Thursday, 21 July 2016

Maggie and Family: A Litany of Violence

Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets shocked with its realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century New York tenements and the life of a girl, Maggie, who suffers a difficult childhood, loses her virtue and is ultimately murdered.

But Maggie is also a fascinating example of naturalism in American literature. With his journalistic eye, Crane records in detail the appalling conditions for New York’s poor and then uses his powers as a storyteller to argue for the causal connection between Maggie’s sorry upbringing and her moral and physical downfall.

Most famously propounded by the French novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902), naturalism is concerned with determinism—the idea that humans are governed by natural laws—and so intergenerational inheritance is a key theme that Crane, Zola and other writers, like Thomas Hardy, often dwell on.

In the case of Maggie, her inheritance is violence. When she first speaks in the novella it is to upbraid her brother for fighting (“Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin”) and her complaint is founded on the idea that the run of violence will continue:

“Youse allus fightin’, Jimmie, an’ yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an’ it’s like we’ll all get a poundin’.”

Maggie is a victim but also has the potential to be dangerous herself. She is described as a ‘tigress’ as a child. Fighting—for survival, but also as a way of life—is the favoured collective pastime in these slums, where gender is initially no indicator of who will beat and who will be beaten:

“Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?”

Yet as the story continues, and Maggie matures, being a woman marks her out as a particular target. Her love for Pete ruins her and, just before her death, the man who presumably kills her is shown noticing her feminine features and height, indicative of her physical vulnerability:

His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face.

What’s more Maggie’s family and neighbours can’t conceive of an afterlife where this run of violence will not continue:

“She’s gone where her sins will be judged,” cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.

All that lies in store for Maggie is punishment, for crimes she was born, and raised, to commit.

Are there any other works set in nineteenth-century New York you’d like the Secret Victorianist to discuss? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Art Review: Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, MoMA, New York City

The last exhibition I saw that was dedicated entirely to the works of nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas was Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2011.

The Jet Earring (1876-7)
That exhibition was dedicated to the well-known and well-loved Degas paintings that I’d been familiar with since my childhood ballet lessons—canvas after canvas of dancers bending, twirling or tying their shoes in studios and on stage—along with his forays into sculpture, movement captured in impossible frozen poses.

The Ballet Master (c.1874)
The MoMA’s 2016 Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty though is dedicated to a whole new side of the artist—his love for printmaking and the monotype process. The dancers are still here but the pastels are replaced with a new darkness, visible from the artist’s very first experiment in the form in The Ballet Master (c.1874). As his proficiency with the technique develops, monotype allows Degas to explore texture and shadow, creating a much more intimate relationship with his subjects. In Actresses in their Dressing Rooms (1879-1880) each panel allows for experimentation with the possibilities of the form, while the voyeuristic subject matter is suited to the shade.

Actresses in their Dressing Rooms (1879-1880)
But printmaking also allows Degas to dabble in other subjects (some familiar, some less so)—brothels, which he only ever represented using these techniques (some of these prints I had seen previously at the d’Orsay exhibition I reviewed this January), bathers and other nude females, pictured in domestic environments, and the busy streets of late nineteenth-century Paris, where the versatility of printing techniques allows him to blur out facial features, a study in the anonymity of crowds.

Heads of a Man and a Woman (c.1880)
Also on display are Degas’s etchings to accompany writer Ludovic Halévy’s La Famille Cardinal (1883) and prints of women ironing (a favourite subject) accompanied by a discussion on the connections between the artist and his contemporary Emile Zola.

Woman Reading (c.1885)
If you find yourself at a loose end this holiday weekend in New York or can make it to MoMA on the (free!) Friday afternoons/evenings then the exhibition, running until July 24, is well worth checking out.

Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

A ‘Modern’ Approach to Prostitution: George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession

You think that people are what they pretend to be: that the way you were taught at school and college to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it's not: it's all only a pretence, to keep the cowardly slavish common run of people quiet.

Mrs Warren’s assessment of Victorian society—that commonly-held morality is a pretence, a cover for the ‘way things really are’—is one shared by many 21st-century commentators on the period. The modern novels I’ve read as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series are obsessed with showing the depravity below the façade—child abuse, racism, pornography and, most frequently, prostitution, the subject of George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 and the eponymous Mrs Warren’s profession.

Felicity Kendal as Mrs Warren
The Victorians of our cultural imagination are table leg covering prudes or sex-crazed bodice rippers (most often, hypocritically, both), but, in our obsession with the lascivious and scandalous, are we missing the point? Shaw’s play, banned at the time for its subject matter, may also ascribe to this narrative of repression and duplicity, but for him the truth about prostitution is more based in economics, than eroticism.

This is what prostitution means to Mrs Warren:

It means a new dress every day; it means theatres and balls every night; it means having the pick of all the gentlemen in Europe at your feet; it means a lovely house and plenty of servants; it means the choicest of eating and drinking; it means everything you like, everything you want, everything you can think of. 

So far this seems like the standard seduction speech, as Mrs Warren lays out the contrast between the opulent way of life provided by sex work and her daughter Vivie’s existence now:

And what are you here? A mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year.

Yet, in the play’s last moments, the argument between the two women becomes something much more interesting than a confrontation between vice and virtue, riches and poverty. Mrs Warren tells Vivie that it isn’t just the money that attracts her (after all, she could have retired from this life long ago but continues to run a network of brothels):

I must have work and excitement, or I should go melancholy mad. And what else is there for me to do? The life suits me: I'm fit for it and not for anything else. If I didn't do it somebody else would; so I don't do any real harm by it. And then it brings in money; and I like making money.

Mrs Warren wants to work, and her claim that she is fit for no other profession is more of an assessment of the employment options open to women in the period than a commentary on her own moral character.

Vivie tells her mother that they are more alike than her mother imagines—that there is a point of similarity between the ‘modern’ Cambridge-educated girl and her mother, a bawd:

No: I am my mother's daughter. I am like you: I must have work, and must make more money than I spend.

And Vivie does not reject her mother on moral grounds. The decision to cut her off is purely pragmatic:

I don't think I'm more prejudiced or straitlaced than you: I think I'm less. I'm certain I'm less sentimental.

At the end of the play Vivie decides she will never marry, but will instead be an accountant. Her choice mirrors her mother’s almost exactly, except that Vivie’s profession a) will be sanctioned by society and b) won’t subject her to the possibility of motherhood (the cause of Mrs Warren’s sentimentality).

Shaw may share his subject matter with many of today’s neo-Victorian writers, but the difference is he doesn’t explore sex work in order to titillate. He uses prostitution as a lens through which to explore the selfishness of a capitalist system, painting a dark view of society, even as women’s employment options improve within it.

What would you like the Secret Victorianist to blog about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday, 20 June 2016

A Master Class in Unsatisfactory Endings from William Makepeace Thackeray

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

So ends Thackeray’s 1847-8 Vanity Fair, a novel that defies our desire for happy endings and near resolutions. When we think about novels we may divide them into two categories, those with tear-jerking endings and those with endings that satisfy in their neatness in a way that is rarely replicable in real life. Or we may reject unhappy endings entirely and agree with Oscar Wilde’s joke: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’

The final illustration in Vanity Fair
Yet, after nearly 900 pages, Thackeray’s ending doesn’t subscribe to either of these models. As in many Victorian novels, we are presented with a picture of domestic serenity after preceding drama—the Dobbins and Crawleys live side by side with hope of further marriage ties between the younger generations. But the complete happiness we have longed for with readerly naivety is not forthcoming. Rebecca will not be punished, Amelia will remain insipid, even when freed from the tyranny of her dead husband’s memory, and the fair will play on, with its falsehoods and frivolities, even if we abandon the particular characters we have toyed with.

Nowhere is this dissatisfaction more obvious than when in comes to Dobbin. Vanity Fair is ‘a novel without a hero’ but the Major has all the qualities we might associate with such a character. He is a military man of outstanding morals, a loyal lover and a just friend. He protects Amelia for years without hope of her reciprocating his feelings and the culmination of their relationship in a marriage (and child) is the ending we are encouraged to look forward to.

The ending is there, the marriage comes to pass and the child is forthcoming so why isn’t this resolution as happy as we had hoped? Dobbin’s kindness, constancy and frequent romantic gestures do not win his bride. Instead he can only woo Amelia when he recognises the folly of wanting her at all:

“Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love.”

Our desire for a happy ending is shown to be as delusional as Dobbin’s unrequited love. Instead of the passionate climax we have hoped for we are given a marriage based on the submission of one party and the tolerance of the other. Dobbin loves the child (little Janey) now more than anyone (presumably Amelia included) and, even then, she is only slightly more important to him than a history book.

Ending such a sweeping novel is hard, and, with masterful skill, Thackeray chooses to draw attention to the device’s artificiality while wrapping up all loose ends. If you’re writing an ending it might be worth thinking outside the binary of happy/sad and interrogating the possibilities of the unsatisfactory ending. After all, it’s always good to leave your readers wanting more…

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.