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Before these seemingly universal female character traits materialize in Ada, though, Dickie invents a patient, Mrs Mack, who bears some resemblance to Worthing’s invented friend, Bunbury in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest,115 in order to be able to see her more often. As soon as Penelope’s manoeuvres to win him back start to come off, it is suggested that Ada is best disposed of by inducing uncle Davenport to focus his attention on her. Mrs Fergusson, in turn, appears to be less governed by a feeling of shame or repentance, as was the case with Nelly Armroyd, than by a sense of hurt pride.116 In the end, she even considers travelling to Malta in order to stay with her husband. The peccadillo with the married Dickie does not seem to have any consequences for her and she is ostensibly able to continue her life without being cast off as a Fallen Woman. Her reputation is apparently unharmed, which would have been impracticable half a century before. Nevertheless, she is not a New Woman either as she, in her own description, as ‘womanly woman’ relies on the attention of men and does not strive to be independent of them.
Double standards appear to reach a climax in this play as Penelope holds only herself and the slightly exaggerated way of showing her affection towards her husband responsible for his infidelity.117 Moreover, as soon as Dickie learns that his wife has known about his affair all along, he first starts to call her behaviour ‘disgraceful’, ‘scandalous’, ‘devoid of any sense of decency’, ‘monstrous’, ‘callous’, ‘cold-blooded’, ‘cynical’ (Penelope, II, 72), ‘wicked’ and ‘cruel’ (Penelope, II, 74). Consequently, it is now he who wants a separation and who acts
as the upholder of traditional values by claiming:
I’ve got a moral sense, and I tell you that I’m simply outraged. You’re overthrowing the foundations of society. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve got more respect for the sanctity of the home and the decencies of family life than all of you put together. (Penelope, II, 76) Therefore, it seems that Maugham to a large extent still adheres to traditional ideas about relationships between men and women. In fact, the author himself initially Cf. Fan, 327.
‘MRS. FERGUSSON: Oh, what a humiliation! I’ve been just a convenience because [Penelope] had other fish to fry. How sordid it makes the whole thing! And I was yearning for romance. I would never have looked at you if I hadn’t thought she doted on you’ (Penelope, III, 99).
’PENELOPE: […] I find I’ve been entirely mistaken about Dickie. He’s not to blame in any way’ (Penelope, I, 26).
- 55 planned to name the play Man and Wife.118 In this connection, Ted Morgan argues that
Nevertheless, the play undoubtedly shows that things are different for women after the turn of the century, an opinion also shared by Mr Golightly, as he once explains to Dickie, ‘My dear fellow, we’re in the twentieth century’ (Penelope, II, 75). Divorce is not absolutely out of the question anymore. In order to keep their husbands, though, women now have to resort to different measures. It is not sufficient to act like Angels in the House any longer, to attend to all the spouses’ needs and to love them unreservedly. On the one hand, this is undoubtedly a step forward in female emancipation, as a woman becomes more and more independent from the domestic sphere and, consequently, from her husband, too. She can engage in various societies, as Mrs Golightly does,119 and ceases to centre all her attention on her partner. In the words of Penelope, she ‘no longer feel[s] that the world is coming to an end when [he] go[es] out of the room’ (Penelope, III, 104).
Moreover, women are encouraged to put on masks and to almost behave like actresses in their domestic spheres. This notion can be considered to be an advancement from the Victorian concept of womanhood which looked upon women as possessing a steady personality with all the angel-like virtues already described. As Kerry Powell points out in an analysis of actresses in the Victorian age, [t]he idea of woman’s free and flexible selfhood […] contradicted Victorian thought about the self in general and woman’s self in particular.
Indeed, performance by its very nature endangered the Victorian belief in a stable identity […]. (Powell, Victorian Theatre, 23)
On the other hand, this performing of roles at home is only advocated when it helps to secure the fidelity of the husband. Therefore, the steps taken by Penelope seem to convey that women ought to play roles constantly in order to please and keep their husbands and that the likelihood of a happy marriage increases if men are not sure of their wives’ affections at any time.120 In the same way as women in general are portrayed as having an innate urge to express their affections, men are depicted as being polygamous by nature. The responsibility to prevent a husband’s philandering, however, lies entirely in a wife’s hands. She simply has to suppress her real self and to pretend ceaselessly, which is also the advice Penelope gets to
hear from her father in the final act:
From the early 21st century’s vantage point of view, it certainly remains to be questioned whether this form of female emancipation, as presented by Maugham in his play, is a progress indeed. Fan notes on the ending that [i]n putting the wife always on her guard, Maugham leaves the audience somewhat suspended, removed from the solid ground of an absolutely happy ending. But dissatisfied as we are with the reduction of the malefemale love relationship to a cat-and-mouse game of artificial transactions that are never to yield true happiness, we accept it as the human condition, glad of partial gratification. (Fan, 328) To the Edwardian audience, Penelope was perceived as being the triumphant party.
J.T. Grein’s review of the play for the Sunday Times and Special in January 1909, for example, does not only show this interpretation of her character, but also
illustrates some of the prevailing double standards of that time:
Cf. ‘Penelope herself is all appearance: she is an actress playing a role, first of her own design, then of her father’s. Without the role-playing, she is a flat type, simply the loving, dutiful wife. She is entirely too dependent on Dickie – and on her father, since she obediently goes about performing according to his directives. The marriage, too, is not a genuine relationship, but a playing house, an acting relationship’ (Fan, 323).
- 57 The old axiom, that a normal woman is content with one man, that to her a little flirtation is all the variety she requires, and that the average man is polygamous without necessarily meaning any harm. So curious are the ethics of man, according to Mr. Maugham – and I for one shall not say him nay – that when Penelope, who is sharp as a needle and bent on the reconquest of her straying lord, pretends to look upon his peccadillo rather callously, he breaks out in sainted ire and trounces her soundly for the levity of her principles. How Penelope, in this game of mice and men, proves victorious; how, by subtle devices and exquisite calinerie, she brings her sinner to his knees, I must leave to judge for yourselves, since all London, married London especially, will rush to see itself in the mirror. (Grein, quoted in Mandler, 69) Nonetheless, other reviewers did not appear to take the play as an actual portrayal of marriage, but rather detected traces of satire. In an article for the Nation in January 1909 for example, William Archer, the most renowned theatre critic at
that time, noted:
There is even a real touch of satiric originality in the idea of the husband who, on learning that his wife has long known of his infidelity, and has (apparently) made light of it, feels his moral sentiments outraged, and finds himself, quite sincerely, playing the part of indignant accuser.
(Archer, quoted in Curtis, Critical Heritage, 93) As Archer proceeds, he even remarks that it could be ‘felt more than once that Mr Maugham was skating pretty near the edge of the intolerable cynical’ (Archer, quoted in Curtis, Critical Heritage, 94).
Moreover, the audience’s reception of plays involving an adulterous woman and an unfaithful husband also seems to have changed over the years. At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, such subject matters on stage were less regarded as daring and scandalous than entertaining and comical, which also becomes noticeable in the following account of the public’s reaction at the first
performance by Arthur Bingham Walkley, a theatre critic for The Times:
4.3.3. The New Woman – Margery Cazenove and Agnes Sylvester In Sidney Grundy’s play The New Woman, which had its opening night in 1894 at the Comedy Theatre in London, the initial passion in a young couple’s marriage wears off soon as well. As in The Case of Rebellious Susan and Penelope, the husband falls in love with another woman. It is never explicitly confirmed that Gerald Cazenove really cheats on Margery, his wife, with Agnes Sylvester, who is married as well. Nevertheless, throughout the first two acts, a number of hints may lead to the interpretation that Gerald and Agnes are not satisfied with their respective marriages, have at least rather strong feelings for each other, and spend a lot of time alone together. Even though everyone returns to their lawful partners in the end, the women presented in the play appear to be more independent and less anxious to conform to social conventions than in the dramatic works discussed so far. Consequently, the boundaries between what is supposed to be typical masculine and feminine patterns of behaviour become blurred to some extent.
In the same way, right at the beginning of the play, the description of Gerald Cazenove’s chambers as ‘effeminately decorated’ (New Woman, I, 3) suggests that he has a rather unmanly character. Moreover, his apparent concern for the advancement of women makes him collaborate on a philosophical treatise on the ethics of marriage with Mrs Sylvester. These features of his characters largely resemble those of Fergusson Pybus, Elaine Shrimpton’s husband in The Case Of Rebellious Susan. Similarly, there are certain correspondences between Mrs Sylvester and Elaine. They can both be considered as New Woman figures and are continually treated in a mocking tone. They are, for example, made fun of by stressing how bad their household- and especially cooking-skills are.121 A more detailed analysis of the ways in which New Women are depicted in the play will follow in a subsequent paragraph.
‘PYBUS: But so far from giving me any afflatus, she will not even give me a light and easily assimilated course of diet. I cannot nourish my peculiar gifts on tinned mutton of the cheapest brands, and the more stringy portions of an underdone ham’ (Rebellious Susan, III, 152);
‘SYLVESTER I had business at the Horse Guards. I shall be home to dinner, though.
MRS SYLVESTER Oh dear, I whish I had known that. There’s only mutton.
SYLVESTER The same mutton?
MRS SYLVESTER What do you mean by the same?
SYLVESTER I mean the mutton I had yesterday.
MRS SYLVESTER Did you have mutton yesterday?’ (New Woman, I, 9).
- 59 At the beginning of the play, the aforementioned couple, Gerald Cazenove and Margery, are not married yet. Margery is the maid of Gerald’s aunt, Lady Wargrave. Therefore, she does not belong to the same class as her future husband, whose background seems to be upper-middle class. This aspect could possibly also account for the fact that she acts less restrainedly as the plot evolves than the other female characters analysed in the plays so far. Nevertheless, Margery still conforms to the traditional type of ‘womanly’ woman and, thus, contrasts with the other female characters of the play, who represent caricatures of the New Woman, as also represented in periodicals such as Punch at that time. Before Margery appears on stage, she is presented almost as the epitome of the established ideal of womanhood. Gerald talks of her in terms of ‘[a] woman! that is what one wants – that’s all. Birth, brains, accomplishments – pshaw! vanities! community of interest – sympathy of the soul? mere dialectics!’ (New Woman, I, 11). Moreover, in the course of the first act, as she accepts his proposal, she also assures him that she will obey.122 This makes her almost the antipode to Mrs Sylvester, who stresses the importance of equality between men and women and believes that the union of the souls is the most important feature in a relationship.123 Mrs Sylvester’s opinion is shared by the other New Woman characters in the play and it seems that in a decade where ‘[e]verything’s New’ (New Woman, I, 17), their hopes are less idealistic and unrealistic than they might have appeared a few years before. The fact that Mrs Sylvester and Gerald belong to the same circle of society also proves advantageous to her objective, as it is certainly easier for her to voice her ideas than for Margery. It could even be suggested that, at a time when women become increasingly independent and confrontational, a man like Gerald, who initially aspires to marry someone conforming to the Angel in the House ideal, can only fulfil this wish by resorting to a mésalliance. It could be argued that this is the reason why Gerald proposes to Margery in the first place.
He soon has to accept that their marriage is far from being ideal as they do not seem to share any common ground at all. In the second act, after twelve months have elapsed, Margery’s constantly attempts to make her husband affirm his love for her. In this respect, her behaviour largely resembles Penelope’s at the beginning of Maugham’s play. After Gerald’s initial attraction to Margery has worn off, he comes to realise the difference of class and upbringing between them.
Cf. New Woman, I, 22.
Cf. New Woman, I, 12.