This Week In My Classes: Tears and Tough Guys

We’re back from our February break and now nothing stands between us and the end of term except everything we have to get done before then!

In the short term, that means pressing on with East Lynne in “Victorian Sensations.” The portion we are reading this week could be subtitled “Crime and Punishment”: Lady Isabel, having, in a fit of jealous pique, abandoned her kind but somewhat distracted husband for a handsome cad, has been living abroad, miserable and repentant, for a year. Things only get worse after she gives birth to the sad little baby who could have been legitimate if only her lover weren’t such a complete jerk. How much of a jerk is he? Well, after initially hiding from her the news that her divorce is final so that she can’t insist he marry her, he then tells her that he can’t lower himself to marry a divorced women–even though her husband’s grounds of her divorce is her affair with him! Double standards ftw.

On the bright side, by that time she wants nothing more to do with him–even though her only other options are poverty, despair, and death. Then [spoiler alert] a train wreck (a bit conveniently, we thought) kills the poor baby and everyone thinks it has also killed Isabel, so she is free (if that’s the right word) to roam the world like a miserable, repentant ghost…an opportunity she uses to go back to the home and children she abandoned, where thanks to the literally defacing effects of the accident and her “grief and remorse,” she is able to serve, unrecognized, as her own children’s governess under the management of her husband’s new wife.

Although I am more and more convinced that East Lynne is overall a pretty bad novel, it is certainly a provoking one, and our discussions have been much livelier than Isabel herself ever is. Our previous two novels have offered significant critiques of the many constraints on Victorian women’s lives–economic, social, political, and sexual. The most transgressive women don’t necessarily fare well–Marian Halcombe, for instance, may outwit her enemies and climb around on rooftops in the first half of The Woman in White but she loses her gumption in the second half and ends up happy just to be an honorary aunt, while Lady Audley is “buried alive” (metaphorically! but still…) for her sins. Still, it’s impossible to read either of those novels and not appreciate these subversive characters as contrasts to the tedious passivity of their more angelic counterparts. Isabel’s grievances, on the other hand, are mostly in her mind, and while we can see that things would have gone better for her if she’d been differently raised and more self-sufficient, it’s hard to conclude that she’s anything more than a cautionary tale. “Oh reader, believe me!” exclaims our narrator:

Lady–wife–mother! should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you waken! Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees and pray to bear them: pray for patience; pray for strength to resist the demon that would urge you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you rush on to it, will be found far worse than death!

Lady Isabel certainly thinks so: she is not so unladylike as to pray for her own death, the narrator reassures us, “but she did wish that death might come to her,” which seems rather a hair-splitting distinction to me. I think my students would be glad if she used her undercover job as a chance to strike back at the woman who has taken her place, as Lady Audley surely would in such a situation–but alas! From here to the end of the book things are only going to get more miserable, for her and thus for us.

Lady Audley has a closer cousin in Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whose acquaintaince we are just making in Pulp Fiction. Like Lady Audley, she’s a dame making her way in a man’s world, using her beauty as a resource, playing the damsel in distress (the noir version of the angel in the house!) when it suits her purposes and showing her more demonic side when she can’t win any other way. Sam is a better match for her than Robert Audley is (at first) for Lady Audley, though, because he is never under any illusions: he’s always suspicious, of everyone, and so never beguiled by her beauty. Or is he? One of the subtler mysteries of The Maltese Falcon is whether he does in fact love her–a question which in its turn provokes more questions about what exactly we mean by “love.” “If they hang you, I’ll always remember you” may not sound very romantic to us, but coming from Sam it’s a lot, I’d say. And yet of these two novels I think it is The Maltese Falcon that–if only implicitly–puts the higher value on idealism and tender feelings. By the end of Lady Audley’s Secret it’s pretty clear that to be a hero Robert has to toughen up and fulfill his role and duties as a real man. Sam lives up to a similarly hardhearted standard in The Maltese Falcon, but I always find Effie’s “broken” request that he keep his distance–“You’re right. But don’t touch me–not now”–suggestive of the price he has paid, as is the fate he faces with his own shiver of distaste: “Iva is here.” Braddon’s novel concludes, as she blithely declares, with “all the good people happy and at peace.” There’s little peace and even less happiness for Sam.

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2 Responses to This Week In My Classes: Tears and Tough Guys

  1. lawless says:

    And people think the plots of romance novels strain credulity!

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