Gender and Social Class Issues in The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal

© Copyright 2017 Brianna Silva, Ryerson University

Introduction

The story that I chose to focus on for my exhibit is “An Evening in June” by Gabriel Setoun. Gabriel Setoun is the pen name that author Thomas Nicoll Hepburn frequently used in his writing. Hepburn was a Scottish poet whose works appear multiple times throughout The Evergreen. This story can be found in Volume 1 of “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal”. The story focuses on the present day life of Janet Balfour, a single woman living in the countryside. Janet’s days revolve around doing housework and reminiscing about her childhood. On one particular day, Janet recounts the story of when she first met her longtime friend Alex and how in present day she waits for his visit. The reader can infer through Janet’s story that she is in love with Alex and awaits his arrival to confess her feelings to him. When Alex arrives it is revealed that he is in love with another woman who he met when he left for his job in the city many years ago. The story ends with Janet indirectly telling Alex about her feelings for him by kissing him. Through my critical reading of my story,  I am curious to know how the depiction of Janet as a single woman in the An Evening in June embodies the life of single woman living in the Victorian era. I am also curious to know how this depiction of a single woman can be compared to the representation of the working class male in this story as well as other stories in “The Evergreen” and how this illuminates the magazines outlook on gender inequalities and differences.

Patrick Geddes: Publisher of the The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal Spring Volume

1890’s Culture

In the 19th century Victorian women lived much different lives than women in present day. There were many gender inequalities and social class differences that young woman struggled with in this time period.  In the journal article “Victorian Women in Literature” by May Hasan Srayisah, Srayisah discusses how the Industrial Revolution forced suffering onto women and children and in return “women were apparently restricted to the home or ‘private sphere’, while men’s fields were defined as the ‘public sphere’” (2017). Women became homemakers and would watch over children while men were out working and providing for the family. Various authors in the 19th century attempted to illuminate the struggles that Victorian women faced in their writing. Srayisah states that “ many authors began to write about the sufferings and endurances of women in Victorian Age. Their novels focused heavily on traditional, typical Victorian female characters and their interactions” (Srayisah, 2017). Victorian periodicals such as “The Evergreen”, attempted to expand the narrow view of women as just homemakers and use their struggles as a lens into a new outlook Victorian life.

The ways in which men and women were portrayed in Victorian Magazines in the nineteenth century is critical to the way we understand the issues that were present at this time. In the article “The Reinvention of the English Domestic Woman: Class and ‘Race’ in the 1890s’ Woman’s Magazine” by Margaret Beetham, Beetham discusses how multiple female authors in the 19th century began to use different styles of writing to create a new identity for women. Looking past the stereotypical “romantic story of heterosexual marriage, motherhood and domestic philanthropy as the only proper destination for women”, writers attempted to “overtly break down over issues of class and women’s economic dependence” (Beetham, 1998). These female writers expanded the outlook on women of this time period to reach a wider audience and provide an empowering message that women could overcome the gender segregation that they were faced with. In a review for the journal “Gender and the Victorian Periodical”, Arianne Chernock discusses how Victorian periodicals “offered competing models of masculinity and femininity” (Chernock, 2012). Women were often presented as lower class homemakers while the upper class consisted of mostly men who were given more opportunities in careers and for providing for themselves and their families. The discussion of education is also frequent in these periodicals

Title page and Frontis piece for the The Evergreen Spring Volume

Critical Claim

The character of Janet in “An Evening in June” is a homage to the lifestyle of the single Victorian woman living at home. A lifestyle that consists of being a homemaker and not much else. I know that my main character provides evidence that she did not receive the same opportunities as her childhood best friend who was a male. This story evidences that while “The Evergreen” addresses the progressive feminist ideologies, it was also a platform for showcasing the differences in gender opportunities that were present at the time of publication. This short story contains themes that are related to other texts in the Evergreen that further demonstrate the inequalities and social class issues evident in this time period. The references to the education and work opportunities that the male character, Alex receives compared to Janet, highlights the gender inequalities within the story. “An Evening in June” can relate alongside other works within its volume as it highlights key themes that are referenced throughout “The Evergreen”. My analysis thus demonstrates that the Evergreen illuminated gender and social class inequalities that affected young Victorian women.

 

Critical Claim Analysis

In an “Evening in June” there are many references to the struggles that the main character Janet faces, as a young women in the 1890’s. The story starts with a recount of Janet’s day as a homemaker, it is stated that she lives at home with her mother. Her day consists of sewing, washing dishes and cooking meals. As Janet continues her walk she reminisces about her childhood as she hears young girls playing skip rope in the field. It is said that Janet is twenty four as she recounts the time she injured her spine twenty years prior when he was four years old. During this recollection of her injury, Janet tells the story of how she met her best friend Alex, the grocer’s son. Through Janet’s story we learn several things about her and her life. We learn that she was apart of the lower class citizens in Britain in the 1890s as she states the grocer “was a well-to-do man, not poor as her mother was” (Setoun, pg 120). This specific quote references her state growing up as her mother did not have as much money as others. As Janet continues describing James Bruce the village grocer she adds that “he had brought her grapes and oranges and nice things which her mother could never have provided; and, better than all, he had brought her books, picture-books and story-books, from which she had slowly, she hardly knew how, taught herself to read and write” (Vol. 1, pg 120). This further more evidences the lower class status that Janet and her mother lived in. At the time of this publication, many single mothers lived with their children and without a husband they would have struggled to make ends meet.

In regards to education and the gender inequalities that are present in this story, we see how Janet’s only education comes from the books she receives from the village grocer. It is communicated that from the books she received “that was all the schooling Janet had ever had” (Setoun, pg 120). As a young woman living in the lower class she would not have received the same education as a young man. This is evidenced as the story continues and Janet states that the village grocer had a son who became her best friend. Their friendship grows over the years until “Alex went away to an office in the town”, they continue to write as he writes her letters “telling of town life she did not know, of his work, of the classes he attended, and of a thousand and one things she had only read of in books” (Setoun, pg 122). The main character, Janet has taught herself everything she knows through reading and practice as she was not able to afford the luxury of going to a proper school, while her best friend Alex who grew up in a middle class family and is a man is able to go to school and receive a job opportunity in the city.

The short story “An Evening in June” compares and contrasts two different lives of the opposite genders. The reader is able to experience through Janet’s recounts a life of a lower class Victorian woman as she pines after a young man who received ample opportunity in a culture that struggled with social class and gender norms. The story ends with on a bittersweet note as Janet does not end up with the man of her dreams, further putting a wedge in their relationship and showing the vast difference in their lives. Through her encounter with Alex as a mature woman she is able to see how different their lives are. After recounting her childhood experiences it becomes evident that Janet seems to be sad over the idea that she needed to stay home and watch over the house while her best friend was able to experience much more in his life. The only thing that comforted her was the fact that she loved him, after that love was shown to be unrequited it caused a shift in Janet’s perspective on her own life and her own struggles. There are many differences that Janet faces in comparison to her male friend Alex. While Alex is able to experience a working career and travel to the city, Janet is required to stay at home with her mother and look after the houses. These differences in experiences are evident in the way their lives turn out as Alex goes on to meet a woman and get married while Janet is frozen in her life with no plan on what to do without him.

 

Conclusion

This story displays many different cultural issues that were present at the time of the publication of The Evergreen. The difference in gender roles and class show how the inequalities present at the time affected the Victorian society. Women especially were treated much differently from men and had different expectations to uphold.  In other works in the volume such as “From Four Easter Letters” there are letters written from different people of different classes. A woman writes “For before Yule my husband and most of the men went North in their ships, and it was lonely for the women and the girls. It was lonely for me in my childbearing.” (“From Four Easter Letters”, pg 57).  This excerpt from this letter showcases a side of the war from the perspective of a woman left at home. These women were left by their husbands with their children and had to provide for their families on their own. While similarly in “The Return” by J.J Henderson, we see a man who has left his family to go to the city and has returned years later. These few different stories show a side of the Victorian family dynamic that illuminated the difference in gender roles. These various works in “The Evergreen” shed light on the serious issues that were present at the time of its publication.

 


Works Cited

  • Beetham, Margaret. “The Reinvention of the English Domestic Woman.” Women’s Studies International Forum 21.3 (1998): 223-33. Web. 18 Nov. 2017
  • Chernock, Arianne. “Fraser Hilary, Green Stephanie, and Johnston Judith. Gender and the Victorian Periodical. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 255. $75.00 (Cloth).” The Journal of British Studies, vol. 44, no. 4, 2005, pp. 876–878., doi:10.1086/497495.
  • “From Four Easter Letters.” The Evergreen 1 (1895): 56-59. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web
  • Geddes, Patrick. The Evergreen: a northern seasonal. P. Geddes and colleagues, 1895.
  • Henderson, J. J. “The Return.” The Evergreen 1 (1895): 69-75. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web.
  • Setoun, Gabriel. “An Evening in June.” The Evergreen 1 (1895): 119-125. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web.
  • Srayisah, May H. “Victorian Women in Literature.” Revista De Stiinte Politice, no. 54, 2017, pp. 141-150, Political Science Database; Politics Collection; Research Library, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1894926145?accountid=13631.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

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