Friday, November 18, 2011

A Woman of Property, or Woman as Property?

Ruth Raven has been reading about the trials and tribulations of a young lady who inherits a fortune, yet spurns it as an encumbrance. Can such things be? Such matters are beyond the wit of Hetty Sorrel: I give the stage to my esteemed friend while I recruit myself with the ratafia bottle.

Of Moths and Butterflies, by V. R. Christensen, is set in the early days of Gladstone's prime ministership: although he is not mentioned by name, this fact is absolutely crucial to the plot.  The Married Women's Property Act (1882) is on the horizon, but just too late to be of any use to the heroine, Imogen. These are the dying throes of the era when a woman's property automatically became her husband's upon marriage, and Imogen, who has just inherited her thoroughly unpleasant uncle's property, foresees that her fortune is going to bring her nothing but trouble.  In modern parlance, everyone wants a piece out of Imogen, so she runs away from her scheming family and goes into service in a country house. There are two conflicting love interests, mistaken identities, mysteries of birth and a thorough-going villain to boot. There are points at which one could almost think that this is an actual Victorian novel with its elaborate plot, coincidences and revelations.

There are, however, ways in which the author defies convention and poses some very uncomfortable questions. Without giving away too much of the plot, we begin in the usual way by sympathising with the heroine and her flight into the unknown: little by little, however, we see the flaws in her character emerging until we wonder whether she will ever be able to overcome them.  There is a deep psychological truthfulness in Christensen's portrayal of Imogen that relates the events of the girl's unhappy past with her tendency to play mind-games, quite unconsciously, with her suitors.

The "big idea" of the book is suggested by the moths and butterflies of the title.  What sort of life can a woman make for herself if she is regarded merely as a prize specimen in a collection? There is a certain relevance for our time: although we might not see women bought and sold in marriage (in Western society at any rate), we still talk of trophy wives, prenups and and massive settlements.

 It would be interesting, if running a book club, to choose Of Moths and Butterflies in conjunction with Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations and Wilde's An Ideal Husband.  There is, I believe, the makings of a two or three-part  television costume drama here: Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White has shown that there is still a great public appetite for recreations of the Victorian era.

Of Moths and Butterflies may be obtained from Amazon (and is available electronically on Kindle).