Saturday 24 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Esther Lyon

A nineteenth-century divorce court
The court, much like the theatre, is a place of revelation and display, and trials, inquests and other court hearings play a prominent role in Victorian fiction, providing great opportunities for dramatic action and the analysis of ‘truth’. When women appear in fictional courts they are subject to the same concerns about performance that I have discussed in relation to the theatrical. Some authors choose to use the court as an arena in which true feelings can be revealed, as loquaciousness is demanded, rather than the usual emotional repression; others – largely sensation writers – do the opposite, depicting the court as the perfect stage for deceptive performance, with its corresponding associations with sexual deviancy. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at several women who appear as witnesses in fictional trials – looking at how the theatricality of the justice system is played against its ‘detective’ role, in uncovering truth. I began by looking at the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton. Today it’s the turn of Esther Lyon from George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).

The two women, Mary and Esther, despite their different social backgrounds, find themselves in strikingly similar positions, acting as witnesses as the man they love is tried for murder. Each has had rival suitors for her affections and, for each, her appearance in court reveals the true bent of her romantic feelings, giving her the opportunity to express what society demands she repress under more usual circumstances. There are, however, two important differences. Esther has not, like Mary, been called upon to act as witness. She chooses to speak, disrupting the normal course of court proceedings. And, in a related point, while both women speak ‘truth’, Eliot locates this truth as similarly outside the remit of legal process, not as its natural result (as Job had it in Mary Barton). She writes:

‘When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences: she is the added impulse that shatters the stiffening crust of cautious experience. Her inspired ignorance gives a sublimity to actions so incongruously simple, that otherwise they would make men smile. Some of that ardour which has flashed out and illuminated all poetry and history was burning today in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon. In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current. And today they were making one danger, one terror, one irresistible impulse for her heart. Her feelings were growing into a necessity for action, rather than a resolve to act. She could not support the thought that the trial would come to an end, that sentence would be passed on Felix, and that all the while something had been omitted which might have been said for him.’

The above passage is highly gendered, with women being associated with feelings and impulses restrained by a male-dominated society. The passage’s inclusion at this point in the trial associates the Law with the ‘formulas’ opposed to the expression of Esther’s pure and noble feelings, while the scholarly knowledge of the lawyers praised in Mary Barton is rejected in favour of a woman’s ‘inspired ignorance’. Yet this is not unproblematic. Esther is undermined repeatedly. Only ‘some’ of the ardour which has informed the past deeds of the famous (presumably men) is found in her action which comes across as a little bathetic. And Eliot’s qualifiers add to this effect – in these feelings, ‘at least’, she is perfect, but how worthy are her actions of praise at all if they arise from ‘necessity’, not ‘resolve’?

But Esther’s actions also provoke a further, more serious, suspicion. She is not, like Mary, unaware of the effect her appearance may have on the assembled crowd:

‘If it was the jury who were to be acted on, she argued to herself, there might have been an impression made on their feelings which would determine their verdict. Was it not constantly said and seen that juries pronounced Guilty or Not Guilty from sympathy for or against the accused?

The vocabulary here is interesting. The phrase ‘acted on’ suggests the performative nature of court testimony, while the appeal to ‘sympathy’ fits in with contemporary acting theory. When Esther speaks, we are told:

There was no blush on her face: she stood, divested of all personal considerations whether of vanity or shyness.’

But while this excuses her of the sexual suspicion arising from an awareness of the effect she can have on a viewer, the prospect of a woman ‘divested of all personal considerations’ again suggests the task of an actress. Esther, even at her most active, is a vessel, a vessel for feeling, influenced by others. And while, in her case, she is acted upon by an individual – Felix -, in allowing herself to act as a vehicle for the expression of feeling, regardless of social etiquette and decorum, she is aligned with the actress who must do likewise:

‘This bright, delicate, beautiful-shaped thing that seemed most like a toy or ornament—some hand had touched the chords, and there came forth music that brought tears.’

Which fictional Victorian trial should come under the microscope next? Let me know below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

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