I can never be thankful enough

From The Angel in the House:

“In Coelebs [in Search of a Wife, a novel by Hannah More], Charles, the hero of the novel, speaks to the Stanleys’ lame gardener, who details all the kind things Lucilla and her family have done for him. The gardener ends his recital with, ‘At Christmas they give me a new suit from top to toe, so that I want for nothing but a more thankful heart, for I never can be grateful enough to God and my benefactors.'[…]According to Peter M. Blau, who applies Mauss’s observations [on gift economies] to a capitalist society in his Exchange and Power in Social Life, the dual obligation to receive and to repay a gift ‘makes it possible for largess to become a source of subordination over others, that is, for the distribution of goods and services to others to be a means of establishing superiority over them.’ Lucilla’s charity, then, is a gift that marks her generosity, but it is also a way of establishing superiority and power over those socially beneath her, as well as changing the meaning of the exchange of goods and services between them. The gardener, as an employee on the Stanley estate, receives pay for work done, and, under the terms of a market economy, he could be seen as a ‘free’ agent exchanging his labor for a wage. By extending charity toward him, the Stanleys displace the market economy with a gift economy that obligates the gardener and makes his labor insufficient as a repayment for goods received. Thus the ‘economy of charity,’ based on the type of gift exchange in wihich there is a ‘unilateral supply of benefits,’ makes the poor or laboring-class recipients of philanthropy ‘obligated to and dependent on those who furnish [those benefits] and thus subject to their power,’ whether the poor are dependents on a rural estate or urban laborers. Of course, if women are the primary agents of charitable giving, this way of defining their activity puts them in a position of considerable power and authority over those they ‘serve’–a position they would not normally hold in customary market exchanges.”

Embellishing poverty itself

From The Angel Out of the House, discussing Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel Millenium Hall, about a charity-working proto-commune for unmarried gentlewomen:

“What the narrator first notices about the ladies’ schools is that the pupils are ‘perfectly clean’ and always busy. The narrator uses the word ‘clean’ every time he brings up the subject of the poor who are served by Millenium Hall. This preoccupation with cleanliness–an ‘article of unspeakable Moment,’ as one charity sermon put it–is a key element in the philanthropic goals of restoring both the health and morals of the nation’s working population. If the poor are clean, they are understood to be deserving, and the charity bestowed on them can be expected to achieve its desired goal.”

A bunch of rich guys conduct a committee meetings with to-do lists while eating rich food (one visibly suffers from gout) and drinking. When the poor clamor to be let in at the door, they are forcibly ejected.
“A Select Vestry” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1806. The parish collected taxes called “poor rates” and administered parish relief (i.e. welfare). The vestry was the administrative body of the parish, sometimes it included most or all of the congregation, but a “select vestry” was when a parish had a smaller committee that made some/most/all of the decisions. Image from Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, call number 806.00.00.49.

Reading this book and its descriptions of women’s charitable work was pretty upsetting. Charity work and activism was one of the few socially acceptable substantive outlets for women’s energy (I’d say profession, except that these women usually didn’t get paid). This was important work that needed to be done, and no one else was doing it. And yet (this is so painfully familiar) it’s often really a way of getting power for upper- and middle-class women at the expense of poor people (and that’s not even getting into all the messed-up stuff in the Abolitionist movement). Look at this:

“Along with the implied power that philanthropy gives to the benefactor in [Hannah] More’s vision of an ideally functioning society comes the right and responsibility of the philanthropic woman to superintend those she relieves. Philanthropy creates an unrepayable obligation; it also affords the upper-class woman the right to supervise the household of the poor. One of Lucilla’s [from Coelebs in Search of a Wife] philanthropic projects, for example, involves her orchard and garden. When one of the servants or a girl from the charity school marries–‘provided they have conducted themselves well, and made a prudent choice’–Lucilla ‘presents their little empty garden with a dozen young apple trees, and few trees of other sorts, never forgetting to embellish their little court with roses and honeysuckles.’ This, recollects Charles, explains the ‘many young orchards and flourishing cottage gardens’ in the village that ’embellish poverty itself,’ rendering it pleasing to the eye of the tasteful rich. Besides nourishing their aesthetic sense, these flowers, although transplanted to the gardens of the poor, still evidently belong to the rich–another characteristic of a gift exchange economy. Charles cuts a bouquet of roses for Lucilla from the bush outside the cottage of one of ‘her poor’ without even mentioning it to the inhabitants of the cottage present in the room.”

Something about that moment of cutting the roses without asking is just so chilling, it turns my stomach. One of the ongoing struggles of writing historical romance is the politics of accuracy (which is not to say that classism is a thing that only existed in the past, or anything!). On the one hand, writing a heroine who behaves like Lucilla is gross and offensive. On the other hand, writing an upper-class heroine who is so amazing she does charity in a way miraculously free of problematic attitudes that were completely entrenched in the British society of her time has the potential to be equally gross and offensive, by erasing the experiences of Regency poor people. And my Lydia is from a staunchly Tory family which makes her not only conservative for our time, but conservative for hers.

My current strategy seems to be to greatly soften what I would consider “period-accurate” behavior–since I know I wouldn’t want to be reading a fun love story and suddenly have my stomach turned by classism (I can always go to Georgette Heyer for that…look, I love her, but every so often there’s just that worm in the apple, you know?)–while still giving Lydia hints of prejudice that are either questioned by Lydia herself, or undercut by the narration.

Men led, but women organized

Another one from The Angel out of the House:

Sensibility posed a dilemma for men, claims Barker-Benfield [in The Culture of Sensibility], because they were caught between an older definition of manhood characterized by disorder and violence and a newer version that was more ‘decent’ but also less discernable from what was defined as ‘feminine.’ Barker-Benfield implies that men’s participation in philanthropic associations was one way to reconcile this dilemma. By joining together to raise subscriptions for charitable purposes, men of business could distinguish themselves from an older corrupt male culture, demonstrate their sympathy and public spirit, and bond together with other men of sympathy in groups that resembled old-styled clubs without duplicating the perceived excesses of such male assemblies; in addition, participating in philanthropic associations could be an effective way of making business contacts or of establishing a reputation that would enhance a man’s business affairs. Thus joining philanthropic causes was a suitably masculine way for a man to exhibit his sympathetic nature. Barker-Benfield’s contention that participation in philanthropic institutions could resolve men’s difficulties with being both sympathetic and masculine helps to explain why women were largely excluded from such participation throughout much of the eighteenth century, despite their traditional association with sympathy and charity.”

…And, of course, men were more likely to have ready access to the money needed for financial contributions to charity. Elliott goes on to say:

“The historian Donna T. Andrew does note the names of many women on subscription lists [“subscription” being the contemporary word for a charitable donation] and identifies the charities to which they were most likely to contribute. Published philanthropic writings, especially charity sermons, provide further evidence of eighteenth-century women’s participation in philanthropy by explicitly addressing women and soliciting their donations. Focusing primarily on women’s financial contributions to philanthropic institutions, however, tends to obscure the kind of charitable contribution that consisted of time and personal energy rather than money. This less historically visible kind of charity, as Andrew mentions, became more and more significant to society’s understanding of philanthropy as the century progressed–and it was also the kind of charity that women had been practicing for centuries.”

Man must be pleased; but him to please is woman's pleasure

Another quote from The Angel out of the House (p. 40):

“The figure of the ‘old maid’ attracted such opprobrium because, like the poor, she was both too dependent and too independent. Without adequate economic resources, unmarried women of almost all classes could drain the finances of their families or, in the case of spinsters of the lower classes, the parish ratepayers. If women were of age and not married, however, they were legally independent. Similarly, the laboring classes were also economically at risk and a burden because they were dependent on the resources of ‘their betters’; Ogle recognized that it was often the lot of the poor to ‘patiently submit to…Misery.’ As the poor seemed to become more numerous and more destitute than ever before, the problems of dealing with poverty became more troublesome and received more attention, as the concern devoted to reforming the poor laws suggests. The laboring classes were also, though, as another philanthropic writer worried, more independent than ever before; the English common people, writes Josiah Tucker, ‘having been growing up into Freedom for several Generations back, and are now become entirely independent, and Masters of themselves and their own Actions’–no longer subject to ‘discipline.’ Domestic ideology, however, made it possible to displace such concerns onto the figure of the ‘old maid’ or the prostitute, both of whose situations, like that of the poor, combined economic independence with a threatening legal independence.”

Oh, and I did a little art project I’m rather proud of–if you like Remington Steele and Iron Man, check it out. What if Pepper Potts was a private investigator with an imaginary boss and Tony Stark was a charming, neurotic con artist looking to make a change?

One of the most magnificent speeches ever made in this or any other country

[Content warning: discussion of sexism and rape.]

Well, it’s been a while since I really posted anything here…I just got out of the habit while the blog was in maintenance, and now…I’m familiar with the phenomenon from my years on livejournal: the longer I don’t post, the more of a curious resistance I build up to posting. It’s partly that I start to feel like I can’t post unless I’ve got something really special to say, but mostly it’s just a mysterious reluctance that I can’t adequately explain.

HOWEVER I have been reading lots of great research books and have built up a huge backlog of interesting and/or funny quotes to share with you, and so, here is the first of them, from Dorice William Elliott’s The Angel out of the House: Philanthropy and Gender in Nineteenth-Century England

from an 1859 article in Fraser’s Magazine, titled “A Fear for the Future, That Women Will Cease to be Womanly,” talking about girls who are unsexed by their philanthropic work:

Any of my sons, I am quite sure, would as soon think of making love to Lord Brougham or the statue of Mr. Canning, as of uttering a word of anything sentimental to these ladies.

This is extra funny to me as I have a bit of a crush on Lord Brougham, a big-deal Whig politician and lawyer who, among other things, was Queen Caroline’s attorney at her adultery trial and made a two-full-day opening statement described by Thomas Denman as “one of the most powerful orations that ever proceeded from human lips,” by Charles Greville as the “most magnificent display of argument and oratory that has been heard in years[…E]ven his most violent opponents were struck with admiration and astonishment,” and by William Vizard as “one of the most magnificent speeches ever made in this or any other country.”

Henry Brougham, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, image courtesy of Wikipedia.

SUCH good eyebrows. And that nose! IJS probably that guy’s sons DID think equally of both but that doesn’t mean they weren’t thinking! The statue of Lord Canning would probably be more difficult. Hard to get to, for one thing. But it has an unquestionably alluring tilt to the hips, wouldn’t you say?

Photo by Runcorn at Wikipedia.

That “A Fear for the Future, That Women Will Cease to be Womanly,” gives me a thought about all those 60s and 70s science fiction stories about a dystopian future where people no longer have sex. Why on earth would society evolve to do away with sex?

It always struck me as a completely random cultural panic with no obvious cause–unlike, say, the fear of nuclear-radiation-caused monsters, the fear of a future run by powerful corporations, or the fear that machines will revolt and make war on their former masters, which all have a clear emotional logic. The best I could come up with was that it was some kind of fear of a return to 1950s repression…but that doesn’t quite mesh, does it? The dystopian futures portrayed rarely seem 50s-like (or Victorian, or puritanical, or religious, or…) at all: they’re far more likely to be ultra-sanitary minimalist monochrome futures with unisex-coverall-type fashion.

Yet despite its strangeness, it was such a popular trope that Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry parodied it in their “Crystal Cube” pilot.

Do you think it could actually be a disguised fear of feminism? The idea being that when men no longer have power over women, women will no longer be safe/passive sexual objects, and therefore will either no longer be attractive to men or will no longer be willing to “provide” sex for them?

It certainly brings the “necessary” rape in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” (one of the most famous of the genre, not insignificantly originally published in “Playboy”) into sudden sharp symbolic focus…

Wow. Eureka. Well, that’s just depressing.