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Women and Femininity
All his life he had loved to study maiden ladies; they were his specialty, and his profession had provided him with ample opportunities for the work. Girls like Lucy were charming to look at, but Mr. Beebe was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex, and preferred to be interested rather than enthralled (3.8).
First of all, the phrase “maiden ladies” is so fantastic. Secondly, to digress very briefly, so is Mr. Beebe. There’s something quite intriguing in this quote – could it be that the “profound reasons” he has for his coldness to women are motivated potential (but certainly unmentioned!) homosexuality? It’s unsurprising to find this kind of knowing innuendo in Forster’s texts, many of which deal at least tangentially with male homosexuality. Anyway, Mr. Beebe’s “interest” allows him to look objectively at women and their internal lives, rather than being “enthralled” by their physical charms.
There is much that is immortal in this medieval lady. The dragons have gone, and so have the knights, but still she lingers in our midst. She reigned in many an early Victorian castle, and was Queen of much early Victorian song […] But alas! the creature grows degenerate. In her heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamoured of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war […] Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self (4.3).
The medieval lady described here is exactly what we’re afraid Lucy will become: a distant, discontented, and overly idealized conventional woman. The “early Victorian” reference indicates that in Forster’s post-Victorian (otherwise known as Edwardian) age, this type of womanhood is losing its relevance, as the “medieval lady” becomes less and less happy with her lot in life.
Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point (4.2).
Do the words “separate but equal” ring a bell? Sure, they usually are associated with racial injustice, but they fit just as well in this discussion of what makes women different from men from Charlotte’s hidebound perspective. Lucy’s childlike question, “Why were most big things unladylike?” demonstrates that she doesn’t exactly understand the dynamics of the social rules she adheres do… does anyone?
The elder ladies exchanged glances, not of disapproval; it is suitable that a girl should feel deeply (5.10).
The “elder ladies” here, Miss Lavish and Charlotte, acknowledge that a younger lady is allowed to feel some things “deeply” – that is, young people can have their deep and special feelings (as we all do). The implication seems to be, though, that once a woman is out of her girlhood, she shouldn’t feel so deeply.
"Oh, for a real man! We are only two women, you and I. Mr. Beebe is hopeless. There is Mr. Eager, but you do not trust him. Oh, for your brother! He is young, but I know that his sister's insult would rouse in him a very lion. Thank God, chivalry is not yet dead. There are still left some men who can reverence woman" (7.21).
Here, Charlotte claims to seek a man who can “reverence” women, but what she’s actually doing is reverencing men herself. In her world view, women can’t – and shouldn’t – defend themselves against anything.
“Come this way immediately,” commanded Cecil, who always felt that he must lead women, though he knew not whither, and protect them, though he knew not against what (12.32).
Oh, Cecil. You always think you’re in charge, even when you have no clue what’s going on. Though common sense should tell any normal person that you shouldn’t lead anyone unless you know where you’re going, Cecil’s sure that he’s the most equipped person to be in charge, simply because he’s a man.
"She was a novelist," said Lucy craftily. The remark was a happy one, for nothing roused Mrs. Honeychurch so much as literature in the hands of females. She would abandon every topic to inveigh against those women who (instead of minding their houses and their children) seek notoriety by print. Her attitude was: “If books must be written, let them be written by men”; and she it at great length, while Cecil yawned and Freddy played at "This year, next year, now, never," with his plum-stones, and Lucy artfully fed the flames of her mother's wrath (13.14).
Despite the fact that Mrs. Honeychurch is an adorable, lovable, and generally charming character, she is firmly rooted in the old-fashioned world that holds Lucy back. Her opinion on female authors demonstrates that she totally believes, without malice, in the pre-assigned traditional roles of men and women.
“[Cecil] daren't let a woman decide. He's the type who's kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own” (16.24).
George sees right through Cecil’s “chivalry.” Here, he makes his already-obvious position as the anti-Cecil even more evident; he shows Lucy what she was unwilling (or unable?) to see about her fiancé. Because it’s absolutely the truth, it’s impossible for Lucy not to see Cecil in this light after her encounter with George.
Her voice swelled. “I won't be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can't I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman's place!” (17.8).
Go Lucy! She finally rejects the old-fashioned notion that men (specifically Cecil) have to “protect” women, and that men are the ones who get to decide what is right for women. Even though she’s still in the “Lying to Cecil” chapter, Lucy declares that she’s ready for the unadulterated truth – is she really?
She could never marry. In the tumult of her soul, that stood firm. Cecil believed in her; she must some day believe in herself. She must be one of the women whom she had praised so eloquently, who care for liberty and not for men; she must forget that George loved her, that George had been thinking through her and gained her this honourable release, that George had gone away into—what was it?—the darkness (17.16).
Here, Lucy expresses one of the essential concerns of the budding feminist – how can an independent woman prove that she doesn’t need men to command her, but still want the man she loves to be around?
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