What’s with these Victorian heroines?

Photo: www.thebrownandwhite.org
Photo: http://www.thebrownandwhite.org

I just finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, a Victorian novel published by instalments in 1854-1855 in a literary magazine edited by Charles Dickens. It’s been turned into a movie that my female cousins and sisters were swooning over at Christmastime, saying it’s far more romantic than Pride and Prejudice, so I decided to do the proper English major thing and read the book before watching the movie.

Now, to give you some background, I spent five years at university reading more Victorian novels than I can even recall. You name it, I’ve probably read it at some point and written a critical essay on it. I lived and breathed those novels, viewing them as the pinnacle of literary achievement. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to read more contemporary literature in order to fill a void in my education. The last Victorian novel I read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White last summer, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I was picked up North and South with considerable anticipation, looking forward to a satisfying read.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Unhappily, however, I was enraged by the book! It makes me wonder, have my tastes truly changed or is this is a particularly dreadful book? First of all, over half the central characters died. The poor main character, Margaret Hale, just watches helplessly while her friends and family members drop off like flies all around her, including both parents. It got to the point of ridiculousness.

Second, the women are all absolute spineless idiots. I feel like a traitor saying this of what used to be my favourite genre, but I felt so incredibly frustrated by their weakness and passive acceptance of inferiority. Take, for example, this exchange between Margaret and her cousin Edith:

When they returned to town, Margaret fulfilled one of her sea-side resolve, and took her life into her own hands… “Only don’t be strong-minded,” pleaded Edith. “Only to please me, darling, don’t go and have a strong mind; it’s the only thing I ask.”

So much emphasis is placed on social decorum that women are rendered helpless to say  what they know they should be saying but can’t because it might be misinterpreted as indecorous. It’s downright agonizing to witness. Oh, and the women are constantly ill for inexplicable reasons, suffering from consumption or nerves or hysterics. I also learned that upper-class women never attended funerals because they were considered unable to control their emotions, whereas lower-class women did have that capability.

Third, the climax to a Victorian novel is the final moment of reconciliation between the male and female. As soon as that occurs, there’s no more story to tell and the book is done. This never used to bother me, but this time I felt thoroughly irritated that Margaret and Mr. Thornton got together on page 424 — and the book ended on page 425! At least most contemporary books understand that readers want to know what happens once that ultimate goal has been reached. Even a single extra chapter describing the families’ reactions would be appreciated because I’d spent three days waiting for them to get together, and then it was over.

Finally, maybe I’ve become overly inured to modern descriptiveness, but the moment of romantic acknowledgement was so vague that I had to read it twice to make sure they’d actually confessed their love. Basically, Mr. Thornton pulls out some dried rose petals taken from Margaret’s childhood home and offers them to her:

“You must give them to me,” she said, trying to take them out of his hand with gentle violence.

“Very well, Only you must pay me for them!”

“How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?” she whispered, after some time of delicious silence.

And that’s it, folks! That’s the ONLY indication that they’ve finally admitted their feelings for each other. I slammed the book shut and struggled to control the desire to fling that book across the room, sort of like Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook when he’s disgusted by Hemingway’s ending. Honestly, I’ve had it with Victorian novels for the time being.

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7 thoughts on “What’s with these Victorian heroines?

  1. Don’t give up on the Victorians, just Mrs. Gaskill! I was never a fan of hers, give me the Brontes or George Eliot anyday. Really, Jane Eyre is downright subversive. In my opinion, Mrs. Gaskill is just a prissy, proper English lady who wrote a bit. I’ve never understood why her stuff is still around.

    1. Good! Glad to hear it. I guess that’s why her novels were never taught at school. Prissy and proper is a very good description of how I felt reading her stuff.

      1. Excellent! Put your name in for Tenth of December by George Saunders. Very interesting short stories, quite the book.

  2. I read about half of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because I thought the zombies would somehow make it more interesting, and stopped reading it half way through. I think I did fling the book. All I can deduce from life in the 19th century is that is was boring! Achingly, dreadfully boring! I can appreciate the time people took with one another when they were attracted to each other. I think it’s sweet. But good god, if I had read one more sentence about how fragile and needful women were back in the day I was going to lose it. Now, a book about a woman warrior taking out a legion of demons to save her brothers I can get on board with.

  3. Exactly why some of the modern renditions of the novels kind of bother me: they have taken something of one period and made it digestible for a modern audience, essentially ignoring what makes those novels both frustrating and beautiful. Artists rendition of women from that era are accordingly gazele-like and funny to look at.

    We still have these conceptions today though make no mistake! Women ARE more empathetic than men in general… aren’t they? 😉

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