At this period, women had very few of the freedoms we take for granted today. They were trapped in confining social roles, tightly laced into restricting clothing, and kept, for the most part, firmly behind closed doors. Unlike men, who could ride horses or drive their own carriages, women had to rely on the whims and goodwill of their male relatives. A woman without a male protector was easy prey; once out of public view, few servants would be able to protect her from an armed assailant. In any case, her bulky, trailing clothing and impractical footwear would make escape from an abductor virtually impossible. As added insurance, women were deliberately kept weak, a weakness overtly manifested in the extreme slimness, pallor, and slow languid movement so prized in young women of the day. Finishing schools prided themselves on producing anaemic, passive, child-like prospective brides. These well-brought-up young women were drilled in the virtues of complete compliance to the wishes of men, and self-control in their submission to them.
The restrictions on female behaviour were a natural corollary of their legal position. Under the law, women were considered the property of men. This meant that an unmarried woman was subject to the will of her father and brothers, and a married one to that of her husband. As women could neither inherit titles nor the family estates associated with them, an ancestral home would pass to the nearest male relative, usually a brother or cousin on the father's side. This is the primary reason that first-cousin marriages were so popular: they kept property in the family. Once married, of course, women had little or no say over their finances; any money or land they inherited would pass to their husbands who also had automatic custody of any children born. Royalty was no exception: when the wife of the Prince of Wales left him in 1797, she had to leave her children behind even though he was a bigamist with several mistresses. Not until 1839 were women permitted to keep their children, and then only those under seven. It is clear to see why women had to take exceptional care choosing a mate: not only did men have all the power in the marriage, the union was very difficult to break. Divorces were only granted under exceptional circumstances and they involved lengthy court proceedings. As only infidelity on the part of the wife was considered grounds, a trial would necessarily be a public destruction of her reputation-men were expected to stray, women to be chaste, or, if their husbands were more complaisant, discreet. There were no laws on the books to deal with physical abuse, (unless severe), domestic rape, or even incest.
Women in the higher social
circles had the most difficulty finding a suitable mate which is why sop many
of the popular novels and plays of the period revolve around the courtship
process. Among the best of the novels are Maria Edgeworth's Belinda
and Fanny Burney's Evelina, neither
as influential as Richardson's immensely popular Clarissa
Harlowe which we will return to shortly. While these novels
ended with the heroine happily married, it is clear that marriage was frequently
a prison. Women were absorbed by their marriage, in a way men were not, losing
not only their names but their homes and families.
Love matches were frowned upon. Women who married men of lower status for love were considered to have betrayed their class. It was not unusual for their families to refuse to have any further dealings with them. To increase the pressure, the marriage market was very competitive. Twenty-five percent of women did not marry, most of them in the upper circles, because there simply weren't enough eligible bachelors to go around. This is because primogeniture and entail laws favoured firstborn sons while the younger ones were expected to find their own way and not considered a good catch. Considering that families of fifteen children were not uncommon, it is clear the problem was extensive. As a result, families would often go to great lengths to trap a suitable marriage partner for their daughters. For the sons, things were easier. It was not necessary for a man to "marry up"-his status would be passed to his children no matter who their mother was, making an heiress or a rich widow very acceptable, even if her blood were less than blue. A daughter, on the other hand, was expected to make an alliance uniting her family to another of equal or greater power.
Women usually entered the mating competition in their late teens. Having "come out", they followed the beau monde in its seasonal migration from London, once Parliament was out of session, to the fashionable summer resorts-Bath being a particular favourite. The girls were dangled like bait and ensuing offers considered primarily on the basis of rank, income, and political affiliation. Daughters who gave trouble about the husband chosen for them were frequently locked up in their homes or in private lunatic asylums until they became more cooperative. Of the two prisons, the latter were to be particularly avoided. Asylum nurses were not chosen for their medical background-indeed, there were no schools of nursing at this time-they were picked primarily for strength and lack of empathy for their patients. Most of them were heavy drinkers. A letter written by an earlier novelist, Daniel Defoe, gives a good example of what could be expected.
It may suffice to tell you for the present, they kept her bound Hand and Foot in her Bed, such a one as it was, and ty'd to the Bed Post for several Days, reduc'd to strange Extremity, beat and pinch'd her by cruel and barbarous wretches called Nurses, and forc'd nauseous Draughts down her Throat, which they call'd Physick, and which she, being apprehensive they design'd her Destruction, and might poyson her, refus'd; but they forc'd her mouth open with Iron Instruments, and pour'd into her, what they thought fit, wounding her very much with their Violences and Inhumanities.
One reason such drastic measures were taken to keep young women under guard is that it was far too easy for them to be seduced into a secret marriage. The Puritan regime had enshrined the right for people to marry without benefit of clergy: all that was needed was a declaration of intent and a clasping of hands. The law even specified that, where an individual had no hands, the latter requirement could be legally dispensed with as well. No banns were read, no registry signed, and witnesses, potentially the only proof that the marriage had taken place at all, were optional. The consequence of this was that enough heiresses were abducted and forced into marriage with their attackers, sometimes with the added inducement of rape, that in 1753 new legislation was enacted. Highly unpopular, the new law did away with secret marriages by requiring the publication of banns. This law was devised more in order to protect property than to women, as it resulted in increased dependency of unmarried women on their families and strengthened the paternal hold over them. Not infrequently, such extreme methods for imagined insanity resulted in real madness. Doctors and families blamed it on hysteria, believing until quite recently that the presence of female sex organs invariably produced a kind of mental weakness. While madwomen abound in the gothic, insanity is rarely associated with men.
In any case, once married, women could be just as easily locked up as undutiful daughters. George I imprisoned his queen for adultery for 32 years. She died without ever seeing her son again. The popular gothic novel Castle Rackrent was inspired by the true story of Lady Cathcart, who was locked up by her husband for over 20 years. Horace Walpole's aunt Dolly was locked up by her husband when he discovered she had, after despairing of marrying him, had relations with the infamous Lord Wharton, already mentioned in connection with the Hellfire Club. Although a funeral was held for her in 1726, it was rumoured that it was just for show that that she didn't die until years later. Her ghost, known as The Brown Lady, is said to walk the stairs of Raynham Hall, perhaps seeking the children she was kept from in life. The Prince Regent had a memorable encounter with her when visiting Raynham Hall. After waking to find the Brown Lady at the foot of his bed, he quit the premises in the middle of the night saying, "I will not spend another hour in this accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to God I never see again". More recently, a photograph taken by photojournalists doing a piece on the house reveals a shape on the stairs like a woman descending, perhaps the best-known photograph in existence of a reputed ghost.
As most of the early gothic novelists were women writing to support their families, the issue of the law's inadequacy to provide justice for women is frequently explored in their novels. Although they were forced to uphold social conventions in their books, bolder ones used their novels to demonstrate the need for legal reforms to protect the rights of women. One of these, Charlotte Smith, had practical experience of the unhappy plight of the unprotected woman. Although she started her life in a happy family and comfortable surroundings, this all changed after her mother died and her father remarried. Stepmothers were a fact of life at this time, as many women died young in childbirth leaving their children at the mercy of second wives who had no attachment to them. Charlotte's young stepmother was jealous of her and got rid of her when she was only fifteen by marrying her off, simply selling her, as Smith was later to write bitterly, to the highest bidder. Although her husband had prospects, he was profligate and quickly ran through all his money landing the family in debtors' prison. In order to support her twelve children, Smith became a writer. She started by translating a novel she discovered in a dilapidated rental the family occupied after fleeing to France to avoid their creditors. The novel was Manon Lescaut, a tale of doomed romantic passion by the Abbé Prevost. (Prevost, in turn, was the translator of Samuel Richardson's novels into French, making Richardson the most widely read and influential English writer of the century, inspiring parodies by de Sade and others). Although Smith's father-in-law was sympathetic to her difficulties and attempted to bypass his own son by willing his money directly to his grandchildren, Smith's husband claimed and obtained their inheritance. It took many years and a fortune in legal fees to sort the matter out. The case inspired the heartbreaking Chancery suit in Dickens' Bleak House.
Another novelist with
an unhappy family history was Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley.
Wollstonecraft's father was drunk and abusive. After he had squandered his
inheritance, leaving nothing for his sons, Wollstonecraft and her sister were
forced to leave home in order to earn their living as governesses. Wollstonecraft's
sister was governess to the wealthy Wedgwood family. The Wedgwoods, now famous
for their innovative china, were Radicals and intellectuals and friendly with
both Ann Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth's families. Mary was very much at home
in this milieu, where her ideas could be expressed in spite of her sex. Her
novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman
was a fictional exposition of many of the themes in her groundbreaking A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
It is curious that novels read for escapism should lead the reader so frequently into the confinement of house arrest, debtor's prison, the cloister, or a death in childbed. There is something of a cautionary nature to these stories. Even if escape is possible, it could lead to something worse. The danger of being at large, without a chaperone, of compromised reputation, can rarely lead to anything but misery and death. The structure of the gothic novels reflects this obsession with confinement by the way in which it nests tales within tales. This confinement is almost always linked to sexuality, and sexuality to death. At its most extreme, the novels give us nuns who went from the buried life of the cloister to being walled up alive in tombs for giving way to sexual desire. Sexuality is frequently linked to death in this way, especially when the sex is of a particularly forbidden nature, like that of Ambrosio the monk who abducts his sister to a tomb in order to rape her undisturbed. The novels may explore women's fear of sexuality as a means of death. Many women died young in childbirth. Infant mortality was also high, further underlining the connection. Women who had sex were almost invariably killed off in the novels, even the virtuous ones like Clarissa, who was raped. Her story (to be discussed) follows a quintessential gothic pattern. Yet women were deliberately kept in the dark about sex, and given no knowledge that might help them avoid either seducers or to protect them from pregnancy. Like Antonia in The Monk, their reading material was frequently bowdlerized, rendering them too innocent to recognize potential danger. Immalee in Melmoth the Wanderer is another example of an unprotected child, too innocent to identify the serpent who invades her Eden and eventually leaves her die in a prison of the Inquision with an illegitimate child. Sexuality also carried with the it the possibility of disease, which I hope to explore more when we come to the vampire.
Women bred to weakness and sexual prudery, and ambivalent about pregnancy, contributed to the massive spread of prostitution. Poverty and a scarcity of mothers contributed to the large numbers of children working as prostitutes or in dangerous factories or mines. It was recorded that children worked 14-hour or longer days in the factories, frequently naked. "The transport of coal and iron-stone, on the other hand, is very hard labour, the stuff being shoved in large tubs, without wheels, over the uneven floor of the mine; often over moist clay, or through water, and frequently up steep inclines and through paths so low-roofed that the workers are forced to creep on hands and knees. For this more wearing labour, therefore, older children and half-grown girls are employed." The workers were frequently abused, made pregnant, or even murdered.
to be continued...hopefully this week
The Bloody Bedchamber
In which we meet our captive heroine