How Does English Society Function to Produce Female Authors?
In excerpts from her book, Promenades of London, Flora Tristan outlines for the reader the many aspects of English life which she claims contributes to the inequality and oppression faced by women. Among these social factors include the exclusion of women from Parliament, the class system with little chance of upward mobility, and the laws which strip women of the right to ownership. All of these factors work together in a country where “half of the nation is not only deprived of civil and political rights, but, worse, it is in various circumstances treated as a slave.” (57) However, Flora Tristan makes the somewhat paradoxical argument that it is precisely this oppression of women that creates an environment ideal for female authors to thrive. She points specifically to the isolation of girls in their early years, the lack of a comprehensive education, and finally the restrictive nature of English aristocratic marriages as the three main factors which make this interesting phenomenon possible.
Flora Tristan is highly critical of the method the English aristocracy utilizes to rear and educate their female children. While she makes clear her position that women are equal to men in innate intelligence, she claims “All these qualities are stunted by a system of education founded on false principles and by the atmosphere of hypocrisy, prejudices, and vices in which they live.” (92) Because the English tradition is to have a governess rear the children of a family, children have little familial interactions with their parents, which Tristan suggests leaves them somewhat emotionally distant and “ignorant of the sweetness of intimacy.” (93) Furthermore, the education of girls is also left up to the household staff, who are brought in to teach foreign languages to the girls. This system, designed to force the girls to become multi-lingual, actually leads to a poorer understanding of the overarching meanings of the words. Their superficial knowledge of languages parallels their training in music, dancing, and drawing, which are taught with no concern for an individual girl’s aptitude. Tristan argues that because girls are educated in such a despairingly perfunctory manner, they dream of other, better situations, which become the subjects of their exemplary novels.
In addition to their poor education that renders their natural intelligence less brilliant, women are oppressed by the very customs of marriage. Because they could not legally inherit property, upper class women were essentially forced to marry to retain their social status. Whereas the woman’s life was greatly changed by matrimony, the man lost no freedom and gained power over his wife who “he considers…his possession, like a piece of furniture.” (95) Once again, women, stripped of agency, is forced to live out fantasies of a better situation through literary pursuits.
Flora Tristan makes a convincing argument as to how aristocratic English women were able to produce novels filled with characters who live lives so far removed from reality. Although it goes against common sense, the oppression in all aspects of their lives actually correlates to a higher percentage of female authors than in cities such as Paris where women have more freedoms on average. Tristan argues that this oppressive environment encourages women to imagine better situations for themselves, which becomes the subjects of their novels.
Tristan, Flora, and Beik, Doris and Paul. 1993. Utopian Feminist. Bloomington: Indiana