In January we decided to move closer to joining the 21st century by setting up a Roku for our TV screen. We could now live-stream movies. A year or so ago, The Mrs had set up an Amazon Prime account, mainly for the free-shipping, but also to watch Downton Abby on her little iPad screen on Fridays when I have clinic duties longer she. As the 21st century Internet vendors’ algorithms want to dictate your interests, our ‘Prime’ link decided that we were interested in 18th century romance TV series. Through the late winter, we ate our dinners, knitted, shelled beans, etc with Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters. Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyer, we viewed in 4 to 11 parts. A later 19th century tale by Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree, showed up. Then we went to Arena Stage to see The Heiress, a 1930’s stage adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square. Just call me Mr Romance!
Some common themes through our journeys to find love with the right man, include the social norms of 19th century (British) class system, seeking one’s economic situation whether through inheritance, marriage, or (dreaded) work, and the empowerment (or not) of women. Being a liberated man, myself, I could go through a few tissues and cheer the heroine on.
Most of these romance novels dealt with the plight, usually of young women, though secondarily their brothers & cousins, who have lost their station in society. Parents die or cannot afford to keep them, thus send them off to the care of wealthier relatives (who usually resented the cost of their upkeep and lack of dowry devoid marriage prospects). The family endowment is dwindling. The women go from the manor house to the cottage to boarding school (as students or teachers) to the streets.
A 21st critique of 19th century romance novels might be that a woman’s plight was both brought on by men and resolved by men. Hmmmm, I remember back in the 1980’s when I was at college there were rumors of women who went to college to ‘earn their MRS’ degree. I’m sure that no longer happens at our institutions of liberal learning!
The competing theme is women (and men) bonding because of true love and affection. Most of the stories have a subplot of some woman or man marrying for station (i.e. annual income of the man or heiress) and then living unhappily ever after. Manor houses and estate gardens were large enough, at least, that they could avoid each other until supper.
What I found interesting, was the progression from the early 19th century romances of Jane Austin/Bronte sisters, to the later 19th century tales of Hardy and James (need I mention their gender and question whether this might also have influenced the stories?). Austin’s/Brontes’ women usually held out until the love-of-their-lives came around and proposed to them. Conveniently, this also brought financial security after years of uncertainty and financial hardship.
In Under the Greenwood Tree, the woman is courted by and proposed to by the wealthy businessman of the village and the vicar, both with promises of a life of comfort and world travel. She declines them for she has no passion for either man. Rather (at least in the movie version) she eventually walks out into the field to propose to the farmer/merchant who has caught her heart. Austin’s women could declare their intent to their women friends, but never walk up and say “Will you marry me”. Next thing, you know, women will want to vote!
The Heiress, the play that I am actually supposed to be writing about, took another turn of the theme. First, it is set in mid-19th century USA, New York City to be specific. It is in many ways an extension of those British romance novels. Dr. Sloper (has to work, but has an endowment) (James Whalen) and his painfully shy daughter, Catherine (Laura C. Harris), live on Washington Square. His sister, Lavinia Penniman (Nancy Robinette), is staying with them for the season. They are concerned with finding a suitor for Catherine. As men are run by, Catherine struggles to carrying on social graces of the parlor room drama. One, Morris Townsend (Jonathan David Martin), eventually proclaims his desire for her and claims her heart. Rogue he must be (we had seen enough of this formula in Austin/Bronte sisters). And, rogue he is.
But, James does not send Catherine off to a life of torment at Morris’ cheating heart, or find some other man to save her. No, after a number of scenes of pain and anguish, she finds her voice. She sends off Morris with the jewels he is really looking for with instructions to prepare for their wedding. Then she tells her housekeeper to lock the door. She ignores Morris’s pleas and pounding to open her door. She does not need a man, or false love, for fulfillment. She is an heiress who can make her own decisions.
Have we really had to wait 100 or 150 years for women to find their voice? How many women are living forfeited lives to secure their position with men whom they do not like or love? How many are waiting for their romantic hero to come rescue them? Did we need to men to tell women to make-your-move, or don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-backside?
You might be interested to know that the creative team which brought Jame’s story of The Heiress to Arena Stage, were mostly women.
Excuse me, I think I have some dishes to wash and laundry to run…