Posts tagged ‘Dorothea Gerard’

17/11/2010

The Eternal Woman

On whom a flawless, well-grown specimen of the divine ‘rose of womanhood’ has been bestowed has been granted the greatest gift on earth, and although Clara did not know it, she was one of the fortunate ones.
— Dorothea Gerard (1903)

In spite of the involuntary, and rather violent, exclamation of, Blecchh!! that escaped me upon reading the above and similar passages in Dorothea Gerard’s The Eternal Woman, I did try to give this novel a fair shake; although it was evident from its earliest chapters that it and I were operating from, to put it mildly, opposing philosophies. Written and set at the turn of the last century, The Eternal Woman is a determined attempt to turn the tide of female emancipation, chiefly by convincing young women that not only is marriage their true destiny, but a realm of female power and control.

Orphaned at an early age, Clara Wood, an English girl, is taken in on an impulse by the Viennese widow Baroness Sieffert. Shallow and self-absorbed, the Baroness loses interest in Clara as she grows older, although she always means to provide for her. However, when she dies suddenly, it is discovered that the Baroness has not made a will, and at the age of twenty Clara finds herself alone in the world and almost destitute. Turning for advice to the feminist magazine editor Fraulein Pohl, Clara is offered the chance to attend university, but decides that what she wants is marriage and a home, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  Becoming a governess, Clara passes three years moving from position to position without finding what she seeks, before manoeuvring herself into the household of Philip Aikman in the position of companion-nurse to his senile mother. Aikman is single, lives in near solitude in a small coastal village in Scotland, and is heir to his uncle’s substantial fortune. He is, in other words, exactly what Clara has been looking for, and she sets to work at the task of becoming Mrs Aikman, and with success – provided that her conscience doesn’t intervene…

It is clear in The Eternal Woman that Dorothea Gerard did not like the changes that were happening in her world, and that she set herself to counteract what she regarded as feminist propaganda with some propaganda of her own. She starts by showing her readers the face of the enemy, in the rather paper-tigery form of Fraulein Pohl; at which point we discover that some stereotypes have very deep roots. The Fraulein is, to no-one’s surprise, “masculine”; she is “stout”, with “a pug-dog nose”; she wears glasses, and not only has a slight moustache, she actively cultivates it. Amongst a myriad of foolish notions, the Fraulein dreams of a world where women will be free to have short hair and wear pants – quelle horreur!

Informed of Clara’s situation, the Fraulein, with hopes of winning Clara to “her side”, offers her the chance to attend university on a scholarship. This is really where The Eternal Woman disappointed me. It was fairly obvious that Clara would ultimately choose to “be a woman” rather than “have a career” (naturally, you can’t do both), but I did hope that this novel would first offer a look at what higher education was like for young women at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, however, Clara decides to reject the Fraulein’s offer – and you’ll never believe what makes up her mind for her.

As Clara ponders the Fraulein’s words and contemplates her destiny, we are given the passage from which this novel takes its title:

And yet, for all the plausible arguments used, for all the grain of truth which undoubtedly lay buried under the mountains of the editress’s rhetoric, there was something in it all which failed to satisfy some part of her inner self, and she was far too inexperienced to know that this part was nothing less than the eternal woman within her, who is neither ‘New’ nor ‘Old’, since she belongs to yesterday as well as to to-morrow…

Still undecided, Clara tries to read herself to sleep with Vanity Fair. Instead, she stumbles across the personal philosophy which will in future shape her actions:

And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once; old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth: A woman with fair opportunities and without an absolute hump may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

Incredibly, Dorothea Gerard seems to have taken this passage at face value; Clara certainly does. Personally, I’ve always read it as a typical Victorian example of a comprehensive insult being offered in the guise of a compliment. I must be as stupid as Thackeray thinks.

(I may also say that I find it highly significant that we are never made privy to Clara’s opinion of Amelia Sedley, that dear little clinging parasite.)

Anyway, Clara is inspired by this passage with a belief in “the power of her womanhood”, and decides to set about about life as a moral Becky Sharp, if you please: that is, she will conquer the world with her wits and womanhood alone, adapting herself to circumstances and making herself useful, thus creating opportunities, while staying within the bounds of conscience; and as soon as she finds “a decently marriageable man”, she will make him her slave.

And it works. As she goes from position to position, demonstrating how “clever” and “resourceful” she is, Clara finds every available man at her feet, and has to keep moving on because they’re not what she wants, one way or another. Three years on, however, Clara is beginning to get a little desperate; desperate enough to resort to some tactics that are a little too Becky-like for comfort in order to manoeuvre herself into a position in the household of the extremely eligible Philip Aikman.

The world that Dorothea Gerard creates in The Eternal Woman is one I find creepy and depressing. Gerard is so intent on turning young women away from work and self-sufficiency and into marriage with her vision of feminine dominance that – although I rather doubt this was her intention – I ended up feeling profoundly sorry for the male of the species. I wouldn’t wish Clara Wood on anyone.

Gerard seems to have no real notion of a companionate marriage. Her thesis is that any woman who understands her own “womanliness” can get any man she wants to marry her; and that having done so, she will control the situation from there on in. The only unhappy marriages in Gerard’s world are those where the wives do not grasp the true power of their womanhood, or where the wife wields her power in an insufficiently feminine way. Men, confronted by this dread force, are mere playthings, putty in their wives’ hands, who will work and slave and fall over themselves to provide these “queenly” creatures with everything they desire, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to worship at their feet. There’s an underlying implication in this novel that what women really want out of marriage is a roof over their head and children and, that being the case, it doesn’t much matter who they marry. And in fact, husbands are rather like children – just a little stupider, and easier to manage.

And if the promise of power is Gerard’s carrot, she provides a stick also, in her inferences about women who do want a career, or at least don’t particularly want marriage. Here she resorts to a form of language that became increasingly common in conservative novels throughout the second half of the 19th century, as the rumblings of female discontent grew louder, and as new opportunities began to open up. It was no longer sufficient to say, It simply isn’t done! – since, obviously, it was being done, and more often all the time. The implication then became that ambitions apart from marriage and motherhood were nothing less than a form of sickness. Anthony Trollope, that most Victorian of novelists, so generous in some respects, yet narrow to the point of being cruel on this particular subject, was very fond of telling his readers how healthy his marriage-minded young women were – and how unhealthy any woman who made the slightest effort to jump the extremely narrow tracks laid down for her life. Dorothea Gerard uses the same tactic: Whenever she had thought of the future she had thought of matrimony almost as a matter of course (as every healthy-minded young woman does, however furiously she may deny it). And backing this position up is the eternal threat: sure, you can have an education and a career if you want one; but if you do, no man will ever really love you.

It is true that Clara’s feelings finally prevent her from going through with her plan to manipulate Philip Aikman into marriage – but just the same, her tactics work on him as they have on every other man; the novel never really recants its central thesis. Rather, it finally argues that a love-marriage is best, if you can manage one; but failing that, any marriage will do; while beyond that lies a drab and difficult life as a governess, a teacher or a nurse; and beyond that

Actually, there’s nothing beyond that. No, no! – don’t look over there at the figure beckoning to you from the doorway to the university! Move along now – there’s nothing to see here.

Dismayed as I was by most of The Eternal Woman, there was one thing about it that I liked very much. Philip Aikman lives in a small Scottish fishing village called Rathbeggie, and his house is situated on a very cliff edge. We are given quite a number of word-pictures of Clara’s surroundings during the various extremes of local weather: the violent breaking of the waves, the power of the wind, the seaweed tossed upon the beach, the rock-pools and their scuttling crabs, the smell of salt in the air… In her physical descriptions of Rathbeggie, Dorothea Gerard’s writing contains a passion and a sincerity that are quite absent from her ruminations upon the relations between the sexes, and these passages are easily the best and most enjoyable part of this novel.

 

08/11/2010

Speedbumps

I’ve been having a problem settling into a reading pattern lately, with each aspect of my reading program running into difficulties. And, yes, I’m well aware that most of those difficulties are self-inflicted, so you needn’t bother pointing that out.

My suprising success rate in accessing obscure, late 17th century texts must have lulled me into a false sense of security, because my first serious failure in that respect came as a real shock. I became aware of The English Monsieur, A Comical Novel, by James Howard, courtesy of an interesting article by Nicholas Hudson published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, entitled, Social Rank, ‘The Rise Of The Novel,’ and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction, which goes against many of the “rise of the novel” studies with their paradigm of the parallel “rise of the middle class” and an assumption of increasing liberalism, domestic values and social levelling.

Hudson argues instead for an even longer history of what we might call Tory novel-writing, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing at least into the early 19th century, that was concerned with maintaining a social hierarchy headed by an exclusive and self-contained aristocracy, and discouraged social aspiration and the mingling of the classes. The final author considered in this respect is Jane Austen. Hudson concedes that while her novels display a belief in the traditional Tory values, there has been a considerable softening of the 18th-century stance that shows itself in both an expressed disapproval of the aristocracy, along with an admission that the gentry is all the better for an injection of middle class values. Some of the barricades, at least, had been torn down.

The English Monsieur is cited by Hudson as an early example of his own paradigm of Tory novel-writing – and onto The List it went, despite having been published in 1679, earlier than the works I’d progressed to. (Just when I thought I was out of the 17th century, it pulls me back in.) And yes, I located and downloaded a copy, and off I went…until I got to the final page of what I had and found the ominous announcent, END OF PART ONE.

What the – !?

I subsequently had no luck finding a complete version. Admittedly, this was disappointing more from an historical point of view than a literary one. Whatever else it might have proven to be (and I might say that by the end of Part 1, I’d seen little to support Hudson’s theory), The English Monsieur was the first work I’d come across that used the word “novel” in the sense that we might use it today. Extrapolating from Part 1, it must have been a work of some length, certainly the longest piece of straightforward fiction I’ve encountered so far from this period; although a significant portion of the first volume is given over to a common tendency at the time, the interpolation of side-stories into the main one, usually in the form of one or other of the supporting characters relating their “history”. Still, there was a reasonable amount of movement and plotting, too; and that, along with the amorous adventures of the title character, made it strike me (and without wanting to get too carried away) as a sort of embryonic Tom Jones.

But, in the absence of Parts 2 – 4, it was back to the bad jokes and plagiarisms of Richard Head. Groan.

Well, I’ve made it over that speedbump now, although of course there’s a much bigger one to come. Anyway, I can’t be sorry I found out about O-Brazile, because apart from being mercifully short, it turns out (like most of Richard Head’s work, it seems) to be interesting for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. But we’ll deal with that presently.

Elsewhere, with Philip And Philippa out of the way, I was up for another game of Reading Roulette. This time around, the Reading Gods smiled: my visit to the random number generator gave me an excitingly low number – which turned out to be connected to exactly the kind of novel I had in mind at the outset of this ridiculous project: The Mysterious Wife by Mary Meeke, from 1797.

Yes, it was perfect. A little too perfect… So perfect, I decided to make it, or rather its author, the focus of a third reading thread: Authors In Depth.

Mary Meeke was one of the mainstays of the notorious Minerva Press. Between 1795 and 1823, she wrote more than 30 novels, most under her own name, but some (evidently the more “daring” ones) under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, while some were published anonymously. She also translated several European works, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s The Messiah. Too prolific and popular ever to find much favour with the critics, Meeke essentially cut her own throat by admitting publicly that before starting a novel, she always consulted with her publisher to see what was selling. Her early novels had received some positive reviews, but from that moment onwards Meeke was regarded as the worst exemplar of the “scribbling woman”, and attracted nothing but scornful dismissal – the assumption being, as always, that you cannot both write to please an audience, and write good novels.

Whatever we make today of Mary Meeke’s professional pragmatism, her willingness to act as a literary weather vane makes her novels a remarkable window into shifting public taste over a full quarter of a century. Unfortunately, however, Meeke finally suffered the fate of many popular but critically dismissed novelists of the time: her works were never reprinted. Consequently, a number of them are today unobtainable. Others are available electronically (although I can’t currently swear to their condition); while back in 1977, her first novel*, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, was reproduced as a three-volume set by the Arno Press, God love ’em – and as it turns out, my academic library has a copy – God love them. However, right now, the third volume – just the third volume – is out on loan…which somehow is much more annoying than the whole book being unavailable. Anyway, when I get my hands on it, Authors In Depth will begin – and we’ll find out for ourselves just what kind of novels Mary Meeke wrote.

(*There’s a 1783 novel out there in eBook world called Madeline Clifford’s School Life, which is attributed to Meeke. It may represent an early effort, before she hooked up with the Minerva Press. However, none of the articles on Meeke that I’ve read – and I’m pleased to find that there have been a few recent efforts made to rehabilitate her reputation as a novelist – mention it, so I’m going with Count St. Blancard.)

So then it was back to the random number generator, where I landed upon Money To Loan, On All Collaterals: A Tale Of The Times by Minnie Lawson, from 1895. Alas, this one was obscure to the point of being unobtainable. (American novels are, generally, much harder to get hold of than British ones.) All I’ve been able to find out is that it expressed Lawson’s concerns about the state of public finance and the conduct of the banks and Wall Street (and plus ça change once again), that it contained an unflattering portrait of J.P. Morgan (although whether in person or under a pseudonym, I can’t say), and that Lawson wrote at least two other “social issues” novels under her married name of Minnie L. Armstrong.

Third spin, third time lucky? Yes, I guess so. This time I hit 1903’s The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard. Not only did Gerard live an intriguing personal life, but like Mary Meeke, she wrote prolifically and over a period of many years, her career extending from the early 1880s to the time of WWI, with her novels featuring a wide variety of settings and subject matter. (Her first novels were written in collaboration with her sister, Emily, who was the collector of the Transylvanian folklore that Bram Stoker drew upon when writing Dracula.) And in fact, my moment of hesitation after landing on The Eternal Woman was due to an uneasy feeling that Gerard, too, really deserved to be the subject of Authors In Depth…

…but finally I decided that this business was getting out of hand even by my ridiculous standards. And so—

Chronobibliography:  it’s an Exclusion Crisis smackdown, with The Perplex’d Prince vs The Fugitive Statesman
Reading RouletteThe Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard – a “New Woman” novel, I gather, although not an approving one
Authors In DepthCount St. Blancard by Mary Meeke, which based upon its Arno Press revival, may be a Gothic novel…I hope

For the benefit of those of you playing along at home, I can’t see that Count St. Blancard is available electronically, but a good academic library might do the trick. The Eternal Woman is available through the Internet Archive, but I strongly recommend the PDF version rather than the ePUB one, which has some serious formatting issues.