Wednesday, June 12, 2013

More Victorian authors

I decided not to try another Anna Katherine Green book yet, and moved onto other Victorian mystery authors, hoping for more variety. Robert Barr's "The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont" is a collection of short stories about a French detective who is disgraced and fired, then becomes a private detective in London. Valmont is as pompous as Hercule Poirot, and forever calling other people idiots. I also don't know if Barr the author agrees with Valmont the character that the English justice system is terrible for presuming a person innocent until proved guilty. Valmont thinks it's stupid, and he constructs a special dungeon in his own house where he can confine prisoners and presumably torture or starve information out of them. Kind of scary, though in the stories we only see him use it specifically on a drug-addicted friend who needs to be saved. Valmont does allude to becoming successful and rich as a private detective, because he did what English police wouldn't do, and that to me suggests use of the dungeon. There were also a couple of Sherlock Holmes parodies in the book, more satirical than amusing.

But anyway, I am now in the middle of Wilkie Collins's Woman in White, and it shares many faults with Anna Katherine Green's novels. I find myself so bored by certain passages where the male character rambles about how lovely and perfect a woman is, and I'm stunned with disbelief by the sexual politics. Marian Halcombe is a spinster (described openly as "ugly") and talks often about how she doesn't like how silly women typically behave (and in fact says that most women don't like other women). When talking of her half-sister Laura Fairlie, Marian is more affectionate and loving. Worried about Laura's marriage prospects, Marian talks about the "priceless value of a pure and true woman." It's sickening. Is there no priceless value about a woman's intelligence or bravery or any quality other than being virginal?

When Laura confesses to her fiancé Sir Percival that she is in love with another man, she does not actually use those words; she is so freaking circumspect and indirect, saying that "the affection which a woman ought to bear to her husband" is now something she can't give him. Just vaguely implying that she's fallen in love with someone else, and then insisting that "no words" ever passed between her and the object of her desire. Insisting on the "no words" point as proof of her innocence and purity. What the fuck is wrong with Victorian men that they need to know that their wives not only didn't kiss or sleep with another man before, but that she never even said "I love you" to someone else before? Fuck these men, and these brainwashed women. They don't even dignify Laura's love with the word "love" or even "infatuation". They call it an unfortunate "attachment" and talk about how it's doomed; she'd rather be a spinster forever alone rather than break the promise to her dying father that she would marry the fiancé that he picked out for her.

So it's kind of hard to get into the mystery when I'm raging at the sexism. The novel does give some interesting details about Victorian weddings, though. The lawyer Mr. Gilmore even details the "marriage-settlement" for Laura. I thought the "marriage-settlement" was just about specifying the dowry paid to the husband, but according to Mr. Gilmore, it seems to include provisions for the wife making a will, and providing for her children (or if she has no children) what other heirs she might pick. Rather fascinating. It seems that in the age of primogeniture, many people inherited only a "life-interest" in a house, land, or money, which would then revert to some other heir as soon as the "life-interest" person died. So Mr. Gilmore is drawing up complicated rules about what should happen with the money Laura inherited from her father, in case she dies childless. Because she's not 21 yet, she doesn't get to be consulted, only her uncle, a neglectful hypochondriac who wants her married off quickly so he doesn't have to be bothered anymore. Sir Percival's solicitor wrote a clause that would steal Laura's £20,000 inheritance and assign it to her husband, instead of rightly going to her sister Marian and anyone else she chose. Mr. Gilmore wants to fight this clause, but Laura's uncle doesn't give a damn, and tells him to just give in to Sir Percival's demand. Mr. Gilmore says ominously, "No daughter of mine should be married to any man alive under such a settlement as you are forcing me to make for Miss Fairlie."

This is interesting, because I thought, until the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, that a woman wasn't entitled to these rights. Yet twenty years before that law, we have a lawyer arguing that a woman had such rights, and that any reputable lawyer would have fought for those rights as well. Perhaps the crucial point is that Laura Fairlie and Sir Percival are upper class people with money. Perhaps only people with money could arrange for fair marriage-settlements, and the poorer, lower classes could not afford such negotiations and contracts. So maybe the 1870 Act just made sure that the right was available to any woman, not just the privileged ones who had a lawyer working for them. This also helps me to understand the Sherlock Holmes stories better. In "The Speckled Band", the murder is because Helen Stoner's mother had a will specifying that her daughters would inherit sums of money when they each married. Thus their stepfather Grimesby Roylott had a motive to kill them before they could marry and make him poor. I had wondered why Roylott couldn't overrule his wife's will before, but now I see that Mrs. Roylott must have had a lawyer who drew up her marriage-settlement carefully for the sake of her daughters, and that it would indeed be legally enforceable regardless of the Property Act.

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