I’m watching an old production of The Woman in White and pondering the place of the woman in Victorian fiction.
There are two half-sisters, one who has inherited, or will inherit, great wealth; the other is relatively poor. The wealthy one is beautiful; she is delicate and wears pastels. Occasionally she faints.
The poor one is nice looking but her face doesn’t rival that of her sister; she is sturdy and wears plaid. What the poor sister lacks in looks and money, she makes up for in intelligence and gumption. No shrinking violet, she. When the going gets tough–when the heiress marries a sadist who locks her in an asylum so he can have her fortune–the sturdy one takes charge.
The sturdy sister is helped by a young man, frequently a man of lower station. He is in love with the heiress, of course–hopelessly, although she has hinted she would be favorably inclined toward him if only her guardian would approve. Guardians never approve. The hopeless young man would take her with no dowry at all, but he doesn’t want that kind of trouble.
It all works out, of course. The heiress gets loose and marries the young man and they’re happy ever after. The sturdy sister lives with them–the sisters are Devoted–and carries on her belt the ring of keys to all the doors and cupboards and probably makes out all the menus. And is happy ever after.
I have no argument with the plot, but the women . . . The delicate, sensitive girl watched over by the brave, sturdy one. The fainting. The vapors. The lack of brain power.
David Copperfield falls for the empty-headed Dora while Agnes hangs around to keep Dora from running completely amok. Dora conveniently dies–she’s delicate–and after a time, he realizes he loves Agnes and always has. Agnes says she loves him, etc., and is kind enough not to point out it’s taken him long enough to figure it out.
One male author who had a clearer view was William Thackeray. Amelia was delicate and sensitive–I can’t remember her fainting–and Becky Sharp was sturdy, but Becky didn’t stand around going pat-pat-pat when Amelia had a headache. She made her own way and did her best to take Amelia’s husband with her.
(Here’s a poster for a movie based on Vanity Fair. Myrna Loy and Conway Tearle. “CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.”)
I shouldn’t be so hard on the fainters. It’s a wonder any woman wearing one of those corsets could stay on her feet at all. I’m told that around 1910-1920, every time my grandmother had a dress fitting, she laced her corset so tightly that she fainted amidst the pins and patterns. It upset one dress maker so much that she refused to sew for her.
However, she came from a family of natural fainters, men as well as women. But they say that when not wearing a corset, my grandmother stayed in the saddle on any horse she rode, no matter how hard it tried to throw her off. She was no shrinking violet either. (I’ve had a couple of brushes with fainting myself, but when I feel one coming on, I usually manage to lie down on the floor before I topple over. Horses can toss me out of the saddle whenever they please, and I speak from experience.)
The question is, how did we go from Jane Austen and Lizzie Bennet to Dora Copperfield?
If Charlotte and Emily Bronte knew any delicate women, they didn’t make them main characters. Their females were sturdy. Jane Eyre didn’t put up with any nonsense from Rochester or from St. John Rivers. Catherine Earnshaw is a little cracked, I contend, thinking that Heathcliff would be okay with her marrying Edgar Linton, but she didn’t wait for a sturdy woman to come along and tell her what to do. (Maybe she should have.)
(I’ve read that Jane Austen’s women would have burst out laughing if they’d had to deliver any of the speeches Charlotte Bronte wrote for Jane Eyre.)
[I’m not finished, but it’s almost midnight and I have to get this online today, so I’m going to post and finish later.]
Admission: This post is a stream-of-consciousness example of superficial faux literary criticism. The many generalizations are unfair and an ethical person would not write such things about the classics and then fling them into cyberspace. Normally, I am ethical, but not tonight.
The thing is, I started two posts, each running to six hundred words incomplete, and they were terrible and I scrapped them and wrote without regard for form or function. Ethics tomorrow, foolishness tonight.