07 January 2011

Victorian Nightmares, or Women out of Control!!

Reflecting further on Trollope’s Barchester Towers, I recognize that there’s a good deal more to be said about two of the novel’s principal intriguers. After all, they share a number of traits: for starters, they both are intelligent, under-challenged by the roles society accords to them. Both refuse to be controlled by others; what’s more, both use sex to gain power over men, many of whom find them disruptive or contemptible as a consequence. Trollope treats both characters with scorn, though they are more entertaining than any of the characters the author professes to admire. And most importantly — both the bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudie, and the cleric Dr. Stanhope’s daughter, who styles herself the Signora Vesey Neroni, are women.

The modern reader — even while enjoying the characterizations of Mrs. Proudie and the Signora — is liable to take an entirely different attitude, especially when one bothers to put oneself in either lady’s shoes. The men in Barchester Towers, and particularly those to be found in the Proudie and Stanhope homes, are hardly paragons of competence, and the women are easily as clever as the best of them. Yet neither has any possibility of exercising her intelligence and talents, or of advancing beyond a constrictive paradigm of the societal norms.

Stop using sex as a weapon! The sublime Geraldine McEwan
as Mrs. Proudie, with Clive Swift as her husband.

The activities pursued by other female characters in the book — rearing children (and talking baby-talk), teaching Sunday school, blandly echoing their husband’s opinions, throwing “Anglo-Saxon” fêtes — are clearly inadequate to the ambitions of anyone as capable as Mrs. Proudie or the Signora.

Although a priest’s wife is described generically in the novel as a “priestess,” there’s no chance of her wielding much authority, and the male characters (and Trollope himself) register disgust when Mrs. Proudie makes the attempt. For her part, the Signora, already an outcast from much of society due to a dubious early marriage, is crippled, too. Unable to walk, her chances of finding any useful outlet for her talents is practically nil, something of which Trollope reminds us repeatedly.

Susan Hampshire, who played the Signora on TV, also played
Trollope’s more conventional Glencora Palliser.

What’s left but intrigue? Both characters dominate the men who find them attractive, and in various political and romantic schemes, both avidly build up and bring down several men. As seduced as a modern reader may be by Trollope’s prose, we can’t bring ourselves to consider these women horrifying. The prospect of a woman in power may still be threatening to some men today — but we’ve come a long way, baby.

Writing three decades after Trollope published Barchester Towers, adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard dares to depict a woman who doesn’t play for power: she possesses it, ruling her remote African nation through fear and magic. Though she resembles Queen Victoria on a couple of points (particularly her extended mourning for her late consort), Ayesha is a freak, a pagan Egyptian who merrily blasphemes against the Christian god, who credibly claims to have lived for two thousand years, and whose beauty is so irresistible that the narrator, a repressed homosexual, falls in love with her.

What’s more, she lives in Africa, which is, as every Englishman would know, a totally barbaric place (stranger even than the Signora’s Italy), where nobody does anything right until an Englishman shows him how.

Super Freak: Ursula Andress as Ayesha.
Although Andress looks absolutely nothing like the character described
in the novel, you can understand that men might find her power
impossible to resist.

While Haggard uses Ayesha to express some pretty outré opinions on religion and the role of the male in society, it’s clear that he can’t let her prevail — any more than Trollope could let Mrs. Proudie prevail in Barchester. Ayesha, called “She who must be obeyed,” must also be destroyed.

The impression one gets upon reading these books in quick succession, as I did, is that the male hegemony of the Victorian era was far from monolithic or serene. The possibility of female power is a constant anxiety that must be ridiculed or demolished almost as soon as it’s acknowledged. That these male authors were nominally ruled over by a woman — with negligible cost to their hegemony — only makes their shared anxiety more curious, even quaint, to a modern reader.

How much nicer it is, not to live back then!

She who must not be amused.

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