Plays and Players, 219). By and large, the ending and the treatment of Iris was considered to be quite harsh, although there is little uncertainty that Iris was perceived as a misled woman. In The Globe, for example, Iris Bellamy was compared to one of
the best-known tragic Fallen Women in English literature:
[Iris] is strong meat and weak stomachs may turn. Nothing so terrible is often encountered in literature … “Iris” stands in relation to the stage much as “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” stands to prose fiction. (quoted in Dawick, 256) It is interesting to note that, according to Archer, Pinero initially intended Iris to share the fate of many Fallen Women, namely death. As was the case with Nelly Armroyd and Drusilla Ives, it was planned to let her die in a melodramatic fashion through the hands of Maldonado.155 The play was perhaps too hard to stomach for the audience of 1901 as it only ran for 115 performances.156 To sum up, Iris Bellamy’s fate shows all the elements of that of a Fallen Woman.
She is cast out of society and ends up with nothing in her hands and no one by her side. However, she never considers her conduct as immoral; she never really does have any qualms about going to Switzerland with her lover or staying in the house of a man she is not married to. This could not only be interpreted as a missing sense of decorum and decency,157 but also as an incipient change in social norms, as a token that women at that time started to think of themselves as more independent.
4.3.5. A Woman of No Importance – Rachel Arbuthnot Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1893. The setting is again upper- and upper-middle-class and among the characters a seducer and a seduced woman are to be found. This time, the subject-matter is treated far more light-heartedly and a far less tragic or resigned fate awaits the once Fallen Woman. In the play, Victorian ideas of decency and virtue are often ridiculed. They are upheld by the old folks, whereas the young people consider them old-fashioned; supposedly, they have been ‘tainted with foreign ideas on the subject’ (Woman of No Importance, I, 16). Due to this hitherto unencountered attitude towards morality and the more positive ending for Rachel Arbuthnot, the once misled woman, it seems right to place her among the characters in the transition from the Fallen to the New Woman, although she had to suffer greatly from her misconduct. In the context of Wilde’s attitude to the New Woman movement and the extent to which he was involved in these reformative developments, is should be mentioned that he edited the magazine Woman’s World from 1887 to 1889. Not only did it comprise articles on household managing and needlework, but it also concerned itself with the ‘Woman Question’, higher education for women, as well as writing and working women.