Since Sarah Grand coined the expression in 1894, the New Woman has referred to a modern woman living in the
Considering Hardy’s enthusiasm about the new type of woman, it is not strange that there is a remarkable affinity found between Hardy’s
Creating a New Woman as their female protagonist, Schreiner and Hardy depart from the angel-in-the-house character embodying the Victorian feminine ideal and docile womanhood. Schreiner’s Lyndall and Hardy’s Sue are equally complex, neurotic, and inconsistent characters, producing more than a single interpretation of their stories. Although they end up in death (Lyndall) or marriage (Sue), like their sisters from the novels of the high Victorian period, Lyndall’s death is regarded not as the typical tragedy of an unfortunate rebel but a willful act of a woman rejecting the existing principles. Sue’s suicidal marriage is interpreted as her masochistic self-denial, with no romance or family comfort. Anxiety remains in the marriage or death at the novel’s ending, unlike the sense of closure in the realist novels of the previous generation. Providing autopian or naturalist perspective, Schreiner and Hardy recalibrate the Victorian literary tradition, anticipating the next-generation feminism. However, the two authors still differ in their views of the social transformation and possibilities of future progress. In satirizing Victorian society, Schreiner suggests a utopian vision of social progress with her protagonist’s death symbolizing a new beginning. Hardy’s naturalist pessimism draws his characters ultimately defeated by human nature.
This essay aims to illuminate the kinship between Schreiner’s Story and Hardy’s
1Unlike Hardy, other male novelists among Schreiner’s contemporaries openly expressed their dissatisfaction with her work. For example, H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang were unhappy about her choice of writing about “tackling religious problems, or falling in love on new and heterodox lines, instead of shooting deer, and finding diamonds, or hunting up the archeological remains of the Transvaal.” Another writer, George Moore, said that he found no “art as [he] understand[s] it-rhythmical sequence of events described with rhythmical sequence of phrase” (qtd. in Showalter 199). 2Hereafter, I use the abbreviated title of The Story for The Story of an African Farm, and Jude for Jude the Obscure. 3William Deresiewicz’s essay compares Schreiner and Hardy but in the exclusive context of the friendship between man and woman represented in modern British literature, also including Mary Wollstonecraft’s work.
As Sally Ledger indicates, the New Woman is not a transparent category, as different writers give us conflicting looks (23-24). While Sarah Grand praises a virtuous woman and perfect mother in
In her landmark criticism about British women novelists, Elaine Showalter particularly praises Schreiner for her “female symbolism,” her dedication to feminism, and her use of “insistent” narrative voice to articulate women’s realities (198). “That voice, soft, heavy, continuous, is a genuine accent of womanhood,” Showalter says, mentioning its influence on Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and Doris Lessing (198). Showalter also regards Lyndall as “the first wholly serious feminist heroine in the English novel”; Lyndall is one “of the few who is not patronized by her author” as well, born after tragic Victorian heroines such as Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s novels (199). Denying the traditional idea of marriage as a harmonious union between man and woman, Lyndall views a marital union as a business contract wherein women gain access to social status and financial security in exchange for their autonomy and independence. For this reason, she rejects the courtship of her unnamed lover and remains friends with Waldo, her childhood friend, for whom she feels the most intellectual and emotional affinity. With no daydreaming or pathetic self-pity, Lyndall criticizes the reality of fixed gender roles in Victorian society. Men are solely responsible for physical and mental labor -- “work” -- but woman are forbidden from any intellectual production or artistic creation because they simply “seem” to exist (135). Men are born with power, while women obtain it through marriage; men create and women merely recreate. Two metaphors are used in the novel to represent the women’s confinement: one is a caged bird chafing against the iron bars (141),4 and the other is a Chinese woman’s foot. Lyndall says:
Lyndall’s plight lies not in the blindness to this reality of captivation like the other women in the novel, but in knowing too well the lack of agency granted to them. If a woman is “wise” enough to understand her social position, she must conform to the norms. She realizes that the time is not ready for her to enact her feminist manifesto. Still, Lyndall lives a full life, experimenting with her feminist ideas; her youth does not seem to wane with experience, and her premature or “untimely” death comes paradoxically when she is done with all her experiments with life. She refuses to accept either of the two options appearing in the above passage; instead, she embraces death as a new beginning.
Elaine Showalter, despite her praise of Schreiner, ultimately concludes that the novelist is “underambitious” and her novels “depressing and claustrophobic” (203). In opposition to this assessment by Showalter, I argue that Lyndall’s seemingly hasty life and death is not the sign of a premature abandonment of her trial but that of fulfillment and promise in a compressed time where the lines separating past, present, and future are blurred. Thus, a future is saved by Lyndall’s untimely death, and “talents wasted and frustrated” according to Dan Jacobson can still create a new possibility for future generations (qtd. in Showalter 204). Lyndall might be granted “only the narrowest of possibilities,” as Showalter claims, but she nonetheless opts out of the two choices given to women in the forementioned passage in order to choose a third alternative of momentary retreat (203). The image of a caged bird appearing in the novel mirrors her situation of retreat:
The bird’s temporary withdrawal in the above paragraph is symbolic of an anticipation of “the new time” that will surely come. The climax of Lyndall’s death clearly reveals Schreiner’s utopian expectation of afterlife -- “the Hereafter” -- and future possibilities. Her death completes her life journey but opens up new possibilities for future generations; for example, it redeems Waldo, who realizes the meaning of death afterwards, saying “there is that which never dies - - which abides” (225). Upon her death, Lyndall goes through an everyday ritual of dressing up, eating, and reading, while consciously recognizing the final moment like a visionary saying, “I am nearly there.” Indicating “a defiant glance of triumph,” the narrator’s authorial voice says: “[o]nly, the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth”; “[h]ad she found what she sought for -- something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter” (218-19).
As Patricia Murphy argues, Lyndall’s death scene suggests her silent defiance, since, “as a successful rebel against gender norms, she has no space she can ultimately occupy in nineteenth-century culture” (n. pag.; my emphasis). The novel’s ambiguous conclusion featuring Waldo’s unfinished letter then indicates the existence of “women’s time” that extends beyond this world, disrupting the hegemonic linear temporality. Lyndall’s death or disappearance to another life delivers a sense of hope for the new era where women may negotiate a conflict between work and romance, and art and love. The setting of Africa in
Not only does Lyndall’s death scene illuminate Schreiner’s utopian politics, but it also hints at her questioning the dichotomy of body/soul, nature/culture, and man/woman. Schreiner’s anxiety over the flesh is noticed in the novel when maternity is marked as feminine “nature” by Victorian scientific discourses. Like many intellectuals living in the Victorian era, Schreiner was hugely influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Herbert Spencer’s biological functionalism.5 Yet, as Nancy Paxton examines, following George Eliot, Schreiner sets up her critique of Spencer’s sexist and racist ideas about women and the colored that rationalize British imperialism in Africa and Asia. Probing the resemblance between
Schreiner further denaturalizes sex as a constructed social discourse by disrupting sexual hierarchy and demonstrating gender inversion. Lyndall’s intellectual superiority over her male partners makes her an excellent teacher but an unusual lover, since it violates the men’s dominance over women and upsets the power dynamics of gender relations. It is in her relationship with Gregory Rose that gender inversion is seen most obviously. Gregory, the fiancé of Lyndall’s cousin Em, is a distorted version of a decadent aesthete. Schreiner uses satire for characterizing Gregory as a self-indulgent, sentimental dandy. He is a parody of the “new man” -- a fin-de-siècle aesthete, à la Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s
The word, “seeming,” in the first passage insinuates Schreiner’s satire on the “new man.” Gregory’s narcissism in the second passage is the author’s mockery of typical self-indulgence and pathetic self-pity seen in the decadent aesthete character. A parody of the new man, Gregory’s action resembles the stereotypical behavior of a young girl in love, for example, his narcissistic attention to his appearance and his girlish complaint of Lyndall’s indifference. In spite of his “unmanly” traits, he maintains the conventional notion of womanhood in service of man, which role he ironically plays for Lyndall upon being enthralled by her. As if a husband were speaking to his wife, Lyndall tells Gregory that he could serve her by giving her his name (173). Accordingly, Gregory is converted to his “natural” womanhood of nurturing, taking care of the dying Lyndall. Even a latent homoerotic desire is implied by Gregory’s satisfaction with “his” gender role of nurturing and Lyndall’s sensual pleasure of his touches and kisses, with his sexual identity unknown to her (Paxton 573). Through Gregory’s sexual transformation and gender inversion, Schreiner not only mocks the decadent dandy, a figure popularized by contemporary male writers, but also indicates that gender identity is a social construction.
4Shanta Dutta also considers this captive bird representing the women’s aspiration for freedom to escape from the socially-imposed gender roles (69). A caged bird appears in Jude as well when Sue releases her pigeon, in danger of being slaughtered. However, this bird’s release is ironic because Sue is eventually caught in her own cage of matrimony and religion. 5In his early works, Spencer maintained that motherhood is the “supreme end” of woman’s existence, saying that “one of nature’s ends, or rather her supreme end, is the welfare of posterity.” Thus, women’s education should gear towards this goal, since “a cultivated intelligence based upon a bad physique is of little worth, seeing that its descendants will die out in a generation or two” (296). This analysis of women’s sexual functions became one of the core arguments in his major works, such as Principles of Biology (1864-67) and Study of Sociology (1873), influenced by Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) (qtd. in Paxton 568).
Schreiner shows the New Woman’s struggle in negotiating the conflict between feminist ideal and social reality. Her utopian feminism suggests an unending potential of future progress implied by Lyndall’s symbolic death. Hardy’s depiction of Sue as a New Woman is much more ambiguous. In the course of the novel, she undergoes a transformation from a free-spirited woman to a submissive wife of masochistic self-denial. Her inconsistency as a character intimates Hardy’s ambivalent view of women, whom he describes as ultimately unable to be liberated from their female nature of sexuality in
Early in the novel, Sue appears an embodiment of the New Woman with her flashing wit, intelligence, generosity, and nonconforming spirit. The “bachelor girl” and “odd” maid tells about her tomboyish adolescence, being the only girl among a group of boys; she and the unnamed Christminster undergraduate take walking and reading tours, “like two men almost” (118). Having an aura of London life, she is more experienced, urbanized, and sophisticated than Jude, who, “under [her] teaching,” is liberated from conventions (187). Like Lyndall to Waldo, Sue plays a role of a teacher to Jude. She even makes an audacious statement about her (sexual) experience, saying, “I am not particularly innocent” (118). The episode of her purchasing the pagan statues of Venus and Apollo insinuates the New Woman’s aspiration for love and art -- harmonious sexual union and selffulfillment, which are in conflict given the social circumstances. It also exemplifies Sue’s disobedience against Christian authority, as she edits the Bible according to her taste, which is considered sacrilege by Jude (117). Sue, a “Voltairian” malcontent and “the Ishmaelite” (111), ominously compares herself to Eve, whose role of “corrupting” man is played by her later.
But Hardy’s portrayal of Sue drastically changes during the novel. After being ostracized by the community and losing her children to death, she renounces her faith in social transformation and abandons her love for Jude. “Undoing all [that she has] begun,” Sue submits herself to the tyranny of religion and matrimony, which she previously attempted to dispute (279). Jude agonizes about her feminine irregularity, saying, “What I can’t understand in you is your extraordinary blindness now to your old logic. Is it peculiar to you, or is it common to woman? Is a woman a thinking unit at all, or a fraction always wanting its integer?” (276). Sue’s inconsistency, in fact, has been the central topic for scholars to debate about Hardy’s representation of women in
Interestingly, in contrast to Schreiner, Hardy attributes Sue’s inconsistency and her failure as a New Woman to the female nature of sexuality and maternity more than to social restrictions. Her feminine nature annihilates her achievement as an independent woman and enslaves her to animalistic instincts and irrational impulse. She succumbs to “the feminine sexual desire of being loved,” as she recognizes it:
The above statements show that Sue is not free from the woman’s “inborn” desire for being loved which, according to her, transcends moral conscience. It is the arrival of Arabella, Jude’s ex-wife, that brings about a new phase of Sue and Jude’s relationship, transforming Sue from a bodiless phantom to a possessive woman. Referring to the woman’s “natural” craving for love, she says, “love has its own dark morality when rivalry enters in” (210). Her free spirit is finally “caught” or “nested” by the snare of the flesh and the desire to be loved. If her sexual desire thwarts her intellectual pursuit, as the narrator says that “a glow had passed away from her, and depression sat upon her features” (210), the ensuing maternity completely exhausts Sue’s moral strength, leading to her masochistic self-renunciation. In this sense, Shanta Dutta compares Lyndall and Sue in terms of each woman’s tormenting experience of motherhood (63). Their remorse about the loss of their children causes one woman a death (Lyndall) and the other, her surrender to patriarchy (Sue). Lyndall’s suicidal visit to her infant’s grave is echoed by Sue’s sorrow-stricken request for digging out the grave so that she can see her children again. Nonetheless, in
Sexuality and maternity, signifying nature, eventually defeat Sue in pursuit of her artistic ambition and independence. As Anne Simpson suggests, there is an innate conflict embedded in the term “New Woman.” Simpson writes: “[Sue] is ‘New,’ for she is emblematic of the nebulous age to come and serves to illustrate Hardy’s perception of the uncertain state of humanity at the dawn of the twentieth century. But it is essential that Sue is ‘Woman’; the feminine serves as trope for a state of being that eludes familiar strategies of description” (58). Lyndall in
With Hardy’s naturalist view picturing women as limited by their sexual desire and maternal instinct, his pessimistic naturalism also questions the possibility of social change, as his characters are victims of human nature. Hardy poses a social critique of marriage, religion, and the educational system as examples of inhuman and anachronistic social institutions. Sue’s artistic talent is subdued by the disciplines at the Training College, while she is finally beaten down by marriage and the burden of childbearing. Jude is also a victim of these conventions, failing to realize his dreams due to his class status limiting his education, as well as due to his ideological confinement to Christian doctrines. “The letter killeth” both men and women. 7 However, Hardy stresses human nature as the central obstacle to his characters’ pursuit of their ideal, more than social restrictions. Human beings are constantly tested by their sexual desire since they embody the battlefield of flesh and soul, nature and reason. Jude’s disastrous first marriage results from his inability to resist Arabella’s physical attraction and his inborn tenderheartedness. Sue is destined to be ruined by her sexual desire to be loved and her maternal instinct. Hardy illustrates Darwinian naturalism by using metaphors such as a rabbit gin denoting inevitable death (169), and the pig-killing scene suggesting nature’s laws in discordance with human endeavor (54). The survivor in his naturalist world is neither Sue nor Jude but Arabella, a character incarnating sheer lust and shrewdness for survival. 8 Likewise, in Hardy’s world, choice is limited or absent. Heredity plays a significant role in sealing the fate of Sue and Jude, whose “blood” is said to be unfit for wedlock. The characters lack resource or agency for making changes in social conventions, let alone human nature.
Sue and Jude’s rebellion against natural and social laws is described as dignified and admirable, but the novel’s ending causes intense anxiety because Hardy’s pessimism seems to allow little chance for improvement of the human condition. In this sense, Hardy’s criticism of Victorian England is limited since human nature negates any effort toward social transformation. This nature cannot be addressed by human reasoning or overcome by a willingness to change. Thus, unlike Lyndall’s symbolic triumph in The Story, Jude’s death is tragically fateful. No solution is given to the questions raised in the novel. “The grind of stern reality” is the eventual truth that Jude acknowledges, with no sense of hope or promise of future (309). Jude’s liberation upon his death is different from that of Lyndall. Death merely frees a person from misery and illusion, “putting an end to a feverish life”; nothing exists beyond death, neither afterlife nor redemption. No future generation remains to realize their forerunners’ ideal. While little Father Time, the son of Jude and Arabella commits a suicide-murder, killing all his half siblings, Sue’s still-born baby symbolizes the parents’ unfulfilled wishes. It is Arabella who takes up the authorial voice at the final page of the novel, implying that her animalistic instinct makes her sole survivor in the world ruled by Darwinian principles.
6Simpson claims that Sue is “the woman at the center of Hardy’s text,” resisting categorization and always in motion. In spite of her destructiveness ruining Jude’s life, her indecipherability makes the text renewable because, from a narratological perspective, more interpretations and meanings are generated due to her ambiguity (58). 7This is the novel’s epigraph: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3.6). 8Studying Hardy’s revisions of Jude, James Harding argues that the author characterizes Sue as a New Woman in juxtaposition to Arabella embodying a “negative, denigrated, and [vulgarized]” version of feminine sexuality (105). However, as Harding says, “Arabella and Sue are more alike than different, and . . . Hardy uses Sue to further denigrate the vision to which he gave voice in Arabella” (102). Harding follows Ruth Firor’s study claiming that the two women are “variations” of the pagan goddess of love in English folklore, who is associated with phallic worship and death, particularly in charge of dead children. This goddess’s characteristics are revealed in both Arabella and Sue in the novel, which complicates Hardy’s view of the New Woman’s sexuality (qtd. in Harding 102).
Schreiner and Hardy explore the Victorian Woman Question through each creating a New Woman character in their respective novel. Schreiner’s criticism in
Schreiner and Hardy portray the predicament of the New Woman in pursuit of autonomy and social innovation. While Schreiner dwells more on social restrictions and gender inequality, Hardy underscores an innate human nature as the main reason for Sue’s unsuccessful attempt. Each author’s view of their respective dilemma is echoed by the disparate ending of each novel. Whereas Lyndall’s death is seen as a fulfillment and future promise, Jude’s miserable death and Sue’s self-denial leave no room for a hopeful future. This contrast originates from each author’s different philosophy and worldview: Schreiner’s utopianism and Hardy’s naturalism. Schreiner’s novel is not strictly realistic, employing a parody of the decadent aesthete and her visionary symbolism in portraying Lyndall. Rooted in naturalism, Hardy emphasizes how his characters are beaten down by their conditions, particularly human nature. Yet, challenging the previous literary tradition of realism, both novelists create complicated female characters instead of those embodying transparent femininity. Accordingly, their novels diverge from the seamless narrative, homogeneous characters, and unified voice of the previous generation of realism (Ardis 3). With their complexity producing more textual interpretation, Schreiner and Hardy produce a new literary model for the novelists of future generations.