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Reading The New Woman

One of my favourite things to learn about during my MA lessons was ‘The New Woman’, a feminist idea which emerged in the late nineteenth century, and inspired feminism and women’s movements during the twentieth century.  They were free spirited, and shunned the Victorian ‘Angel of the House’ ideal, eschewing marriage in favour of careers and independence.

newwoman

‘The New Woman on Wash Day’ – R.Y. Young (from The Library of Congress)

The New Woman is an endlessly fascinating subject for those of us who are interested in female social history and the like.  I thought that I would put together a little reading list for everyone who is interested in reading about The New Woman, or just fancies trying something a little different.

Firstly, we shall begin with two social history books, and will then go on to some depictions of The New Woman in literature.

The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-De-Siecle by Sally Ledger
‘By comparing the fictional representations with the lived experience of the new woman, Ledger’s book makes a major contribution to an understanding of the ‘woman question’ at the fin de siecle. She alights on such disparate figures as Eleanor Marx, Gertrude Dix, Dracula, Oscar Wilde, Olive Schreiner and Radclyffe Hall. Focusing mainly on the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the book’s later chapters project forward into the twentieth century, considering the relationship between new woman fiction and early modernism as well as the socio-sexual inheritance of the ‘second generation’ new woman writers.’

 

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean V. Matthews 9781566635011
‘Following on her history of the women’s movement in America that took the story to 1876, Jean Matthews’s new book chronicles the changing fortunes and transformations of the organized suffrage movement, from its dismal period of declining numbers and campaign failures to its final victory in the Nineteenth Amendment that brought women the vote. Ms. Matthews’s engaging narrative recaptures the personalities and ideas that characterized the movement in these years. She draws deft portraits and analyzes the intellectual currents-in politics, the economy, sexuality, and social thought-that competed for women’s commitment. And she shows how new leadership and new strategies at last brought success in the long struggle during which many feminist leaders had grown old. The Rise of the New Woman emphasizes the historical contexts, including progressivism, in which the women’s movement operated; the disputes and tensions within the movement itself; and the perennial question of who was to be included and excluded in the quest for women’s rights. It also considers the often baffling aftereffects of the 1920 constitutional victory, when women found themselves wondering what to do next.’

 

9780472065080The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand
‘Sarah Grand’s dual novel of the diabolically mischievous twins Diavolo and Angelica and the coming of age of nineteen-year-old Evadne valiantly explores subjects considered taboo for a female writer of the Victorian age. Through her characters, Grand, considered one of the “New Woman” writers of the late 1800s, courageously advocated “rational dress,” financial independence, personal fulfillment over marriage and motherhood, and the freedom of women to initiate sexual relationships outside of wedlock and to openly discuss such volatile sexual topics as a woman’s right to contraception. She was one of the first to explore the complexity of gender roles and their inherent constraints.’

 

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen 9781408106020
‘The slamming of the front door at the end of A Doll’s House shatters the romantic masquerade of the Helmers’ marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, Nora and Torvald have deceived themselves and each other both consciously and subconsciously, until Nora acknowledges the need for individual freedom. A revised student edition of classic set text: A Doll’s House (1879), is a masterpiece of theatrical craft which, for the first time portrayed the tragic hypocrisy of Victorian middle class marriage on stage. The play ushered in a new social era and “exploded like a bomb into contemporary life”.’

 

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
‘A searing indictment of the rigid Boer social conventions of the 19th century, the first great South African novel chronicles the adventures of 3 childhood friends who defy societal repression. The novel’s unorthodox views on religion and marriage aroused widespread controversy upon its 1883 publication.’

 

9780199538539The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
‘Love, and the erratic heart, are at the centre of Hardy’s ‘woodland story’. Set in the beautiful Blackmoor Vale, The Woodlanders concerns the fortunes of Giles Winterborne, whose love for the well-to-do Grace Melbury is challenged by the arrival of the dashing and dissolute doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. When the mysterious Felice Charmond further complicates the romantic entanglements, marital choice and class mobility become inextricably linked. Hardy’s powerful novel depicts individuals in thrall to desire and the natural law that motivates them.’

 

The Odd Women by George Gissing 9780199538300
‘The idea of the superfluity of unmarried women was one the ‘New Woman’ novels of the 1890s sought to challenge. But in The Odd Women (1893) Gissing satirizes the prevailing literary image of the ‘New Woman’ and makes the point that unmarried women were generally viewed less as noble and romantic figures than as ‘odd’ and marginal in relation to the ideal of womanhood itself. Set in grimy, fog-ridden London, these ‘odd’ women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who run a school to train young women in office skills for work, to the Madden sisters struggling to subsist in low-paid jobs and experiencing little comfort or pleasure in their lives. Yet it is for the youngest Madden sister’s marriage that the novel reserves its most sinister critique. With superb detachment Gissing captures contemporary society’s ambivalence towards its own period of transition. The Odd Women is a novel engaged with all the major sexual and social issues of the late-nineteenth century. Judged by contemporary reviewers as equal to Zola and Ibsen, Gissing was seen to have produced an ‘intensely modern’ work and it is perhaps for this reason that the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.’

 

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Classics Club #16: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy ****

The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as being on my Classics Club list, is the second choice which the lovely Katie and I decided upon for our Chai and Sheep book club.  I adore Hardy’s writing, and very much enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but had rather a few complaints about Far From the Madding Crowd (which, incidentally, was our first book club pick).

When I began The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore, I was dearly hoping that there were no Bathsheba-esque characters within it.  From the first page, I found it a lot easier to read than the aforementioned, perhaps merely because the story here interested me more.

To borrow the official blurb, the plot is thus: “In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.”

I loved the beginning of the novel, and found the twists which it took throughout rather clever; there were certainly very few of them which I predicted.  It did get a little stale towards the middle, in my opinion, when it became a touch more involved in the less exciting elements of country life – the price of wheat, for example.  Yes, such details have importance of a kind, and I can definitely see why Hardy chose to include them to further sculpt the historical and geographical landscapes amongst which his characters stood.  Thankfully, such aspects are not overdone here, as I have found them to be in his other books (*cough* Far From the Madding Crowd *cough*).  The sense of place here too does not feel as rigid, and thus allows the reader to make up his or her mind a little more – an element which I certainly welcomed.  His use of colours and textures is quite often sublime.

It almost goes without saying that The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredibly well written and sculpted.  I love Hardy’s character descriptions particularly; some of them here are almost quirky: ‘with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes’.  It feels as though he really did his female characters justice for the most part here; they were not as submissive as some of his other creations (yes, I am measuring everyone against dear old Bathsheba), and had some thoughts and opinions which had – shock horror! – not been moulded by their male counterparts from time to time.

The structure of The Mayor of Casterbridge is both thoughtful and a success; a particularly great element is the way in which he follows different characters from one chapter to the next without losing any threads of the story, or any of the immediacy of the piece.

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Literary Advent Calendar: Day Twenty Three

The Oxen by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

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Poem: ‘Between Us Now’ by Thomas Hardy

Between us now and here –
Two thrown together
Who are not wont to wear
Life’s flushest feather –
Who see the scenes slide past,
The daytimes dimming fast,
Let there be truth at last,
Even if despair.

So thoroughly and long
Have you now known me,
So real in faith and strong
Have I now shown me,
That nothing needs disguise
Further in any wise,
Or asks or justifies
A guarded tongue.

Face unto face, then, say,
Eyes mine own meeting,
Is your heart far away,
Or with mine beating?
When false things are brought low,
And swift things have grown slow,
Feigning like froth shall go,
Faith be for aye.

Thomas Hardy

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Sunday Snapshot: Classics

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
No classics list for me would be complete without Jane Eyre.  The story is a timeless one, and it resonates with

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (Photo credit: Valerie Reneé)

readers today as much as it ever has done.  Bronte’s writing is beautiful, and the characters and settings she crafts are marvellously lifelike.  Jane Eyre is at the peak of the classics list for me, and I’m sure I shall read it many more times in future.  It stands to reason that many film versions have been released of the book, and I feel that Bronte is as popular as she deserves to be.

2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
I studied English and History at University, and as George Eliot was a relatively local resident to the city, my Humanities building was named after her.  Middlemarch was the first of her novels which I read, and I was blown away by it.  The sense of place and time which she builds up is truly stunning, and I felt as though I was right beside the characters as they lived their lives.  As a social and political study of the 1800s, you cannot get much better than Middlemarch.

3. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
I adore Hardy’s writing style, and his descriptive passages are rarely equalled in literature.  Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not a happy book by any means, but it exemplifies the hideous poverty which many had to live through.  Tess is a lovely character on the whole, and she is also incredibly memorable.  This novel proves a marvellous introduction to Hardy’s writing.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
I find Wilde fascinating, both as an author and a singular figure.  He was such an exuberant and witty character, and this shines through in everything he writes.  Many are familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest from various film versions and theatre performances, but I feel that the best way to appreciate the play is in its original form.  Wilde’s writing sparkles, and his characters are simply superb.

5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
As far as I am concerned, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a timeless book, much like the aforementioned Jane Eyre.  I have read it countless times, yet still find it utterly magical.  Carroll’s imagination is stunning, and the many film versions of the book – yes, I have seen lots of them – have made such wonderful use of the original material.

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Wednesday Wishlist: Classic Novels

Below are five classic novels which I am lusting after.  They are all books which I feel I should have already read, particularly as a literature student.

1. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I so enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles and feel that I really should read more of Hardy’s works. The story in this novel looks like a wonderful one.

2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I have never read any Flaubert, but this novel has been downloaded on my Kindle for quite some time now.  Perhaps I will finally get around to reading it this year!

3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I have had a physical copy of this novel for around four years, but the sheer size of it and tiny print size has really put me off.  I think the plot sounds fascinating and I have heard only good things about it, so this is another I really should get around to reading.

4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
For some unknown reason, this passed me by in my childhood, and I am certain that I would have adored the story.  Anne looks like a marvellous heroine, and I cannot wait to read about her.

5. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
I remember watching an amateur production of Treasure Island when I was younger and I absolutely adored it, so I struggle to see why I’ve not read it thus far!