Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Women in 19th Century Literature - Cosette, Lucie and Mina

Recently I received an Android phone, complete with Amazon's Kindle app. This excellent ereader allows me to access the Free Popular Classics section of the Amazon store, which holds an excellent selection of classic novels, treatises and essays. Some of the books I have downloaded and read so far include A Tale of Two Cities, Dracula and of course Les Misérables.

A Tale of Two Cities (ATTC) dates from 1859, while Les Mis was published in 1862. Dracula comes in a little bit later, in the year 1897. While each of these novels are very different, a notable aspect of each them is their treatment of their leading female characters, particularly those of the upper classes.

Cover Image, Godey's Lady's Book

In Dickens' classic novel, Lucie Manette is one of the central figures. She enters the story quite early on and is at once notable for her generous and caring nature, her understanding, her compassion and her beauty. She is presented as the ideal of womanhood and is shown to be the central figure in her family life. While her character is treated with great respect by the author, she is however consigned to a very specific role as a result of her gender. When tragedy befalls the family and her husband's life is in peril, Lucie is next to useless. It falls to the male characters in the story to save Charles Darnay, while Lucie herself is shielded from the situation as much as is possible.

                                                Lucie Manette faints in court.

In this novel there is a very clear place for the female heroine, especially as she is a member of the upper class. She is indispensable to home life, but must be protected at all costs from the realities of the world. During her first night in Paris, her guardians are at great pains to ensure that she does not witness any of the bloodshed or violence that surrounds her, and this attitude continues throughout the book. Of course other strong female characters do feature in this novel, most notably Madame Defarge, but these women are of a lower class and are generally considered to be vulgar (by the standards of the time).

Anyone who has read my earlier post on Les Misérables will already know how I feel about this particular work. While I am not going to rehash the views already aired in that post, I would like to talk about the character of Cosette in more detail. Personally, I was incredibly disappointed by Hugo's treatment of his heroine. Lest we forget, this is the person for whom Jean Valjean sacrifices everything. Without this girl his life literally has no meaning. Is it too much to expect that Cosette should be in some way worthy of this devotion?

Throughout the novel, Cosette is portrayed as the feminine ideal. She is dainty, refined, and petite. Hugo mentions her tiny feet more than once, and we are told that she becomes very attractive. However, Cosette is rarely allowed to speak. She has no voice of her own. Only a very tiny portion of this massive story is told from her perspective, and her views and opinions are given no thought whatsoever. Throughout the vast majority of this novel, Cosette is simply a figurehead, an ideal, a symbol representing purity and perfection.

However Hugo simply cannot get away with keeping his leading lady completely silent for the entire work. Eventually, as the story is drawing to a close, he allows her to speak. And what a disappointment that is! Cosette comes across as selfish, spoiled, inconsiderate, insensitive and callous. The day after her wedding, Jean Valjean reveals his true identity to Marius, Cosette's new husband. Hugo tells us how emotional both men become, describing in detail the feelings of each character. In the midst of this climactic conversation, Cosette arrives. She barges into the room and will not leave, despite the entreaties of Marius. She pouts and postures, and seems completely oblivious to the atmosphere in the room. She confronts Jean Valjean, and is also oblivious to his suffering.

                                                       Cosette refuses to leave.

Is this really Hugo's idea of the perfect woman? Are we to believe that Jean Valjean is happy to have sacrificed everything only to raise such an immature and selfish coquette? For the remainder of the novel, her treatment of Jean Valjean is appalling. Again, she is oblivious to the fact that her husband has made her father unwelcome in their home, and she sends a maid to enquire after him instead of visiting herself.

Ok. Yes, I am aware that I have indulged in yet another rant about Les Misérables. But am I the only one who thinks Eponine had more character in her little finger than Cosette has in her entire body? Perhaps Marius should have chosen more carefully...

Anyway...taking a breath...let's move on.

Having read these two books, I then chose to download Bram Stoker's Dracula. This novel is told in diary form, and skips between the diaries and letters of its main characters to provide different perspectives on the story. It is perhaps worth pointing out that I had no particular expectations while reading this novel, and was not focussing on the role of women in these stories at that time.

The novel begins with an extended excerpt from Jonathan Harker's diary, detailing his experiences in Transylvania. Oddly, the story then moves on to Harker's fiancée, Mina. Not only that, but it also included correspondence between Mina and another female character, Lucy Westenra. In the early stages of this book, it becomes apparent that Mina has views, thoughts, and even ambitions of her own, and these are given equal status with those of the male characters in the novel. Mina wishes to become a journalist, and is training herself to memorize conversations. She is keeping a diary and perfecting her typing skills, so she can help her husband in his law practise. She even mentions the concept of the 'New Woman', who will one day be the one proposing marriage, instead of the man.

It is interesting that some people consider the portrayal of Mina Harker to be somewhat sexist. Perhaps if I had read Dracula immediately after a more moden novel I would have shared this view. However having come to it almost directly after ATTC and Les Mis, I was struck by this groundbreaking portrayal of a female character. Was Bram Stoker actually going to treat her like a real person, instead of some fragile and ethereal ideal?

As the book progressed, I became more and more astounded by Stoker's approach. Mina Harker is not only given equal status with the male characters in the novel, she becomes a central character. When Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and the three former suiters of Lucy Westenra vow to defeat Dracula, Mina Harker joins them in their pledge. She is not relegated to the drawing room, nor is she serving the tea, instead she is sitting at the table with them.

At this point, the treatment of Mina seemed too good to be true, and I was not surprised when the male characters eventually decided to shield her from their activities, so as not to stress her delicate nature. 'Hah', I thought, 'now we're treading on familiar ground!' However, it soon becomes apparent that excluding Mina from their plans is a grievous error, and they subsequently abandon this approach.

From this point on, Mina is integral to their plans. Van Helsing refers to her as 'a woman with a man's brain'. Clearly in those times this was the best way Stoker could define the character he had created, and while the sexism is apparent, at least this description is warranted by his treatment of his leading lady. Mina compiles the notes of all the other vampire hunters, but she is also compassionate towards them and offers them a shoulder to cry on. She is their psychic link to Dracula and even their motivation to kill him. Most noteworthy of all, she analyses their nemesis' movements and discovers his plans, just when the other characters have given up hope of finding him.


To put it simply, Mina Harker is a vampire slayer. Dracula is generally credited with being the world's most influential horror novel, and many works in this genre have drawn from it ever since. But aside from the creepy castle, the wolves, the fog and the villagers, we should also look to his heroine. How many horror novels and films since have featured strong female characters? Chronologically speaking, Mina Harker is just a small step away from Cosette and Lucie Manette. In spirit however, Mina stands side-by-side with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Underworld's Selene, Rosemary Woodhouse (Rosemary's Baby), and a host of other female horror heroines.

So we have looked at three books. Two are written in the latter half of the 19th century, one is written at the very end. Had the perception of women in society really come so far in just thirty-five years? Or was Bram Stoker's Irish background in some way responsible for his indomitable leading lady? Whatever the reasons the leading ladies of these stories could not be more different.

In ATTC we see Lucie Manette caring for her father, her husband, her children, and her male friends. She is powerless to help her husband, but she is there to pick up the pieces when he is rescued.

In Les Mis we see Cosette living a sheltered life, growing up to be naive and somewhat insensitive. She falls in love with a man she barely knows and then neglects her adoptive father. She is oblivious to his pain until his dying hour. Her place is firmly in the home and the only skill she possesses (so far as we are told) is that she can arrange a room quite nicely.

Finally in Dracula we are given Mina Harker. Like many women of her time she wishes to be married and to have a happy family life. However she also has ambitions and skills of her own. She is noted for her sensitivity, her intelligence, her fortitude and her selflessness. While I cannot point out all of the nuances of her character here, a simple example can speak volumes. At the climactic moment of the novel when Dracula is finally killed, Mina Harker is standing next to the legendary Van Helsing, holding her gun.


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