The New Woman
Womanhood and literature at the turn of the 19th century
The New Woman | The Victorian Woman | Education & Work | Marriage & Sexuality | Fiction | Cartoons | Works Cited
The New Woman in Fiction
The mainstays of the Victorian novel were courtship, heartbreak, reconciliation, and of course, the looming and inevitable marriage. The novel ends, but the characters are directed forwards into an assured future of domestic securities including caring for the children and creating harmony in the home. Female authors of the time were expected to only be interested in writing romances and the heroines of these books were often portrayed as needing men in their lives to identify themselves. The Bronte sisters, for example, create heroines such as Catherine and Jane in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, who both need certain men in their lives to feel they have an identity. Also in the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot, a pseudonym which allowed Mary Anne Evans to free herself from the Victorian expectations of female writers, the character Dorothea Brooke goes into marriage believing that it will present her with more opportunities to pursue herself and her interests, but instead she finds that her powers are limited and she is ultimately wholly dependent on her husband.
The new woman that began to appear in post-Victorian fiction was more likely to view these marital conventions as a sordid financial bargain; one in which she was forced to deck herself out to men's likings, put herself up like an object for auction, and go through the socially approved motions of accepting one suitor, with whom she would be stuck for the rest of her life. This tended to be a shameful and degrading affair, and pretty soon women in fiction became more intelligent, individualistic, and principled. They became more frank with themselves and in doing so these characters come to expose the superficiality upon which their entire female lives had been based. These characters were just the surge of vitality that the English novel needed and both men and women writers jumped to write the New Woman novel, making it one of the most widely read at the turn of the 19th century. Yet as many of these novels, including Chopin's, would come to reflect the sentiments of the day, society was not quite ready for these characters, let alone these actual women.
This may be why a feature that is common to many New Woman novels is an emphasis upon nervous disorder, disease and death. In works so passionately concerned with a discontent with the establish order, which exhort women by stirring their deeper emotions to move them to free their thoughts and actions, it is perhaps odd to find such a relentless catalogue of catastrophe. Mental breakdown, madness and suicide are apparently the common penalties the New Woman must pay for her attempts at emancipation. Edna's suicide in The Awakening and Emma's suicide in Madame Bovary result from the mental instability which their new freedom has created. The point is that the New Woman's ideals were far too advanced for her environment. These novelists were trying to do two things at once: firstly, to argue the moral and social case for a high degree of emancipation, and secondly to show how firmly entrenched the creeds and conventions which oppressed women truly were. Thus the common pattern of the New Woman novel is to show the heroine arriving at her ideals of freedom and equality from observation of her society, but then being brought through the miserable experience of trying to put them into practice to a position of weary disillusion.
Some examples of New Woman fiction and authors include:
Henry James has been given credit for coining the term "New Woman" and gives many of his heroines the characteristics of the exemplary self-defining female:
Daisy Miller (1878): Daisy Miller is a precocious American youth on a sojourn in Europe in the prime of her life. Upon assertively pursuing a European society man, the key to fulfilling her frivolous fancies, it becomes clear that her choice to ignore inhibition and to sexually self-promote removes her too far from the acceptable behaviors of traditional society.
Portrait of a Lady (1881): Isabel Archer comes into a large fortune when her father dies and in a stubborn effort to control her fate, she refuses many viable marriage proposals. In an uncharacteristic twist, her sexual anxiety over dominating male figures prompts her to marry a weak, distant man with secretly shady relations. When she discovers that he is only after her money, Isabel defies her selfish husband and the reader is left wondering whether she will ever return to the emotionally debilitating confines of tradition.
Henrik Ibsen once said: "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view," and because of his wonderful playwriting efforts in the name of female equality, it was also once said by Max Beerbohm that "the New Woman sprang fully armed from Ibsen's brain":
A Doll's house (1879): Nora Helmer is a fully capable woman, so capable, that she must hide that she has been supporting her family through her husband's inadequacies to maintain the harmony in their household, a harmony dependent on the husband's supposed superiority and Nora's adorably-helpless-wife act. After the secret is revealed and Nora is confronted with the reality of the male ego, she decides that she cannot continue playing the part for her marriage if she is truly going to live to her full potential.
Anne Sophia Cory wrote, under the pseudonym Victoria Cross, one of the most widely-read novels of her day. In it, she not only demanded recognition of a new femininity, but also a new masculinity to match; calling upon a higher social arrangement that many found confounding:
Anna Lombard (1901): Anna Lombard, 21, is a General's daughter who falls in love with a military man while they are both living in the far-off British Indian Empire. When he is transferred, her sexuality blossoms and she has a fulfilling affair with a local servant. When the British soldier returns proposing marriage, only to find out that she is pregnant with an interracial child, she must decide between the infantile manifestation of her sexual freedom or the life that is expected of her.
Kate Chopin's works came to reflect a more psychological approach to the New Woman movement, making her novels into deeper studies of the confusing nature of woman's new existence, even once saying that "Human impulses do not change and can not as long as men and women continue to stand in the relation to one another which they have occupied since our knowledge of their existence began":
The Awakening (1899): Edna Pontillier has been awakened by a summer spent in Grand Isle, Louisiana with a group of Creoles, to find that she can no longer identify with the life of a mother and wife that she has been living. Leaving behind her distant husband and children, she pursues her independence, artistic expression, and newly found sexuality, only to discover that there is still no suitable place in society for women like her.
At Fault (1890): Melicent Hosmer's "face was awakened with an eagerness to know and test the novelty and depth of unaccustomed sensation," so when she goes to visit her brother on a Louisiana plantation, she quickly indulges in an intense flirtation with a plantation hand. To Melicent, the flirtation is merely a passing fancy and despite the young man's desperate love for her, she simply sees him as another leg of her journey toward self-discovery and scholarly development.
Regret (1895): Mam'zelle Aurelie is an elder woman who wears "men's hats about the farm," "had never thought of marrying," and even after refusing one proposal at age 20, "had never lived to regret it" (403). Yet when a neighbor must leave her four children in this self-made woman's care, Aurelie comes to regret her past decision which prevented her motherhood.
Wiser than God (1889): Fraulein Paula VonStoltz is "an acknowledged mistress of technique" who desires nothing more than to attain the "position in the musical world" of her dreams (665). "Marriage doesn't enter into the purpose" of her life, so even when confronted with love, she does not let traditional hang ups deter her from her career goals.