Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ethel Wilson's "Mrs Porter"and the "Bluestocking"

There is a thumbnail distinction made between "Blue Stockings" and the "New Woman" as a means of explaining Ethel Wilson's use of the former term to describe Mrs. Porter in the "Hated House, Detested Wife" chapter.

This is a good opportunity for me to map out a process of simple academic literary analysis.

An unfamiliar term is encountered in the text: in this case, "blue-stocking." First, look it up in the OED. Under the etymology we find: its transferred sense it originated in connexion with re-unions held in London about 1750, at the houses of Mrs. Montague, Mrs. Vesey, and Mrs. Ord, who exerted themselves to substitute for the card-playing, which then formed the chief recreation at evening parties, more intellectual modes of spending the time, including conversation on literary subjects....
The general definition is " who frequented Mrs. Montague's ‘Blue Stocking’ assemblies; thence transferred sneeringly to any woman showing a taste for learning," but as the emboldened phrase in the etymology reveals, the sneering is aimed at intellectually-minded women.

The next step in the analysis is to see if the surrounding context of the phrase supports the definition. And indeed we see Mrs. Porter described as the highly-educated daughter of, and research assistant to, a Greek scholar; and the eventual founder and head of a School for Girls.

Now, further, and more pointedly, the term "blue-stocking" is applied to Mrs. Potter by Topaz Edgeworth's father immediately upon his reading of a letter informing him that Mrs. Potter has become separated from her husband. This, then, adds to understanding the suggestion of a specific mental logic to Mr. Edgeworth's use of the term: in the textual situation, the assumed ratio is that Mrs. Potter's cultivation of mind is at the expense of ability to enjoy the body

[By the bye, the same equation is drawn with the sexes reversed by another woman writer -- George Eliot -- in Middlemarch, where Dorothea leaves her scholarly husband Casaubon for carnal Will Ladislaw.]

And with this understanding gained, the chapter can be read at a greater depth, with Ethel Wilson drawing a portrait of an intellectual woman, who declares herself "strong enough" to flourish on her own without support from a man. Wilson, with her fine literary subtly, draws a potrait of Mrs. Potter that shows the strengths and failings of this assertive female separatist.

Finally, to fully understand the historical context -- to "historicise" in literary jargon -- we apply classical dialectic, and compare "blue stocking" to a term closely related enough for relevancy but different enough for illumination. And the term calling for attention is "New Woman": both applied to women activists at the Late-Victorian age in which Innocent Traveller is set.

The OED defines New Woman thus: "....a woman of ‘advanced’ views, advocating the independence of her sex and defying convention." The existence of the two terms for what we now call "feminists" implies need to define separate qualities, and, indeed, the anxieties (by no means always male) about proto-feminism among Late-Victorians needed wider scope than charging against the cold austerity alleged of blue-stockings (i.e. too little sexuality), and so found a threat of wild excess in new Women (i.e. too much sexuality.) An excellent place to see this debate as played out in the 1890s is in Appendix C, "Debate over the 'Woman Question'" in our Library's copy of George Gissing's The Odd Women, book edited by a scholarly acquaintance of mine, Dr. Arlene Young: pp 370-377, Eliza Lynn Linton "The Wild Women" versus Mona Caird "A Defense of the So-Called 'Wild Women'. (Nb. "odd women" refers to the numerical superiority of women to men: the 'odd-women-out' in the marriage pairings.)

These two terms, then, as lecture suggested, can be very roughly distinguished by a greater freedom of sexuality attributed to 'New Woman'; or, to put it the other way around, by the attribution of sexlessness attributed to 'blue-stocking.' This corresponds, again as a thumbnail measure, to a separation in the present day around the term "pro-sex feminism" -- of which, being a scholar of English, I know only that the debate around the term exists, and less than nothing about the human reality to which it refers.

So much, at this time, for "blue-stocking" in Innocent Traveller.

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