International Women’s Day

(First, a confession. The photo is taken from Tripadvisor. Yesterday was incredibly wet and I couldn’t take a decent photograph.)

My daughter and I and a couple of friends went to a talk on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Heroines at Elizabeth Gaskell House in Manchester on Thursday. The talk, given in honour of International Women’s Day, was given by Dr Diane Duffy and was well worth attending.

Dr. Duffy clearly knew a great deal about the Victorian novelist and her life and works, but also gave us plenty of food for thought. I had read a couple of Gaskell’s works and had watched the BBC costume dramas but too long ago to recall the details or the names of all the characters but our speaker soon made sure we all knew the outline of the stories.

She started by unpacking the word ‘heroine’, pointing out the recent de-gendering of the term so that we now have female heroes, and gave a slide presentation showing aspects of the way heroines had been depicted in Britain in the past in both text and art. Some of her listeners felt she paid too little attention to attitudes in other countries, and other literatures, but so far as Britain was concerned I think her points were valid, even if somewhat ‘parochial’.

We were asked to consider the attributes we expected to be assigned to male or female heroes, and to look at the true nature of heroism. This was interesting and thought-provoking, especially given the preponderance of ‘hero’ movies today. Even in an atmosphere of ‘liberation’ for women we are capable of automatic stereotyping and a failure to notice or admire characters who do not conform to those stereotypes.

It was clear that Gaskell tried to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to Victorian readers, just as other novelists did, particularly Charlotte Bronte, who was a friend of Gaskell’s. Some of the characterisation they developed might seem very slight to us but was really subversive in Victorian times. Women, then, were advised that if they were intelligent or well-informed, they should hide the fact, and in most publications it was thought obvious that a blonde beauty would not only be the main character but would also be ‘innocent’ and would ‘get her man’ whereas anyone with dark hair would inevitably turn out to be a villain. So a dark-haired heroine was a really new departure for the audience of the time. Some listeners made the point that Disney was in fact one of the first to go against the trend, and although their depiction of Snow White with dark hair was in keeping with Grimm’s text, it was also in direct opposition to the prevailing norms.

Gaskell had publishers to contend with, too; you can’t get a message across if you can’t get your book printed and sold. She was perhaps more subtle in her attempts to subvert the ‘normal’ way of thinking, and did not meet the same kinds of publisher outrage and panic experienced by Charlotte, or by Wilkie Collins. I know today’s publishers are driven by the profit motive just as much as their forebears were, and I wonder how far the current development of self-publishing and small indie publishers/co-operatives will allow more widespread questioning of the social order.

The talk was certainly relevant to anyone who writes female heroes and perhaps to all writers, given the way that prejudices and stereotypes were questioned.

The Elizabeth Gaskell House is a beautifully presented small museum just outside central Manchester. The building has been renovated by Manchester University and lovingly restored to its nineteenth century incarnation as a Unitarian minister’s house – and that of his wife who gave us some enjoyable and provocative novels. I would recommend a visit if you’re in the area!

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