“What Signifies Being Happy, Unless We Appear So?” : Domestic Woman, Nature, Façade, and Familial Happiness in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters
|Keywords:||女性;服裝;兒童文學;教育;十八世紀;十九世紀;Woman studies;dress code;education;eighteenth century;nineteenth century||Issue Date:||2006||Abstract:||null
From the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, family values come to dominate English ideology. Social order is consolidated through the reiteration of the importance of domestic happiness throughout late eighteenth to nineteenth century English literatures. What lies at the center of such emphasized domestic happiness is the domestic woman—the good mother, wife, sister, and daughter. Since the national identity of England is based on family values, and the familial realm is sustained by the domestic woman, it is thus essential to study how women come to be educated as domestic woman; how domestic values are taught to women as such. I chose Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell’s works as the subject of my research, for they are both the prototypes of domestic women—Edgeworth is the model good daughter, whereas Gaskell is the good wife and good mother. And their upbringings are quite similar. They both suffer from the bereavement of their birth mothers and a painful relationship with their stepmothers, and they both love their fathers so dearly, as their literary works and correspondences show. Furthermore, Gaskell reads Edgeworth’s novels throughout her puberty. I think it would be interesting to study how domestic education is presented in the works of these two generations of women writers whose lives were so similar and whose social circles were so close. In the 19th century, the main objective of a middle-class girl’s education was to augment her marriageability, and the awkwardness of a single father burdened with such mission is humorously depicted by both Edgeworth and Gaskell, whose biographical backgrounds enable them to deal with the intricacies in father-daughter relationships. I choose Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866) as the main texts of my discussion. These volumes abound in female characters brought up either by a single father or by a substitute father-figure, with whom they bear a warm and intimate relationship. Also, the mother-daughter relationships depicted in both works expose the ideology behind women’s seemingly willing subjugation to the patriarchal rule. Instead of feminist approaches, which this topic readily invites, I put my emphasis on situating the texts within the specific socio-historical arena. Feminist criticisms often read in the nineteenth-century literature a presentation of women as victims of patriarchal suppression. But as far as I am concerned, the domestic education of women in the late eighteenth to middle nineteenth century should not be scrutinized merely in terms of feminist issues, for it reflects the entire cultural environment. I thus distinguish my argument from the more radical feminist viewpoint by emphasizing that the image of a domestic woman is far from simply repressive for women: Though abiding to the patriarchal order, they are not passively subjugated. Through a specific kind of education, which is taught by woman to woman and through which a female bond is created, women actively participate in their domestic roles, without losing their own consciousness and identity. The domestic education they receive through every-day-life experiences such as cosmetics and clothing actually enable them to recognize the façade, its deceptive features and maneuvering power—such mechanism is less known to men. While women are aware of the shallowness of the façades—the physical appearance, the well-kept familial harmony, and even the seemingly essential notion of human nature—they nonetheless learn, via the domestic education, to overlook the falsity of such façade. It is my argument that women are not only taught to acknowledge the falsehood of surfaces but also to willingly and consciously sustain the illusion of such surface. Instead of emphasizing the women’s submission to patriarchal order, I instead argue that women follow the dictates of their own hearts, which does not necessarily contradict the patriarchal order.
My discussion is divided into several parts. In the first chapter I examine the framing devices of Belinda and Wives and Daughters. In Belinda the story of Rachel Hartley is associated with Paul and Virginia and Rousseau’s Emile, whereas in Wives and Daughters Molly Gibson’s childhood experience is depicted with conventions of fairy tales. These two generic borrowings both help establish the patriarchal-heterosexual order. While Paul and Virginia as well as Emile consolidate the separate spheres of the two sexes and emphasize the feminine virtues, the fairy tales associated with Molly’s story such as the “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping beauty” emphasize the preservation of chastity, purity and innocence of adolescent girls. Yet they also delineate a female domain in which the father figure is often absent. These stories take place while Rachel and Molly’s fathers are away, and such occasions imply a purely female education, taught by woman to woman and the Father figure looms in the background. Furthermore, as Rachel and Molly’s experiences demonstrate, in Belinda and Wives and Daughters at times the patriarchal rule is violated, and the heroine’s own power emerges. The framing structure play crucial roles in the general theme of these texts: Rachel’s story not only stands at the center of the examination of girl’s education, but also serves as concurring point of both Belinda and Lady Delacour; Molly’s childhood experience is itself told like a fairy tale, and the teachings conveyed through fairy tales would resurface at various turning points throughout her adolescence. These framing devices are not merely peripheral subplots, for they illustrate the core of the domestic education in question. I want to emphasize that although kept within patriarchal order, girl’s domestic education find its own expression through domains dominated by women only.
The second chapter discusses the concepts of nature and nurture. First of all, I scrutinize the significance of “Nature” as a background. In Belinda the mentioning of Paul and Virginia threatens the exceedingly civilized British urban life with its natural setting and an entailing wildness of female sexuality. It is however nothworthy that such threat is merely suggested by analogy: it appears in a story read by Rachel, and it finds expression in her dreams, yet it never actually disrupts the patriarchal order. I’d like to emphasize here that the female sexuality itself is not detrimental. It is only dangerous or threatening when it is incorrectly suppressed. And the danger is only hinted, not actual. In Wives and Daughters Nature on the one hand becomes a background in which girls are taught lessons of domesticity. Molly learns to be a good domestic woman in Nature. And on the other hand it is classified by scientific men. I bring into discussion the evolutionary theories popular at the time in order to provide a historicized reading. Nature is utilized as such so as to uphold the social and familial order. Under the general atmosphere of evolutionary discourses, Africa is described as a barbaric land, and a sense of England as “home” is established and defined by women, who represent the domestic domain. This chapter then enters the discussion of “nature” vs. “nurture.” However Edgeworth and Gaskell’s novels emphasize the nature of parental love, the “naturalness” of nursing is suggested in both as problematic. In the nineteenth-century Britain, the ways of nursing began to occupy an important position in social and scientific discourse: A mother has to be “taught” her “natural” maternal duties. In Belinda such subject centers around the arguments of breast-feeding, as Lady Delacour’s case illustrates. At the time a mother is thought a “natural mother” only when she fulfills the grueling task of breast-feeding her child. Lady Delacour fails to accomplish such motherly task, and she sends her daughter away to be nursed and raised by hired help. She is punished with an injury in her breast, which becomes cancerous. It is my argument that such punishment is inflicted by herself, for she is troubled by a sense of guilt. She seems to have the power to choose between her public life and her role as a mother, but in fact such choice is already dictated by public discourse. When the Lady finally regrets and learns to play along, to succumb to the general climate of family values without losing herself in the game, then her breast cancer is diagnosed to be nonexistent. Indeed, after her “transformation” or “healing,” she is described to be “no different” in appearance, disposition, and living habits.
In the third chapter, I combine issues of “naturalness” and “nationality” via the analyses of blush and rouge utilized in the texts. Blush is a spontaneous reaction symbolizing innocence and a healthy body, and by mimicking blush rouge serves as an excellent example of how “naturalness” can be manufactured. The different applications of rouge by the English and the French women serve as an appropriate ground for investigations of how cultural differences are presented with a color of morality. While the French are seen to value artificial beauty and excessive demonstration of sentiments, the English seems relatively “natural” and “prudent.” The difference between “Frenchness” and “Englishness” is profusely discussed in both novels, with the qualities associated with Frenchness regarded by the general English public as chic yet immoral. Besides morality, “Frenchness” as a fashionable symbol of class is also an issue central to the education of girls. It is part of the education of middle to upper-class girls to catch a “French” accent. The “Frenchness” in the English ideology is stereotyped as a convenience: For an English national character to establish itself, a reputed “other” must be construed as a foil. With the conspicuously ambivalent representations of “Frenchness” throughout both texts, it is elucidated that even “racial” or “national” identity is far from essential. In my viewpoint the stereotyping of Frenchness, or “foreignness,” is acknowledged by both authors, but such stereotypes must exist in order for the society to function.
In the fourth chapter I discuss, via the dress-code, how girls are taught the importance of domestic felicity, and how the dress serves as a ground for women to learn the intricacies in appearance. While the masquerade enables Belinda to realize the importance of prudence in terms of her marriageability, Rachel’s uninterest in accessories and her penchant for austerity illustrate not her real nature, but merely an ignorance of human society: Her upbringing is an embodiment of “perpetual babyism,” a term adopted by critics to indicate a state in which the Victorian woman is expected to remain and maintain. Besides the dresses, the boudoir—the space associated with grooming—also plays a crucial role in domestic education. Lady Delacour’s boudoir serves as a representation of her own body, and the room, originally functions as a space for her to adorn herself, becomes the nursery for her reformation into a proper mother and wife. In Wives and Daughters, clothing is used as a means of familial control and possession—Clare utilizes clothes to control Molly, while Preston tyrannizes Cynthia with the gift of dress. Through the lessons of clothing the young heroines learn to deal with the problematic relationship between the surface and the content, between the fascinating façade and the bare truth. Furthermore, through clothing a familial bond is established: Inherent in “dress as a gift” is a power-relation that authorizes the giver, and thus when parents provide dresses for their daughters, or when a husband pays for his wife’s dress, a familial order is strengthened.
Through the domestic lessons women thus learn the necessity to abide by the patriarchal order, yet it is through the same lessons that they develop a keener understanding of appearances—its shallowness as well as the way to maintain it. In comparison to men, who are unable to delve into the mechanism behind appearances, women are able to understand the façade, not only of personal adornments such as clothes or cosmetics, but also of the familial structure based on an image of domestic woman. Restricted within the patriarchal order, women in Belinda and Wives and Daughters are not passive: They choose to follow the rule of the game, though not before they understand the intricacies lying underneath.
|Appears in Collections:||外國語文學系|
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