Women in Early British Poetry

adam-and-eve-tintoretto

https://poets.media/women-in-early-british-poetry

Advertisements

Romance and Feminism

515jPrOH1xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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

nature.”  

( 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.

Works Cited

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.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Clarissa: Book 1 by Samuel Richardson or In Defense of the Good Girl

IMG_6690

At around 1,431 pages, Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady beats out Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (826 pages), Bleak House by Charles Dickens (813 pages) and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (955 pages) for the title of longest book I have ever read. Such a tome seems like an overwhelming task to get through but fortunately they are often divided up into a number of sections, each a mini book in themselves. How I got through War and Peace was that I would read a section and then take a break for a few weeks and repeat until the book was finished. I am going to do the same for Clarissa.

After her grandfather dies and leaves her a large fortune, Clarissa Harlowe, a young woman of great beauty, intelligence, and virtue, is uninterested in marrying; being independently wealthy, she lacks the economic incentive to do so. She has already refused several suitors and her nouveau riche family is frustrated with her. They insist that she marry the rich but repulsive Mr. Solmes, which is partially a revenge plot by Clarissa’s greedy and envious brother and sister. Her refusal to marry the man picked out for her by her family causes them to become increasingly controlling and hostile. Clarissa’s beauty and virtue attract the notice of  Robert Lovelace, a notorious rake, who sets out to win her with offers of protection should she wish to flee her impossible situation. 

Passive and virtuous Clarissa is a heroine who would be hard for modern audiences to get behind. We like our period heroines to be rebels who stick it to the patriarchy but this does not do justice to the reality of what life was like for women in centuries past. Clarissa’s plight is an extreme example of what many women in the 18th century went through. They were considered the property of either their father or their husband and were constantly reminded that they had to be obedient. By refusing to marry Solmes, Clarissa is posing a threat to the social structure. Her parents do not relent because doing so would compromise their authority; they are pretty much a parody of the “because I said so” style of parenting. Trying to buck the system backfires on Clarissa as doing so causes her to be stripped of whatever freedom she has: walking in the garden, sending letters, and even leaving her room. The point is that Clarissa is a goody-goody who is used to playing by the rules but is conflicted when duty means sacrificing her own happiness. A genteelly brought up girl like Clarissa would be ill equipped to handle life on her own and she would be dependent on a man, which is where Lovelace comes in, who we get the feeling cannot be trusted.  

Richardson explores the helplessness of women in his society. From the time she was a child, Clarissa would have little say in own life. She would be subject to the authority of her parents and later her husband, an authority which could easily turn tyrannical and abusive. Clarissa starts off as a beloved and indulged daughter of privilege but the absolute rule of parents slowly turns her into a prisoner in their own home when she opposes them. A contemporary reader may ask why she does not stick up for herself? The answer is: she does. Clarissa finds a number of ways to snark at and rebel against her oppressors but this only serves to make life worse for her. 

The Jo Marches and Arya Starks of the world will always chaff against what society expects of them and be admired when they rebel against these expectations. But for the majority of women throughout history, this would be merely wish fulfilment fantasy. The Clarissa Harlowes of the world try their best to find their way within the system and later end up being screwed over, then criticized for being weak.

Bag Girl Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)

MV5BMzEzNTIzMDk2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjIzODQxMjI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_

I saw a lot of hype for Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood. The production was praised for being timely as well as high quality and the premise sounded interesting, so when I signed up for hulu, I decided to watch it.

In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks, a religious inspired military dictatorship has taken over North America, which is now called The Republic of Gilead. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a member of a class of women known as “handmaids” who are forced to bear children for barren families, lives with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)  and his jealous and vicious wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She once had a husband, a daughter, and a job but now lives in world where women’s rights have been taken away and she is treated as breeding stock.  Despite being a world where men have all the power, it is the women who steal the show. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as the relatable everywoman, Offred, who decides that she has had enough (as one of the show’s slogans says “she will bare no more”). Yvonne Strahovski is both frightening and sympathetic as the ice queen Serena Joy.  Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer play the small but haunting roles of Ofglen and Janine: a lesbian handmaid who receives a genital mutilation because of her sexual orientation and a mentally unstable handmaid who finally loses it after her child is taken away. Both are two of the shows most resonant scenes.

Part of the reason why the story is so scary is because it taps into fears women have: having their children taken away from them (the reason why Offred and the other handmaids have been chosen is because they have been able to bare children in the past) and being stripped of all their rights and self respect. I agree that this series is timely in a climate of terrorist attacks and conservative backlash. Offred’s “we didn’t wake up” speech is particularly chilling.  It is not a great series but also, perhaps, and important one.

I’ll Never Go Hungry Again: The 1930s

Movie goers in 1939 were horrified to find that they had to pay 75 cents (pretty steep after ten years of economic depression) to see the latest blockbuster, based on a best selling novel which had been published three years before. The movie in question was almost four hours long, filmed in the new technicolor, and starred some of the biggest names of the age such as Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard.

This movie was of course Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous and successful movies to ever come out of golden age Hollywood.

The golden age of Hollywood occurred from roughly 1927 to 1963, from the invention of “talkies” to the rise of television. Despite the stock market crash of 1929, the movie industry hardly suffered during the Depression due to people wishing to immerse themselves in the glamorous world of Hollywood to forget the hardship and dreariness of everyday life. A woman could admire Greta Garbo’s thin and severely arched eyebrows and Jean Harlow’s slinky, bias-cut evening dresses though she probably could not copy them. A lack of money and a need to support one’s self and your family meant that most people had to make their fashion choices based on practicality and functionality rather than Hollywood glamour. A new dress might have some pretty humble origins. Material from feed and flour sacks was often used to make new clothes, prompting feed and four sellers to make their sacks using material with attractive patterns in order to get people to buy from them.

Scarlet O’Hara, the anti-heroine of Gone with the Wind, finds herself in a similar situation and fashions a new gown from old curtains.

The O’Hara family finds themselves financially ruined after the Civil War and in danger of losing their plantation Tara. Such circumstances would have been all too familiar to the Depression era readers of Gone with the Wind. Scarlet, their feisty eldest daughter, is hell bent on fighting off poverty, crying “I’ll never go hungry again,” and makes some morally questionable choices in order to save herself and her family from ruin.

With many people unable to keep or find jobs, the public had a soft spot for those who were willing to buck the system to get ahead. Which is why some of the most famous people from the period are criminals such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and John Dillinger.

In the 2013 television movie Bonnie & Clyde, Clyde, played by Emile Hirsch, explains in his posthumous narration “maybe if someone left open a door they should of, maybe if we were living in times of milk and honey stead of grit and piss, Bonnie would have just faded off into obscurity. Maybe if everywhere you looked they weren’t celebrating anyone who dared rise up. Hell, maybe if I hadn’t promised to make all her dreams come true, Bonnie would of forgotten all about me. Lord knows she should of. ”

Hard times bring out the best and worst in people and they can be periods of moral ambiguity. What might be one person’s determination might be another person’s amorality. We all hope that we would rise to the occasion in a time of trouble and we admire people who seem to survive and thrive against the odds, despite the mercenary things they might do get by whether it be making a self serving marriage or robbing a bank. Characters like Scarlet O’Hara do what the reader wishes he or she could do if they were not held back by morality and consequences. But amoral anti heroes often cannot escape the wages of sin. A person in the 1930s may have thought it might be fun to be an outlaw like John Dillinger but they sure would not have wanted to meet the same fate as him. Readers of Gone with the Wind might admire Scarlet O’Hara’s drive and determination but even they have to admit that she gets what she deserves in the end.

Beautiful Little Fools: The 1920s

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with a name which summed up the spirit of the decade following the First World War, a name which has become synonymous with decade: The Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s most famous work, a short, poetic novella called The Great Gatsby, is perhaps the quintessential story of the era. The Great Gatsby conjures up a world of glittering parties fueled by illegal alcohol and attended by the young, beautiful, and glamorous which is mostly how we remember the 1920s.

The world appeared to have changed beyond all recognition after The Great War, not the least in regards to what the fashionable young women like those at Gatsby’s lavish parties wore.

A dress from 1906, eight years before war, would have looked much different from a dress made in 1916, two years into the war. By 1926, fashion had done a complete 360 degree turn. It had lost interest in exaggerated feminine curves and elaborate hairdos. The opportunities which opened up in the 1910s and 1920s for women meant that women’s clothing had to become more practical and unfortunately, more masculine. Corsets were eventually ditched all together, and long hair, once prized as a woman’s “crowning glory”, were cut off. Legs and arms were more visible than they had ever been. Makeup had become socially acceptable.  Some of the most daring fashionistas even wore pants. Women also became more interested in traditionally masculine pastimes such as sports, drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Girls who took advantage of all of these social changes and enjoyed a good time 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.” So radical was the flapper and all she stood for that we even get stories of parents filing lawsuits against their daughters for dressing and behaving in ways which they disapproved of and some conservative states in the American Bible Belt banned women over fourteen from wearing short skirts.

The flapper features greatly in The Great Gatsby. It’s two main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, are beautiful and glamourous young women who move in the highest circles of society and dress in the height of 1920s fashion. Stylish and fun loving girls show up at Gatsby’s parties. But Fitzgerald paints the flapper in decidedly dark colors. Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Daisy is flighty and shallow and ultimately fickle and careless. Though Daisy loved Gatsby she ended up marrying a wealthier and more socially acceptable husband. When Gatsby wants her to leave her husband Tom, she is unable to give up her comfortable lifestyle and lets Gatsby take the blame for her when she accidently kills Tom’s mistress in a car crash. Perhaps the reason why Daisy’s behavior is so disappointing is because Gatsby so idealized her and saw her as an ideal of perfection rather than a person.

The Great Gatsby shows how little society had actually changed. Despite the fact that they could now work and vote, a woman’s life’s work was to catch the wealthiest husband they could. Men still held women up on a pedestal instead of seeing them for what they are, flawed and all too human individuals.

Daisy famously says that she wishes her daughter will be a fool because “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Intelligence and seriousness was at best unattractive and at worst undesirable. While the previous generation expected women to be demure and submissive, the generation Daisy came from valued giddiness and carelessness in girls. A woman was still expected to look pretty, smile, and ignore all that was unpleasant regardless of whether or not she was trussed up in a corset. Even with all the outward trappings of emancipation women had gained, they still could not expect to be taken seriously.

Two Headed Kings and Headless Queens: The Late Nineteenth Century and The Early Twentieth Century

In 1891, German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote his best know work Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, a play which was considered so shocking that it was not performed until 1906 and even then the production was condemned as “pornographic.” Wedekind can claim to have invented the teen drama we recognize today. All of it’s elements, young love, parents who do not understand, comically strict teachers, characters dealing with burgeoning adulthood and sexuality, and plenty of angst, feature in Spring Awakening. The play also deals with subject matter which is sensitive even today let alone in 1890s Germany, such as youthful rebellion, child abuse, censorship, suicide, teen pregnancy, and abortion.

Frank Wedekind touched a nerve in an era characterized by tight corsets, high collars, long skirts, and sexual repression. The clothing worn by the Victorian/Edwardian lady is used to symbolize the subjugation of her mind and body. It is an eye rolling cliché of period fiction to have the “spirited young lady” heroine complain about having to wear a corset. But corsets may not have been as bad we have been lead to believe. The medical diagrams often used to show the dangerous effects of corsets were intended to show that lacing your corset very tightly is harmful but wearing a corset in itself is not. A lot of these were put out by men who never had and never would have to wear on of the things. Clothing which survives shows that most women did not have the tiny waists you see in the fashion plates even with a corset. Like today, women with the ideal body type were hired to model clothing. It would be like people a hundred plus years from now looking at our fashion magazines and believing all women today had a thigh gap.

Clothing throughout the Victorian era accentuated the hips and bust and made the waist seem smaller by comparison. The Edwardian lady sought to tease rather than please. She covered herself in layers of clothing which gave a tantalizing hint of the shape of her body. Men particularly found the “froufrou” sound of a lady’s petticoats particularly sexy. To say that our forebears were prudish is problematic: women dressed to tempt men and men were tempted.

Clothing plays a part in Spring Awakening. The play opens with the fourteen year old heroine, Wendla, being given her first long dress for her birthday. Her mother, Frau Bergmann, feels that since her daughter is blossoming into womanhood, she must no longer wear her childish dresses because they have become indecently short. Wendla is confused as to why she can no longer wear her favorite dress and complains that this new dress is too long and baggy. Frau Bergmann is not too eager to have her daughter grow up, so she allows Wendla to continue wearing her old dress. Wendla then makes the unintentionally racy comment “Would you rather I was too hot? Be thankful that your precious doesn’t cut off the sleeves and walk around without shoes and stockings! When it’s time for me to wear the sackcloth, I’m going to dress like a fairy queen underneath…” By dressing “like a fairy queen underneath”, Wendla means going without underwear which has implications which the sexually innocent fourteen year old does not understand. Similarly, Wendla’s friend Martha is punished by her strict parents for sprucing up her nightgown with ribbons, the implication, in their minds, being that she would like someone to see her in it.

While most interpretations of Spring Awakening tend to focus on the male characters Melchior and Moritz, Wendla is more interesting than she may appear at first. At the surface her story shows the importance of sex education for girls but there is more to it than that.

Wendla is more sassy and irreverent than your typical ingenue and shows signs of a social conscience, often making charitable visits to the poor. Her love interest, Melchior, cynically asks whether these act of charity really make a difference and does not understand how she could enjoy doing it when it is unpleasant and the people sometimes resent her for being more privileged than them.

“Melchior: So you visit the poor because it gives you pleasure?

“Wendla: I visit them because they’re poor.”

Wendla’s response is that enjoyment is not the point. In 2007 musical adaptation of the play, Melchior is impressed by her plucky defense of her views and says “Wendla Bergmann, I’ve known you all these years and we’ve never really talked.”

Wendla’s charitable visits reflect the large roles which women played in the reform movements of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as the temperance movement and labor unions. The campaign for women to have the right to vote began in earnest in the early twentieth century with a new generation of more radical suffragettes. Many of these women such as Christabel Pankhurst and  Alice Paul were college educated, something which would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. Some of the more radical female reformers even went as far as to demand access to birth control and the right to decide when and if they wanted to have children. Reform minded women often supported the war effort during the first world war by becoming things such as nurses and munitions workers.

With women talking a more active role in the world, fashions changed to reflect this. Hemlines went up and corsets loosened and then disappeared all together, and silhouettes became straighter and looser until we got the boyish look of the 1920s.

In act two, scene one of Spring Awakening, Moritz tells Melchior a fairy tale about a headless queen and a king with two heads which argue all the time during a conversation about how he’s overwhelmed by school work and expectations to succeed academically. Perhaps a bit too emphasise is put on the education of boys like Moritz, while the educations of girls like Wendla is almost neglected. Interestingly, the story of the headless queen and the two headed king ends with the queen being given the king’s entra head and the two living happily ever after in peace and harmony.

Spring Awakening‘s subtitle is not “a children’s tragedy” for nothing. The naive curiosity of its main characters has serious consequences. Moritz is unable to deal with society’s expectations and is driven to suicide while Melchior and Wendla are separated when he is sent away to a reformatory. A brief hope spot appears for the young lovers when it is revealed that Wendla is pregnant with Melchior’s child and he escapes from the reformatory to return to her.  The final tragedy is when he returns to find that she has died from the effects of an abortion she was unwittingly taken to have.

The play leaves the heartbroken Melchior, and the audience/reader, with the hope that there is a world outside of his stuffy little German town and that more enlightened times are coming. Indeed, the fin de siècle saw a shift from the conservative, middle class values of the nineteenth century towards the more liberal and populist values of the twentieth century. When the nineteenth century came to a close, real life Wendlas perhaps dared to dream that they would enjoy more freedom than their mamas ever had.

We Must Cultivate Our Garden: The Eighteenth Century

Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, wrote a short, satirical novel called Candide in 1759, which is among his best known works. It is the tale of Candide, the illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who is banished from his home for flirting with the baron’s daughter and suffers through countless, absurd misadventures before finding happiness in honest work and simple pleasures. Voltaire’s dark humor skewers every area of  eighteenth life: social class, war, religion, politics, and colonialism. What is interesting is that Voltaire presents a world that is just as hard for women as it is for men, perhaps more so. Candide’s love interest, Cunégonde, is repeatedly raped, exploited, and forced in servitude and prostitution while he longs for her as a paragon of female perfection. The irony that the world expects female purity while making it almost impossible does not escape Voltaire, “A modest woman may be once violated, but her virtue is greatly strengthened as a result.”

The world of the eighteenth century is hardly the place for a weak or foolish woman. When looking for a wife, a gentleman would hardly ever choose a lady who was just silly and decretive. The ideal wife was supposed to be strong, capable, and smart enough to run a household. A woman could use her beauty and sexuality to get by; becoming a respectable and well-off wife at best, a man’s plaything at worst. The later often happening to poor Cunégonde.

Marriage and domesticity had an attraction for men and women that it has lost today. While today we tend to see married life as confining, stifling even, people in the eighteenth century looked forward to marriage as a way of gaining property, status, and companionship. Candide’s longing for marriage with Cunégonde must have been a common feeling.

Voltaire lived in a world of extremes. Life in ancien régime France could be drastically different whether you were rich or poor. The poorest and lowliest lived in the most miserable poverty while the richest and highest born lived in unimaginable luxury. Those at the top of society lived in the opulent court of Versailles. While most women tended to wear simple dresses or bodices and skirts, the ladies at Versailles wore elaborate gowns and wigs and heavy makeup, which was usually considered degenerate because it was associated with prostitutes and women whose complexions were ruined by things such as acne or smallpox. These ladies followed an elaborate system of etiquette which your average housewife probably would have found ridiculous.

Life at Versailles was epitomized by the hated queen, Marie Antoinette, whose elaborate fashion choices attracted ridicule and came to symbolize all that was wrong with the world she lived in and how out of touch she was with the real world.

The eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment and the ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire inspired both the American and French Revolutions. What you wore often reflected your political views. Daughters of Liberty, the female counterpart to the Sons of Liberty, boycotted British imported goods and wore clothes made from homespun cloth and their hair in thirteen curls to show their support for the thirteen American Colonies in their fight for independence. French revolutionaries wore red liberty caps and tri-colored cockades to show their political sympathies. Women revolutionaries often favored a classical inspired look featuring loose, white, chemise-like dresses, ironically taken from the chemise de la reine favored by the hated Marie Antoinette.

Women held a special hatred for the pampered queen, who flaunted herself in dresses that looked like underwear while their children went hungry. When an angry mob of poor Parisian women marched on Versailles to threaten the royal family into coming back to Paris with them, most of their anger was focused on Marie Antoinette, whom they quite literally wished to tear apart.

Candide ends with the once plump and sexy Cunégonde, having lost all of her allure after being constantly used, abused, and worn out. The similarly plump and sexy Marie Antoinette met a similar fate. A sketch by the artist Jacques Louis David of Marie Antoinette prior to her execution shows a prematurely aged crone with her shock whitened hair cropped off. But Candide ends on a happier note with Candide marrying Cunégonde anyway and the all of the characters finding contentment in a simple, hardworking existence, an idea which is summed up in the phrase “We must cultivate our garden.”

The point Voltaire makes in Candide is that instead of philosophizing about the meaning of life, we should try to give our lives meaning. Candide and his companions realize the eighteenth century dream of having a home of their own and a little plot of land to cultivate. This dream was perhaps more of a cause of the revolutions and political turmoil that the century saw than the enlightenment.