Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Nineteenth-Century Female Novelists Incorporated Scientific, Philosophical, and Economic Concepts

I had a conversation with a friend who mentioned that she was having a hard time finding female intellectuals pre-20th century. 

It is not easy. If one looks at the dominant cultural structure (universities, Royal Societies, journals, presses), you just will not find them. There is always a smattering – most of whom led tortured lives. 

But, if you look at the so-called “popular” writers, who wrote novels and poetry, it is surprising how many deal directly with philosophical and scientific ideas, and even propose their own. The first two who come to mind are Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote an industrial novel, North and South, that far surpasses Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil: The Two Englands,  which is an effective depiction of the impact of industrialization on the populace of England, and a reminder of the fact that England was a nation of conquered and subjugated: the victorious invaders, the Normans, and the subjugated and dominated losers, the Anglo-Saxons. 

What were Elizabeth Gaskell’s deeper philosophical ideas?    

Utilitarian ideas reflected in the discussions about factory life and factory owners in the “North.” She also discusses at length the implications of religion and religious beliefs. 

One of my favorite books of Elizabeth Gaskell is My Lady Ludlow. Lady Ludlow is between generations, and reflects on French friends and relations she lost during the French Revolution, on the guillotine.  Her orientation and mindset is one of duty and honor; she contrasts that with the new ideas of the day, which seem to focus on libertinage (rather than liberty).  The novel is set in 1800, as reflections of a poor relation of Lady Ludlow. The poor relation, Miss Golindo, is a young woman, with chronic pain from a disfiguring accident, impoverished by her irresponsible father who gambled away the family’s wealth, now has few chances of marriage. Lady Ludlow gives her a home, covers her expenses, and shares her values. What develops is a deep regard and respect for the woman who, at first glance, seems to be a relict from the past, who resists change of all kinds.  Lady Ludlow’s son is a profligate and a deep disappointment.  I consider this book a philosophical novel of the first water, and I would like to re-read and revisit it. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon is another intellectual consigned to a role as a popular novelist. Braddon’s works are chock-full of allusions to Greek mythology, and they incorporate and challenge the scientific notions of the day.  She was also subversive. Lady Audley threw her husband down a well so she could marry a wealthy man, and when she was found out, she explained it was not her fault. Her mother died in a madhouse, so she, herself was genetically doomed to homicidal madness.  The homicidal stepfathers and wastrel con men fathers do not get an easy out. They are not considered insane, although they are clearly psychopaths.  It is an ugly, sad moment of reckoning when the daughter realizes that her father murdered her mother in Thou Art the Man.  Likewise, it is an ugly moment when an heiress whose mother has fallen under the spell of an evil, domineering dentist, Philip Sheldon, in Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance. The good doctor is slowly poisoning the young heiress, and, like any good “black widow” psychopath from The Forensic Files, he feigns concern and compassion. He’s a monster.