Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. When I say "my take," I very much doubt that I could find anything new or different to say about Austen, not after her admirers have written so much. But I am not trying to be new, rather I am pushing back at post-modern portrayals of Austen as a radical feminist. Click here for the first in the series.
In Jane Eyre, the rebellious main character is contrasted with the gentle and forbearing Helen Burns. Jane listens to what Helen tells her about turning the other cheek, she acknowledges Helen's goodness, but she cannot be another Helen in meekness. Helen is supposedly modelled on Maria Brontë, the oldest of the five Brontë sisters.
In The Denial, or the Happy Retreat (1792), by the Rev. James Thomson, Lady Wilton's husband was chosen for her by her parents. Lord Wilton has not treated her well; in fact he is a tyrant to her and their children. She carries out her wifely duties and conducts herself so as to be above reproach. She advises her daughter to study to please her husband and "even if you do not meet with a reciprocation of tendernesses and good offices, remember, and let me caution you, that it is still your indispensable duty to act your part with cheerfulness and good nature; for the errors of the husband are no precedents to the wife; and retaliation will certainly render you contemptible here and miserable hereafter.” ...
Eventually, Mr. Herbert is arrested for debt and thrown into prison. Her grown children plan to return to Wales, but she insists on staying in London: “Mrs. Herbert declined accompanying them; she had hitherto fulfilled, to the utmost of her power, her conjugal duties, now could she now, in the hour of distress, notwithstanding his libertine conduct, prevail on herself to desert her husband. He had forbid her coming to him, but she chose to stay within reach of serving the father of her children.”
The Victorian potboiler East Lynne (1861) was a tremendously popular novel and stage play which survived well into the 20th century. It involves a wife who leaves her husband then bitterly regrets it. The narrator exhorts the reader: "Oh, reader, believe me! Lady—wife—mother! should you ever be tempted to abandon your home… whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the nature, the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees, and pray to be enabled to bear them—pray for patience—pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape --bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you do rush on to it, will be found worse than death.”
When I read the play The Deserted Daughter (1795), I was honestly confused as to whether I was reading tragedy or comedy. The injured wife, Lady Ann, was so over-the-top, I thought her scenes were supposed to be played for laughs. Then I read the contemporary reviews and saw that, no, while her servant is a stock comic character, the wife is not a comic character.
Lady Ann swans around making speeches like: “What is the test of an affectionate wife? It is that, being wronged, her love remains undiminished, having cause of complaint, she scorns to complain, convinced that any misery is more welcome than the possibility of becoming the torment of her bosom’s Lord!”
Her servant Mrs. Sarsnet snarls: “He is a barbarian Turk! And so I as good as told him.”
Mrs. Sarsnet intercepts a letter to Lady Ann’s husband, but Lady Ann returns it to him without looking at it. “The heart, which I cannot secure by affection, I will not alienate by suspecting,” she tells him.
Mordent: Pshaw! Meekness is but mockery, forbearance insult.
Lady Ann: How shall I behave? Which way frame my words and looks, so as not to offend? Would I could discover?...
Mordent: Ay, ay! Patience on a monument…
Lady Ann also offers to turn over her marriage settlements to her husband to help him out of his financial difficulties. In the end, they are reconciled and Mr. Mordent admits: “Let me do her justice; She is a miracle of forbearance. I have hated and spurned at the kindness I did not deserve. Her perseverance in good has been my astonishment and my torture.”
Mrs. Pope, the actress who originated the role, was known for her Shakespearean and tragic parts, so I guess she played it straight. Adding to my confusion is that in the afterward (a comic soliloquy given at the end of a play), Mrs. Pope comes out and winks at the audience: yeah, we know that this is completely unrealistic...
And now, thrice gentle friends, our plotting ended,
We hope you’re pleased –at least, not much offended.
Surely, you’ll own it was a little moving
To see a modern wife so very loving!
Who deems the marriage vow a thing expedient,
And is at once meek, faithful, and obedient.
Such whims were common in the Golden Age
But still they may be met with –on the Stage
But grant they now are false, past contradiction,
We hope they yet may be endured—in fiction