Friday, November 26, 2010
Two Girls, One Sap
That's what I call it, because I have a low mind, but I am in fact speaking of classic Victorian literature. Specifically, I am speaking of a fictional trope, a female stereotype, less commonly acknowledged than the Virgin-Whore dichotomy, and yet capable of exerting its force on the imaginations of highly intelligent writers, only some of whom can see the problems therein. A more seemly description than 'two girls, one sap' would the the 'Nursling-Angel dichotomy', for reasons we'll see as we go on. Let us consider three examples: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. The subject of this post is the way unrealistic ideas about female character shaped Victorian novels about marriages, and how male and female authors responded to the problem.
Marian is, in fact, an Uncle Tom: she's perfectly prepared to acknowledge that women are on the whole stupid because it gets her treated as an exception to the rule. Of the two sisters, it's actually Laura in her attempts to be useful who resists the rule more than Marian.
Yet the central structure rests upon Marian's relationship with Walter. We hear surprisingly little of what Laura says, but there's a practical reason for that: utter innocence is a difficult quality to maintain in a fictional character because it's not a realistic one. The less Laura says, the easier it is to keep her spotless: have her say too much, and she'd start taking on independent thought - especially with a writer like Wilkie Collins, who had no talent for the insipid and whose characters speak out with eccentric force whenever he turns his attention upon them. Only by keeping Laura quiet could Collins keep her innocent. So it's Marian in whom Walter confides, Marian who speaks for Laura and explains her motivations - Marian, in fact, who makes the relationship possible. Go-between and supporter, earner and organiser, filler of Laura's deficiencies, Marian allows Walter to marry the woman he finds attractive without sacrificing the pleasures of rational conversation and practical assistance.
'It's such a lightening of my heart, only to look at you! If I had had a conjurer's cap, there is no one I should have wished for but you!'
'I have forgotten ... what blood relation Agnes is to you, you dear bad boy.'
Dora to David represents heavenly playfulness rather than the give-and-take of an adult relationship, so he fails to hear the serious question Dora is timidly asking: Do you really think you love me more than Agnes? His answer isn't very reassuring either: though he doesn't realise he's doing it, he more or less makes clear that his love for Dora is based on physical attraction rather than anything deeper, while it's Agnes's mind and soul he has been praising in her presence. Walter Hartright at least keeps his feelings in separate boxes, romance in one and companionship in another, but David's overspill because he isn't very good at understanding them. He's even worse at noticing their effects on others: 'He thinks so much of your opinion, that I was quite afraid of it!' say Dora to Agnes, well aware that Agnes, were she less restrained, would be a serious rival for David's affections, while poor Agnes has to endure her beloved David rhapsodising about Dora up hill and down dale. When one can love from a position of masculine superiority, one doesn't need to be too sensitive to the heartache one may cause, because it doesn't have consequences: both women marry him in the end, despite his inability to discern his own 'undisciplined heart.' Perhaps they should just be glad he spares them too many panegyrics on his feelings for Steerforth.
[Lydgate] once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant that had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man's brains. Rosamund had a placid but strong answer to such speeches. Why then had he chosen her? It was a pity he had not had Mrs Ladislaw, whom he was always praising and placing above her. And thus the conversation ended with the advantage on Rosamund's side. But it would be unjust not to tell, that she never uttered a word in depreciation of Dorothea, keeping in religious remembrance the generosity which had come to her aid in the sharpest crisis of her life.
The girl I love is on a magazine cover
There she is, the nursling of our fantasy. What's wrong with all this is fairly obvious: it's the story of a man falling in love with the idea of a woman (David seems to base his on his mother, Walter on vague 'fantasy', and Lydgate on rather conventional notions of 'the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander' - he even says 'I claim you as mine'), and believing that a real woman could ever measure up to that idea - and that, should a woman appear who did, she would be available for the taking, rather than having preferences of her own and the ability to reject him. That's the language: 'I'd simply claim her and name her my queen': I'd adore her, worship her, and show no interest at all in - or even be aware there might exist - what George Eliot would describe as 'what another nature felt in opposition to [my] own.' Woman as ideal is woman as toy.
With David Copperfield, matters are reversed. For all her foolishness, Dora's voice, with its cutesy nicknames and resolute girlishness and volatile denials, rings clear and distinctive in every scene, while patient Agnes, hidden by David's relentless characterisation of her as an angel, a stained-glass window, an unfleshed fantasy, hides her real feelings from us as well as from him, leaving her to play voice of reason and wait until she can finally speak out with her 'I have loved you all my life!'
In his autobiography Lost Boy (co-written with Maia Szalavitz) Brent Jeffs, nephew of FLDS patriarch Warren Jeffs, remarks:
Proponents of polygamy often argue that when two women want the same man, if he can marry both of them this will prevent divorce as a consequence of adultery ... Polygamy supporters say that, as a result, conflict and jealousy are actually reduced. They also claim that sisters are typically better suited to being sister-wives than unrelated women. Neither position gets any support whatsoever from what went on in my family.
The relationship between Jeffs's aunt and his mother, in fact, was characterised by physical fighting and constant competition rather than sweet sisterhood. Yet this sister-wife idea seems to have deep roots: Agnes, who begins as David's 'sister' occupies an older sister role with Dora, while Marian and Laura are actual sisters - or rather, children of the same mother. Marian the half-sister becomes a half-wife and accepts her lower status just as she accepts being excluded from Laura's inheritance; there is no conflict between them as they live under the same roof. (Another practice Jeffs reports the FLDS enforcing, with increased conflict as the inevitable result.) Sisters tend to compete for resources in the real world, and generally maintain harmony by carving out their own separate domains, but there is something about the notion of sisterly harmony that seems to compel these male writers.
Dorothea and Rosamund, on the other hand, are only slightly acquainted. They do not occupy the same social caste - Dorothea is aristocratic while Rosamund hails from the wealthy middle class - and seldom move in the same circles. Such interaction between them as we see is focused around Dorothea's charitable attempts to help Rosamund, and yet this creates no bond between them. Rosamund may keep Dorothea in 'religious remembrance', but this does not mean she wants to hear her name spoken under her roof. There is a separation between the two women: nothing either chosen or predestined binds them together. They reflect each other thematically, but this doesn't mean they have to socialise with each other, and that's a difference in perspective: mirroring each other does not make them, in terms of how their lives appear to themselves, deeply connected. Their fictional equivalencies do not mean they have to live as a matched set; in terms of how they do live, one could say that they resist colluding in their own equivalence by making friends, marrying the same man or otherwise pairing off. The reader may draw parallels, but they aren't about to rearrange their personal lives to make them neater.
Dorothea and Rosamund, in short, are part of the Laura/Dora Marian/Agnes tradition, but by retaining both separate personalities and separate lives, they call its values into question. Where Dickens favours exchanging one for another and Collins favours having both, Eliot is very clear that women are not bookends: having both around at once is a one-off, not a lifestyle.
Giving a male character two women to serve his different needs, sexual and practical, is a problem for writers who seek to write good female characters, because women are people and people are not good at subordinating their entire lives to the needs of somebody else. Put simply: two women who influence the life of one man are likely to have separate lives and interests; if their lives and interests both centre around him, they are likely to come into conflict - or if they don't, it'll be for some extraordinary reason rather than because of their inherent feminine nature. (Oh yes, Marian is feminine. You don't see a man running down his gender and spending all his life as a bachelor uncle like that, not in nineteenth century literature you don't.)
Modern tastes seem to have changed somewhat, and you don't see the nursling type quite so often. We have other sexual dichotomies, and pulp fiction for women as well as men now seems willing to adopt the two-for-one approach - or at least, I have the impression that women's pulp is notably fond of the love triangle, Twilight being the most prominent example. Having two people devoted to you is, after all, a compelling idea, and a lot of the time it's just a straightforward ego-fantasy. But it's interesting to see what happens when literary authors get hold of it.
I really wish you would provide some kind of "overview" for this. I think your blog post is interesting, but it's sooo long, no way I'm going to finish it.
If you can't be bothered to read it, why bother to comment?
More to the point, if you can't make the effort to read what I write, why do you think I should make an effort to precis it for you?
If you don't want to read a post, you don't have to. That means you don't get to know what's in it. Your choice. What you aren't entitled to do is demand that the person who went to the trouble of writing it go to even more trouble because you personally can't be bothered to read something long.
Sorry, but I'm not your servant.
If you've read enough of this blog you should be aware that sometimes my posts are long, and I don't do Cliffs Notes. If long posts bother you, try scrolling down to see how long they are before you start.
I'm perfectly prepared to consider polite requests, but not entitled demands. Please mend your manners or find another blog.
I've always wondered, though, whether Dorothea would have coped all that well with being married to a poor man quite young, as Rosamund was. Certainly, she's shown to be a person of intelligence and integrity, and wouldn't have had to be told why it mattered to live within her means. But I don't know whether to laugh or cry when promises Will Ladislaw that she'll "learn what everything costs." She's been running a household how many years now and she doesn't know? Yes, the Doras and Rosamunds in 19th century novels are selfish and babyish. But the Dorotheas are so sheltered from real life that it seems just luck, really, if an adult self emerges.
Very interesting discussion. I have been trying to remember if there are any representations of the sort of women the childlike Lauras and Doras would become as they aged.
Florence King mentions Margaret Mitchell's representation of the aged US American southern belle, the Aunt Pittypat character of Gone With the Wind. There is, she claims, nothing for such creatures once old but simply a life of being ridiculous. And Aunt Pittypat seems to be the Dora type of intentionally childlike person rather than a Laura, with what appear to be real limitations. (For the record, I know some people with mental challenges; none of them go in for Laura's style of apparently learned helplessness. On the other hand, I have known a couple of graduate students who did.)
Very interesting post. It's strange to see how the Victorian notions of ideal womanhood required plotting and coping around in order to make archetypes function as characters. Tacit admission that pedestalled ideals don't get much done. Reminds me a bit of The Good Earth, where the main character has an unbeautiful wife who works with him and is essential to keep the farm running. He complains that she doesn't have her feet bound, which would keep her from being able to do much of anything. I'm leery of the cultural accuracy of that book, though.
Generally speaking, would you recommend any of the books you cited?
As regards length, in the age of 144 character tweets, it's nice to sit down and read a good, thorough essay.
I always admired Jane Eyre for refusing to fall into the angel role in her particular triangle (well, in one of them anyway, it's a book full of triangles). St. John Rivers is torn between his attraction for his own doll-like Rosamond and his conviction that she'd make a terrible missionary's wife. He thinks bettor of it before marriage and offers himself to the much more suitable Jane, and is quite annoyed when she won't acquiesce in the role for which he's nominated her. Charlotte Bronte refuses to let Rivers have it both ways, even a little-- he can have his noble career or he can have feminine aid and companionship, but not both, because he's not capable of regarding a woman as an equal partner.
Of course, Jane does turn into something of a ministering angel for the wounded Rochester, but if the only proper role for a Victorian woman was to be some man's better half, at least it should be a man who'll give back both love and respect in turn. Because without that, to echo Julia Mills, you might as well be wandering in the Desert of Sahara.
Such a woman, however, is a burdensome wife unless you're so profoundly wealthy that you can both live a life of leisure.
Not that that always succeeds anyway-- remember Trollope's He Knew He Was Right? A highly depressing study of two people who had no material worries, but also had nothing to do with themselves except to worry over their own relationship, each of them refusing to give an inch in the battle for mastery.
I have been trying to remember if there are any representations of the sort of women the childlike Lauras and Doras would become as they aged.
Well, according to Dickens himself, they turn into Flora Finching from Lttle Dorrit. She and our hero Arthur Clennam are the same age, and in their youth enjoyed a brief romance before being separated by parents and circumstances. When they meet again twenty years later, the childlike foolishness that was adorable in the girl has become ridiculous in the middle-aged woman (and she got fat as well, for good measure!). It's clearly nonsensical for her to hope for a renewal of the affair, so she eventually, bravely, resigns herself to helping Arthur marry the much younger angel-in-the-house Amy Dorrit. Because somehow it's not as ridiculous for him to marry a twenty-years-younger woman as it is for Flora to hope to attract a man of her own age.
At least Flora is given the dignity of an essentially kind heart and a certain realism of outlook under the inane manner. But consider Mr Nickleby, Nicholas Nickleby's widowed mother, simpering at the lunatic next door when he throws cabbages over the wall at her: "Be mine! Be Mine!" Or Mrs. Wititterly, or Madam Mantalini...no, in Dickens' world, youthful charm had better somehow magically mutate into motherly selflessness; there are no other respect-worthy kinds of woman in his world.
Hmmm. I hope a long post excuses a long comment!
Thank you, Amaryllis. I'd forgotten Jane Eyre's Rosamund. I was thinking neither Charlotte nor Emily Bronte had any childish women. (EB's Isabella is determined to have Heathcliff and doesn't realize what she's getting into, but she's not especially childish or weak-minded.)
Dickens' delightfully named Julia Wititterly is perhaps an older version. If she's to control via weakness and silliness, her only option is to go for a sort of permanent invalidism, embodying her "weaker vessel" status quite literally. (Or not quite literally, since Dickens makes clear that Julia quite probably has no real health problems whatsoever and uses her alleged invalidism to maintain status and control.) As with Dora's silliness (and Frederick Fairlie's invalidism--let's be fair to the men here and let them in on the game), however, that works only for people with the wherewithal to have a nonproductive person in the household.
I did manage to come up with two middle-aged ladies from Austen: Charlotte Jennings Palmer (Sense and Sensibility) and (maybe?) Miss Bates from Emma. They are Lauras, perhaps, rather than Doras. But the "Two Girls, One Sap" rule doesn't seem to apply to either--but then the Palmers are minor characters and we wouldn't know in any case.
Quite a thought-provoking blogpost! And very pleasantly so. I need to revisit Middlemarch.
I'm heavily impaired by not having read any of these books, but this is definitely food for thought. Re: Jane, I think one of the most charming things about how that all worked out in the book was that Jane was independently wealthy when she chose Rochester - in other words, it was NOT for money or support that she went to him, but rather because she loved him. Similar to the Cathy 2/Hareton resolution, where they come together as equals rather than one or the other superior.
@Deoridhe: yes, I liked that too; when they meet again at the end of the book, Jane is much better off than when he last saw her, while Rochester is worse off. He had to be hit over the head with a clue bat, or a burning timber, and then confronted with an heiress, before he recognized what Jane always knew: she is truly his equal.
@Dash: well, there's Mrs. Bennet, I suppose, whose husband married "youth and beauty" and found himself indissolubly linked to "weak and silly." But stupid isn't the same thing as childlike, and there's nothing childlike about Mrs. Bennet.
What about Fanny Price? Come to think of it, Edward Bertram may be an example of the man who gets to have it both ways. Fanny is presented as kind of childlike, isn't she? small and slight. physically delicate, and Edward is used to taking care of her even while his feelings remain merely cousinly. But she has the moral strength and dependability of a fully adult woman. She thinks, she chooses, she takes responsibility for her choices even when they go against the advice of her elders and betters.
let's be fair to the men here and let them in on the game), however, that works only for people with the wherewithal to have a nonproductive person in the household.
Or who have rich and generous friends. I'm thinking here of the anvilicious Horace Skimpole of Bleak House, that "perpetual child" and head of a whole household of childish adults. The difference is that we're not supposed to admire anything about him: we're told that people find him charming, but it's clear from the start that he's a calculating mooch. You can't help liking Dora, you'll try to take Walter's word for it that Laura is lovable, but Skimpole is no one's vision of what a man should be.
Nor for that matter is Richard Carstone, who allows himself to be kept in a perpetual state of immaturity while he waits for the fortune he's convinced is coming to him. All his good qualities are wasted, even though he has the support of both the beautiful, innocent Ada and the angelic, competent Esther.
Skimpole's innocence is counterfeit and Richard's childishness is fatal-- whatever one thinks of the "nursling" woman, there's nothing at all to be said for a childlike man.
And with apologies for a third posting, there's Edgar Allan Poe for a possible real-life example: he married his 13 year old cousin and lived with her and her mother/his aunt until his wife's death eleven years later. Apparently, the aunt, Marie Poe Clemm, continued to take care of Poe, particularly, interestingly enough in placing some of his fiction. So manager of household, personal therapist, and literary agent, wrapped into one. Someone needs to write that woman's biography!
I wonder whether the dichotomy you've identified might also exist in Adam Bede.
When describing Adam's and Arthur's interests in Hetty Sorrel, the narrator makes it quite clear that both have constructed a fantasy of Hetty as the good and kind and maternal because they find her beautiful. Instead of troubling themselves to find out about her actual character and desires, the two men contest with each other for possession of someone who doesn't exist, triggering the crisis that leads to Hetty's trial. But when Adam finally realises that he is in love with Dinah Morris, he describes the attraction in terms of her character: he misses her company, her conversations, her interests, and her appearance is almost an after thought.
I also wonder whether Seth Bede's selfless renunciation of his own desire to marry Dinah in favour of his brother's claim might make him the male equivalent of Marion Halcombe. By the epilogue, he seems to have given up any desire to marry and seems to be looking after his mother and his brother's family. But since he can only be in his late 20s or early 30s, it's not entirely possible that he's given up all hope of marriage, however unlikely.
A side note on The Woman in White: John Sutherland, in an essay on that novel in Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? comments in passing that the reason Marion is Laura's half-sister was probably so that the audience could imagine that Walter and Marion marrying after Laura's death (which in this scenario is presumably not far in the future--I must admit she doesn't seem terribly robust).
Collins also wrote a less-remembered novel called No Name which was completely derailed by Victorian stereotypes about women. In summary, the heroine is cheated out of her inheritance when it's discovered her parents were never properly married. She begins a campaign to get her money back by any possible means. She goes on the stage to raise some capital and recruits a professional con artist as her mentor. It looks like she might succeed by seducing a sickly alternate heir. Then, just when things are getting exciting, the book crashes to an awkward deus ex machina ending, because even a merely semirespectable Victorian novel couldn't allow the heroine to profit from even the most mildly shady behavior. For a modern reader, it's an exasperating book.
Hmm. I haven't actually read the books you're discussing here, but it reminds me strongly of something that often shows up in the classical Japanese literature I studied in college.
While the novel was written by a woman, a very similar relationship exists within The Tale of Genji. The titular prince sees a beautiful child, raises her himself (!) into a beautiful, childlike woman, and then takes little Murasaki to wife. His dissatisfaction with her, and hers with him, derives entirely from her childlike traits - in fact, her eventual anger at him stems a great deal from his refusal to teach her anything more than poetry and the skills necessary to be a lovely decoration, and subsequent frustration with her when she's not more than she was made to be.
I do not recall a counterpart woman in Genji, rather a long series of equally unsatisfying affairs, but it's been a long time since I've read it. I just found it interesting that a similar phenomenon should exist in two such different places.
Heh. Shorter response to Unrequited Love: The author is nor your bitch.
Interesting essay; I'm going to pass it along to a couple of friends into whose areas of interest it falls.
Persuasion takes an interesting tack on the same tension between types of female character, letting Captain Wentworth distinguish between childish willfulness and adult decisiveness in time to marry the adult of the two (Anne Elliot, the Marian/Agnes). The Laura/Dora figure, Louisa Musgrove then ends up all but infantile in the care of Captain Harville.
Haven't wanted to intervene because the discussion's gone so well without me, but another thought occurs: Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park. Lady Bertram is unintelligent lazy, and more concerned with her pet dog than the lives of the people around her; her sister Mrs Norris is active and energetic, and a malign busybody. But notably, Lady Bertram's husband tolerates Mrs Norris being constantly around his house, and one reason is that whatever her faults (which he's not on the worst end of, of course: she bullies those below her and toadies to him), she does get things done. Since his wife doesn't bestir herself, it's convenient for him to let another woman step in and take over - even though, when you look at the facts, Mrs Norris is being highly presumptuous in doing so.
Being the work of another female author, Mansfield Park is once again cynical about the dichotomy and judges the man for his unwise choices. Interestingly, though, Austen takes the opposite line from Eliot: she judges Sir Thomas more for letting Mrs Norris take over than for marrying Lady Bertram. But then Sir Thomas, unlike Lydgate, is wealthy enough that a nursling wife isn't much trouble to him. Not much help either, but he has servants who can organise things and an income that can accommodate her.
Eliot views the nursling as an aggressive burden playing for freedom from responsibility; Austen views the angel as an aggressive invader playing for power in someone else's territory.
Can anyone else (if anyone is still reading this) think of another female author who takes such a cynical view of the angel?
Love your essay, and your books. You are a very thoughtful person. Apologies for the derail; I have known a real life Richard Carstone. He was unable to get on with his life due to an interminable court case, and he deteriorated until his was exactly like the character in Bleak House. Reading the novel helped me to understand the person at the time.
Very interesting essay. My comment is a little O.T., because not specifically about the contrast between the angel and the, er, dimwit. I was re-reading War and Peace recently and I think Tolstoy is another example of the Victorian inability to see women as people. Mind you, I love the book, and when Tolstoy is writing about practically everything else -- soldiering, horses, politics, farming, you name it -- it's brilliant reportage; you think to yourself, This is what the world is really like. And when he writes about what a woman says or does, it's equally brilliant and accurate. But when he tries to tell you what the woman is thinking or feeling, it suddenly goes all to hell; he literally cannot imagine that a woman's thoughts or feelings might be anything like a man's -- a human's. Instead, he tries to tell you that her secret thoughts and emotions are exactly what the idealized Victorian heroine's were supposed to be ... and the cognitive dissonance between that, and what he's just showed you the visible results were, is just astounding. Every time he did it I found myself simply falling out of the story and shaking my head. So it's a lot like what you're saying about Dickens and Collins, that they just couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that a woman might not exist solely for a man.
Can anyone else (if anyone is still reading this) think of another female author who takes such a cynical view of the angel?Post a Comment
Dorothy Parker, perhaps, although she doesn't set up the nursling/competent woman division so clearly, largely because she's not primarily concerned with the man as the central figure. She has Mrs. Lanier in "The Custard Heart," a self-created nursling, with the money to make sure she never has to just plain deal. She also has a not-uncommon division in 20th century fiction between the competent secretary/worker Rose and the nervous wife in "Mr. Durant," who has trouble coping with anything unexpected and goes into "sick spells." The story is about Mr. Durant's adultery with Rose.
Not a female author, but a similar worker/nursling division is implied in the movie Airport, where the pilot finally walks away with the stewardess who has helped save the plane, leaving his wife standing looking confused in her mink coat in the arrivals area.
In both cases, the man prefers the competent woman, implicitly rejecting the nursling, but the two don't interact: we don't get the Marion/Laura combination.
Fascinating discussion, Kit!
Verification word: "ingensug," which somehow seems to combine "ingenue" and the Southern U.S. use of "sugar" as an address form for females. To what effect, I am not sure.
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