«Verfasserin Julia Lackermayer angestrebter akademischer Grad Magistra der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Mag.phil) Wien, im Oktober 2008 ...»
[m]uch is said at the present day on the subject of the ‘New Woman’: […] It cannot truly be said that her attitude finds a lack of social attention. On every hand she is examined, praised, blamed, mistaken for her counterfeit, ridiculed or deified – but nowhere can it be said, that the phenomenon of her existence is overlooked. (Schreiner, 252-3) Similarly, Ledger argues that
3.3.3. Arguments For and Against the New Woman The expression ‘New Woman’ had quite different connotations to different people depending on whether they supported a perpetuation of the then present state of affairs or a widening of female rights.
The anti-feminists considered these new, advanced women as a potential threat to the status quo, a threat to the English ‘race’ by opposing traditional marriage60 in general, and ‘a threat to the economic supremacy of bourgeois men in Britain’ (Ledger, The New Woman, 19) in particular. One of the ways to act against this potential danger was to ridicule these emergent ‘new’ women. As David Rubinstein argues ‘anti-feminists disguised their apprehension by professing to find humour in the spectacle of challenging the existing pattern of relations between the sexes’ (Rubinstein, 17).
The New Woman became a frequent target in the popular press towards the end of the 19th century. She was often depicted in a satirical and derogatory way in caricatures and parodies published in the issues of humour and satire magazines such as Punch.61 As Ledger points out, ‘New Women and feminists in general were often constructed in the periodical press as mannish, over-educated, humourless bores’ (Ledger, Cultural Politics, 26). A versifier in the periodical Pick-Me-Up from 1897, for example, presented her as embodying everything that is unattractive in a woman as she was gaining more and more manly characteristics and therefore distancing herself from the feminine ideal of the almost angelic
Criticism of this new kind of woman did not only take place within the media, it was also part of the medico-scientific discourse. Elaine Showalter states that [a]s women sought opportunities for self-development outside of marriage, medicine and science warned that such ambitions would lead to sickness, freakishness, sterility and racial degeneration. (Showalter, 39) Showalter further points out that male anxiety in England centred around the theory maintained by physicians that the New Woman would be unable to reproduce. Paying too much attention to the development of her brain, it was believed, the uterus would be starved and, thus, the stability of society as a whole would be endangered.62 Ledger adds to this discussion that it was not only feared that New Women could not reproduce altogether, but that if they did, they would be the breeders of mentally as well as physically weak children.63 In any way, the continuity of the nation, one of the main public concerns in the 1890s, was considered to be imperilled. Ledger identifies the death of General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885 as the starting point for this preoccupation with the maintenance of the British Empire and its people. Britain’s interests abroad were perceived to be at risk and a way to counteract this development was believed to be the breeding of a pure and strong English ‘race’.64 Apart from these ideological and theoretical threats, critics of the New Woman also feared that she would disrupt traditional schemes in actual spheres of daily life, such as the labour market. An
argument that was not unjustified as Ledger points out:
[…] her threat to the economic status quo was quite real. Women had worked outside the home throughout much of the nineteenth century – the idea of the domestic angel was from the start to some extent a Victorian myth – but their employment had largely been in low-paid factory work, sweated labour or domestic service. At the turn of the century new employment opportunities were rapidly evolving with the advent of the typewriter, with the expansion of metropolitan department stores and with the professionalisation of nursing and of the teaching profession. (Ledger, The New Woman, 19) Cf. Showalter, 40.
Cf. Ledger, Cultural Politics 30f.
Cf. Ledger, Cultural Politics, 31.
For a further discussion about eugenic ideas in late Victorian England, see: Richardson “The Eugenization of Love: Sarah Grand and the Morality of Genealogy”.
- 30 This aspect of the New Woman will later on prove to be particularly important in a more detailed discussion of Independent Means.
Quite contrary to the above notions, the New Woman also represented a form of feminist heroine to her supporters, who largely contributed to the gradual gaining of female independence. She raised questions about conventions relating to marriage, motherhood and employment, and was considered as even superior to men. In her afore-mentioned article, Sarah Grand, for instance, identified men to be in a stage of infancy because of their difficulty to grasp that women started to be less and less content with being restricted to the domestic sphere. Furthermore, she considered it as women’s responsibility to help them to come to terms with the new development, to ‘hold out a strong hand to the child-man, and [to] insist, but with infinite tenderness and pity, upon helping him up’ (Grand, 143).
3.3.4. The New Woman in Fiction
In the same way as the concept of the New Woman in fact is a rather elusive one for which a clear-cut definition does not exist, she cannot easily be pinned down in fiction either. Various new different female characters came into being, all broadly categorised as ‘New Woman’. Consequently, Ledger states that [t]he New Woman had manifested herself in multifarious guises in fiction and in the periodicals through the 1880s and 1990s. The ‘wild woman’, the ‘glorified spinster’, the advanced woman’, the ‘odd woman’; the ‘modern woman’, ‘Novissima’, the ‘Shrieking sisterhood’, the ‘revolting daughters’ – all these discursive constructs variously approximated to the nascent ‘New Woman’. (Ledger, The New Woman, 2-3) Moreover, it has been suggested that the New Woman was rather a literary phenomenon altogether. According to Ann Ardis, the New Woman had hardly any basis in reality, but was related to a particular form of literature.65 Similarly, Angelique Richardson argues that ‘the extent to which the New Woman was a social reality was fiercely debated in the periodical press, but she entered the world of fiction with considerable impact’ (Richardson, 227). In the same way, Ledger Cf. Ardis, 12f.
- 31 points out that ‘the New Woman was largely a discursive phenomenon’ (Ledger, The New Woman, 3). The portrayal of this new femaleness became increasingly popular in novels of the 1890s. Ardis, however, suggests that the fictionalised New Woman had already materialised in 1883 in the shape of Lyndall in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.66 Ledger also places Schreiner’s novel at the beginning of the emergence of the New Woman in fiction, as she argues that Lyndall ‘is unmistakably a prototype New Woman’ (Ledger, The New Woman, 2).
From 1883 onwards, over a hundred novels populated with New Woman characters were written until circa 1900.67 Probably most eminently they materialise in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urberville (1881), George Gissing’s The Odd Woman (1893), Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893), Mona Caird’s The Daughter of Danaus (1894) or Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did It (1895).
What all these novels have in common is that they deal with women, their nature and sexuality, in an innovative and up to that time unread of way. As Carolyn Christensen Nelson, points out, the New Woman writers began to explore for themselves the lives of women, removing the definition of what was woman’s nature and the true feminine from the hands of male writers and replacing it with a more complete and complex view. They do that in remarkably different ways but all of them force us into reexamination of the representation of women in the fiction of the nineteenth century. (Nelson, 3)
4.1. Overview Firstly, it should be mentioned that the theatre did not suddenly change after Queen Victoria’s death. Therefore, according to George Rowell, there was no caesura between Victorian and Edwardian drama, and alterations concerning the English stage did only take place with the outbreak of the First World War.68 Consequently, he argues that Victorian and Edwardian drama should be regarded as one single entity, and that ‘it is perhaps permissible to treat the whole period 1893-1914 as the last chapter in the history of the Victorian [my italics] theatre’ (Rowell, 104).
The prevalent moral values of the Victorian age also find their reflection in the dramatic works of that time. The plays, predominantly written for a middle-class audience, dealt with issues that mirrored the middle-class frame of mind. As Michael R. Booth points out in this context, [t]he general response of drama to social change, to the increasing materialisation and urbanisation of Victorian life, and the growing population of dramatis personae by middle-class characters living in middle-class urban settings, was to attempt – at least in comedy and the serious drama – to match the increasing verisimilitude of stage setting with an increasing verisimilitude of characterisation and social behaviour on stage. (Booth, 131) These social transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the changing perception of women concerning sexuality, marriage, motherhood, education, employment and political involvement, also found their way into the plays selected for this thesis. In the ensuing analysis of these dramatic works, an attempt to point out the temporal transition from the Fallen to the New Woman will be made. The emphasis will be on the analysis of the relevant female characters and the attitudes towards them. It will be discussed to what extent these heroines test certain values,
Cf. Rowell, 103f. - 33 -
for example with regard to relationships, and what the consequences of their respective behaviour are, depending on various factors such as genre, class, audience and author. Furthermore, each analysis will mainly be structured along the following four questions: Firstly, why does a particular character qualify as a Fallen or New Woman? Secondly, what are the consequences of her behaviour?
Thirdly, are double standards employed insofar as the male characters involved are treated differently? Finally, what were the audience’s and the playwright’s attitudes towards the respective play?
4.2. Fallen Women
Quite generally, the term ‘fallen’ could be ascribed to any woman who had been sexually involved with a man outside the moral and legal bonds of marriage.69 Throughout the 19th century, the Fallen Woman was a prevalent figure on the stage.70 According to Sos Eltis, she had three essential incarnations: ‘the seduced maiden, the wicked seductress, the repentant magdalen’ (Eltis, Fallen Woman, 223).
Moreover, it was also possible for a Fallen Woman character to go through all of these manifestations in the course of one play. It can broadly be maintained that her acts were considered to be an aberration of the norm and therefore baneful to society. Consequently, Eltis argues that the primary function of these plays was of
a didactic nature:
a warning of the dangers and disgrace that were the inevitable wages of sexual sin. Sex outside the bonds of marriage posed a threat to more wholesome relationships, broke up families, and generated all manners of villainy and vice. (Eltis, Fallen Woman, 224) Throughout the Victorian era, there existed the wide-ranging concept of a ‘twowomen’ dichotomy, the categorisation of women as either virtuous or fallen,71 which also becomes evident in this excerpt of a dialogue taken from Henry Arthur
Jones’s The Case of Rebellious Susan:
Cf. Eltis, Fallen Woman, 223.
Cf. Eltis, Fallen Woman, 222.
For a further discussion of the ‘two-women’ dichotomy in literature, see: Watt, 5f.
The same attitude can also be found in the majority of the other plays to be discussed. It is interesting to note that quite a few works of fiction at that time appear to be more modern and revolutionary in thought as they provided a more profound and reflective examination of the situation of Fallen Women than any of the plays. In the context of literature, George Watt argues that Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Collins, Gissing, Moore and Hardy each have, in at least one major work, questioned the absolute nature of the two groups of women – the pure and the fallen. They proved that there was no one fall, no single disgrace, no automatic placing of categories of purity and prostitution. (Watt, 7) Similarly, Alfons Klein points out that any woman that transgressed the moral and sexual norms of the Angel in the House model in Victorian literature was usually termed ‘fallen woman’ or ‘Magdalen’.72 In the context of the plays to be analysed, the term ‘fallen woman’ cannot simply be equated with that of ‘prostitute’, even if the former was generally used as a synonym for the latter by Victorian contemporaries.