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As Henry’s mother maintains traditional beliefs, she also adheres to a clear separation of the typically male and female character traits and of the two genders’ respective spheres.216 Jane Clegg is highly aware of the double standards that are applied when it comes to men’s sexual pasts. ‘He knew that woman before he married me. If he told a lie about his samples, he’d be put in jail, but no one thinks anything of his lying to me’ (Jane Clegg, I, 164). This intrinsic iniquity, though, is not acknowledged by men. They do not intend to change anything about the status quo, where different codes of behaviour apply to men and women. As Sir Richard in The Case of Rebellious Susan puts it, ‘what is sauce for the goose will never be sauce for the gander’ (Rebellious Susan, I, 112). In the context of Ervine’s play, perpetuating the status quo means that men are not morally condemned if they ask for their wife’s money without telling them for what they need it while spending it on horse races and lovers.217 Nevertheless, women like Jane become more and more aware of this inequality between men and women and begin to successfully revolt against it.
The play proved to be a major success in the 1912-13 season at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester.218 4.4.2. Independent Means –Sydney Forsyth Stanley Houghton’s play was first performed in 1909 at the Gaiety Theatre – three years before the premiere of Jane Clegg took place there. In this context, it is significant to bear in mind that Manchester was progressive in cultural, social and political terms. At the turn of the century, it ‘was reputed to be Britain’s most progressive and open-minded city’ (Stilz, 135). Moreover, the Gaiety Theatre had been founded in 1908 as a repertory theatre, where plays by local and contemporary dramatists were favoured.219 Among the characters of Houghton’s play, a model of the New Woman can be found in Sidney. She is a ‘suffragette heroine’ (Chothia, New Drama, 77) married to Edgar Forsyth, whose family belongs to the gentry of northern England. A yet unencountered concept is that circumstances make this woman with an upper-class background look for work as a typist, a job which she is to hold down competently.
Again, a gap between ‘old’ and ‘new’ woman, separating two generations, seems apparent. The former is represented by Sidney’s mother-in-law, a class-conscious, angel-like woman, who supervises the household gracefully and efficiently.220 Soon it is established that both traditional attitudes towards womanhood and the status of the gentry, embodied by Mr John Craven and Mrs Mary Forsyth, are in demise. Interestingly, the core of their marriage is pointedly described in the stage
[n]either is accustomed to show a trace of feeling in the presence of the other. The fact is, both care very much for their only son, but any
affection for one another that may have existed has long since given place to scrupulous politeness. (Independent Means, I, 12) This short observation on the inner structure of their relationship seems to suggest that Houghton sees matrimony from a critical angle. Mrs Forsyth seems to be aware that she ‘[is] a little bit old-fashioned’ (Independent Means, I, 26), but she does never really question traditionally attributed gender roles, whereas Sidney does. This opposition is already evident when the two women meet for the first time in the play. Triggered off by Mrs Forsyth’s assertion that her son’s nurse has doted on him ever since he was an infant, the two female characters voice their
difference of opinion:
By and by, Mary Forsyth begins to be more aware of the shortcomings in her marriage. Her daughter-in-law’s unconventionality makes her realise that, similarly to Pinero’s Iris, she does not want to be owned and treated by a man like a valuable object. Addressing Mr Forsyth, she argues that they ‘are both ornamental and valuable things to have about the house’ (Independent Means, II, 48). It is interesting to note that, in this case, being compared to an item of property does not only apply to the wife, but to the husband as well. Edgar’s mother wishes to experience passion within her marriage and, surprisingly, the lower classes appear to be a role model for her in this respect. To her, ‘[t]hose people are not merely pretending to be husband and wife, with a chasm between them’ (Independent Means, II, 48).
Issues of class and gender develop side by side. In the same way that Mrs Forsyth stands for the traditional female role model, she and her husband also represent a class which is gradually losing its significance at the beginning of the 20th century.
Like Sir William Cheshire in The Eldest Son, Mr Forsyth is proud of his position
- 95 in society, but also aware of the ongoing reformatory processes.221 It soon becomes evident that the gentry’s attitudes are somewhat remote from reality.
Edgar, for example, does not have any idea of the worth of money and insists on his father buying him a car simply because ‘he must have a car to mess about with’ (Independent Means, I, 19). The fact that neither Edgar nor his father can afford a new automobile is not really taken into consideration. This heedless handling of money matters, makes the upper-class appear unfit for survival, and leads to the Forsyths’ bankruptcy. The stage directions indicate that a year has passed between the first and the second act, and the audience is confronted with Mr Forsyth’s acknowledgement of his critical pecuniary situation and his complete financial ruin. Tellingly, it is Mr Ritchie, a tradesman and friend of the family, who helps out. He buys the Forsyth estate and procures Sidney a job as a typist for his company. That the upper-class gradually loses its status is also exemplified by Jane, the Forsyths’ servant, who obtains a large inheritance precisely at the same time the Forsyths lose all their money. Both Jane and Mr Ritchie are upright characters who offer the insolvent family to aid them financially if needs be.
All too romantic ideas about marriage are not only discarded in the portrayal of Mr and Mrs Forsyth’s relationship, but also in that of Edgar and Sidney. Before the wedding, Edgar’s conception of matrimony seems to have been shaped by fiction
rather than by fact as a conversation with his mother reveals:
Indeed, the troubles in Sidney and Edgar’s relationship begin soon after the wedding because they did not get to know each other thoroughly beforehand. They
have different attitudes to almost anything. Dissensions already arise during their honeymoon, when Edgar does not want to stay in the rainy and uneventful Russmullion whereas Sidney does not accept her husband’s offer to go to the French Riviera instead. These complications make the couple return home earlier.
There, Edgar confides in his mother the insights he has gained about his newly wedded wife, namely that she shows signs of being interested in politics, and that her political views diverge from his conservative ones. Moreover, Sidney is not eager to go to church, which, according to Edgar, makes a woman look bad.222 All these are indications that he has in fact married a New Woman.
The character of Sidney comes close to that of an ideal New Woman. She does not only look ‘capable and companionable’ (Independent Means, I, 13), but also has clear ideas of her own. She pronouncedly differs from the obedient and angel-like wife by asserting that her core principle is not to remain loyal to her husband but to ‘be loyal to [her]self, first of all’ (Independent Means, II, 49).
Have women previously used their charms to receive gifts and their spouses’ attention, Sidney now tries to employ them in order to convince Edgar of moral and political concepts. Unlike Elaine Shrimpton in The Case of Rebellious Susan, Sidney is not portrayed as an unreasonable creature and caricature of the New Woman, but as a level-headed character who even appears to be intellectually superior to her husband. She blames his up-bringing and argues that ‘[i]t never struck [her] when [they] were engaged, but he really is terribly behind the times’, and is determined to overcome this and to ‘simply convince[ing] him by unanswerable arguments’ (Independent Means, I, 26). Sidney herself seems to have been influenced by her late father, a literary man with advanced liberal opinions.223 Furthermore, she is in contact with Mrs Pangbourne, a ‘sort of suffragette’ (Independent Means, II, 36), a connection that is eyed distrustfully by Edgar because he is afraid that ‘Sid will get hold of some of her ideas’ (Independent Means, II, 36). Neither he nor his mother or Jane, their former servant, realise at first that Sidney could be in any way involved in the suffragist movement. Letters from the Women’s Social and Political Union announcing a demonstration are treated scornfully and their members’ measures are ridiculed.224 Cf. Independent Means, I, 24.
Cf. Independent Means, I, 29.
‘JANE. Goodness, Master Edgar, what will they do next?
- 97 As the Forsyth family has been portrayed as antediluvian from the beginning, belonging to a class that is slowly losing importance, Sidney does not come off as an ‘unnatural’ or unwomanly woman, but as modern and likeable. When Edgar finds out that his wife is in fact on the committee of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a dispute between the two unfolds. In contrast to the arguments between Elaine and Sir Kato in The Case of Rebellious Susan, however, the woman’s line of reasoning is the more reasonable one this time. Edgar is predominantly concerned with the effects that his wife’s activities will have on his reputation, whereas Sidney appears to have the upper hand by making a rational case for societal changes. She questions her husband’s law-given authority to forbid her to get politically involved because it is based on laws that were made by men.225 Have other male characters found ways to reassure their sovereignty, Edgar is left quite helpless. Later on in the play, when he wants to prevent Sidney from earning money outside the home by calling on his authority as a husband, she tells him that she ‘[doesn’t] admit [he has] any’ and that she ‘will not be bound by [him] or [his ideas]’ because ‘[she] must think for [her]self’ (Independent Means, III, 72).
Moreover, Sidney breaks once and for all with the cliché of the Angel in the House and basically denounces it as male fantasy. When Edgar tells her that ‘[a] man can do things that a woman can’t’’ (Independent Means, II, 40), she retorts,
Edgar replies to this pronouncement that he still believes a woman’s proper place to be the home, whereupon Sidney counters that his ideal would be a wife ‘scrubbing the floor, while the man sits drinking in the public house’ and that ‘[his] ideas are a hundred years old’ (Independent Means, II, 40).
It has to be conceded, though, that occasionally she does conform to the parodies of the New Women as ‘the shrieking sisterhood’. Her first reaction upon learning
about the Forsyths’ bankruptcy is ‘to burst into a hard, almost hysterical peal of laughter’ (Independent Means, II, 42) and to undermine Mr Forsyth’s status as head of and provider for the family.226 This strong reaction is, however, mainly triggered off by her husband’s previous claim that men and women will never be equal, as the former are the more intelligent and powerful sex, whose duty is to go out into the world and bring home the bacon.227 Sidney is practical and direct, and she does not gloss over facts. When she and Edgar learn about the Forsyths’ insolvency, she reproaches Mr Forsyth with not telling them earlier because she would have been able to give him advice. She even begins to criticise his standard of living harshly and almost insultingly.
Sidney goes on to compare the privileges of the upper-class with those of men. To
her, class inequality and gender imbalance become interchangeable:
By the third act, the traditional distribution of gender roles in Sidney and Edgar’s marriage is reversed and double standards are thus revealed. With the help of Mr Ritchie, Sidney has found a livelihood and supports the family, whereas her husband is not able to find work. At first, he has difficulties in reassessing his fixed concepts of the different spheres ascribed to men and women. He concedes that he is not really fit for work as his education has not prepared him for it. At the same time, he believes that not being able to provide for his family makes him look like a fool.228 Initially, it seems that he would rather be willing to starve than to let his wife support the family financially. Ironically, he pleads with his wife to be reasonable in this situation. By the fourth act, he learns to cope with the new circumstances. His father, on the contrary, still belongs to a generation that is even less adaptable to social changes. The loss of the status as the family’s provider leads him to alcoholism. The role of the family’s guardian is taken over by Sidney.
She does not only earn money, but also protects her mother-in-law from Mr Forsyth’s verbal attacks. Unlike Mrs Forsyth, the younger woman has no ‘SIDNEY. Behold the strong intelligent man who has gone out into the world to provide for his wife and children’ (Independent Means, II, 42-43).
Independent Means, II, 41 Cf. Independent Means, III, 65.
- 99 inhibitions to talk back to a man. Therefore, she tells Mr Forsyth that she ‘will not leave this house while mother is in it, unless Edgar intends to protect her from insult’ and even adds that ‘[i]f [she] had been in [Edgar’s] place [she]’d have knocked him down’ (Independent Means, III, 70). Protecting Mrs Forsyth, then, becomes obsolete as Mr Forsyth dies from a stroke at the end of the third act. It almost appears that now male characters who are not capable of adapting to new social changes have to succumb to a premature death in the same way Fallen Women did in earlier plays.