The Rebel of the Family, by Eliza Lynn Linton

This is another deviation from my dissertation project, but it’s a Victorian novel, so I’m going to write an entry on it anyway! I have a few broad impressions of this novel, which is, apparently, Linton’s anti-feminist contribution to New Woman literature. My first broad impression is that this is essentially a New Woman Cinderella story, but a bit of a topsy-turvey Cinderella story (as a New Woman version would be, I suppose). Perdita seems like a Cinderella character, but ugly (at least in a conventional sense) rather than beautiful, while her mother and sisters are beautiful rather than ugly. And although the dead father part of the story persists in this version, the mother and sisters are blood related to Perdita, which is significant in a narrative so concerned with bloodlines. There are several twists to the conventional Cinderella plot-line, the most obvious of which is that, rather than being forced to work for a living like Cinderella, Perdita chooses to work for a living, and passionately believes in work as a “cause.” Another twist is the presence of two fairy-godmother characters (Bell Blount, the mannish lesbian, and Mrs. Crawford, the Quakerish angel in the house), between whose visions of womanhood Perdita is perpetually torn. Both want to give her a moral “makeover,” like the fairy godmother, but unlike Cinderella, she rebells against both visions. Finally, her “Prince Charming” is not the wealthy landowner that liberates her from her poverty; Mr. Brocklebank tries to fulfill that role, but she refuses him.

Taking this novel at its anti-feminist face value, I wonder if this fairy tale structure is supposed to suggest some overlap between puerile fairy tales and the women’s rights movement. And I’m especially intrigued by this overlap because of Eva’s constant characterization as a “mere child” (in fact, her characterization really reminds me of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, who couldn’t possibly be expected to understand anything as vulgar as money, and paying one’s debts). There is something very dangerous about fairy tales in this novel.

Another broad impression I had of this novel goes along with the fairy tale structure. The Rebel of the Family really helps me understand Bakhtin’s views on the monologic novel, where the author has a strong view about “how things should be,” and the characters are mere mouthpieces of the author’s agenda. In that sense, monologism has a linear simplicity that aligns with our conventional stereotypes of “simplistic” fairy tales (although many critics have shown that fairy tales are not as simplistic as they appear…). I’ve been frustrated throughout the novel by the fact that the characters do feel like thinly-veiled dogma… but of course, given the novel’s anti-feminism, I think my frustration is really just due to the fact that I strongly disagree with the author’s treatment of some of her characters’ plights.

In a lot of ways, these plights are very similar to the plot of East Lynne, which I would imagine Linton had at least some exposure to, given its extreme popularity. M. Bois-Duval is clearly a Francis Levison-type cad, and Leslie Crawford would have been best friends with Archibald Carlyle, I think. Even Florence Crawford’s death-bed scene, where she asks Leslie to forgive her, and he does, is pretty much the same as Lady Isabel’s death-bed scene, where Mr. Carlyle forgives her. In this sense, the melodramatic subplot is quite strong. But in East Lynne, I feel like the characters get at least a partially balanced treatment. Lady Isabel’s motivations for acting the way she does are excruciatingly detailed, and I think that even Francis Levison gets a sentence of character background, if I remember correctly (but I’d have to go back and look for it). However, this could be my bias against The Rebel of the Family coming out here, since actually, East Lynne makes a point of punishing the offending Lady Isabel, and even her innocent son, William. But despite the fact that Linton seems to find many of her characters reprehensible, she actually doesn’t really punish any of them (except maybe Florence, who never really shows up as a character anyway). [Side note: Florence is just like Bella Royston in The Odd Women: an offensive character who falls for the wrong guy and gets killed off without ever having made an appearance in the novel. And both are “New Woman” novels. Wow.] All the Winstanley girls marry well (although neither Eva nor Thomasina are happy with their choices–maybe that’s considered their “punishment”?) and Mrs. Winstanley gets out of debt. M. Bois-Duval lives happily ever after (although he doesn’t “ruin” Eva–is that his punishment?) and even Bell Blount gets off pretty easily (although she doesn’t get Perdita–more punishment?). Nonetheless, for all the lesbianism and flouting of social convention, everybody’s living pretty well at the end of this novel… so unlike Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and all the other masters of renunciation. I guess it’s telling that my nineteenth-century reading has socialized me to expect clear contrapasso-type punishments. Maybe that’s what’s “new” about this “New Woman” novel.

Character List:

Mrs. Winstanley: The matriarch of the Winstanley family. She is the daughter of a bishop and the widow of a major, which makes her a gentlewoman, and therefore part of a higher caste. She is on the brink of financial ruin, but thinks it’s more important to keep up appearances than to pay bills for unimportant things like food and shelter. The sole purpose of her existence is to get her oldest and youngest daughters married, so that the family can get out of debt. She hates her middle child, Perdita.

Thomasina Winstanley: The “queenly” eldest daughter of the Winstanley family. She doesn’t really have much in the way of feelings, but she’s rational and relatively fair. She’s almost engaged to Mr. Brocklebank, who then proposes to Perdita, but gets refused and ends up proposing to Thomasina after all. She dislikes Brocklebank, but she loves her mother and would do anything for the family appearances, so she marries him. In the interim, she also saves her younger sister, Eva, from ruining herself by reasoning with the cad, M. Bois-Duval, who means to run off with her, and getting him to renounce his fake attachment to her.

Perdita Winstanley: The shy, awkward, “ugly” middle child of the Winstanley family. She’s described as a Red Republican, a democrat, and atheist, an ungrateful, undutiful daughter–basically, anything that is bad for a well-born gentlewoman. She is incapable of lying, and is therefore always at odds with her mother and sisters, who believe in keeping up appearances. She wants to be loved and respected, but is constantly being reprimanded. Her desire to make an independent living gains her the respect of Brocklebank, who thinks that men shouldn’t have to pay for women, but who also thinks that women are too stupid to vote. He gets her a job, and then eventually proposes to her. She rejects him because she’s in love with Leslie Crawford, a middle-class chemist (much to the chagrin of her caste-conscious family). She also befriends Bell Blount, an outspoken man-hating, lesbian Woman’s Rights leader, who tries to convince her to come live with herself and her “little wife,” Connie. Bell ends up denouncing her love for Leslie Crawford to Mrs. Winstanley, which, among other things, gets Perdita banished from the house. But after Leslie offers to pay her mother’s debts, everyone lives happily ever after.

Eva Winstanley: The “pure,” “innocent” “Child” of the Winstanely family. She’s a hopeless flirt and coquette, but her mother and two of her lovers persist in thinking that she’s too young and innocent to know what she’s doing. She’s basically the epitome of a spoiled, entitled brat, and she almost gets into serious trouble by encouraging the advances of a French cad when her family summers in France. M. Bois-Duval is a Viscount who tries to convince her to run off to Paris with him, without the conventional “forms” of the marriage ceremony. She is almost out the door one night when Perdita catches her in the act of running away, and interrupts the plan. Since Eva is beautiful, and likely to marry well, Thomasina takes matters into her own hands, and blames Perdita for trying to leave the house and midnight, in order to shield Eva, the family’s best “investment.” This gets Perdita kicked out of the house, but Eva ends up marrying Sir James Kearney, a very rich and well-bred man who has been drooling over her from the very beginning. Another of Eva’s lovers is the already-engaged Hubert Strangeways, who loses a duel with M. Bois-Duval over his attentions to Eva.

Bell Blount: Left her well-bred husband and children to become the Champion of her Sex and lead the Woman’s Emancipation Movement. She’s outspoken, man-hating, and clearly not a favorite of the author who wrote her, Eliza Lynn Linton. She’s also clearly a lesbian, and has a “little wife,” Constance Tracy, who is unutterably jealous of Bell’s attentions to Perdita. Bell falls in love with Perdita and tries to convince her to champion the Cause and to move in with she and her “little wife,” but Perdita likes men and wants to get married eventually. When she finds out that Perdita is in love with Leslie Crawford, Bell denounces Perdita to Mrs. Winstanley and ends her friendship with Perdita, to the immense relief of all involved, not the least of whom is Linton herself, I think.

Leslie Crawford: A chemist by trade, he falls madly in love with Perdita. He’s a nice guy, and the only “reasonable” person in the book (Linton really stacks the deck in his favor). When he first meets Perdita, she is on a bridge, thinking of killing herself, and he convinces her not to, and walks her home. He’s clearly interested in her, but unbeknownst to her, he’s married to a lunatic in an asylum. It turns out that his wife, Florence, is actually his cousin, with whom he was raised by her mother, Mrs. Crawford (whom Perdita initially thinks is Leslie’s mother, and who becomes closer to Perdita than her own mother). After marrying Leslie, Florence gets seduced by M. Bois-Duval (the same French cad who almost seduced Eva Winstanley). The novel strongly implies that Lily, Florence’s daughter, is actually hers with M. Bois-Duval, not Leslie. After she has this child, she goes crazy and has to be institutionalized. She dies in the asylum, after asking and receiving Leslie’s forgiveness. The other twist is that Leslie never tells her doting mother, Mrs. Crawford, anything about her disgrace, so Mrs. Crawford is pretty confused about the death-bed scene, and about Leslie’s coldness to Lily, who she thinks is his. Leslie asks Perdita to marry him not long after his legal wife’s death, so the novel ends with them waiting a while to get married, but with the implication that they will live happily ever after. Especially since Leslie ends up being the one to pay all the Winstanley family debts in return for the Winstanleys revoking their disowning of Perdita for marrying a mere chemist.

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