Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Louisa May Alcott & the Feminine Ideal

I was recently browsing through a library, when I came across what I thought was an enormous treasure: Louisa May Alcott's never-before-published first novel, The Inheritance, that she had written when she was seventeen. I love Alcott's work and I am fascinated by her upbringing among the Transcendentalists of New England in the 19th century. My young life was forever marked by the four March sisters and their lives; I even named my cat in honor of the author, Louisa May. I also love the idea of reading something that is relatively new and rare to the literary world. An early work by a now-beloved author seemed like the perfect way to delve back into my 19th century literary studies.

The book is charming and idealistic, not unlike those carefree teenage years. Yet the idealism is taken too far, and the sentimental prose, in addition to the one dimensional characters, makes the reader unable to relate to the underdeveloped characters or their story. They are either all bad or all good. The sweeping pastoral scenes of a gothic romance are reduced to a cliché plot that is entirely predictable. Still, the novel has passion and is incredibly ambitious for a teenage girl.

The story centers around Edith Adelon, a poor Italian orphan who is taken in by the prestigious Lord Hamilton when she is a child. Raised alongside his own children, she becomes as much beloved as one of the family, but her birth and rank forever separate her from being their true equal. She feels this separation, and like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, her natural purity and humility make her strive to always keep her position in mind while maintaining an ever grateful attitude. Although she is dearly loved by the family, she still senses herself an outcast. Never one to complain, however, she is a faithful friend and servant to the family. Still she feels her loneliness keenly, and a kind or attentive word directed towards her brings tears of gratitude to her eyes. Edith is all inherent goodness, but it is not just her. Consider this opening description of the two Hamilton children:

Arthur, the young heir of his dead father's name and wealth, was a frank, warm-hearted youth, kind, generous, and noble. All loved and honored him as one who well became the name he bore. His gentle sister Amy, a gay and lovely girl whose life was all a summer day, he loved most truly; and she returned his love with all her heart, looking up to him and admiring him with all a sister's pride and fond affection.

Arthur and Amy, though somewhat minor characters, never change in the whole course of the book. In contrast, the antagonist, cousin Ida, is a jealous and bitter young woman. She has always disliked Edith for her inherent goodness, but when the handsome and eligible Lord Percy arrives, her dislike turns to active animosity. Although Edith does nothing consciously to win his ardent affection (besides looking and singing like an angel, risking her life to save Amy from falling off a cliff, giving her money and time to the poor and sick, and being all around perfect in humility and grace), Ida watches with growing hatred as Lord Percy falls in love with the unsuspecting Edith. In a wicked attempt to entrap Edith in a plot of theft against Lady Hamilton, Ida plans to banish Edith forever from the estate and to send her back into the penniless situation from which she came.

Oh look, a 1997 film adaptation. Looks promising.
Meanwhile, a mysterious old man appears and gives Edith a package and letter that, much like Jane Eyre, sheds light on her true parentage. To the shock of Edith (we never saw this coming!), she discovers that her father is none other than the deceased Lord Hamilton's older brother, thus making her the rightful heiress of the Hamilton fortune on which she has been a dependent for so long. Not wanting to claim her inheritance and take it away from those who freely shared it with her, she plans to burn the letter and will. In a not-so-random coincidence, a servant boy steals the will before she burns it. Lady Ida's scheme to frame Edith is exposed when the same servant boy confesses all (he was the true thief) and produces the will that declares Edith not only their cousin and equal, but also their benefactress. Now restored to her rightful place, Edith is free to love and be loved by Lord Percy as his equal.

To say that the novel is a great literary classic would be a stretch; however, it is valuable to see the evolution of Alcott's writing career that apparently began at such a young age. The fact that she was able to write such a complete novel at the age of seventeen is certainly impressive. Clearly, this is the inspiration for the other female writer, Jo March, and her manuscripts in the same genre of gothic romance. The plot has the melodrama of the theatre written all over it. There is even a scene where all the characters, bored of being stuck indoors on a rainy day, perform a tableau of mythological and biblical characters complete with ancient-inspired costumes.

While this is not technically a “Victorian” novel simply because its author is American, there are many similarities to the Victorian ideal of femininity, which was prevalent in both American and British cultures in the 19th century. Certainly, Edith is a prototype of the angel in the house. What is most inspiring to see, however, is how Alcott outgrew Edith's one-dimensional characteristics and how she went on to create one of the greatest literary heroines to resist social expectations of femininity. I could launch into a full analysis of Jo March, but now is not the time. Suffice it to say that the character who willfully declared, “It's bad enough to be a girl anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy...” is in no way near the timid beauty and unrealistic perfection of Edith Adelon.

 So, keep writing, young writers. Your first story, while being a great personal achievement, will certainly not be your best.  So, don't make it your last.

The handwritten manuscript of The Inheritance was found by editors Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy in 1988 in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. They were researching for their book, The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, when they came across the manuscript originally written in 1849. It was eventually published in 1997.

Alcott, Louisa May. The Inheritance. Dutton Books: New York, 1997. Print.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Angel in the House

The man of the hour, Mr. Coventry Patmore
In my last two posts, I have referred to the phrase "the angel in the house" which captures not only the Victorian ideal of a woman, but also the social expectation on women in the 19th century concerning their domestic roles of wife and mother. This phrase is now so commonly used in Victorian and literary studies, that I wanted to go back to its original source: a poem first published in 1854 by Coventry Patmore. 

Now, while the poem seems like a beautiful homage to love and women, most particularly his wife for whom it was written, what I am looking at with scrutiny is this: the uniquely Victorian perspective that women are inherently pure and wholesome, without even the hint of a fallen nature. Women may love to be complimented and flattered for being beautiful and wonderful and all of that (though certainly not all of us - it makes me cringe sometimes), but the danger in such thinking that we see among the Victorians is the expectation that comes from such high praise.  That is why I think this poem, from which we get the very phrase "angel in the house" has been so damaging to women in its time. Who can measure against the perception of Virgin Mary? Who can conform to such expectations of perfect submission and all comeliness in manner? Women are not given permission to be real human beings at the hands of such Victorian men and ideals. Men, they accept as flawed by human nature, yet they cannot bear the thought of a fallen woman. 
Patmore's wife Emily, the model for the Angel in the House, portrayed by John Everett Millais.

Okay so here's a brief breakdown of the very long poem (consisting of two books, with twelve cantos each):

The poem begins with an ode to love, in which the speaker praises Love for granting him the ability to express things that can only come from the heart, and thanks Love for his reward, which is of course (what else?) Love itself. Then the speaker tells of a visit to his home that he has not been back to in six years since going to university in Cambridge. During this visit,  he sees three girls, all sisters, whom he hasn't seen since childhood. He also sees their father, lately widowed, and recalls their deceased mother as one who "seem'd expressly sent below" (as if from heaven); furthermore, he adds,

   Her life, all honour, observed, with awe
 Which cross experience could not mar,
The fiction of the Christian law
     That all men honourable are;
And so her smile at once conferr'd
     High flattery and benign reproof

So, let's just break this down a bit for our more colloquial-prone ears. Her life was honorable, we get that, right? And no cross experience (no bad day, in other words) could change that. Great! What a fantastic lady! I would LOVE to remain perfectly unaffected by my circumstances, bad days, and um, "cross experiences." But that is not all. What does it mean that the speaker now writes that the fiction of the Christian law (we know what fiction is right? the part in the library where we go to find stories that are made-up, not true, and sometimes far-fetched? yeah, that fiction) is that MEN are honorable? I'm sorry, were we confused on that point? No. The Victorians can spout man's failures till they are blue in the face. But, what I find interesting is that this revealing account of man's honor as fiction is smack dab in the middle of a whole freaking long poem about how great and honorable women are. As if that is more believable, as if that were nonfiction, as in absolutely true? So, the deceased lady (we haven't even gotten to the main lady yet) is imbued with such heavenly characteristics that her very smile can bestow either the highest flattery in her approval, or reproof in that she sees through your fictitious honor and can make you feel guilty before you even know you have something to feel guilty about.

Not ironically at all, our inspired poet now looks upon this fine lady's oldest daughter, whose very name is Honor. In his first descriptions of this girl he remarks that she is, "Venus; milder than the dove; / Her mother's air" (I love how she is both Venus - sex goddess? - AND milder than a dove, as if that makes sense). Of course the effect on him is instant - he is smitten by "her Norman face; / Her large sweet eyes" (she must be a predecessor of the Disney princess). In the third Canto, titled "Honoria," the poet furthers his descriptions of her with the lines:

She was all mildness; yet 'twas writ
     In all her grace, most legibly,
'He that's for heaven itself unfit,
     Let him not hope to merit me.'

Now here again we see the complete inequality between the sexes. In the former lines I quoted about the mother, the poet writes that the honor of man is but a fiction compared to woman. Now, he writes that the man who is not fit for heaven (as in, all men) is not worthy of the young lady's affections. In other words, she seems doomed to a life of loneliness and celibacy because she is too inherently pure and good that no man could actually deserve her. Is this girl human? Do we not "all fall short of the glory of God?" Apparently not. I pity her, for the expectation of such perfection can be impossible to maintain.  Yet, as we will see further in some novel studies of the Victorian woman in fiction, this is exactly the kind of characters we see - women struggling and pushing against the pressures of such expectations on them.

I'd like to use this as a transition into future posts that look at the major Victorian novels of the time period and examine just how the characters deal with this notion of expected female perfection and what they do to fight the pressures of their society.
Book II, The Prologue

Patmore, Coventry. "The Angel in the House." The Victorian Web. 2004. Web. 1 Jun 2015.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Victorian Expectations on Women & Morality

In my last post, I discussed one of the issues that is integral to studying and understanding Victorian society—the Woman Question. Queen Victoria herself embodied the delicate balance of a woman’s role in society as she fulfilled the duties of not only the angel in the house as a wife and mother to nine children, but also the political duties of being Queen of the fastest growing empire at the time.
Sarah Stickney Ellis, 1799-1872

Sarah Stickney Ellis, who we might call the poster-child for the position that women were the angel in the house, was a prolific writer on the issue. She has been credited with implementing the “doctrine of separate spheres” – or the concept that women and men have specific spheres of influence, men in the public sphere and women in the private sphere and the two do not, nor should they according to Ellis, cross over.   Ironically, despite her own success as a writer, Ellis enforced the idea that women ought to repress their own ambitions and dreams to serve others—primarily the male members in their household. She articulates this idea in her book, The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839):
How much more generous, just, and noble, would it be to deal fairly by woman in these matters, and to tell her that to be individually, what she is praised for being in general, it is necessary for her to lay aside all her natural caprice, her love of self-indulgence, her vanity, her indolence—in short, her very self—and assuming a new nature, which nothing less than watchfulness and prayer can enable her constantly to maintain, to spend her mental and moral capabilities in devising means for promoting the happiness of others, while her own derives a remote and secondary existence from theirs.
While I will be the first to attest that there is a level of selflessness that comes with the territory of motherhood, that does not nor should it take value away from the woman as an individual and her intellectual faculties and personal aspirations, as Ellis suggests. Furthermore, Ellis suggests that women have a higher standard of morality because of their lack of exposure to the outside world that mars the morality of their husbands and sons; and as such their level of influence in the home holds the weight of being the moral compass for each member of the family. Let’s look at what Ellis says when she writes,
The women of England, possessing the grand privilege of being better instructed than those of any other country in the minutae of domestic comfort, have obtained a degree of importance in society far beyond what their unobtrusive virtues would appear to claim. The long-established customs of their country have placed in their hands the high and holy duty of cherishing and protecting the minor morals of life, from whence springs all that is elevated in purpose, and glorious action. The sphere of their direct personal influence is central, and consequently small; but its extreme operations are as widely extended as the range of human feeling…
A proper female's education on her domestic duties, from The Daughter's of England, 1842
Thus what Ellis portrays as the domestic sphere of women is not only the space for domestic comfort but also the space that directs the morality for the family. This expectation of women and their power and influence in the home is taken on by John Ruskin, who writes that, home is “the woman’s true place and power” and that in order to fulfill such a high calling,
John Ruskin, 1819-1900
She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise—wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable…modesty of service…

These high expectations of women in the home lead Ruskin to a dramatic conclusion:
There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it; not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered. Men, by their nature, are prone to fight; they will fight for any cause, or for none. It is for you to choose their cause for them, and to forbid them when there is no cause. There is no suffering, no injustice, no misery in the earth, but the guilt of it lies lastly with you.

Though we can certainly (and rightly) argue that Ruskin’s drastic conclusion is an unfair burden to place on the shoulders of women, we have to look at the overall argument that begins with Ellis, and see Ruskin’s statement as the inevitable conclusion to that kind of thinking.

 Home is the proper place of power and influence for women. From Wives of England, 1839.
If women are inherently moral and good, and their place of power is solely in the home, then it is chiefly their responsibility to pass on their goodness and morality to their children while they are young and impressionable. And if women don’t achieve this – their one mission – then the result is a generation of growing boys who have not been instilled with a moral compass – the voice of their mother in their ears telling them the difference between right and wrong. And when that growing boy enacts an injustice on someone else, it is not his fault, because he was never taught that it was wrong. No, the fault must lie with the Mother who failed to instill a sense of justice in her son.

How can women bear such a weight of expectation?  How did women writers grapple with this in their female characters? Have we changed our expectations of women today? Or are women just as hard on themselves and place impossible expectations on themselves?

I think about the blogging moms and effect of Pinterest on women today – how we still like to project the image that we have it all together: the beautifully decorated house, the crafty DIY projects, the perfectly stylish and well-behaved children, the meticulously prepared dinner, etc. Who puts these pressure on us today? Is it still our society or do we expect such perfection from ourselves?

I would love to hear your thoughts & comments!

Next up! A poetry reading of, “The Angel in the House.” A look at the poem that started it all…

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Victoria and The Woman Question

As I mentioned in my brief bio, one of the reasons for this blog is that I want to continue what I began in my graduate program of English literature with the study of Victorian lit. I graduated nearly six months ago, and I suppose you could say that I miss it already. Perhaps my nostalgia for school is also somewhat due to the fact that my school loan bills are now swiftly coming in; nevertheless, I am one of those people who *loves* everything about being in school and now that I am no longer a student, I find myself longing for intellectually-stimulated reflection and discussion about literature.

Without further ado...

The Victorian Era of course refers to the time period in which Queen Victoria reigned in England from 1837, when she was just eighteen, to her death in 1901.  She married Prince Albert in 1840 and thus began the proliferation of her image as the domestic empress, which co-joined her role as wife and mother in her private life with her public role as Queen of the British Empire.

Franz Xavier Winterhalter - The Family of Queen Victoria (1846)
This publication of Queen Victoria's image in a place of domestic bliss had a catalytic effect on the British public in its concern with the role of women in the public and private spheres of life. What some people might see as the prudishness or sensible femininity of the Victorian Age is certainly linked to Victoria's domestic tendency as she mothered nine children and was very dedicated to her devoted husband. Thus what has come to be known as the "Woman Question" was a topic perhaps inspired by Victoria's somewhat contradictory role as monarch and mother. The early beginnings of the Woman's Rights Movement began back in the Romantic period with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1759). A century later, however, the role of women was as controversial as ever. With authors such as Sarah Stickney Ellis, who argued for women's natural inferiority and believed that femininity was the backbone of all morality ("The Women of England, their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits,"1839), and John Ruskin, who wrote in his essay, "Of Queen's Gardens" (1864), that women should be educated only to the extent that they can hold engaging conversations with men, women were bound to the private sphere and their domestic role as "angels in the house." On the other end of the spectrum, John Stuart Mill provided insight into this overt suppression of women in his essay, "The Subjection of Women" (1869), in which he argues that men are not even aware of women's full potential because they have never been free to pursue it. 

Yet through this debate over women's proper role in society, Victoria provided perhaps a paradoxical image. On the one hand, the constant portrayals of her with her family uphold her image as the ideal "angel in the house," a woman content with her role in domesticity. Yet, she is simultaneously the Queen of the fastest growing empire on the earth at the time. Her rule saw much social and economic upheaval, and she and Prince Albert passed many reforms which aimed to improve working conditions and protect the rights of the poor working class. Not to mention this was also the height of British Imperialism, which included Victoria being crowned the Empress of India and extending the British Empire to countries as far-reaching as Malaysia, Australia, parts of Africa, and the West Indies. This precarious balance between femininity in the private sphere and power in the public sphere is perhaps the tight-rope walk that Victoria had to perform during her rule, and it sets the stage for the debates and differing opinions on the role of women that proliferated in twentieth century England. 

Queen Victoria herself hints at this struggle with her image in a letter to her daughter, Victoria, in 1858 in which she admonishes her daughter, who had just had her first baby, not to focus too much attention on her new role as mother that would cause her to, "neglect [her] other greater duties," for, she writes, "No lady, and still less a Princess, is fit for her husband or her position, if she does that." Yet later in the same letter, the Queen regrets the fact that her duties as ruler hinder her from visiting her daughter and new grandchild. She writes,
I cannot bear to think Bertie [Prince Albert] is going to you and I can't--and when I look at the baby things, and I feel I shall not be, where every other mother is--and I ought to be and can't--it makes me sick and almost frantic. Why in the world did you manage to choose a time when we could not be with you?   
These seeming contradictions suggest that Victoria struggled with her desire to be a mother and grandmother in a place of domesticity and and her dedication to her position as Queen. Later, after her husband died, she seemed more exhausted with this constant battle in her life. In 1872, she writes,
The higher the position the more difficult it is. --And for a woman alone to be head of so large a family and at the same time reigning Sovereign is I can assure you almost more than human strength can bear. I assure you I feel so done by the amount of work and interruption all day long that it affects my health and also my spirits very much at times. I feel so disheartened. I should like to retire quietly to a cottage in the hills and rest and see almost no one. As long as my health and strength will bear it--I will go on--but I often fear I shall not be able for many years (if I live). 
Just as Victoria wrote about her personal struggle with her dual roles in the public and private sphere, many other Victorians turned to the pen to engage in this topic, which turned it into a very public debate. With the advent of newspapers and journals in the nineteenth century, and the dawn of the age of the novel in the twentieth, writers could find publication rather easily and they took advantage of these literary platforms to engage in the social discussions of the day. Many of these writers were women, some under pseudonyms so they could publish more freely, but regardless of sex, it seems everyone had (and published) an opinion. So we will next take a look at some of these texts to see how they were engaging in the debate on the Woman Question in Victorian culture. 

Feel free to post comments if you had anything to add or any questions! Of course, this is a very brief overview of the Woman Question and Victoria's contribution to it through her letters. There is a wealth of information out there, and I will be the first to say I have not read it all. I am by no means an expert, just an avid learner :) 

If you are wondering where some of my information came from, like any good student, here is my works cited list:
1. The Victorian Web - - This is a fabulous site, one that I used often in grad school and that I will probably refer to a lot in this blog. It is a treasure house of articles and information about the Victorian Era. 
2. Introduction. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2B, The Victorian Age. Eds. Heather Henderson and William Sharpe. New York: Pearson, 2006. 
3. "Letters to Her Daughter, The Princess Royal." Victorian Prose: An Anthology. Eds. Rosemary J. Mundhenk and LuAnn McCracken Fletcher. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 270-271.