Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters
About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.
I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women
But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:
19th Century Women of Letters
We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.” We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.
Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.
Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen
So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.
Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.
I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.
I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.
My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.
The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.
Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).
As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end
Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor
How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …