Female Difficulties

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comMy title for this post is the subtitle for Frances Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer. It was one of the first books I put down when compiling my Classics Club Book List, and I’m reading it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event. Finishing this book means I’ve now read all Burney’s major fiction works (that is a grand total of 3,133 pages of text, so it’s a pretty big deal). I am Reader, hear me roar.

Note: spoilers follow for this 202 year old book.

The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties is the tale of a penniless emigree from revolutionary France trying to earn her living in England while guarding her own secrets. Combining the best elements of the gothic and historical novels, this newly appreciated work is an extraordinary piece of Romantic fiction. Burney’s tough comedy offers a satiric view of complacent middle-class insularity that echoes Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s attacks on the English social structure. The problems of the new feminism and of the old anti-feminism are explored in the relationship between the heroine and her English patroness and rival, the Wollstonecraftian Elinor Joddrel, and the racism inherent within both the French and British empires is exposed when the emigree disguises herself as a black woman. (Goodreads summary)

This is probably the Burney novel that I found most frustrating. Evelina, her first novel, is the easiest to read, though it still engages with the darker side of 18th century romance. Her next two, Cecelia and Camilla, are more difficult (especially if you’re expecting an Austen-style romance). The heroines are persecuted relentlessly, in grave danger several times, and the heroes fail to live up to the name.  The Wanderer takes these themes a step further. Instead of giving her characters ineffective guardians, Burney doesn’t leave the Wanderer, who goes by the name “Ellis” for much of the book, anyone to turn to at all. Instead of revealing the plight of a young woman having difficulty navigating the marriage market, Burney shows the struggles of a woman completely alone without name or resources to protect and support her.

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe Wanderer is a scathing rebuke of society on many different levels. Burney takes full advantage of her lengthy text to discuss the French Revolution, snobbery in the upper classes, gender inequalities, racial stereotypes, modern suspicion of an afterlife, suicide, social perceptions and stereotypes, abusive/coercive relationships, and duty to family (just to name the ones that come to mind within a minute). The amount of ground she covers is really quite impressive. Even more impressive is that she manages to show both sides of most issues. Sometimes you can easily tell where Burney stands, but not always. For several of the ideas discussed, it seems she just wants readers to open their eyes and see that things aren’t always black and white.

What frustrated me when reading The Wanderer wasn’t the issues being discussed or even so much the drawn-out plot line. It was Ellis’ character. The narrative stays with Ellis but maintains a distance that makes it very difficult to sympathize or identify with her. For the better part of the book, we don’t know any more than the other characters about who she is and what her motivations are. We rarely even know what she’s thinking. What’s worse, we seldom hear her say anything. There are a few scenes where Ellis speaks clearly and decisively, but mostly she stands mute. She is silent while other characters misconstrue her motivations, put words into her mouth, accuse her unjustly, and even propose romantic connections. A few words pass her lips, but mostly she stands in acute emotional agony hoping the other characters will understand her inarticulate protests. Even Mr. Harleigh, the heroic figure in this story, becomes so frustrated by this that there are times he is almost violent in his insistence that she give him a straight answer.

Silencing the main character frustrated me, but it also draws attention to the difficulties Burney is discussing. It might be tempting to read the subtitle “Female Difficulties” simply as a critique of the challenges women faced in 18th century society. We could say that it is the other characters who make life difficult for Ellis because society is set-up to be suspicious of a woman alone and to limit her options. But it goes even deeper than that. The type of femininity ingrained the naturally elegant and lady-like Ellis make her situation even more difficult. She is one of her own worst enemies because of her limiting view of her own role as a woman. It’s not seemly for a lady to perform in public, so she refuses to give a concert until she’s shamed into it by a need to pay her debts. It’s not ladylike to accept pecuniary aid from a man, so she becomes entangled in a host of embarrassing situations trying to return gifts that were made anonymously to spare her delicacy. It’s a shame for a woman to run away from her husband, so she conceals the fact that she was forced into a marriage that’s barely recognizable under the law even when it means leading on another man who’s falling in love with her.

Like today, 18th Century culture was struggling with ideas surrounding gender definitions, roles, and expectations. Burney recognized that the problems regarding inequalities between men and women weren’t just external, but also ingrained in prevailing ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity. I argued when writing my undergrad thesis about her other novels that Burney countered the gender crisis of her day by advocating for a return to Biblical gender ideals where men and women are recognized as having unique strengths and roles yet also viewed as equally important. In this book, published 18 years after Camilla, there’s little evidence of that hope. Burney seems more cynical about society’s ability to change and points out problems without offering a way to fix things. It’s up to us, the readers, to try and find a solution or to live with the consequences of inaction.wanderer

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Evelina: A Darker Look At Courtship

When I first read Evelina, my observation was that Frances Burney’s style “represents a shift nearing the latter part of the 18th century from fiction as a didactic tool to fiction as a pleasurable reading experience.” While I’m good as saving my literary observations (I have copies of everything I wrote in college), I’m apparently not very good at taking my own advice. This is the first time I’ve read Evelina for pleasure rather than analysis

I chose Evelina for a reread on my Classics Club Book List, and it also fits neatly into the Classics Club’s year-long Women’s Classic Literature Event (Tweet about it with #ccwomenclassics). The first time I read Evelina was in Spring 2010 for an upper-level course on The Early British Novel. Though I didn’t hate any of the other 4 books in this course, Burney’s little epistolary novel from 1778 was by far my favorite.

It’s no wonder, then, that when our professor asked me and one other student if we’d like to read more Burney in an independent study I said “yes.” We read Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) – both weighing in at a solid 900+ pages. Then we branched out into Ann Radcliffe with The Romance of the Forest. That lead me to my first undergraduate research project titled “Unmanned Heroes: 18th Century Female Writers and Male Sentimentality. That turned into a 25-page research paper titled “Biblical Answers to the 18th Century Gender Crisis” (click on the title if you’d like to read this), which led me back to reading Evelina academically.

Reading "Evelina" for #ccwomenclassics | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Me at the Denman Undergraduate Research forum in 2012

Now, 4 years later, I’m back reading Evelina and enjoying it more than ever. Frances Burney was a fantastic (and, sadly, under appreciated) writer. Though Evelina was first published anonymously, Burney never hid the fact that she was a female writer. Her novels were quite popular with the general reading public and in artistic circles even during a literary age we often think of as belonging only to “dead white man.” Her style and success paved the way for writers like Jane Austen. In fact, Austen took her title Pride and Prejudice from a scene in Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, and when Austen’s father was seeking publication for that novel he described it as “about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina.”

Comparing Burney to Austen (another favorite writer of mine), there are clear similarities, especially in Evelina. Both writers focus on a young woman who “marries up” by the end of the novel. Both critique society and social norms with a thinly-veiled sarcastic wit. But the differences are at times even more striking than the similarities. Nowhere in Austen will you find a scene like the one in Evelina when Captain Mirvan impersonates a highwayman and drags Madam Duval into a ditch where he terrifies her for sport. And, though Austen does have her Mr. Willoughbya and Mr. Wickhams, you’ll not find any of her main characters in situations so dangerous as Evelina’s.

Throughout the course of the novel, Evelina is persecuted by a man named Lovel, hounded and even kidnapped by Sir Clement, affronted by a staring Lord (in front of his fiancee), and rudely accosted by strange men at Vauxhall. To quote an essay by Judith Newton that appeared in a 1976 edition of Modern Language Studies, there are few places Evelina can go “without being forced, intruded upon, seized, kidnapped, or in some other way violated.” Newton describes this persecution as a “woman’s fate” once she entered into the marriage market in the 1700s, and points out that Burney “is one of the few writers in the century to take the discomfort of it seriously.”

Indeed, while I’ve frequently thought I might like to visit Jane Austen’s England, Burney’s is much less appealing. It’s populated with aggressive and vulgar people, the public places are unsafe without a large party and/or male protection, and it’s painfully obvious how vulnerable and option-less women were without family and fortune to their name. But it also feels more real. Sense and Sensibility came out in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813 – a scant 33 and 35 years after Evelina. Things had changed, but not that much. Much as I love Austen, I wonder if Burney was in some ways the braver novelist for calling out her contemporary society on its darker sides.click to read article, "Evelina: A Darker Look At Courtship" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Click here to get a copy of Evelina. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

 

Heartbreak and Vulnerability

This week, I was reading someone’s comments on a young lady’s question about her increasingly physical relationship with her boyfriend when I ran into a phrase that always makes me twitch. The commenter suggested breaking up with the boyfriend immediately, then said, “Do not get attached to any boy until you are ready to have a serious relationship.”

Now, that might be good advice in this specific case (since the girl was 16 and had only been dating the guy for 3 months). But in Christian circles, the idea of not getting attached to anyone until you’re ready to get married has been painted with a wide brush across a whole range of situations. It’s often treated as a sure solution to avoiding heartbreak and keeping yourself “pure” for God.

Concerning Conduct

I first heard this advice in courtship circles, where young people are advised to avoid developing feelings for someone of the opposite sex and just be friends until they reach a point where they want to get married. Then, in theory, you can start courting one of these friends and explore the possibility of marriage with them. If you develop feelings for someone before you’re in a position where you could get married to them, then you’re doing something wrong.

Struggle then against yourself as you would struggle against an enemy. Refuse to listen to a wish, to dwell even upon a possibility, that opens to your present idea of happiness. All that in the future may be realized probably hangs upon this conflict. … I only require from you what depends upon yourself, a steady and courageous warfare against the two dangerous undermines of your peace and of your fame, imprudence and impatience.

If not for the slightly out-dated language, you might think I quoted this from a courtship book written within in the past ten years or so. Actually, this quote is from the novel Camilla, first published in 1796 by Frances Burney. It’s part of the letter a pastor writes to his daughter, and is based on 18th century conduct books. Camilla’s father urges her not to let the man she is attracted to learn of her affection, because as a woman it is her duty to “retire to be chosen” by a man rather than seek out a man she loves. It doesn’t turn out quite like he planned, though, since Edgar is waiting for a sign that Camilla has feelings for him before he confesses his attraction to her. They spend much of the 913 pages of this novel miserable because neither one thinks they can properly and decently give the other a hint about how they feel.

On Heartbreak

There are oodles and oodles of songs and stories about heartbreak. Two people fall in love (or at least become quite attached to each other), have a relationship, then the relationship ends and one or both people end up with “broken hearts.” One thing this model presupposes is that you have to be in a relationship in order to get your heart broken. I don’t think that is the case. You can experience the feeling of heartbreak without actually having been in a relationship with someone.

This is one of the things the courtship movement got right — if you let yourself get attached to someone, there’s always the chance that they can hurt you, even if it’s simply by not returning your feelings. Courtship phrased this as “giving away pieces of your heart,” and said the reason it’s a bad idea is because then you don’t have as much heart left to give the person you actually do marry (which is really a ridiculous idea when you think about it; it’s not like we’re born with a set amount of love that we have to dole out sparingly, but problems with the courtship movement is a topic for another day).

I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, but even so I feel like my heart’s been broken a few times. It’s largely my own fault, too — I let myself get pretty close (emotionally) to a few guys I liked, and nothing came of the relationships. But would I have been better if I’d tried to keep myself from feeling anything at all, as Camilla’s father suggests? I really don’t think so.

On Vulnerability

Being open to the possibility of heartache is a prerequisite for entering any kind of relationship. The people who know us best and who we are closest to are those who are most capable of loving us, but they are also the people who could most easily hurt us. If we want to gather people around us to love and be loved by us, we have to take risks. We have to have the strength to be vulnerable.

To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.” ― Brené Brown, from “The Gifts of Imperfection”

A Hypothesis on Heartbreak | marissabaker.wordpress.comNow, we should exercise a certain amount of caution when letting people get close to us. Some people simply cannot be trusted with your heart, but you usually don’t know who these people are until you start to get to know them. The key is to be vulnerable in stages. Don’t pour out all your thoughts, emotions, and self into someone you just met. You do, however, need to start connecting to people authentically if you want to develop relationships. Locking everyone out might keep them from breaking your heart, but you’ll end up lonely if you try that and loneliness can feel an awful lot like heartbreak.

Brene Brown has a great TED talk about this subject. She says that the people who have “a strong sense of love and belonging” see vulnerability as fundamental. They share a willingness “to say ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.” It’s not easy, and it’s not guaranteed to keep you safe, but I think it is better to risk getting close to people than fighting your human desire for connection “as you would struggle against an enemy.”

Some Thoughts on Feminism and Modesty

Amazon.com: A Return to Modesty
Amazon.com: A Return to Modesty

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read a book called A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. One of the first things she tackles in this book is the “polarized debate about sex,” particularly between the conservatives and the feminists.

She challenges conservatives to “take the claims of feminists seriously,” because you can dismiss however many studies and stories you like as “exaggeration” but the fact remains that “a lot of young women are very unhappy …. I want conservatives to really listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.”

To the feminists, Shalit writes, “I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” We’ve gotten rid of that just about as much as possible, and things have gotten worse rather than better. Perhaps men aren’t the enemy.

This book was published in 1999. That was almost 16 years ago, and we are still dealing with the exact same issues. We see conservative Rush Limbaugh respond to a street harassment video by describing it as not a big deal because the men were just being polite, and there are still rants about patriarchy on Jezebel.com (language/content warning).

But just a little over two months ago Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a speech about feminism where her vision for gender equality sounded remarkably similar to ideas Wendy Shalit arrives at while defending the power of modesty. Are we starting to find common ground, and is there hope for a peaceful resolution to “the war between the sexes”?

A Trip to the 18th Century

It might seem odd to take a 3-century detour when talking about issues in modern culture. But when I started reading Francis Burney’s novels Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) as part of an independent study my junior year of college, I was struck by how the gender issues facing those heroines were so remarkably like what women in my church regularly complain about. Where are the “real men?” we ask, looking around and seeing adult men who act like overgrown boys and have little interest in committing to marriage. We typically blame feminism, for telling boys that it was wrong to be “masculine” and to stop oppressing girls by taking care of them.

Portrait of Francis Burney by her relative Edward Burney

A contemporary of Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is often considered one of the first feminist writings. When you actually read her book, however, it becomes clear that she is arguing for arguing for a reexamination, not a dismissal, of the traditional roles between men and women. She believes men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but that argument doesn’t mean they don’t both have distinct roles to fill.

Both these writers were responding to a moment called “sentimentality,” which encouraged men to indulge their emotions and abandon their traditional roles of protectors and providers. The result was something like what we see today — when men are no longer encouraged to protect or respect women, more and more women are victimized. That’s where we made our mistake, both in the 18th and the 20th/21st centuries. We thought men would treat women better if we told them to stop being manly, when in fact the opposite is true.

HeForShe

When Emma Watson introduced her talk about gender equality and the #HeForShe campaign, she first addressed issues people have with the word “feminism.”

the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

One of the key points of Watson’s speech is that both men and women must be working together if we are ever to achieve a gender equality that benefits and protects both men and women.

How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. …

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.

When we turn issues of gender into a “battle of the sexes” instead of a friendly discussion or a cause to work on together, both men and women lose the battle. You can’t build peaceful relations on a foundation of strife.

Courteous Men

Wendy Shalit discusses essentially the same issue, though she comes from the perspective of restoring part of the traditional gender roles (I suspect Burney and Wollstonecraft would both approve). Rather than pushing for an increasingly “nonsexist” approach to raising boys (in this example), she argues for “a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman.”

Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes …. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyway — only when they do, the emerge in their crudest, most untutored form (p.153).

Frontispiece to ‘The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman’ by Richard Braithwaite, 1641

She also goes back to a previous century to illustrate her arguments, all the way to 1630 and 1631 — the years Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman were published. Shalit’s reading of these texts is that  there was a “link between male obligation and female modesty” where men attained “perfection” by treating women with respect (p.99-102). In this century, men were not compelled to respect women by an outside authority — they were taught that this  was the only way for real men to behave.

The argument from external authority labels a man as evil if he date-rapes or sexually harasses a woman. From the standpoint of modesty, he is behaving abominably, but more crucially, he is really missing the whole point. He hasn’t understood what it means to be a man (p.104).

The feminists who see patriarchy as oppressive balk at this idea, but Shalit assures them, “I doubt that if men are taught to relate courteously to women, women would be suddenly thrown out of all the professions, as some contend. Maybe, on the contrary, it would be much easier for the sexes to work together.” Isn’t this, at its core, what Emma Watson’s brand of feminism is asking for? men and women who can work together toward common goals with mutual respect. Isn’t that something we all want?