Wednesday, January 16, 2008

We are Going to Do Feminism Like it is 1895: A Review of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy (Part II)

(This is the continuation of an earlier post. See here.)

In my mind, these books are everything that feminist literature should be. Without a question, the issue underlying the series is female empowerment and Bray makes no apologies for it. Gemma and her friends, as women, live in a world in which they have few choices and little control over their lives. The Realms offer them a world in which they have power and the possibility of being able to change the course of their lives back home.

Bray is not defending the Victorian world nor is she trying to turn back the clock. She manages, though, to bring a level of nuance that one does not usually find in literature dealing with women’s issues. There is more to her feminism than pontificating about the plight of women struggling against the tyranny of patriarchy. Bray does not feel the need to preach or pass judgment against the Victorian world. In ways that are very reminiscent of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Bray is willing to accept the Victorian world for what it was, warts and all, and instead of mocking it, she has fun with it.

Bray has no interest in polemicizing against men; these books do not break down into intelligent and open minded women going up against the men, who are all stupid and bigoted. Take for example, Gemma’s older brother, Tom; he can be an idiot at times, but Bray manages to keep him genuinely likable. Gemma’s love interest, an Indian boy named Kartik, is a very interesting character. Bray is willing to allow him to be Gemma’s equal, instead of turning him into a male version of a damsel in distress. In truth the main enforcers of patriarchy in these books are not the men but the women, particularly such characters as Spence’s headmistress, Mrs. Nightwing, Gemma’s grandmother, Mrs. William Doyle and Lady Denby. Ultimately the message here to women is not that men have wronged them and they have the right to demand their due; instead the books ask women to look inward and ask themselves if they are the cause of their own oppression and, more importantly, how are they, as women, going to take the initiative and solve the problems that face them.

I think the reason for Bray’s success in this matter lies in the fact that she not only writes good fantasy, but good historical fiction as well. She has created characters that are true to the time period. Her characters do not break down into the rational, intelligent, modern sounding characters and their bigoted intolerant opponents who are essentially straw-men of premodern modes of thought. Gemma does not come across as a modern feminist in a corset; she believably inhabits the world she lives in. She is not striving to prove that she is the equal of men or that she should be able to be a doctor, lawyer or even the Prime Minister just like a man. It is not that she even rejects her world; she is simply someone who finds herself desiring to have more options and struggles with the implications of this desire. One suspects that Gemma would not fit into the modern world. She still wants and needs the structure of the Victorian world, even if it is simply a moderated version of it.

The character who is closest to modern feminism is Felicity. In a Great and Terrible Beauty she already has gotten involved with a gypsy youth. In Rebel Angels she experiments with going to a ball in a gown with a plunging neckline. By the time we reach The Far Sweet Thing she is dreaming of going off to Paris, wearing breeches and working as a model. There is even a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and Pippa. Bray, though, conceives Felicity’s “feminism” not as an intellectual or moral struggle against the forces of oppression, but as Felicity being a brat. Felicity is the sort of character who does whatever she wants; damn the consequences to her or anyone else. This is one of the reasons why she is such a fun character and why we love her, but Bray never tries to imbue Felicity with any sort of moral authority. Instead, she ingeniously uses Felicity to turn tables on modern feminism and mock them in turn.

It does not take a whole lot of imagination to realize how the real life equivalents of Gemma and her friends would lead to modern feminism. Even Ann, the Neville Longbottom of the group, is, by The Sweet Far Thing, working on becoming a professional actress. It is an interesting question to speculate whether the rise of modern feminism was the inevitable result of the women’s movements of the nineteenth century, but at best this could only have been seen in hindsight. The real life equivalents of Gemma and her friends could not have conceived that they were a movement, where this movement was heading and if they did they would not have necessarily approved of it.

(To be continued …)

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