Monday, December 20, 2010

Victorian Heroines -- What a Plight

When I should have been cleaning house (my share of it, anyway), or writing, or decorating the tree, I had a cold, which gave me the opportunity to loll in bed and finish reading Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

First off, I would like to say, it wasn't The Moonstone -- a book I found to be much more accomplished in terms of character and dialogue. The Woman in White had a brilliant plot (Wilkie's great strength), and I loved it. I loved tracking the mystery of it all. It was so brilliantly layered that I could discover things bit by bit and feel excited at every turn.

To be fair, there were memorable characters: In my opinion, Count Fosco is one of literature's most memorable and fascinating villains; the magnificent Marion far outshown her heroine-sister and was much more worthy of the art teacher's affections; and Anne Catherick was mysterious, tragic, and always interesting.

But the heroine's besotted art teacher, Walter Hartright, was more appealing for his artistic bent than for his flowery language as he pursued villainy to its reckoning. How I tired of his inordinate delicacy of feeling when it came to his beloved! (Oh, those Victorians!) As for Miss Laura Fairlie herself (the story's heroine), she made me so glad I was not a Victorian Lady.

If I were a Victorian Lady I should have to swoon at life's every turn:

1. First of all, if my father died and left my uncle in charge, my uncle could marry me off to anyone, and my great recourse in life would be... to swoon.

2. If I found myself attracted to my art teacher (who would be beneath me) and fancied that he returned the interest, I should have to hurry to my bedchamber and... swoon.

3. If my sister sent him away because, after all, I was betrothed to another, and I had to say goodbye, decorum would require that I hurry away -- face flushed and heart beating rapidly -- to my room and... swoon.

4. If a letter came to the house and I recognized the handwriting as being that of my un-intended -- you know, the one that made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly -- well, I would certainly have to whip out smelling salts or... swoon.

5. If my marriage was wretched and the aforementioned art teacher who made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly was bent on my rescue, I would have no choice in life but to... swoon. And for a good long time, too. Doctors would be sent for and no one could visit me. I would be left to rest and take care of my ever-so-delicate nerves.

And so on....

If I were not so lucky as to be miserably betrothed to a villainous man by my uncaring Uncle... say, if my father died and left me penniless and unmarried, I would probably be governess to the above swooning woman's children.

And if I were from the servant class in the Victorian Era, I would be either cooking or cleaning or caring for some swooning woman or another. For some reason the servants weren't considered to have delicate nerves.

Or maybe it was because they didn't lace their corsets up tight enough to bring about swooning?

Now the strangest thing about this, is that, while I find the Victorian heroes and heroines rather lackluster, I love reading about the era itself. The cobblestones. The gowns. The top-hats. The fog. The extremes, I suppose. It's an era laden with story, no matter how you look at the society of the time.

Do you ever have that experience? The time suggests character and story, but the roles themselves are not appealing at all?


Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks for the review, Elizabeth. Looks like the ladies of the Victorian Era spent a lot of time swooning.

Will try to read this book.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year!!

Jayne said...

I think Victorian ladies were so used to swooning that they carried smelling salts with them at all times in case a swoon was imminent. I love reading about the era (indeed, all history appeals) but I do find the characters appealing as well, which is handy!

Julie Musil said...

I'm sorry to hear you're sick. At least you're already in bed for all that swooning! I haven't read this book, but I do love the Victorian era. Lots of fun saucy women beneath that buttoned-up exterior.

I hope you're feeling better!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks, Rachna, for the Xmas wishes and likewise. Hope you have a great holiday season and a good year ahead, especially in the publishing world. :-) If you are going to read one of Wilkie's books, read The Moonstone. It was farther along in his writing career, and thus the writing was stronger, and his heroine was a little more lively. I don't think she swooned once!

Jayne,you are right about those smelling salts. Can you imagine women today whipping them out? And I really do find most Victorian characters appealing. Some of them are quite colorful; Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart, for instance... .

Julie, thanks for the well-wishing. I'm fine now, and just in time for Xmas. And, yes, beneath that facade of respectable behavior, quite a lot was really going on.

Merry Xmas to all of you.