As with today, romance and relationships were a popular subject for fiction during the Victorian era and the early 20th century. Literature has long been used to highlight social issues such as social inequality, especially gender inequality. The period bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, known as the turn of the century, was a period of great change, specifically in views on marriage, romantic love, and relationships between men and women. As one century faded into another, portrayals of women in fiction became more complex as real life women became more emancipated. Their identity was beyond that of just a virgin, a wife, or a whore. Authors championed the idea of marriage as a romantic partnership between equals and it was not always the happy ending of the story. The fiction of this time period reflected the changes that were going on and also perhaps influenced them. But the core values of society and its expectations of women changed little because they were still expected to conform to what men wanted.
Women during the Victorian and Edwardian eras were valued according their attractiveness and usefulness to men. A girl’s education would involve skills which would make her attractive to potential suitors such as dancing, singing and music, needlework, etiquette, and conversation; it was her job to catch the best husband she could. The fashions of the Victorian era emphasized natural beauty and femininity. The most attractive shape for a woman was a tiny waist with generous hips and bust and the most desired complexion was pale with rosy cheeks; both were signs of health and fertility. Corsets were worn throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras to control the waist and support the bust. A lady would not go outside without a hat or parasol to protect her pallor and would pinch her cheeks and bite her lips to give them color; wearing makeup was unthinkable because it was associated with actresses and prostitutes. After a girl was married, she would devote herself to running her household, raising her children, and pleasing her husband. A good woman was expected to remain sexually pure before marriage and only have sex in order to satisfy her husband and conceive children. Female sexuality was related to male honor; a woman who went against the sexual mores of the time made the men in her life vulnerable to shame and ridicule. The patriarchal social structure of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took a rather simplistic view on women as either virgins, wives, or whores. Women were considered intellectually inferior to men yet, ironically, were put on a pedestal as the moral guardians of society but they used this role to enter public life.
Charity and social work were considered acceptable activities for a respectable lady. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were periods of great social reform. Women played a large and active role in these reforms and gained more social, political, and economic autonomy for themselves. This time period was also the first great era of manufacturing, advertising, and consumerism with many of its new products marketed at women, who were under the most pressure to look attractive and would be the primary consumer for the home. To make their products more appealing to female customers, advertisers gave the impression that these products would emancipate them. Household appliances would free them from the drudgery of housework and fashion and beauty products would turn them into a modern and liberated woman. Bicycling was a popular pastime during the turn of the century, and was championed by women’s rights activists because it gave women a degree of independence. But some argued that it was damaging to a woman’s health (specifically their fertility) and would make them seem masculine and unattractive (therefore unlikely to marry and fulfill the acceptable role of wife and mother). Bicycling was also seen as immoral because it involved riding astride (an unladylike position) and a woman could presumably go off unchaperoned to meet with lovers. Similar concerns were raised about the newfound access to higher education which women gained at the end of the nineteenth century. The big women’s rights debate of the era was whether or not to give women the rights to vote. Some of the reasons people had for not allowing women to vote were that women did not have judgment enough to participate in politics, that it would disrupt the social order ( which benefited men), that it would emasculate and feminize politics (because anything feminine must be bad) and would cause disharmony between the sexes.
The literature of the day presented models for behavior and also showed what happened when you did not live up to society’s expectations .It reflected and formed the values of the age. It’s heroines often suffered in an unequal and harsh world and were abused by cruel people, often male. Proto feminist literature featured male characters who were some sort of threat or obstacle for the heroine. Often they are romantically or sexually interested in her, wishing to marry her or take advantage of her. A happy ending featured the heroine overcoming all of her trials and marrying Mr. Right; the male character she has been pitted against learns to accept and appreciate her as an equal and turns out to be the perfect husband. An earlier example of this type of narrative is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The spirited Elizabeth Bennet and the haughty and introverted Mr. Darcy misunderstand each other and are thrown into conflict with one another. But the attraction that has been between them from the beginning overcomes their defenses and the novel ends with them marrying. By marrying Mr. Darcy, who is a wealthy nobleman, Elizabeth improves her socioeconomic status. The goal of romantic love is the social and economic stability of marriage. A sad ending often involved the heroine dying tragically, a victim of the injustice and sexual inequality of the world. She often ended up as a victim by going against conventional ideas about female behavior. Her story could either be a warning about what happened when you broke the rules or a condemnation of a social system which judged her too harshly. Perhaps the best known of this type of story is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Anna, the wife of a Russian diplomat, is dissatisfied with her marriage and leaves her husband for her lover. She becomes a social outcast and ends up committing suicide. Even women who are portrayed sympathetically are punished when they step outside the boundaries of conventional behavior.
In 1891, German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote one of his best known plays, Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy. Around the same time, English novelist Thomas Hardy wrote what is perhaps his best known work, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. Both works were shocking due to their frank portrayals of sexuality and the fate of women who fail to live up to society’s ideal of female purity, and are in many ways similar.
Hardy’s heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, has a lot in common with Wendla Bergmann, Spring Awakening’s main female character. Both are innocent small town girls with a spirited and feisty side, and they go through similar experiences. Tess’s love interest, Angel Clare, and Spring Awakening’s protagonist, Melchior Gabor, resemble the self-important, know-it-all, male characters common in proto feminist literature. Melchior and Wendla’s scene in the woods has a lot of similarities with scenes in Tess of the D’Urbervilles between Angel and Tess. When Angel is struck by Tess’s beauty, he compares her to classical goddesses such as Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and Artemis, goddess of purity. Melchior greets Wendla by saying she is “like a tree nymph fallen from the branches”. Both Angel and Melchior have had more access to education than their love interests and treat them patronizingly. Angel offers to educate and cultivate the less sophisticated Tess, who responds that the answers she is looking for are not found in books. Melchior bombards Wendla with cynical rhetoric about how he does not see the point of her charitable visits to the poor because they are unpleasant and possibly useless and is more interested in this moral dilemma than in Wendla’s actual answer, that she makes these visits because they are necessary.
The relationship between Melchior and Wendla then begins to resemble that of Tess and Alec D’Urberville in that they engage in consentually ambiguous sex. Both Tess and Alec’s sexual encounter in the woods and Melchior and Wendla’s sexual encounter in the hayloft are not explicitly described and open to interpretation. Views on sexuality when Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Spring Awakening were written were different than they are today. Sex outside of marriage was not something which a nice girl was supposed to want and it was a trope of erotic literature to have the heroine be the victim of a quasirape. The purpose was to shift the blame for the act away from her and say that it was not her fault, so she would still be a “good girl” (Worsley Episode 3.) The forceful seduction is also used to present the heroine as a victim worthy of sympathy even though she stepped out of society’s bounds. Tess clearly regrets her encounter with Alec and her experiences with him are more explicitly negative but Wendla’s reaction to what she has gone through is much more cryptic.
“Why did I slip out of the room?To pick violets! Because Mother sees me smiling. Why can’t I close my lips any longer?I don’t know, I simply don’t know, I can’t find the words for it…The path feels like velvet, no stones, no thorns. My feet don’t touch the ground. How well I slept last night. This is where they were.I feel so solemn,like a nun at communion.Such beautiful violets!Calm down, Mother, I’ll wear my sackcloth from now on.If only there was someone here now who I could embrace and tell everything. ”
( Spring Awakening , page 39-40)
Wendla’s monologue suggests that she received some pleasure and excitement from the encounter, whether she wanted it or not. The phrase “Calm down, mother, I’ll wear my sackcloth from now on,” refers to the long dress which Wendla’s mother gave her at the beginning of the story and can possible be interpreted as Wendla saying she is willing to accept sexuality and womanhood for good or bad. Both Alec and Melchior express guilt for what they have done and a desire to make amends.
“ I suppose I am a bad fellow,a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability. But, upon my lost soul, i won’t be bad towards you again, Tess. And if certain circumstances should arise, you understand,in which you are in the least difficulty, send me one line and you shall have by return
whatever you require.”
( Tess of the D’Urbervilles , Page 61 )
“In the letter Melchior declares to this fifteen year old girl that his conduct give him no peace, that he has wronged her, etc, that he will of course stand by her in any eventuality,she should not grieve, even if she feels consequence,she is already taking steps to secure help.his expulsion from school makes such a course easier,his transgression may yet bring about her happiness,and more nonsense of a similar
( Spring Awakening , Pages 58-59)
Of course their actions both have the predictable results. Both Tess and Wendla berate their mothers for leaving them ignorant about the dangers of male desire. Tess says to her mother:
“Oh Mother, my Mother!… How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in menfolk? Why didn’t you warn me?Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’learning in that way, and
you did not help me!”
( Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Page 65)
Tess’s rebuke of her mother can be summed up in Wendla’s rebuke of her’s “ O Mother, why didn’t you tell me the truth?” ( Spring Awakening, Page 65). Tess has to suffer the trauma of having to watch her illegitimate child die and not being able to bury him in in the church graveyard and is later rejected by Angel because of her past while Wendla is killed by abortion pills given to her by her mother. Had she not died and had gone through with her pregnancy, one can imagine that she would have met with similar experiences to that of Tess: slut shaming and a life as a social pariah. The play leaves us with the feeling that we should not be too sad about
Wendla’s death because she would have met with a worse fate had she lived. Alec offers to take Tess under his protection either by marrying her or making her his mistress, even though Tess wants nothing to do with him. Melchior, who is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, feels that he is such a horrible person that he should kill himself. In a world of shame and sexual inequality and double standards, physical desire and romantic love are at best, untrustworthy, and at worst dangerous.
The Edwardian era ended in 1914, with the beginning of the First World War. Reform minded women supported the war effort by becoming nurses and munitions workers and other such things. A large percentage of the male population was killed during the war which meant that a large number of women would never marry and would have to support themselves (Worsley Episode 3.) As women began taking a more active role in the world, the hemlines of skirts went up, the silhouette became straighter and less restrictive, and corsets loosened and then disappeared altogether. The 1920s saw many more women enter the workforce and engage in traditionally masculine activities such as drinking, smoking, motoring, and promiscuous sex. Clothing in the 1920s took on a straight, boyish silhouette with a drop waist, and arms and legs became more visible than they had ever been. Women began wearing short hair and it became acceptable to wear makeup. Women who embraced these new forms of liberation were known as “flappers”. Interestingly, the corresponding term for “flapper” in French is “garçonne”, the feminine version of the French word for boy which roughly translates into “tomboy,”. This shows how these women sought equality with men by adopting some of the trappings of masculinity.
The silent films of the 1910s and 1920s picked up where Victorian literature left off. The so called “Victorian” view of women as either sweet, innocent, and asexual or dangerous and sexually aggressive man eaters, was already seen as dated, and the heroines of film were portrayed in more complex ways (Sharot 7386.) The personas of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford were a continuation of the wholesome, childlike idea of femininity championed by the Victorians. Pickford’s characters were often feisty and rebellious, while Gish often played the tragic heroine who is a victim of the cruelty and injustice of her environment. With the 1920s came flappers like Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, and Louise Brooks. Colleen Moore had the appearance of a modern flapper but acted in a wholesome way, while Clara Bow represented the alluring and sexually assertive flapper but was kind hearted and never immoral. Each of these actresses played the liberated woman of the early twentieth century in a sympathetic and appealing way.
The films they starred in had similar stories and themes to those tackled by the Victorian writers. Lillian Gish starred in a 1920 film called Way Down East which bares many similarities with
Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gish plays a poor country girl named Anna Moore who is sent to beg assistance from rich relations in the city, and is tricked into a false marriage by the caddish villain and is abandoned when she becomes pregnant. After her illegitimate child dies, Anna starts a new life working on farm and strikes up a new romance with the farmer’s son, which is threatened by the possibility of her past being revealed. The main difference between Way Down
East and Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that the former ends happily. The 1922 Mary Pickford film Tess of the Storm Country (a remake of a 1914 film also starring Pickford) features Pickford’s titular raggamuffin agreeing to take in the illegitimate child of her landlord’s daughter and facing social ostracization, which threatens her romance with the landlord’s son. The illegitimate child dies and Tess has to plead for it to be allowed to be buried in the churchyard. Women who have children out of wedlock still faced social ostracism. Clara Bow’s most famous film is a 1927 film called It, where she plays sassy salesgirl, Bettylou, who claims her roommate’s baby as her own when social worker threaten to take him way became his mother cannot afford to support him. This gives Bettylou’s love interest the wrong idea about her. Even though Bettylou is willing to use her liberated sexiness to attract a man, her goal is ultimately marriage and respectability. Louise Brooks starred in a 1929 film called Diary of a Lost Girl directed by G.W. Pabst and based on a novel by Wedekind contemporary Margarete Böheme, about a girl named Thymian, who is seduced and impregnated by her father’s assistant and is sent away to a girl’s reformatory. Brooks and Pabst also collaborated that year on a film version of Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box. All of these films have the conventional happy ending where the heroine finds happiness, wealth, and love by winning the heart and then hand of a wealthy Mr. Right. Marriage was beginning to be seen as something based on romance and physical attraction rather than as a form of social and economic security. Romantic love was supposed to overcome class distinctions and women were more liberated than ever before, but the happy ending of a romance usually features one of the partners improving their socioeconomic status and female characters were not supposed to break certain taboos.
The quintessential novel of the 1920s is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s plot revolves around the problematic love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Five years before the start of the novel, the poor Jay fell in love with the wealthy Daisy but their romance is interrupted by Jay having to go fight in World War I. In the meantime, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, who is of her own social class. By the point at which the novel opens, Gatsby has now become fabulously wealthy and has built a house across from where Daisy and Tom live, where he throws lavish parties in hopes that Daisy might attend one of them. The romance between Daisy and Gatsby rekindles but Daisy is unwilling to leave her husband Tom and give up her comfortable life. The Great Gatsby’s two beautiful and glamorous main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker are emblematic of the 1920s flapper. But Fitzgerald shows the flapper in a negative light: Daisy is fickle and shallow, and Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Part of the reason Daisy appears in such a bad light is because Gatsby has so idealized her and has such unrealistic expectations. Men put women on pedestals and do not see them as complex and flawed individuals. Daisy famously says that she hopes her daughter will be a beautiful fool because that is the best thing a girl can be in life.
“And I hope she’ll be a fool,that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
(The Great Gatsby, Page 17)
Whereas women in the Victorian era were supposed to demure and submissive, women in the 1920s were expected to be light hearted and giddy. Seriousness in women is still seen as undesirable and women are expected to conform to the mold set by society . Despite all of the outward trappings of liberation, such as economic autonomy and less restrictive clothing,, expectations of women have not changed all that much. Works of fiction such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Great Gatsby can get us to think about how far society has come and how little has changed.
American Experience: Mary Pickford . Dir. Sue William. Perf. Laura Linney. Pbs. Film.
Barkhorn, Eleanor. “‘Vote No on Women’s Suffrage’: Bizarre Reasons For Not Letting Women Vote.”
The Atlantic . The Atlantic Group, 6 Nov 2013. Web. 29 September 2015.
In Vote No On Women’s Suffrage: Bizarre Reasons For Not Letting Women Vote, , the author states that different parts of the community, specifically blacks and women, did not always have the right to vote. Women had to wait longer for suffrage and women’s suffrage met with a lot of opposition for a number of different reasons.
Clara Bow. Dir. Hugh Hunro Neely. Turner Classic Movies. 1999 Film.
De época. “A Very British Romance.” Perf. and Writ. Lucy Worsley. Video. Youtube. BBC. 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 18 April. 2016.
Diary of a Lost Girl. Dir. G.W. Pabst. Perf. Louise Brooks. 1929. Film
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby . New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.
In The Great Gatsby , the plot revolves around the problematic love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Five years before the start of the novel, the poor Jay fell in love with the wealthy Daisy but their romance is interrupted by Jay having to go fight in World War I. In the meantime, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, who is of her own social class.
By the point at which the novel opens, Gatsby has now become fabulously wealthy and has built a house across from where Daisy and Tom live, where he throws lavish parties in hopes that Daisy might attend one of them. The romance between Daisy and Gatsby rekindles but Daisy is unwilling to leave her husband Tom and give up her comfortable life.
The Great Gatsby is considered the quintessential novel of the 1920s, and it’s two beautiful and glamorous main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker are emblematic of the 1920s flapper. But Fitzgerald shows the flapper in a negative light: Daisy is fickle and shallow, and Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Part of the reason Daisy appears in such a bad light is because Gatsby has so idealized her and has such unrealistic expectations. Men put women on pedestals and do not see them as complex and flawed individuals.
Daisy famously says that she hopes her daughter will be a beautiful fool because that is the best thing a girl can be in life. Whereas women in the Victorian era were supposed to demure and submissive, women in the 1920s were expected to be light hearted and giddy. Seriousness in women is still seen as undesirable. Despite all of the outward trappings of liberation, expectations of women have not changed very much.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Mineola:Dover, 2001. Print.
Haluk, Askun. “The Woman Question And The Victorian Literature On Gender.” Literature 2012 16:52.
Ekev Academy Magazine. Web. 29 Sept. 2015
It. Dir. Clarence G. Badger. Perf. Clara Bow. Paramount Pictures. 1927. Film.
Prior, Karen Swallow. “‘You Ain’t Ruined’: How Thomas Hardy Took On VictorianEra Purity Culture.”
The Atlantic . The Atlantic Group, 8 May 2013. Web. 29 September 2015.
In You Ain’t Ruined: How Thomas Hardy took on Victorian Era Purity Culture, the author addresses a movement in the Evangelical Christian community to stop stressing female purity. In addition she says that this debate is nothing new and cites the example of 19th century author, Thomas Hardy.
Women in Hardy’s day who lost their virginity outside of marriage were deemed “ruined” or “damaged goods” and were condemned by society. Prior points out that Hardy often tackled this subject in his writings and gives an example of his early work, a humorous poem meant to poke fun at how society ascribes an almost monetary value on female sexual purity.
Then Prior describes Hardy’s most famous work, the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which features a young woman condemned by society as “ruined”. The novel has the subtitle, “a pure woman faithfully presented” to suggest that even though Tess is no longer sexually pure, she is still morally pure which is contrary to the victorian belief that for a woman, chastity and goodness were the same thing and that a woman who is no longer sexaully pure is no longer morally good. Hardy’s Tess is a victim, not only of sexual violence but of a hypocritical society which judged her too harshly because of something which happened that was not her fault.
Prior ends the article with her belief that the issues raised by Hardy in this writing are still ongoing and worthy of debate and examination.
Sharot, Stephen. “‘New Woman’, star personas, and cross class romance films in 1920s America.” Gender
Studies March 2010: Vol. 19 No. 1, 7386. Journal of Gender Studies. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. In, The ‘New Woman’, star personas, and crossclass romance films in 1920s America , the author talks about how the early 20th century was a time of growing social and economic independence for women and tells how this influenced the popular movies of the time by examining the star personas of three of the most famous actresses of the silent age: Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow. The 1920s saw a rise in women in the workplace as well as changes in views on women and romantic love. The so called “victorian” view of women as either sweet, innocent, and asexual or dangerous and sexually aggressive maneaters, was already seen as dated, and people began to see marriage as something based on romance and attraction rather than as a form of social and economic stability. Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow all played the heroines in films about love between two people of different social classes. Often they were working class girls who win the love and the hand of a wealthy Mr. Right. The personas these actresses adopted in this films reflected how society was beginning to see women in more complex ways. Mary Pickford had a wholesome, girlish image, but the characters she played were often feisty and rebellious. Colleen Moore had the appearance of the modern flapper but did not seem like she would behave in a way that was immoral. Clara Bow epitomized the alluring and sexually assertive flapper, but was kind hearted and stayed within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Each of them portrayed the liberated woman of the early 20th century in a sympathetic and appealing way.
Strange, Lisa S. “The Bicycle, Women’s Rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Women’s Studies 2002:
31:609626. Taylor & Francis. Web. 29 Sept. 2015
Sweet, Matthew. Inventing The Victorians. London: Faber, 2001. Print.
Tess of the Storm Country. Dir. John Robertson. Perf. Mary Pickford. United Artists. 1922. Film.
Wedekind, Frank. Spring Awakening. London: Nick Hern Books, 2010. Print.
Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship In Early Cinema. Dir. Hugh Hefner, Perf. Diane Lane. Alta Loma Entertainment, 2007. Film.