Virtue Rewarded: The paradoxical position of ‘The Modest Woman’ in the novels of Henrietta Rouviere Mosse
Following the French Revolution, philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau questioned many traditional views of the rights of citizens, particularly with regard to wealth and social status. However, this had little impact on the position that women held in society, as many people thought that the concepts of equality and freedom applied only to men. As the following poem, published in 1736, demonstrates, a women’s position in society was relative to the men around her: her class was determined by her father’s or husband’s position, and once a woman was married, under the laws of ‘coverture’ she had no separate legal identity from her husband.
How hard is the Fortune of all Womankind,
For ever subjected, for ever confined;
The Parent controuls [sic] us, until we are Wives,
The Husband enslaves us the rest of our lives (Neale 1981, 195).
This essay will consider how Henrietta Rouviere Mosse was required by society to subscribe to the male viewpoint by writing exemplary or cautionary tales in order to be published, and by concentrating on two of her novels – The Heirs of Villeroy, 1806, and A Father’s Love and a Woman’s Friendship, 1825 – discuss how she portrays the subordination of nineteenth-century women. Although most of the examples are more positive than the above poem, by commenting on the nature of marriage and female education, Mosse also refers to the larger theme of society’s imposition of modesty and ‘femininity’ on women.
Henrietta Rouviere Mosse follows the traditional theme, in both novels, of ‘virtue rewarded’, or the cautionary or exemplary tale. The righteous characters are rewarded; Gertrude Granby and her daughters are restored to their rightful upper-class status in A Father’s Love and a Woman’s Friendship, as are ‘Anna’ and ‘Arthur’ in Heirs of Villeroy; and the immoral characters are punished if they do not repent. For example, ‘Villars’ or Lord Fitzwalter commits suicide in Heirs of Villeroy, but because Gertrude Oxmanton repents after running away with Count Lignitz in A Father’s Love and a Woman’s Friendship, she is forgiven by her parents, learns humility, and finds true happiness with Count Beckendorff. However, as Figes points out, this didactic tone in Mosse’s fiction is partly a result of having to contend with market forces. Mosse had been quite wealthy after marrying a successful businessman, but they lost everything when he became ill, and her writing was their only source of income; therefore she had to give women what they wanted, or rather what was expected, in the form of the exemplary or cautionary tale (Figes 1981, 15).
The primary ‘occupation’ for women in the early nineteenth century was marriage, and both of these novels concentrate on the romantic plot of courtship and how women are able to better themselves by ‘marrying well’. Although the Granbys are actually upper-class by birth, Gertrude was disinherited by her father because she married Captain Granby without his consent, which was viewed negatively in nineteenth-century society. Although her marriage to Granby is happy, she is significantly poorer than she would have been if she had married somebody whom her father chose for her. However, I don’t believe that Mosse condemns Gertrude for her choice because, although they experienced difficulties, Gertrude never regrets her marriage to Granby and mourns his death for many years. When Gertrude is ultimately reunited with her father, he is the one to admit he was wrong to banish her from his house, and although Gertrude begs him for forgiveness he replies ‘Be every past transaction be buried in oblivion; I have more to be forgiven than to forgive’ (Mosse 1825, 250). Although Gertrude was unhappy that she had wronged her father by marrying without his consent, it is clear that Mosse wants to make the point that her father has suffered more with his confession ‘my days and my nights have been wretched; I have dreamt and thought of you, and could find no resting place for my foot’ (Mosse 1825, 251).
It is only when characters marry for financial reasons that Mosse condemns them. For example, Lady Catherine Sophia Darnley marries Lord Drumhead because she thinks that it will advance her position in society, and she is made to look a fool when she discovers that Drumhead ‘Mansion’ is in fact a farmhouse and that although Drumhead is a Lord by name he is actually poor and stupid. Gertrude Oxmanton is also guilty of being concerned with advancing her position in society, although she is already part of the aristocracy. At first she is a shallow, affected character who is purely attracted by appearance and wealth. She is tricked into eloping with the criminal ‘Count Lignitz’ who steals all her money and possessions and leaves her stranded in Germany. However, she repents, renounces ‘ambition – pride – a desire to be thought superior to every body’ (Mosse 1825, 283), and becomes like a different person, more like the modest Granby daughters. Although Sophia, Julia, Caroline and Laura Granby also advance their position in society through the attachments they make with men, it is impossible to ignore that though they are upper-class they are not aware of it, and Mosse constantly points out that it is their virtuous and modest natures which attract their husbands. Although their wealth is restored at the end of the novel, they all make their engagements before they discover their true position in society and so their husbands are also shown to be good characters as they are not motivated by wealth or class.
Advancement of class by marriage is also an important issue in The Heirs of Villeroy. ‘Anna’ and ‘Arthur’ are really Marianna and Augustus Villeroy, and they grow up thinking that they are of a lower class than they are because of Lord Fitzwalter’s plan to take their inheritance for himself. He paid a gypsy to steal Marianna and switched Augustus with a different baby and then told his wife, Lady Caroline that they died of smallpox. They also form attachments in the novel that would advance their position in society before they find out who they really are. When Emily meets ‘Arthur’ she does not care that he has no money and that he is in a lower class than her.
The world, to be sure, might condemn her for making choice of a peasant, but what was the world to her? – she did not live to please it – she lived to please herself; and if life was but a fleeting shadow, why not secure happiness wherever it was to be found (Rouviere 1806, 167).
This attitude is echoed by Lord Henry De Courcey, who loves Anna even though she is apparently lower class than he is. When she confesses her supposed origins he states ‘I ask not to learn particulars; it is yourself I love; and be your name or your situation what it may, when De Courcey is his own master, he shall be yours, if you will accept of it’ (Rouviere 1806, 57). Although society would frown upon the characters who marry beneath their class, Mosse is clearly making the point that it is more important to marry for love than purely for financial reasons or improved social status. However, the speech that De Courcey makes to Anna is also interesting because it raises the issue of female subordination in relationships, as he actually states that he would be her ‘master’ if they got married. This attitude is typical of De Courcey’s generation, as once a women got married then the limited rights she had as a single women were terminated. Married women were not allowed to hold property in their own name, or to write a will, and as married women could not be held legally responsible for money, they could not be imprisoned for debt or required to pay any monetary fine for crime, which was the responsibility of their husband; and if deserted by their husbands then the law required them to support their wives financially. To argue this point as positive for women’s rights, however, as Neale points out ‘was a conventional gloss on the subordination of women of all classes’ (1981, 197).
Nevertheless, De Courcey is a good man and does not take advantage of Anna, and is not interested in her material possessions. Unfortunately, Lady Caroline Fitzwalter, in The Heirs of Villeroy, is not so lucky in her choice of partner. Lord Fitzwalter is a miser and although he has money, he constantly wants more and only marries Lady Caroline because she was heir to a substantial fortune. When he decides to execute his plan and sends Lady Fitzwalter to London so she is away from Eure Castle, she has no choice but to do what he says. ‘Lady Fitzwalter mildly bowed her head; “I will obey you, my Lord” said she; “it is my duty to do so”’ (Rouviere 1806, 62). She has no choice, as a married woman in her society, than to do as her husband commands. However, Lord Fitzwalter almost abandons her when she moves to Deventon, and Mosse shows Lady Caroline surviving perfectly well without his instruction. This takes a more modern view on marriage by indicating that she is happier on her own, and that it is preferable for a woman to be single than be with somebody who does not love her.
Although Mosse presents positive single female characters, they are merely background characters and it is obvious from her main plot that the ultimate goal for women is to marry well, not necessarily for money, as previously discussed, but for love. There was a great value placed on marriage in Mosse’s society, and women were educated to believe that if they behaved in a modest and virtuous way they would achieve woman’s main ‘occupation’ in life. This belief was supported by the limited formal education that they received, as well as their social or moral education, both of which taught women ‘to covet “no profession” than that of “daughters, wives, mothers and mistresses of families”’ (Richardson 1994, 100). The inequality of the sexes was a view implemented by Rousseau in Emile, which was criticised by many for stressing there was a necessary inequality between men and women, and for arguing that women needed men’s strength because of their physical weakness, and that, from woman’s ‘natural’ dependence on man, followed a moral dependence which taught women to be submissive and subordinate to men. Conventional education for women was condemned for rating ‘the superficial over the substantial’ (Richardson, 189). Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women were not necessarily the ‘weaker sex’ but that it was ‘social practices that enslave women by cramping their understanding and sharpening their senses’ (Richardson, 176) Therefore, Wollstonecraft believed that women were not actually inferior to men but were merely taught to be so in patriarchal society, through the suppression of their own desires in place of men’s, and the imposition of female modesty. A woman’s formal education in the nineteenth century was limited and only available to those who could afford to pay for it, and even then women were not taught the same subjects as men. It was thought to be unnecessary for women to learn things they would not be able to use, and the education that women received was deemed appropriate by men in order to keep them subordinated.
Mosse appears to be well educated herself, as she makes many Classical references and obviously has a good command of the English language, but it is not known where she received her education. She does not really comment on the nature of women’s education in her novels, although it must be pointed out that only George Oxmanton receives a formal university education in A Father’s Love and a Woman’s Friendship. The Granby girls have received some education from their parents, though only in subjects like French, English, drawing and embroidery – though this is useful to Laura Granby, who sells her work in order to make money for herself and her mother. There is a direct comparison to Mosse herself, whose writing was her main source of income, but I believe that society’s views do not allow her to illustrate a character who makes money from anything that is not a feminine occupation, so although Laura receives a little financial independence it is still from an employment that is socially acceptable to her gender.
However, Mosse also contradicts the positive representation of female independence by commenting that although the Granbys have not received a modern education, their ‘extreme beauty passed them off much less liable to minute inspection than plainer faces, and less striking figures’ (Mosse 1825, 57). This opinion subscribes to a patriarchal view that a woman’s main quality is her beauty and that attractive women do not need to be educated because they have the main feature that men look for in a partner. However, once again, this may not be Mosse’s personal view but one she felt she had to subscribe to in order to sell her work. Mosse also subscribes to the patriarchal objectification of women by presenting a woman’s beauty as being relative to her behaviour. For example, the Granby women are all virtuous characters and Mosse outwardly demonstrates their propriety through their outstanding beauty. Their looks are constantly referred to and related to their humility. Sophia is described as having a beautiful face ‘on which a delicate blush of modesty and delicacy occasionally blended itself with the lily, but healthful hue of her countenance.’ (Mosse 1825, 11). After Gertrude renounces her vanity she also becomes more beautiful:
The languor (real languor at present) of illness threw a delicate hue over her person, and the particular interest of her situation expressed itself in the changes of her voice and manner […] A blush mantled her cheek as she beheld a stranger; it was not a blush of shame, but a blush of modesty. (Mosse 1825, 285)
It is only when Gertrude rejects all her previous affectations that Mosse allows her to be truly beautiful, reflecting her inner beauty. The modest woman is a conventional figure in nineteenth-century literature, and all Mosse’s positive female characters are virtuous and humble. However, this modesty is full of paradoxes. As pointed out by Richardson,
The domestic heroine learns by regulating her expectations and desires, to conform to the traditional conduct-book manners and embody the passive virtues; her capacity to help reform an increasingly commercialised, decadent and fragmented society increases in direct proportion with her ability to restrain her own egotism (1994, 189).
Women were taught by society to put men’s needs before their own, and being completely submissive they were expected to cure society of its ills; but surely being silent and only agreeing with the male point of view does not allow them to speak out against problems in society. The practice of submitting to men’s desire is evident in both of the novels, and the women in the novels adhere to the rules of courtship, whereby, even if they have affection for somebody, ‘they must never let their suitor know its full extent’ and more importantly ‘a truly modest woman will strive to keep any knowledge of her desire even from herself’ (Richardson 1994, 192). Mosse demonstrates this attitude to courtship particularly in her characterisation of Emily Grenville in The Heirs of Villeroy. Although she is in love with Arthur she believes that he and Anna are in love with each other, and so she makes herself feel happy for them even though it actually makes her ill. ‘To drive Arthur away from her thoughts, was, at present, all she had to do, and that was necessary for her own peace, as it was honourable to Anna’ (Rouviere 1806, 124). Even though Emily loves Arthur she decides to forget about him when she thinks that he loves someone else; her modest and virtuous nature makes her put someone else’s happiness before her own.
Women were made to believe that ‘indulging any desire is “an enemy to this virtue of chastity. It darkens the mind, and renders it less capable to resist and regulate inferior appetites”‘ (Poovey 1984, 20). Poovey argues that modesty was a constructed concept forced upon women in order to secure men’s property and peace of mind. However, paradoxically, a woman’s modesty was ‘declared to be an advertisement for and an attraction to her sexuality’ (Poovey, 21), and was viewed by men as a kind of foreplay, in that men want what they don’t think they can have. This argument by Poovey demonstrates the paradox of modesty and the paradox of feminine sexuality, that it simultaneously conceals and reveals. For example, when Gertrude details her courtship with Granby she always remains of virtuous mind: ‘I do not deny that the embrace was as warmly, and I am certain as chastely and as purely returned as his was bestowed’ (Mosse 1825, 221). Even though they have embraced each other as lovers Gertrude still contends that she has her virtue and chastity in tact.
The conventional modest woman in Mosse’s fiction can be recognised by her
downcast eyes, her head turned aside, and above all the blush that suffuses her cheek – an ‘innocent paint’ more attractive than any rouge and mysterious proof that she has neither done or thought anything for which she genuinely need blush (Yeazell 1984, 5);
and this very image of the blushing woman also presents the complex and paradoxical nature of feminine virtue and modesty. When Caroline Granby first meets Sir Charles Ramsey and he makes a pun on something she says, Mosse comments ‘Caroline blushed deeper and deeper, though she was not aware of the allusion’ (1825, 66), but it is Caroline’s innocence that attracts Ramsey to her. The concept of blushing was considered as a token of a woman’s innocence in the nineteenth century, and there is ‘scarcely a tribute to a modest woman that did not mention blushing’, indicating a schema which identifies a woman’s virtue and beauty with ‘a certain transient colouring of her face’ (Yeazell 1984, 65). This is also evident in Gertrude Oxmanton’s scene of repentance, when she becomes more beautiful as she blushes with humility as she realises a stranger has been watching her beg her father for forgiveness. However, the very nature of blushing is interesting to look at, as it is also a contradictory indication of modesty and not necessarily a good indication of a character’s modesty, as blood rushes to people’s faces for many different reasons including anger, shame and even excitement. Although blushing was thought to be an indication of innocence, it may be viewed that a woman would not blush unless she knew something of what she was blushing about, and so is not really innocent at all. However, a blush can not be affected and although a woman may not be completely innocent in thought if a man saw a woman blush then he knew that she was innocent of manipulation or deceit (Yeazell 1984, 73). To fake a blush by wearing rouge was thought to be deceit and the women in A Father’s Love and A Woman’s Friendship accuse Caroline of this because they are jealous of her beauty. ‘“I am sure she paints; or, if she does not, it is so excessively vulgar to have a great red face, like a full blown -”’ (Mosse 1825, 62). Ramsey interrupts the ladies conversation with the word ‘rose’, which he considers Caroline to be. The women are insulting Caroline by insinuating that she is wearing rouge, which makes her dishonest and also implies that she is unchaste. It is also believed that a woman’s blush could be viewed as a promise of her surrender and an indication of her sexual desire (Yeazell 1984, 74). However, the period Mosse writes in does not allow her to be explicit about this, as she would not have been published.
Although Henrietta Rouviere Mosse includes positive feminine characters in her novels that do not settle for less than marriage to somebody they love, regardless of wealth or social status, it is impossible to ignore the fact that they do eventually conform to society’s expectations, and get married. Although Mosse may have tried to include more positive role models for women in her novels there is nothing groundbreaking in her writing, and as she does not deviate from the formulaic exemplary or cautionary tale where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished her work is at times full of contradictions. However, these contradictions represent the complex world that Mosse lived in as a woman writer supporting herself in a world where patriarchal supremacy ruled. Mosse knew that conservatism would sell and by including heroines who submit without question she was trying to teach her readers, who would have been mostly middle-class women, how to survive in a male-dominated world that sought to suppress their desires.