I happened to read Not Like Other Girls only because it was among some old books I brought home after my mother's death a few years ago. It was in poor condition and missing any publication data, so I didn't know what period it represented. I was surprised as I read the first fifty pages or so to realize how firmly set it was in a past very far from my usual reading preferences. According to an internet search, it was first published in 1884 and is one of the best-known of some forty novels by Rosa Nouchette Carey (1840-1909) a popular Victorian novelist. "Best-known", however, is a relative description: few contemporary readers know anything about Rosa Carey. And it takes a special interest to read something like this out of curiosity--to see, that is, what it meant to be a popular Victorian woman novelist.
Well, Victorian or no, I loved this book, despite the fact that my favorites are generally contemporary, postmodern, and--well--anything this book is not. I have lately explored some older writing, for the sake of learning about historical values: George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Wilkie Collins, Balzac. The essential difference among these five is that Balzac, Eliot, and Wharton saw social hierarchies as cruel and tragic; Collins and Carey accept a more stratified society as inevitable and natural, and see its dysfunctions as accidental and correctable.
This is a representative Victorian story, reflecting genteel English characters whose lives are ruled by money and class, but Carey is surprisingly moderate, or sensible perhaps, in her views, and often amusingly critical of the rules governing women's propriety. The plot's dilemma is a problem of losing and attaining caste (and money, of course) but the characters are complex and caught between acceptance of how things are and a basic refusal to be ruled by 'society' against their own needs. Since the author shows a partiality to the healthy and 'natural' impulses of youth, even in women, and moreover because in the end no one is shown to be particularly malicious or helpless, Not Like Other Girls belongs, I think, in the comic genre. And this partly explains its appeal. Besides, a woman who writes forty published novels in her life is not exactly a 'proper' Victorian gentlewoman.
Carey is what I would call fatuously Victorian only in a susceptibility to mother-worship: although she sees and limns the faults in mothers in this book, she is surprisingly acquiescent to the idea that, although mothers may err, their children do worse when they resent it. In the end, however, although she may think the caste system harsh and unduly punitive, she also accepts its basic structure unquestionably. No one in this book will live happily ever after without servants and comfortable wealth. They may threaten to, for the sake of love or for more practical reasons of necessity, but the book cannot end happily with Dick and Nan living without the blessing of Dick's hefty inheritance. Carey doesn't let herself imagine what would happen if needed money had not shown up.
PLOT, CHARACTERS, DILEMMAS
Three daughters--Nan is twenty, Phillis is about nineteen, and Dulce eighteen--lead an idyllic life in an English country neighborhood with their widowed and semi-invalid mother who --Carey at one point confides to the reader--has "a weak nature" and is over-dependent on other people's opinions, especially those of men. The author often indulges in these confidential remarks on personal foibles or sometimes on social manners, as if she is standing to one side with the reader smiling at unfortunate tendencies in her characters and their dilemmas. While not defying convention, the author thus allows glimpses of different opinions on Victorian social rules; in some ways Carey might be called a proto-feminist, but I get ahead of myself.
What is "an idyllic life"? First of all, it is a life without the drudgery of housework, cooking, cleaning, laundry. It is a life without the demands of work at all. The three daughters and their mother Mrs. Challoner have two female servants and adequate resources for festive, if not lavish, tennis and tea-parties with a circle of well-bred friends, male and female. They are healthy and surprisingly free of neurosis, temper, selfishness, vanity or greed. Especially considering that their mother is so demanding and dependent, their generous care for her is hardly credible. As I said, the sacredness of the mother figure is a concession to romanticism in Carey. They gather with friends for long walks in open meadows and fields. They play lawn tennis and a badminton-like game: "shuttlecocks and battledores." Nan, has long had an unspoken but assured relationship with the son of a wealthy businessman nearby, a credentialed member of this social class. Phillis is happily uninterested in such relationships herself, and Dulce seems almost a precocious child devoted to her mother.
The book's opening paragraphs sketch the nature of things to come and set the tone of light-hearted, even impertinent, joking.
Five-o'clock tea was a great institution in Oldfield.
It was a form of refreshment to which the female inhabitants of that delightful place were strongly addicted. In vain did Dr. Weatherby, the great authority in all that concerned the health of the neighborhood, lift up his voice against the mild feminine dram-drinking of these modern days, denouncing it in no measured terms: the ladies of Oldfield listened incredulously, and, softly quoting Cowper's lines as to the "cup that cheers and not inebriates," still presided over their dainty little tea-tables and vied with one another in the beauty of their china and the flavor of the highly-scented Pekoe.
I was at once lulled by Carey's sense of humor and the fine awareness of style in choice of words and structural rhythm. After two short introductory sentences, almost intentionally affected, the third,"In vain did Dr. Weatherby," launches a light and comic flight in a parody of over-refinement. Mellifluous but humorous.
The Challoners are" middle class,", as are most of the characters in Oldfield: their father was a baronet's son but, alas, a younger son, so the title and estate went to an elder and unpleasant brother with whom there is no current relationship. Sir Francis was, Mrs. Challoner shudders, not a nice man. Their father left his money invested but since the income is limited, the girls have cleverly learned to make their own dresses which are no less admired than those of their friends. The other neighbors (of any status) are all significantly wealthier, but we are assured that the fresh gracefulness of the girls and their mother so distinguishes their company, that friends "flocked eagerly into the pleasant drawing-room where Mrs. Challoner sat tranquilly summer and winter to welcome her friends." Although Carey does not specifically say so, it is also true that the three daughters, at least, are sensible and kind-hearted. Not flawless paragons, just free of any particular meanness.
Two events expel the Challoners from this English Eden. First, Dick's father, Mr. Mayne, decides that, as Dick is coming of age and finishing a degree at Oxford, it is time to put a stop to such easy intimacy as he observes between his son and Nancy Challoner. He expresses the intention magisterially to Dick and at an all-day party before the Mayne family leaves for Switzerland for the summer, the patriarch makes his disapproval of Nan unpleasantly clear to her as well. He has his eye on a wealthy daughter-in-law.
Then a solicitor visits Mrs. Challoner: the family's investments have failed. There is no more money. Mrs. Challoner receives the news with a melodrama, collapsing, sobbing, getting "one of her headaches," and needing both the maid and her youngest daughter to help her to her room. Nan and her only just younger sister Phillis, meanwhile, take stock. They own a small country house near the coast so they can give up their leased home in Oldfield but they will not even have enough for food and a maid (!) (a necessity for their mother in their opinion) unless they make up their minds to earn money somehow. The usual fate would be to hire out as governesses and let Dulce, the youngest, help her mother "let rooms" at their cottage. Phillis, however, realistically points out that they are under-educated for teaching children; they don't have a firm knowledge of any languages, nor of music or mathematics. Besides, above all, they want to keep the family together.
So they decide to use the one skill they have and to become dressmakers. Which is considered non-genteel and will expel them from their caste--the word is explicit. It will be disgraceful and scandalous in a way it is hard to understand today in the U.S. Do we have comparable social shames? We have castes of course, but those of us in the great formless middle class don't even know how far out of "A-Society" we are, and we take the attitude that we don't care. Among us prison, drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, homelessness and other disastrous marks of "low life" are the primary signs of social degradation. Most of us, however, would not "refuse to know" people in such conditions. It is hard to comprehend why it is so scandalous that girls without money would make dresses for a living. Woody Allen's film Blue Jasmine is insightful about just this kind of falling out of society, but for the great middle class our lives don't seem burdensome just because we work to earn our livings.
It is curious how we even pretend to understand Victorian attitudes toward class when we read historical stories like this. For instance, Jane Austen's books are readily comprehensible as contemporary cinema. They should not be. They are stories of ludicrous snobbery, of a Europe made rich from subduing, dominating and impoverishing the rest of the world by means very far from genteel and then doting on a newly acquired hypocritical 'elegance.' Balzac wrote devastating attacks on the French version, and Edith Wharton and Henry James have made it abundantly clear that American society was no exception in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I myself when an undergraduate idolized the Romantic poets. I wanted to live like that, going to Italy for a month, stopping in France, then back to London. I had absolutely zero understanding of why I too couldn't have a life of freedom and leisure in which to exercise aesthetic tastes and literary preferences. True. What a shock by age 25 or 26 to understand that it was either marriage or "a job" for me, and probably both. It's true that my relatively free and comfortable life is still cushioned by the spoils of 500 years of exploiting countries that had not the aggression or militance to resist when first invaded and subjugated by Europe's 'civilization.' But I am not of that gentry which was such a 'natural' locale for literature until the twentieth century.
There are dozens of interesting side-stories in this clever and amusing book. A very young and raw "Oxford man" has been newly appointed parish minister, or 'vicar,' in the town the Challoners move to. Archie disapproves strongly of the Challoner girls' decision to 'do business,' and he expresses himself firmly. And officiously. But he nevertheless learns to like them, and even falls in love a little bit. Archie's overweening and immature self-importance make him first a comic figure, and at last an earnest and caring pastor. His older sister Mattie who comes to keep house for him is somewhat dowdy and fluttery and talkative and he had not wanted her, but another sister he likes better, so Archie is disgruntled with his mother and his whole family, who are in financial straits also. He treats Mattie with disapproval and sharp remarks which hurt her feelings, but she musters on. Mattie will have her own appealing and surprising story in the mix as well.
Then Nan's beloved Dick, back from summer vacation, finds out where the girls are and comes to visit, chaperoned by his suspicious father. When the girls' occupation is revealed, a war of wills begins. Dick will have Nan or none. He will have Nan as a dressmaker or not. Father will not have Nan even spoken of. Dick insists. Nan concedes in private that she will either marry Dick or no one. Father threatens. Nan concedes that she must not marry without paternal consent. And --so it goes. Beautifully, feelingly, but humorously written and Dick is revealed as a sturdy and courageous friend.
Viewed as nineteenth-century melodrama the situation is banal and would be tiresome, except Rosa Carey is a skillful writer. Her characters feel real. Their dialog, actions, hesitations, indecisions, bursts of temper and impatience ring true, although their social mores are perhaps almost laughably colored with incomprehensible rules and shibboleths. Parental power over their grown children's lives seems peremptory and heartless to us today perhaps. Nevertheless, Carey creates such individuated personalities with such unconventional characteristics and such piquant dialogs and understated comedy that I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Well, by the end, every impasse in the plot is eventually removed via a kind of deus ex machina. A familiar deus, in fact, who arrives miraculously to solve the plot's problems. It is of course a rich, and generous, and aristocratic relative; nothing new in that. And the machina--i.e., that which allows this god to appear suddenly-- is British Colonialism*. And when I realize how there is nothing new in that, either, I am reminded of Edward Said's powerful study of the interplay of the whole Colonial past of Europe with every feature of its arts: Culture and Imperialism.
THE COLONIES AS PLOT DEVICE
It is almost a cliché of English Victorian literature that instead of merely having a wealthy relative show up to save the day, that convenient hero is someone who has been far away, "making his fortune." How did the Challoners not know they had a wealthy relative and one kindly disposed toward them? Why, Harry Challoner has been in one of the British colonies where he "struck it rich." Even more vividly, he has "made a killing." We all know what that means and never think about it. It means going "out there" somewhere and finding some precious valuable commodity that hasn't been claimed by anyone else yet. Inconveniently, when we look more closely, we see that anyone who lives "out there" doesn't count as anyone. In Australia the native population was considered so non-human that they were shot for sport, but in the literature the colonies are dangerous and rough for the Europeans who went so innocently and righteously forth to 'discover.'* Or maybe what they 'find' has been claimed, but by such inferior, almost inhuman nonentities that a man (inevitably European) has a right to kill them and take what he wants. And to bring wealth "home." After all, you risked a lot to go discover it. And they were just 'natives.' That says it all. How amusing it is to realize that many folk tales from Europe start with "the sons who go out to seek their fortune." That didn't happen during feudalism.
(*I was stunned and dismayed when cinema director Tim Burton ended his Alice in Wonderland, a bittersweet and poignant coming-of-age fable for Alice, by constructing her as joining the male business of Colonialism to symbolize her emancipation from Victorian strictures on women.)
Like nunneries in earlier literature as places of refuge, concealment, withdrawal and punishment for women, and like wars (the infamous Crusades, for instance) for men, the "colonies" are places for Victorian denouement: fled to, retired to, arrived from, lay concealed in, brought wealth from, disappeared into. More, colonialism is the invisible source of inflowing wealth that creates this" genteel class" at home. In fact, Colonialism is the heart and soul of European art: poetry (Kubla Khan), painting (the Levirates), music (The Nutcracker, The Pearlfishers, Turandot, Aida), drama, (from The Tempest to Lawrence of Arabia) until at least the middle of the twentieth century.
So the Challoner mother and daughters are dumbfounded when a jolly red-haired giant shows up at their small cottage door. Remember, the deceased father was a younger son of nobility and the plot made clear that there was no hope of help from that direction, the elder son being a ne'er-do-well, a scoundrel who spend all the wealth 'out there.' But Harry, that baronet's son, has come into both the title and a fortune "out there." And everything is resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Minor characters as well as the Challoners all benefit equally. Several surprising but logical turns are taken in the story and the last scene is free of a humorous undertone, as the 'main characters' finally come together. In other words, because jolly cousin Harry got rich in Australia, all ends happily. In this England. Maybe not for Australians.
1. The title was tantalizing to me for I am conscientiously feminist and consciously idiosyncratic, let us say. In the 1950s as I grew up, the phrase "not like other girls" was loaded with ambiguity. It could mean many things. It could mean, lightly, a tomboy or a girl who liked sports or horses or other 'unmaidenly' diversions. It could mean, tragically, someone mal-adapted to the point of social rejection or psychological breakdown. It could mean, with a derogatory side-glance, a lesbian. It could refer to someone who broke social conventions but by having a big heart and no fear earned warmth and respect from the very people who scorned her behavior (viz. Girl of the Golden West) . More commonly, however, it was a back-handed compliment, used by men to imply the inferiority of women generally but the exceptional quality of the 'girl' addressed. The girl, of course, believed in her exceptional quality, not knowing that this was common and complicated flattery. Why was it flattery? It attributed the girl's attractiveness to her ability and willingness to distance herself from those 'other girls.' Divide and conquer. A hesitation to pursue something proposed by the man? All he has to say is, "I thought you weren't like other girls." And the pressure is on.
It was therefore fascinating that this book's main characters do such an unconventional and sensible thing as rejecting pretensions to class in order to stay together as a family. The girls are brave in the face of ostracism and disapproval although they find working life more difficult than they'd imagined, and of course soon long for their freedom, exercise, fresh air, parties, friends, socializing, and Nan's courageous resignation of the impossibility of her liaison with beloved Dick turns to tortured longing.
Carey puts the authorial seal of approval on their bravery and sensibility but of course finds a solution for their 'suffering.' It is interesting to compare the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a more tragic book that also treats what happens when a young woman of 'society' becomes impoverished, especially a girl who fails to capitalize on her ability to fascinate and manipulate men, for it is an ability that requires pretense and being bored. She is used to disingenuousness, but she longs for fun and sincerity.
2, Colonialism may be not just the enabling device for sudden plot turns, it seems, but the enabling device for English literature in general since the rise of the novel in the late seventeenth century, or perhaps all literature related to the novel genre, which just coincidentally happened to arise at that point in history. From Robinson Crusoe to Pamela or Moll Flanders.
The wealth brought home from colonies supplied the wherewithal for the creation of a new Europe.). It enriched for the first time many who began outside the aristocracy and thus arises a new privileged class which took political power over the next two or three stormy centuries, ousting the aristocracy (though never acquiring quite the "panache" of the titled). The very concept of a merchant class, of wealthy firms and manufacturers, of investments that fail or soar is derived from all those innocuous 'discoverers," "explorers," and 'conquistadors" which, although the names are given an innocent significance, are still important enough to teach to children in Eurocentric curricula. Magellan, who brought back (kidnapped) natives of South America, the survivors arriving in Europe seasick and homesick: frightened disheartened captives. Vasco da Gama, who had his crew cut off the hands of men, women and children to fill a basket on his "voyages of exploration." Cortez, Ponce de Leon, all the degradation, exploitation and genocide spread worldwide, to create also a "Third World." The slave trade, and in North American unimaginable eradication of the very language and cultures of the Americans Europe encountered. In the twentieth century that Third World would soon be called the "undeveloped world," as if those countries were poor because of their lack of 'our' civilization, and not poor because the First World had enslaved the people, brutalized them, stolen their wealth and their property. Today we are advanced; we say they are "developing nations." We should call their status "in recovery." And God forbid they should develop into "us."
It is sobering indeed to understand that for all non-Europeans (with the marginal exception of the Japanese) the year 1500 was at the beginning of an apocalypse, a tsunami we are still witnessing in the turmoil of the Middle East and the absolute degradation of the starving and refugees in much of Africa.
As a literary form, the novel itself derives from the same phenomenon. It arose in England as new middle class wealth began to consolidate after the century of the English Civil War, in late sixteen hundreds. It depended for its existence on a leisured class with education, with leisure time to read for "diversion," and time to expend on the writing of something that would not repay the writer for all that labor. The early writers had independent income or they could not have spent their time writing and pontificating in coffee houses. True, all societies in one way or another secure life support for those who draw or decorate or tell skilled stories, play music (fife and drum as it were at least) and dance and make ceremonies and rituals. Or for at least some of the 'artists,' as we call it, since we are a fractured society and thus even the creators have to compete.
But the relationship of a novelist to society is of new devising in the 1700s, a creation of a wealthy, leisured self-conscious class. Early novels, interestingly, concerned themselves importantly with marrying "up" or "down," of increasing, or retaining, or losing status and wealth, and of male predatory piracy on female 'chastity.' But then that was the great social upheaval: they were all busy establishing a completely new system of status and social identity. Only one hundred years before (1600), it was considered virtuous to stay in the social position to which God had appointed you. The Elizabethan "Great Chain of Being." But the possibility for Europeans to 'make a fortune' in the colonies changed all that. The first unmistakable sign of the upheaval was the British Civil War (mid-1600s) when the monarchy was overthrown, a 'Commonwealth' declared, and the king of England beheaded. Cromwell, the new leader, perhaps took his religious Puritanism too seriously and didn't adequately understand the financial changes necessary to accommodate the new merchant class; he was overthrown and a new modified Monarchy was 'Restored': thus the society and culture and period called the Restoration. Reaction against the straight-laced Puritanism was expressed in an excessively materialist and frankly sexual culture. Plots of theatrical comedies turned to legalistic trickery and marital infidelity: all expressing an acquisitive viewpoint. But all that went a little overboard and the resulting pendulum return gave us Puritan and Sentimental and Adventurist novels. The economic behavior of the nation was not to be examined from a morality point of view, so its private and social behavior, sexuality and status, were substituted as Christian virtues. The Puritan worries about having and behaving. Not about oppression or exploitation. Coveting? No longer a problem unless it's your neighbor's wife you covet, and even then, if you are caught, it's her problem.
What creates the self-consciousness of society in England (and Europe in general) and also gives rise to the writing of novels, to the career of being a writer, is a sense of domination and superiority among "the privileged," who now procure for themselves education (necessary to keep track of wealth), leisure time, and the sense of the"brave new world" that Shakespeare apostrophized. And what provides those abstracts is unlimited aggression toward "others," who are named the backward and uncivilized. What makes us civilized and them barbaric or savage is the fact of "us" going out there and ruling and using "them."
Can you imagine yourself in either role, discoverer or discovered? Suppose I am a member of a small village and I hear the amazing news that we've been "discovered." By strange aliens, humanoids, who "claim" our village for their king or gods or boss. And I'm supposed to leave my house and garden and move into barracks from which I will work in their fields of extraction of whatever they can "take home." Or, on the other hand, imagine I am mountain climbing and come down in an area that has rich farms, so I "stake my claim" to the land and take away the produce and/or livestock as well as anything that strikes my eye: a beautiful stained glass window, some of their unique 'ceramics,' a couple of cute children, maybe. I bring it all home and sell it for six million dollars and I'm set for life. When I am set for life, I suddenly apply to myself new maxims about "healthy, wealthy, and wise." "If you're so damned smart, why aren't you rich?" "Early to bed, early to rise." "The early bird" (first one there gets it all). End of digression, but you see what I mean. Unimaginable today, and yet we routinely read about it, see films about it, our children are taught about this being done by Europeans to people in all the other continents and the world's islands. We learn about it and honor the "explorers" and "pioneers." So this naive book (we can't say anything is innocent any more) like how many Eurocentric novels, rests for its plot mechanisms and its very existence on Europe's aggressive invasions between 1500 and, say, 2000. Or 1950 perhaps, since resistance has arisen in the last sixty years.
I'll just mention that "the colonies" also play another role in Not Like Other Girls, in a subplot of great drama (perhaps overly so for here there is no nuance, no humorous undertone) in which a man thought dead returns from his ventures, this time in Africa. All the conventions of brutality and savagery figure in the story of his "capture" by "a hostile tribe," although a woman, an "old negress. . . a poor degraded ill-used creature, half-witted and ugly" fed and nursed and protected him. "They were a set of hideous brutes and the fetish they worshipped was cruelty." He was saved and freed, but then fell in "with some Dutch traders who had come far into the interior in search of ivory tusks." Get the picture? And they all lived happily ever after. (Not the brutes or the negress or the elephants, of course, but…as long as you "make a killing," that's all that matters. I'm not bitter. )