Lucinda Elliot

Agnes, Ma Slap’em, Mrs Kit and others: no need for them to be genteel young ladies

The education of women in the eighteenth century concentrated on the arts of allurement.

If the sweet innocent Sophie is to some extent Émile’s dupe, then many of the other female characters in my story border on the overbearing if not the alarming .

This might seem surprising, given that the story is set at a time when females were seen as intrinsically inferior and relegated largely to the domestic sphere. Long gone were the times when a Roman soldier commented with appalled respect on the fighting prowess of the Celtic warriors’ wives.

The Victorian age, where women were increasingly represented as a strange sort of feeble ‘Domestic Goddess’ and a terror of sexuality led to absurd lengths of oppression was about to dawn.

In the old days of herbal medicine, woman had had some control over their reproduction; this knowledge was lost. Now women were increasingly defined in terms of their reproductive role.

Even in the upper class into which Sophie is introduced, it was only thought necessary for women to acquire the superficial rudiments of an education – much emphasis was put on a Lady’s ‘accomplishments’ instead (it is as well for Sophie that she has a lovely singing voice and a talent for playing the piano). Such skills as dancing, conversation and deportment made a young woman a pleasant companion rather than an intellectual equal.

Then – as much later – much emphasis was placed in the middle classes upwards on ‘Womanly’ behaviour.

This, of course, was less of an issue further down the social scale. Such women had no choice but to contribute to the household income and were far more ‘out in the world’. As a result, Agnes, Mrs Kit and over in France, Francoise’s Grandmere and ‘Ma Slapem’ are far less inhibited than Sophie by ladylike notions and a habit of subservience to the male.

Earlier in the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson’s view that a woman’s husband was her ‘head’ is stated as fact rather than an opinion in Pamela (Mr B uses this argument to back up his point that he has not demeaned himself in marrying his maidservant, while a woman who married her ‘sordid groom’ was letting herself in for inevitable moral deterioration).

Some voices were raised in opposition to such views – for instance, Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Woollenstonecroft – but generally, this went unchallenged.

It was considered advisable for a husband to censor his wife’s reading material. Thus, Lord Ynyr asks Émile if he is willing to let Sophie read the book on the myths of Eastern Europe.

As a man with very liberal views on women for the time Émile agrees, adding lightly that he ‘Will try not to be too controlling’ (and if his eyes flash in a sinister way at the thought of her daring to examine evidence about the development of the vampire state, nobody notices). This claim of his is, given his later tendency to keep her confined – for her own safety, of course – in their marital home, highly ironic).

Émile’s views on women may be advanced for the time – he thinks that a wife has a right to sexual fulfillment in an age when sexual brutality to women in marriage was commonplace – but he can’t imagine a wife as being anything but a charming companion to return to, the mistress of his household and mother of his children.

He also takes delight (increasingly sinister) in Sophie’s guilelessness, as exemplified by her inability to be a worthy opponent at chess.

Later on, he remarks that they can’t have a proper discussion on the dangers of his involving himself in Kenrick’s experiments with time travel because ‘You are no mathematical blue stocking, for which I am grateful. Imagine being married to such a one!’

However, besides underestimating Sophie, he reckons without the influence of Agnes. He owes her a debt of gratitude for looking after him in his illness and is reluctant to fall out with her, but he regards her as ‘redoutable’ and doesn’t underestimate her strength of character.

Then, there is Mrs Kit, their new housekeeper and wife of his one time partner in crime, Kit. A blunt, loud, downright vulgar woman, she makes her outrage at Émile and Georges change into blood sucking monsters quite clear.

In the story (as no doubt, in real life) the problem for the males is how to control these Domestic Goddesses.

6 Responses

  1. Lucinda, I took quite a fancy to Agnes while reading your novel. I’m not fond of “clinging vines” (who always seem false to me) and have always preferred resourceful women who manage things well without being overly bossy. Human nature doesn’t change much, so I’m left wondering how many men in the periods you describe also preferred such women.

  2. Interesting, Thomas, and maybe many…A lot of readers love Agnes, including my writing partner..A couple were a bit critical of Sophie’s foolishly romantic attitude towards Emile, but without that, if she’d just said briskly as he ‘grovelled on is knees’ in the music room ‘Let’s get you cured; then I’ll think about it’ as the sensible Agnes would, then there wouldn’t have been a story. Of course, Sophie does come to realise her own strength,but she’s hampered by her ladylike upbringing.

  3. Interesting post, Lucinda, and a nice insight into the historical and social background of ‘That Scoundrel…’.

    Of course, as an apologist for the Victorian Age, I feel I have to dispute your assertion that: “…women were increasingly represented as a strange sort of feeble ‘Domestic Goddess’ and a terror of sexuality led to absurd lengths of oppression”. I feel that this probably represents a popular modern (but somewhat mistaken) attitude toward the Victorians. Yes, Victorian women suffered due to their strikingly unjust legal and social positions, but this was also the era of the birth of Feminism; the 1890 Matrimonial Causes Act gave women limited access to divorce; the 1884 Married Women’s Property Act allowed women a separate legal identity, rather than considering them simply as their husbands’ property.

    The Victorians get a lot of rap for certain things (child labour, female oppression) that they had in fact inherited from previous Ages, and that they themselves took steps to improve. 🙂

    1. Very true, Mari! I have simplified things a bit in that post. In the Victorian age, as in any other, There was opposition to conventional ideology, and the image forced on (middle class upwards) women as ‘domestic goddesses’. The reforms that you mention were strongly supported by women seen as entirely respectable and feminine, ie, Elizabeth Gaskell (whose earlier earnings for her writings had to be paid into her husband’s bank account).
      In the age in which the story is set, late Georgian, there was dissent, ie Mary Woolstonecroft,but a non intellectual,bourgoise girl like Sophie would have been brought up to believe that a woman’s duty was to obey her husband in everything save matters which pertained to her spiritual welfare- Sophie’s get out. It was in some ways easier for working class women like Agnes and Mrs Kit – their husbands couldn’t afford to keep them as domestic goddesses and they always contributed to the family budget.

    1. WordsFallFromMyEyes, hello, sorry I didn’t reply before, stresses and strains with formaters, ebook unavailable due to these, trying to sort them out. I’m glad you enjoyed the post I love it when women particularly enjoy reading my stuff.

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