contesting-consuming femininities - 14 New Woman Fiction...

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Unformatted text preview: 14 New Woman Fiction dressing and of the various conceptualisations of motherhood in Chapter 4 highlights the diversity of New Woman approaches by offer- ing radical and psychoanaiytic readings as well as readings based on French feminist theory. The last chapter examines the way in which the theme of female artistic production is coached in mothering and cre- ating metaphors. in what sense did writers revise the Bildimgsromun and Kiinstierron-Irm tradition in order to (re)construct the problems and con— tlicts inherent in their own position as women artists? What metaphors did they mobilize in their exploration of female identity and fragmen- tation, sociai conformity and feminist rebellion, and their protagonists’ journey from the heart 0% darkness to artistic seifhood? Ultimately, then, if this book begins with the cultural contestation of the concept of the New Woman, it ends with the New Woman writer’s literary and politi— cal self—affirmation. 1 Contesting/ Consumin g Femininities i’i‘lhe modern man-hater cannot forgive the woman. . . who still believes in old—fashioned distinctions. . . Eiiza Lynn Linton, ’Modern ManJ-laters’ (1871)1 it is the Old Woman who shrieks. Her most prominent char- acteristic is disloyalty to her own sex. Sarah Grand, ’The New Woman and the Old' {1898)2 [A] truer type of woman is springing up in our midst, combin— ing the 'sweet, domestic graces’ of the bygone days with a wide- minded interest in things outside her own immediate circle, extending her womanly influence to the world that so sadly needs the true women’s touch to keep it all that true woman would have it. The woman comes forth for the worid’s need. Austin May, ’Womanly Women’ (1893):; I want to speak in the name of the average more or less unem— ployed, tea-drinking, lawnntennis playing, ball-going damsel, whose desire for greater emancipation does not run in the same lines as those of the independent shop-gin, or of the young woman with a mission. . . . The so-cailed revolting maiden only asks for a small amount of liberty. Kathleen Cnffe, 'A Reply from The Daughters’ (1894)4 ’Is the New Woman a Myth?’ asked the Humanitarian in 1896, some three years after the term had become a password on the British cul— tural scene.5 The proliferation of articles, books, pamphlets, satirical verse and cartoons in the 18905 indicates that, in the media at least, the 15 16 New Wit-nan Fiction New Woman was ever-present. The many terms with which the fir-1 tie siécie sought to capture the phenomenon of the New Woman are an indication of how firmly forty years of feminist activism had established the notion of the ’Modern Woman’b in the public consciousness. Some terms — 'Novissima’,7 'the advanced woman of to-day'8 and ‘the Woman of the Period” — stressed her avant-gardist and trend~setting effect, and could connote praise or censure. Those sympathetic to the New Woman saw her as a positive force for social change. Her opponents stressed her superficiaiity and love of sensation; the term 'Woman of the Period’ was a belated attempt to revive the one-time furore over the ’Girl of the Period’, whom in 1868 Eliza Lynn Linton had berated as selfish, fun- loving, rfast’, and immoral.'” Associated with the social and poiitical problems of the day, the New Woman coniured up an army of unmarried 'Odd Wornen’, or married but unoccupied ‘Superfluous Womleln’,” her synonyms reflecting the anxieties aroused by her political demands (the 'Wild Woman'}12 and her strictures on male sexual conduct (the “Modern Mannliater’). By her very ’odtiness’ she raised the spectre of sexual deviance, her difference from other ('normal') women, her ‘odd’ rejection of men, her own rejec— tion by men (hence her redundancy) all pointing to her transgressive potential. To defuse this threat, conservatives often mobilized the cliche of the mannish Virago Cartoon images of unsightly harridans served to des- tabilize more positive textual explorations of the New Woman. An example of this can be found in Sarah Grand’s short story, 'Should Irascible Oid Gentlemen Be Taught to Knit?’ (1894). A parody on the New Woman’s sophisticated use of feminine wiles to convert a grumpy grandfather to the pleasures of knitting, the story ends with the uncon— ditional victory oi femininity over patriarchy.” Phil May, the editor of the ionrnai (who was soon to ioin Punch)” provided four illustrations, of which only two {Figures 2 and 3) were directly reiated to the story itself (featuring the grandfather ‘before’ and rafter’ his feminization). The other two illustrations show the fearful repercussions of such role reversal. In Figure 4 an aggressively virile New Woman in a bowler hat, cigarette in her hand and knickerbockered legs wide apart, is leaning against the counter of a bar, eyeing the effeminate barkeeper through her monocle. The page facing the story’s conclusion pictures a “mon- strous regiment” of three New Women in various stages of masculine degeneration (Figure 5), from androgyny (the straight-shaped figure on the right) through hermaphroditism (a provocatively Curved body with a bOyish face and sternly clipped hair) to fullmblown machismo (the Contasting/Consort:irig Femininities 17 $1.40th IMSeIEEE oI—Q QEF'TLEHEFI BE eaves? 'Fo 2: 'Should lrascible Oltl Gentlemen lie ’l'aught to Knit?’ shapeless, moustachioed and cigarette-smoking ’chap’ on the left). In the brave new world of phallic New Women, there is evidently no longer a place for men. Not all visual representations of the New Woman were uncompli- mentary. As the printed medium became the site of contestation over the multiple meanings of New Womanhood, iliustrators contributed their part to the controversy. ’The Championess’ (Figure 6) foregrounds a female cyclist in Rational Dress, but instead of lambasting her as a i E i , 18 New Warrior-i l-‘iction r 3: (Untitled) E'l‘wo old men Knittingl figure of fun (Figure 7) or as an overbearing Virago, the picture couples female seif-assurance (a confident posture) with health (a trim figure in comfortable and yet becoming clothes), femininity (a pretty face with an inviting smile) and fashion consciousness (a styiish hat, the flower in her hair). Throwing into relief the natural curves of her body, the buckle of her belt is at once a marker of her sex and, by its keyhole shape, a metonymy for the entire illustration: the key to the Modern Corrtesting/Countering Ferriirriirities 19 4: (Untitled) [New Woman leaning across bar] Age is the New Woman The eiegantly dressed and unambiguously gen- dered figures in the background serve as a further reminder that her pur‘ suits and interests do not unsex the New Woman; nor, judging by the harmonious line of female and male cylists, do they pit the sexes against each other. An emblem of the shifting and conflicting conceptualisations of gender and sexuality at the fin de siet‘le, the New Woman was thus con- E l i i i l l i g 20 New Woman Fiction ’j‘HE New ‘yu’otimt Miss qumm lo Miss BROWN (the Ru one with the light moustache): “Oh, I say, nirl chap. how do you make it grow? What do you use for it?" 5: ”l‘he New Woman’ sttucted ‘as simultaneously non-female, mtfeminirre and Lima-feminine.” Three different agents were involved in creating and contesting these contradictory meanings. As the Phil May cartoons illustrate, the anti-feminist malestream was apt to decry the unsexing effect of New Womanhood. Female anti-feminists, on the other hand, exalted the ‘womanly’ qualities of the Old Woman in order to call into question Coritesting/Cmtstmting Femininitir‘s 21 6: “The Championess’ 7: “Speaks for itself’ modern woman’s claim to femininity. Feminist journalists and writers countered by arguing that only the New Woman reflected ‘true’ womanhood. The ’Championess’ suggests that the New Woman’s par- ticular appeal resided in her successful synthesis of 'old’ and ’new’ qual- ities {femininity and self-confidence, a sense of dress and the desire for physical exercise, a healthy body and mind). As the war of words and images developed from within the periodi- 22 New Won-rim Fiction cai press and fiction markets, the resonance these concepts carried with the female middle-class cOnsumer targeted by the new print media” began to influence the terms of the debate. The popularity enjoyed by feminist writers had the effect of turning the New Woman into a symbol of fashionable modernity. At a time when feminist ideas were taking root in mainstream thought, conservatives started calling any woman holding even slightfy unconventional views a ’New Woman’. This in turn led to a deflation of the feminist concept with a resultant shift in meaning. While many feminist activists, particuiariy those who were also writers and iournalists, defined themselves as New Women, not every turn-of-the-century 'New Woman’ would have thought of herself as a feminist. . _ This chapter explores the complex processes at work in the formation and transformation of the concept of the New Woman, paying particu- lar attention to the decisive role played by women (as feminists, anti- feminists, andiconsumers) in the debate about the meanings of New Womanhood. Three generations of women were directly involved in this debate, with differences in age often signaliing ideological divisions: if the 'rnothers’ of the New Woman were born around the mid-century, some of the selfndefrned 'Old’ Women were, in the 1890s, of the 'grand- mother’ generation, white the female consumer group most receptive to the ‘fashionable’ aspects of New Womanhood represented the 'daughters’ of the movement. Elaine Showalter notes that the fin de sterile marked a 'battie within the sexes’ as well as a ’battie hem/ecu the sexes’;” to what extent did the New Woman debate pinpoint this battle between women? What strategies did feminist writers employ to ‘market’ the New Woman, and what impact did they have on the middie—class 'daughter’ keen to extend her range of opportunities? When, indeed, did the New Woman debates begin? Naming the New Woman The term “New Woman' was used in its capitalized form as eariy as 1865, when the WJsmrinster Review branded the subversive heroine of the new sensation novels as the ’New Woman . . . no longer the Angel, but the Devil in the House'.18 As Lyn Pykett has shown, the female sensation novel and New Woman fiction provoked the same moral panic; sexu- ally and poiitically disruptive, both genres figured unruly heroines whose activities unsettled male authority in the institutions of marriage and the family.” Ali the more ironic, then, that a quarter century iater the New Woman should become the bone of contention between the Contesting/Cmnaming Ferrrininities 23 older sensationalist and the younger feminist women writers: the battle of words between Sarah Grand and Ouida, conducted in the North American Review in 1894, is often seen as a defining moment of the New Woman controversy.an As Michelle Elizabeth Tusan has recently argued, the New Woman was invented by feminist periodicals which, aiming to mobilize widespread female support for a ’new female poiitical identity’, encouraged woman- to-woman interchange and feminist debate. She cites the August 1893 issue of the Women’s Herald as the site of the first discussion of the fin— n'ensiecle New Woman.Zl it was in order to counter the culturai dissemi- nation of feminist visions of social and political transformation that the conservative press adopted the New Woman in 1894, tuining her into a dystopian figure of degeneration. 1895 constituted the third stage of the debate as the New Woman became a battleground for contesting viewpoints. As a result of the anti-feminist onslaught, feminists began to stress the New Woman’s femininity, her domestic qualities and tra— ditional values. From 1897 onwards, Tusan argues, the terms of the debate shifted yet again. As the New Woman ceased to signify the British feminist and became a term of reference for Continental women’s movements, she began to disappear from the pages of feminist periodi- cals; in 1898 the mainstream press followed suit. it was only after the turn of the century, in the wake of suffragette activism, that the concept underwent a revival. Tusan's revised chronology is useful in that it draws attention to the important (and neglected) role the new feminist press played in the con- struction of the New Woman. However, in view of the sheer number of articles — and novels w published in and after 1897 1 am sceptical about the idea that the New Woman was ‘passé' in the closing years of the century m if anything, this time constituted a second peak of the move« ment. It would be more appropriate to say that, while feminist jour- naiists and writers were consolidating their success with the mainstream pubiic, it was the anti—feminists who were coming to a dead end. The ‘gynecian war"22 initiaiiy, conservative women had a significant impact on the forma— tion of pubiic opinion. The most intriguing thing about female anti— feminism was its ideologicai instability. Eliza Lynn Linton, who in 1871 had coined the notorious invective of the ‘shrieking sisterhood?" is a case in point. Her eariy sympathies for the women’s movement notwithstanding, she was relentless in her attack on feminists, whom 24 New Woman Fiction she targeted in a spate of articles published in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Yet even while engaged in denigrating the New Woman, she was susceptibie to her positive attributes. The portrait she painted in her novels incorporated many of the aspects with which feminists endowed the New Woman: her desire for knowledge; the criti— cal spirit with which she approached established traditions and male authority; her sense of a mission and reformist zeal (TOTM, 39w4l). Feminists like Grand constructed the New Woman in not dissimilar terms but emphasized that her knowledge did not ’unsex’ her since her irnpeccahie morals kept her 'inteliect clear and senses unaffected' (HT, 23). Linton, on the other hand, referred to the good qualities of the New Woman only to link thern to cliches. Thus her New Womenrare deca- dents drawn to morbid subjects but with no serious commitment to social change; mere amateurs, they are “never thorough’: as “artists, as literati, as tradeswomen, as philanthropists, it is all a mere tOuch—and- go kind of thing with them’.24 What emerges from behind the anti~ ieminist rhetoric is the older professional’s fear of her young competi- tors who were attacking the system that had rewarded her: this was a war about the terms of female professionalism as much as about femi~ nism. Some 40 years later Virginia Woolf would return to this issue in Three Guineas: ‘do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above ail, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?’ (TG, 72). Anti—feminists, who had based their careers and social standing on being part of the procession, had a stake in defending its ceremonial. in their noveis anti—feminist women used two different piot structures to discredit the New Woman: they contrasted the ugly feminist with the ’tair young English girl’,25 and featured heroines temporarily infected by New Woman ideas but ultimately rescued by good Old Men. Unregen- erate New Women were always severely punished for their transgressive behaviour. In iuxtaposing New Woman and Old Girl, writers sought to revitalize the old ideal of Victorian womanhood. The problem with this kind of heroine was that even anti—feminists had ceased to believe in her. By the late nineteenth century, the Angel in the House had acquired the sickly pathos Virginia Woolf was to describe with such wicked irony in 1931: She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daiiy. if there was chicken, she took the leg; if Contesting/Consuming Femininitics 25 there was a draught she sat in it — in fact she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympa- thize always with the minds and wishes of others. (‘PFW', 59) The vulnerability of such a heroine did not stand comparison with the New Woman’s momentous vitality and strength of character, even if she was constructed as a caricature. In The One Too Many (1894) Eliza Lynn Linton sketches four different types of deviant women (the tomboy, the sentimental romantic, the man-hater, and the neurotic decadent), describing the tomboy and the decadent in greater detail. Only one of these, Effie Chegwin, could be said to represent the New Woman 'proper’. The decadent Laura Prestbury is a revamped version of the stock villainness, with some ’modern' elements thrown in to link her superficially to the New Woman. The only attribute she shares with Effie is her staying power: despite having “burnt herself out’ on a diet of ’stimulants, material and mental’, her love of wine apparently com- pounding the ravages wreaked by higher education (T OT M, 59), she proves a great deal more resilient than the good Oid Giri whose husband she steals. Too engrossed in her pathological studies to give any thought to her femininity, and too relaxed with men to be aware of sexual difference, the New Woman and fearless amazon Effie dispiays an alarming affin- ity to the female invert, then the subject oi intense sexological scrutiny. And yet Linton cannot have prevented contemporary readers from liking Effie for her amazing bouts of energy and the intrepidity with which she pursues her projects. An accomplished Girton Girl, she is erni— nently successful in everything she undertakes, and men find her irre- sistible; her unfortunate cousin is consumed with unrequited love, and the man lucky enough to be favoured by her affection happiiy submits to her love—making: 'it was she who wooed and he who yielded — she who from the first forced the pace and made the running’ (TOTM, 112). Ultimately, Linton was unable to resist the great vitality and charm of the character she intended as a warning. Her aim of promoting the Angel of the House proved a spectacular failure: this is shown by the barely concealed impatience with which the narrator deals with the character who represents 'the sweet girls still left among us who have no part in the revolt but are content to be dutiful, innocent, and sheltered’, to whom Linton dedicated the novel (emphasis in original). Blond—haired, soft-natured and weak—willed, Moira West is Effie's very opposite. Doomed to he ‘the one too many’, she is unable to take her r l E l l 26 New l/Vornrrn Fiction life into her own hands, and never so much as raises her voice in protest: she simply has “not force enough to resist' (TOTM, 32). The narrator implies that her demise is ultimately her own fault, and that her life could have been very different, had she only refused to play ‘the role of victim' (TOTM, 355—7). The diametrically opposed fates of the two main characters suggest very clearly that to be a sweet girl was as exasperating to onlookers as it was harmfui to herself, and that the New Woman had an incompa— rably better time of it, to say nothing of her better chances of survival. Not surprisingly, contemporary readers did not think much of the novel; like her polemic The New Women (1895), this was a book which ’boomeranged’ on Linton, hastening her departure from the literary scene?“ The strategy of contrasting a weak Old Girl with a dynamic New Woman was a recipe for disaster. A more successful means of promoting traditional values was to cast the heroine as a (moderate) New Woman and to contrast her with a mad, ugly and man—hating feminist whose actions cause a crisis which propels the heroine back into the arms of a conventional husband. in this way the focus could be shifted from the war of the sexes (very much in the spotlight in novels like The One Too Many with its downtrodden wife and abusive husband), to the w...
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