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Molly, Horace’s niece, seems to be a quite independent woman as well. She has written a – in the eyes of her uncle – ‘scandalous book’ (Vote, 28), earns her own living, does not have any desire to marry yet, and has lived all by herself before she decides to move in with Horace.278 Later, Horace’s second cousin, Madame Christine, appears, and it turns out that her career in the world of work has not been inferior to any man’s. Before she has decided to turn to Horace, her nearest male relative, for sustenance, she ran a successful business as a dressmaker, where she did not only earn more than her second cousin, but also supported her late husband financially. Furthermore, she
resolved to donate all her money and property to the National Union and the Women’s Freedom League.279 A further type of New Woman character is represented by the actress Maudie Spark, a cheerful and raucous woman, whose profession enabled her to support herself. In general, actresses have always played a somewhat ironic part in the historical development. On the one hand, they have often acted the part of the repentantly returning wife or the caricature of a progressive woman on stage, on the other hand, they were themselves New Women in many ways, as they could make an income without being dependent on a husband, father or brother.280 At any rate, the New Woman characters appear to be more capable and fit for life than the traditional woman characters of the play. Ethel, Horace’s wife, for instance, is left quite helpless after all of her servants have gone on strike. She is anxious to have tea prepared when her husband returns from work, but unable to do so as all her servants have given notice to join the Union.281 Ethel’s supposed deficiency does not only show in her acts, but also in her looks, as Horace’s sister Agatha remarks on her entrance that ‘[Ethel’s] not looking so well as usual’ (Vote, 27). Besides men, women who do not work and do rely on their husband’s support are those characters who are perceived as outdated, feeble and even absurd. In this way, there is, for example, talk of duchesses who ‘are out in the streets begging people to come in and wash their kids’ (Vote, 30). In the end, however, Ethel is convinced of the other female characters’ cause as soon as she perceives that her husband has changed his opinion about it.
The play turned out to be a great success with the audience and, despite the fact that it is a blend of comedy and propaganda, critics wrote approving reviews. This is to some extent unusual as reviewers were usually not in favour of suffrage plays.282 The Stage, for example, noted that ‘[b]eneath its fun there is a deal of propaganda which, however, rather engenders the wish that political questions be made as lively and as pleasant in another place’ (The Stage quoted in: Spender, 20).283 Cf. Vote, 29.
Cf. Gardner, 3. For a further discussion on the New Woman and the theatre, see: Gardner, 7-14.
Cf. Vote, 25.
Cf. Whitelaw, 84.
For further reviews oft he play, see: Spender, 19f.
4.4.5. Edith– Edith Stott
Elizabeth Baker wrote Edith for the Women’s Writers Suffrage League in 1912.284 All of Baker’s plays are about female autonomy in one way or the other, and deal with the importance the early woman’s movement attached to work as a means for establishing women’s self-determination and independence.285 Edith Stott, the heroine of Baker’s one-act play, seems to have left traditional notions of womanhood far behind her. She is self-confident, capable and enterprising. She is by no means tied to a home or family, but goes out into the world to conduct business. Therefore, she has achieved what only a few women have accomplished in reality at this time. Moreover, it has to be conceded that even though Edith runs a flourishing business, she does so within the defined area of her dress shops.286 The shop, in general, was one of the few places where a woman could work without fearing to lose respectability. The shopgirl as such began to emerge in England as a new female entity that connected emancipatory and traditional notions. She usually came from a middle-class background, and Lise Shapiro Sanders states that ‘the shopgirl symbolizes the intersection between the conservative ideologies of gender and class and new models of female identity, behavior, and experience’ (Shapiro Sanders, 2).
Tellingly, it is a female playwright who tackles the subject of female occupation in a practical manner and, correspondingly, Viv Gardner argues that
Edith has made a fortune in the fashion industry. It is interesting to note that the only other effective business woman encountered in the plays under discussion, Madame Christine in How the Vote Was Won, was involved in dressmaking as well. According to Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, these ‘female fashion Cf. Fitzsimmons, 190.
Cf. Fitzsimmons, 191.
Cf. Fitzsimmons, 191.
- 114 entrepreneurs were presented as emblems of a politically correct and financially secure womanhood’ (Kaplan and Stowell, 176) because they preserved their respectability by working in a sector that belonged to their conceded sphere of competence.287 Out of this fact arise two different points of discussion: firstly, it can be argued that at the beginning of the 20th century, a woman’s business success can still only take place in a feminine environment. Secondly, fashion in general seems to have played an important role in the process of creating a new female identity at that time. As Hilary Fawcett points out in her essay on femininity and fashion in Britain in the 1900s, ‘[t]he role of female fashion in this period was crucially tied to changes in social and cultural attitudes to gender and sexuality’ (Fawcett, 146). Fashion did not only represent a career opportunity, but also opened up new ways of self-expression to women.288 At the beginning of the play, before Edith actually appears on stage, she is described by her relatives in quite unflattering terms. According to her sister Gladys, she ‘has always been a great trial’ (Edith, 17) and ‘a great trouble’ (Edith, 10). Her brother, Gerald, even claims that ‘she has little right feeling’ (Edith, 20).
He believes her to be untrustworthy and likely to walk off with the family’s money.289 Moreover, Edith’s relatives expect her to have no understanding of financial matters and plan to persuade her to sell the shop as soon as she arrives.
They deem it better to vend the small enterprise to Flyte, ‘[t]hat horrid man with those nasty cheap-looking shops’ (Edith, 19) than to trust a woman with running it.
Their opinion quickly changes when Edith enters. Already her outward appearance suggests self-assuredness, as the stage directions note that she is ‘quite at her ease’ (Edith, 21). It is also soon established that she is used to giving orders and to having them complied with. Right after she has greeted the other characters, she tells Gladys to prepare some fresh tea and Gerald to pay the taxi. Furthermore, she seems to issue those commands with enough assertiveness to make them both obey immediately.290 All the other characters’ arguments against the idea of Edith taking over the family business are swiftly set at nought by the self-confident heroine. She convinces her relatives with the story of her success and declares that Cf. Würz, 75.
Cf. Fawcett, 155.
Cf. Fawcett, 16.
Cf. Fawcett, 21.
- 115 the only reasonable thing to do is to leave the shop to the most capable person.
Acting differently would not only be anachronistic, but also stupid.291 By and by, she convinces the other characters of her line of reasoning and even manages to gain their full approval. Gladys’ fiancé, Arthur, for example, tells Edith that ‘[he is] sure [she]’ll do whatever is best’ (Edith, 28) and adds that she really must be clever in order to own all these shops.
In general, Edith appears to stand above the other characters. She is more capable and adroit. She sees through other people, which is why she quickly spots the shop manager Mr Bloom’s intention of profiting by the deal with Flyte and selling the business for less than it is actually worth.292 She knows of her abilities and is not shy to declare them openly by saying, ‘I don’t happen to be my father’s son, but I am what is quite good – better, in fact, in this case – I am his daughter’ (Edith, 30).
Consequently, traditional gender roles appear to become more and more redundant if not altogether reversed. It seems possible for a woman to choose her own path and to live completely independently of men without having to render anyone account of her actions. Edith can be understood as an ideal embodiment of the New Woman. She is also in accordance with Showalter’s analysis of the phenomenon stating that ‘[w]ith their opportunities for education, work, and mobility, New Women saw that they had alternatives to marriage’ (Showalter, 39).
Double standards are still upheld by the characters of the play, but as the plot evolves they are shown to be irrational and dated. When it is found out that Edith is the sole heir of the father’s shop, everyone else is filled with indignation about the fact that it has not been passed on to Gerald, the son. At first, no one questions whether he would have been the right person to manage the business even if Gerald himself confesses that he is not really eager to do so.293 They hold the opinion that by right the authority over property should be passed on to the son and any other procedure would be improper. They initially reproach Edith with inconsideration and selfishness, when she discloses that she would only been willing to accept the inheritance on the condition that she was solely responsible
for it.294 It is obvious to the Stott family that there is no way that Edith, a girl, could be cleverer than Gerald.295 Furthermore, Edith is characterised as extravagant because she has repeatedly travelled to Europe, which is too profligate an undertaking for a woman. For a man, however, a trip to the Continent seems to be less unusual and more justified as the following exchange of words between
Gladys and her fiancé exemplifies:
GLADYS. And [Edith] is so frightfully extravagant.
ARTHUR. It costs a jolly lot to go about on the Continent, by Jove! I know something about that.
(Edith, 18) In the end, though, traditional notions of proper male and female accomplishments and aspirations are overturned. The play’s heroine is established as the model of efficiency and success whereas the male characters give the impression of incompetence and ordinariness.296
The terms ‘fallen’ and ‘new’ woman were both used for concepts of femininity that digressed from the conventional norm – the Angel in the House – and were, thus, perceived as threats to the established status quo. Whereas Fallen Women were predominantly associated with improper sexual behaviour, notions of education, work and politics were added in the discourse about the New Women.
At first, the emergent type of the emancipated woman was ridiculed and looked upon in a condescending way, but it gradually began to be taken more seriously.297 These socio-cultural developments in England in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century also found their ways into the dramatic works of that time.
Not only in the ‘real’ world, but also in the world of drama, the perception of women steadily changed especially with regards to their sexual and financial independence. Being a good wife/mother and creating a comfortable home ceased to be a woman’s prior goal in life. It became more and more acceptable to opt for a different path. Women could, for example, decide not to marry or to have affairs even if their good reputation was at stake. Moreover, it became possible for women to earn their own living. It is important to bear in mind that the transformations mentioned in this connection primarily concerned the middleclass.
Until the 1880s, choosing any of these options still seemed to have had serious consequences. Nelly Armroyd and Drusilla Ives leave their homes and get involved with men who are not their husbands. Their actions are considered so shameful that, as the result, they both find their deaths in the end. By and by, the idea of a woman walking out on a husband and having an extramarital liaison becomes more and more conceivable, but still not really practicable. Susan Cf. ‚Die anfänglich vorhandenen Assoziationen [der new woman] mit anderen Typusmotiven wie der woman with a past oder der femme fatale sind einer insgesamt positiveren Wertigkeit gewichen, die sich an der männlichen Rationalität, vor allem aber an der gesamtgesellschaftlichen Rolle der Frau orientiert‘ [‘The initially existent associations [of the new woman] with other types such as the woman with a past or the femme fatale have made way to a altogether more positive valuation, which is geared to male rationality and, above all, to the general role of woman in society’, [my translation]] (Ahrens, 319).
- 118 Harabin, Penelope and Margery Cazenove all reflect on a divorce – not because they strive for self-realisation, but because of their spouses’ unfaithfulness. In Jones’s play, an affair on Susan’s side is even hinted at. Ultimately, each of these three female characters is persuaded to stay with her husband as the alternatives would be quite bleak. Not the male characters but their wives are the ones who would suffer from the consequences. They would not only end up as outcasts of society, but would also be unable to support themselves. Even though getting a divorce had lost some of its stigma towards the end of the 19th century in ‘real’ life, as pointed out in the introduction to this thesis, it was still far from being socially acceptable. Moreover, alone the though of respectable woman having a lover is outraging, whereas a man’s peccadillos appear to be accepted.