2. Women and power: an old fear
2.1 Queen Victoria: a queen in an old system
2.2 The ‘angel in the house’ vs. the New Woman
3. “She”: the ‘angel in the house’
3.1 “She”: a New Woman
3.2 Africa: the fascination and the fear of ‘the Other’
Among the phenomena that characterize the period at the end of the 19th century, better known as fin de siècle, the feminist movement can be considered as one of the most destabilizing ones for Victorian society.
The official year of birth of the ‘New Woman” is 1894, when Sarah Grand first uses this term to define what the average male population of the time labelled as: ‘ femme fatale, prostitute, suffragette, New Woman, virago, degenerate, Wild Woman, Free Woman”. In her article, ‘The New Woman and the Old”, Grand focuses on an important question that we shall try and answer in this essay: who is the New Woman? But above all, is there a New Woman or is she just a fictional product?
It is interesting to note that the first reaction of writers, critics but also common people to this phenomenon was to consider the New Woman as a fictional product, which lessened the importance of the cultural and social reality of feminism. Indeed, many fictional figures were created and became popular in this period that were completely different from the women that had populated British literature until then. In this essay, we shall focus on She, the very controversial and intriguing protagonist of Rider Haggard’s homonymous novel. We shall try and find out what made her a New Woman for Haggard’s contemporary readers, but also why she is in some attitudes rather an Old Woman, a very typical Victorian ‘angel in the house’ to us.
On the one hand, these contradictions are quite clear to the reader in some parts of the text. On the other, they are sometimes presented in a rather ambiguous way, which makes Haggard’s novel an ever more interesting rendering of the cultural and intellectual situation in Great Britain’s fin de siècle.
Another aim of this essay will be to show the connections between Haggard’s Ayesha, the She-who-must-be-obeyed of the fictive African Amahagger population and Queen Victoria, the she who had to be obeyed in the very real British realm. Queen Victoria, though a beloved and hihly admired queen, has never been described or seen by her subjects as a femme fatale, neither did she approve of the revolutionary attitudes of British feminists. She stated, for instance, that she was ‘every day more convinced that we women, if we are to be good women, feminine and amiable and domestic, are not fitted to reign; at least it is contre gré that they drive themselves to the work which it entails”. What is clear from this statement is that a woman does not exist without a man, without a familiar context, where she can be ‘domestic’ and follow her natural inclination of being a good mother and a faithful, submissive spouse.
But what happens when your husband is, legally speaking, your subject? How can a woman be at the head of such a great Empire as the British one was during Victoria’s reign and still insist on the importance for a woman of submitting to her husband’s will?
Our intention here is to show how these questions can be answered to some extent with a closer analysis of Haggard’s text. Fictional texts depict the fears and anxieties of a changing epoch and sometimes the protagonists of novels and their stories may say much more than real biographies. She is, in our opinion, a very good example of the feelings and the thoughts of fin de siècle British novelists who had to cope with very different and challenging realities, such as: the already mentioned birth of the New Woman (which entailed the necessity for a ‘New Man’), new ideas about and attitudes toward sex, related to Freud’s studies in psychology, but also colonialism and imperialism, with their most immediate consequence, the discovery of new cultures and ways of life or more briefly the confrontation with ‘the Other’.
Haggard’s novel was born in this context and is full of all elements typical of the colonial novel. For the purpose of this study, it is relevant to notice that She is both a femme fatale and the inhabitant of a continent that Britain was successfully colonizing; at the same time, the queen of an African old empire and the subject of the Queen; the powerful centre of the events which would not have taken place without Her irrational and passive love for the dead Kallikrates.
This study will try and make clear how all these elements coexist in a novel that was a bestseller after its publication, despite its clear contradictions. Moreover, we have looked for a parallelism between She and Queen Victoria and we shall explain how this works, though the cultural, social and geographical distance of these two apparently very different sovereigns.
In the first pages, we shall explain more in detail at the main characteristics of the New Woman are and why she was considered as a destabilizing factor for Victorian morals and values. We shall see how strongly feminists questioned the ideal of the ‘angel in the house’ and, above all, what Queen Victoria’s position was in this debate.
The second part will deal in more detail with Haggard’s novel. In particular, we shall focus on the description of She and analyze what makes her a New Woman and why she represents, in reality, a veiled attack on the Queen’s position.
2. Women and power: an old fear
In the male imagination, the idea that women can gain powerful positions and dominate the male world has very often been seen as a nightmare. Both in Greek mythology and in the Bible, for instance, you can find very negative portraits of terrifying women. The Amazons, queen Esther, Circe are only some well-known examples of powerful and dangerous women. Although with different characteristics (social, cultural, historical position) and stories, all these fictive characters represent the same kind of woman and embody the same atavistic fear: the destruction of the social order. Not only women, but also homosexuals or people with different cultural background have often been the centre (and to some extent still are) of a vast fictional production that deals with an instinctive human fear: the fear of ‘the Other’.
In this chapter, we shall analyze how this fear was eventually directed towards women and colonized people during the fin de siècle, by referring, among others, to Said’s theory about ‘the Other’.
According to contemporary critics, western discourses of history, culture, philosophy are based on binary oppositions where the man always occupies a better position: “the metaphorical space which the femme fatale occupies in late nineteenth-century culture is a space ‘outside’ normality, order, light, outside ‘masculine’ logic, reason, culture.” .
In the examples quoted at the beginning, women are described according to the same category that Stott refers to. They are other than men, but also other than the familiar, well-known women we have briefly referred to as ‘the angels in the house’. For this reason, it seems useful to supplement the binary opposition Man/ Woman with another category: New Woman/ Old Woman or more precisely femme fatale / ‘angel in the house’. Indeed, we cannot refer to Esther or Circe as to New women yet, but it is not out of place to regard them as two very typical femmes fatales.
We can conclude that, even before the birth of feminism, the problem of defining women was present both in fiction and in reality and it was somehow solved, by positioning women in the category of ‘the Other’.
As Stott says: ‘the femme fatale comes in many guises, but she is always Other. She is always outside […], as sexually fatal woman she represents chaos, darkness, death, all that lies beyond the safe, the known, and the normal’. Said discusses the reasons for the construction of ‘the Other’ as an ontological category in his study of Orientalism. He points out how the West approaches the Orient, making systematical use of categories: “this universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is ‘ours’ and an unfamiliar space beyond ‘ours’ which is ‘theirs’ is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary”. It follows that the image of the colonized is not an authentic one but depends on the definition the colonizer gives of himself. For this reason, the ‘black African savages’ (as opposed to the white civilized Europeans) are described as primitive, evil, dangerous, but also naïve or childish and, in some cases, even stupid.
 This date can be found in all the literature we have come across and that is listed in the end. In particular, we refer to the introduction chapter in: Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.
 Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale, Houndsmill et al.: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1993, p. 49.
 In: Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis ed., The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, p. 13.
 In: Gail Turley Houston. Royalties, The Queen and Victorian Writers. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia, 1999, p. 47.
 ‘Many a provincial lad rashly [mortgaged] the income in months of order to burst into a bookshop and buy “She” in: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land. Volume 2, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 25.
 Already before the British colonization, many stereotypes were popular in Europe that described other ethnic groups according to specific clichés. Thus the Indians were inscrutable, the Arabs violent, the Africans uncivilized.
 Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale, p. 31.
 Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatale, p. 37.
 Edward Said, Orientalism. New York: Vintage books, 1994.
 Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 54.
 We refer, for instance, to Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, in particular the scenes where the protagonists first meet the Kukuana and during the eclipse. Here, the narrator can easily ridicule the natives, because both he and his readers do not see the possibility for the colonizers to question the knowledge of the white settlers.
Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, London: Penguin books, 1994, pp. 103-106, and pp. 168-172.
- Quote paper
- M.A. Margherita Zelante (Author), 2005, She - The New Woman and the Queen, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/54396