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 fa├žade—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 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 or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Byron’s The Corsair and the American Ballet Theatre’s Le Corsaire, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Unlike the heroes of each ancient race,
Demons in act, but Gods at least in face,
In Conrad's form seems little to admire,
Though his dark eye-brow shades a glance of fire:
Robust but not Herculean—to the sight
No giant frame sets forth his common height;
Yet in the whole—who paused to look again,
Saw more than marks the crowd of vulgar men—
They gaze and marvel how—and still confess
That thus it is, but why they cannot guess.

The Corsair, Byron, Canto 1

Byron’s narrative poem The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on the day of its publication in 1814, while the tale of love, pirating, and a pasha (plus his harem) continued to fascinate throughout the nineteenth century. Central to the poem’s appeal was its unmistakably Byronic hero—Conrad—a man lacking the beauty and even the masculine and martial victory granted to his Classical forbears.

Yet in Le Corsaire, the ballet based on a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, set to the music of Adolphe Adam and first performed in 1856, Conrad is not the focus. The components of Byron’s plot are there—the same characters with the same names—but the story has been sanitised, the hero moulded into one much more acceptable to conventional tastes and the female characters given roles which play out more traditionally. The slave Gulnare (Stella Abrera) no longer kills for Conrad (Mathias Heymann)’s sake, and Medora (Gillian Murphy), the damsel in distress, lives along with the titular character.

The ABT's Le Corsaire
ABT’s beautifully designed and exquisitely danced production, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, is notable for not trying to make anything more out of this flimsy storyline. This is a piece of erotically tinged escapism where men are brave and women beautiful, where the villain (Victor Barre) is laughable but we share in the fantasy of his dream sequence as ever multiplying hoards of women and children dance for him. The greatest threat comes from the sea—a vehicle for heroism in the Prologue, a turquoise backdrop to our couple’s romance in the second act and a powerful force for destruction (but don’t worry—not of true love) in the dramatic epilogue.

The ballet might not be Byron, but it captures the spirit of the nineteenth-century fantasy and fetishisation of the East and proves that, even for the audiences of twenty-first century New York, it remains a seductive fairy tale.

Do you know of any NYC productions the Secret Victorianist should check out next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!