The Victorian era is an interesting one to say the least. Arguably one of the most interesting aspects of the period would have to be the end of the decade, coined Fin de Siècle meaning end of the/a century. During the end of the Victorian era a lot was happening socially as the attitudes of gender relations were shifting. Due to this radical idea that women could be independent without a man and ultimately his equal, society started to view women in a different light. And thus the new woman was born. She smoked cigars, drank with the men, and god forbid wore pants. This radical shift was not only affecting social conventions but dramas as well. During the time leading up to this, there wasn’t much happening in the world of drama. Yes, during the middle of the Victorian era there were pantomimes, burlesque shows, and musical theater. However there weren’t any hard-hitting serious dramas being produced at this time, like we saw in the Restoration. It wasn’t until 1890 when we see a shift to a more serious form of playwriting dealing with serious social issues of the time (Ann McClellan). In 1890, it’s when we start to see ‘problem plays’ especially with Bernard Shaw, particularly his play Mrs. Warrens Profession.
Shaw’s play takes an interesting stance on women’s rights and class structure in England. What is arguably the most inserting aspect of this play would have to be the way Vivie and Mrs. Warren contrast each other. I would argue that both women are in some form, a form of the new woman, “Not at all: I’m much obliged to you for being so definite and buissnesslike…But I think I’ll say no, if you don’t mind. I’d rather not”(Shaw 1813). With money and social prestige tied to a conventional marriage its hard not to see the social issue bubble to the surface. As the conventional women would have conformed to this social norm and given in to a submissive marriage with Crofts, Vivie stands firmly on her values of self-fulfillment and independence, rejecting the constructs of marriage. What is interesting is how we can see Shaw’s stance on not only the idea of the new women, but also the woman question. By Vivie rejecting Crofts engagement Shaw is rejecting the patriarchy hold society has on women, while supporting the notion of a liberated independent woman.
As I mentioned before, both Vivie and Mrs. Warren hold many qualities of new woman “And whats a woman worth? whats life worth? without self-respect! Why I am independent… other women that had just as good opportunities are in the gutter? Because I always knew how to respect myself and control myself” (Shaw 1806-1807). Pulling herself out of a ‘demeaning’ job and ultimately her low social class, Mrs. Warren justifies her unconventional actions. What is interesting is what constitutes as self-respect in Mrs. Warren’s eyes, leaving a respectable conventional job socially constructed by her oppressive patriarchal society for a the self degrading and social taboo of prostitution. We can see that the idea of the new women is bound to no social class; she can be a prostitute/madam as well as educated women (Todd). Both women conceptualize what a new women is, regardless of their social classes. However they clash when it comes to define what makes a new woman, which is interesting because where social class didn’t matter before it plays a major role now. Growing up in different social classes means different ideals in what it means to be liberated. The girl who works in the factory, or in a pub has a completely different view, than the girl who grew up in boarding schools among posh aristocrats. We can clearly see that with Vivie and Mrs. Warren when they argue about Mrs. Warrens profession,
VIVIE: So that’s how it’s done, is it? You must have said all that to
many a woman, mother to have it so pat.
MRS. WARREN: What harm am I asking you to do? Vivie listen to me:
you don’t understand: you’ve been raised wrong on purpose: you
don’t know what the world is really like.
VIVIE: Taught wrong on purpose! What do you mean?
MRS. WARREN: I mean you’re throwing away all your chances for
nothing. You think that people are what they pretend to be: that the
way you were taught at school and college to think right and proper is
the way things really are. But its not: it’s all only a pretence, to keep
the cowardly slavish common run of people quite. Do you want to find
that out, like other women.. (Shaw 1827).
Mrs. Warren is not only standing up for what she believes are justifiable actions, but also while doing so she shatters Vivie’s concept of ‘reality’. Vivie like the upper class educated women she is believes that, every woman regardless of social class have the same opportunity’s to further themselves. This is interesting when thinking in terms of what defined being independent between the social classes. What I think is interesting in this dialogue between a mother and her daughter, is Mrs. Warren’s word chose particularly ‘cowardly’ and ‘slavish’ given the current patriarchal society in which all women are living under. Both words have a very negative connation to them indicating that women are not only property of their male counterparts but also almost stupid in a way for falling in line.
Vivie has lived the life only knowing one social class, which happened to work in her favor. She is incredibly intelligent, self-fulfilling and she doesn’t need a man for anything. However her life has been one sided, she doesn’t fully grasp what its like to live where your only opportunity to climb the social ladder is by means of prostitution. Leading Mrs. Warren to believe she had ‘raised’ her daughter the wrong way. Which I honestly feel speaks volumes to Shaw’s problems with the split between the different social classes. How are different social classes going to rise above the oppression of the patriarchal society if they cannot agree on what it means to be a new woman? Shaw’s concept of problem plays, as you can imagine, earned him some serious backlash during his time, and his play was banned from the stage. However it makes you wonder if it was simply banned based on how risqué of a play it was, or because it encouraged women to step out of the norm and be unconventional while shedding light on several social problems within Shaw’s Victorian society.
The women Question and the Age of British Drama. Ann McClellan. Plymouth State
University. Web. 4 Apr. 2016
Todd, Ellen Wiley. The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on
Fourteenth Street. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1993 1993.
Underwood, and Underwood. The New Woman on Wash Day. 1901. New York. The
New Woman. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.