A little while ago I came down with a cold and ended up binging on Netflix for a couple of days, watching the entire series of The Paradise, and then following it up with A Room with a View. While both are billed as love stories, I think what I found most interesting about them was their completely unselfconscious treatments of femininity within the very self-aware political landscape the pre-suffrage Edwardian era. It was a time of transition: not yet progressive, but not complacent either.
Though the stories were set at around the turn of the century and the heart of the “first wave” of feminism, the films were, of course, made by modern minds. My curiosity piqued, I decided to revisit some childhood books that took up the same theme and were written within the time period to see how femininity was treated by its contemporary authors. I decided to give myself some parameters to keep the focus tight; I wanted books that were written around the transitional mood of the turn of the century, focused mainly on girlhood (rather than adulthood), and took up the perspective of E.M. Forster’s England and its colonial off-shoots. The result is a miniature syllabus on how Western culture viewed femininity and, more specifically, girlhood, during the early stages of the feminist movement.
Part One: Fiction at the Turn of the Century
1) A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster – 1908: Since the movie adaptation of this novel inspired this quest, it seems appropriate to start with the novel itself. Set in both England and Italy, this story is about a young girl starching against the rules of society. This is such a great depiction of the Edwardian era in general; coming on the heels of the Victorian era, the Edwardians were the last great swell of the English aristocracy before it began its slow decline, and in this novel you can almost feel the characters coming to a boil.
2) A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett – 1905: This novel is about a little girl who grows up wealthy, but when her father dies is thrown into poverty. This gives us a view not just of the feminine ideal of the Edwardian period, but shows how that ideal was expected to hold up even under the harshest conditions.
3) The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett – 1911: One of my favorite books of all time, this book is an obvious follow up to A Little Princess. Though the story is generally cast as exploration of the joys and powers of nature, femininity is often characterized by interiority (the domestic space), the wildness of nature (nurturing, childbirth, etc.), and mystery (“women’s intuition” and the like). An unkempt, secret, interior garden is such an interesting image through which to cast a young girl’s growth and change over the course of the story.
Part Two: On the Periphery
4) Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery – 1908: This story jumps us over the pond to Prince Edward Island and into a very different world. PEI was at this time about 40 years removed from British rule, and is in a unique position to tackle the notion of girlhood head on. Anne is notable both for simply being a girl (when the family had specifically requested a boy to work as a farmhand), and for being unusual for a girl – she’s loud and talkative, boisterous and bold.
5) Little Women, by Lousia May Alcott – 1868/1869: Because this story was written and set in the Civil War era of the United States, it shows us a different perspective. Little Women deals with girlhood directly, with each sister offering a different layer of compliance or resistance with the norms of the time.
6) Little House Books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder – 1932-1943: Although this series is set in the late 19th century American Mid-West, it is written in the voice of the post-suffrage 1930s. Laura Ingall’s hard life of homesteading serves as both a memory of the past and a foil for Depression in the Dust Bowl, effectively bookending feminism’s “first wave”.
Part Three: Non-Fiction Historical Accounts
If you’re looking for some broader historical background, these texts are all excellent places to start. The titles are all quite self-explanatory, so you can choose based on your own level of interest. I’ve kept the focus here to the 19th century, with the idea that it sets the stage for the turn of the century attitudes.
7) Gender Roles in the 19th Century, by Kathryn Hughes
8) Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
10) Frontiers of Femininity: A New Historical Geography of the Ninteenth-Century American West (Space, Place, and Society) by Karen M. Professor Morin
I know that there is quite a bit missing here, but I wanted to keep the focus as tightly around E.M. Forster’s world as possible. I left out the teens and the 20s, suffrage, anything overtly political, and most notably, non-white perspectives. I have plans for future iterations of this syllabus that will deal with girlhood in other groups, cultures, and time-periods, so if you have any suggestions to add to this list, or for future lists, please feel free to leave links in the comments. As always, be sure to describe your suggestions, as links alone will likely be filtered out as spam by the powers of WordPress.