© Copyright 2017 Abbie Lemay, Ryerson University
“Lot 99” written by Ada Radford published in The Yellow Book Volume 11 is a short story including elements of New Woman literature which contributes to the cultural shift of gender politics and sexuality in the 1890s. In this short story the main character, Grace, discusses her life with her Aunt Lizzie and her brothers, as well as her pursuits in life to achieve her goals. Grace’s ambitions in her life are considered unconventional for the 1890s and, although she does have the encouragement from her Aunt Lizzie, she struggles to achieve her goals as her brother seems to get in the way. Grace and her Aunt seem to be representative of the New Woman in this story.
The Cultural Shift in Gender Politics and Sexuality during the 1890s
In the 1890s there were many cultural factors that contributed to shifts in society and culture, one of these cultural factors being gender politics and sexuality. During this time, women lobbied for the right to vote, fought for their rights, education and employment, had a greater awareness of sexuality, were opposed to being dependent on men for financial security, and the accepted social conventions of women were constantly being challenged. This cultural factor is present in New Woman literature, a term that “appears to have entered the language in 1894” (Buzwell). The Yellow Book played a part in this cultural shift because “The magazine was launched in 1894, very much the year of the New Woman when numerous novels and short stories by and about “advanced” women were not only published but also highly publicised and popular.” (Ledger, 8). The New Woman was very much present in the Yellow Book as it was full of stories, essays and poems not only about women, but also by women, some who were very much considered “new” women. (Ledger, 7-8). Although this exhibit will be focusing on the presence of the New Woman in Ada Radford’s “Lot 99”, the New Woman is present throughout Volume 11 of The Yellow Book. A good example being “A Marriage” written by Ella D’Arcy, who was known as a New Woman writer and was published not only in Volume 11 of The Yellow book but multiple other volumes as well. This made the periodical a “vanguard of cultural debate” (Ledger, 24) by introducing these new ideas to its readers and working to challenge the idea of a socially acceptable Victorian woman. The female characters present in Ada Radford’s “Lot 99” portray the New Woman in literature and showcase the social constructs that the New Woman faces and challenges through their actions and reactions to the life events documented in the story. In literature, New Woman writers brought attention to social issues, such as “political efforts to enhance women’s access to education, employment, and legal agency; adoption of lifestyles associated with the working class (especially employed single women living alone); women’s freedom to express sexual desire; and the construction of the New Woman in the press.” (Hughes, 851). The New Woman was unconventional and had aspirations besides, and sometimes even devoid of, getting married, having children and being dependent on a man. These aspirations are present in Grace, the main character in “Lot 99”, and enforced by her Aunt Lizzie.
The Yellow Book played a big part in the culture shift regarding gender politics and sexuality in the 1890s by publishing New Woman literature. Ada Radford contributes to this cultural shift by using female characters (Grace and Aunt Lizzie) to represent the New Woman in “Lot 99”. Grace aspires to advance intellectually through higher education opposed to the usual and accepted aspirations of Victorian-era women to simply marry and then begin motherhood. We also see the New Woman exemplified in Grace’s Aunt Lizzie through the way she interacts with Grace as well as how she interacts with others, including her friends. The main female characters in Ada Radford’s “Lot 99” exemplify the New Woman through their actions and aspirations in the short story, working to challenge social conventions in regards to women in the 1890s and introduce New Woman ideas to the reader. Introducing these new ideas and challenging social conventions work to contribute to the cultural shift during the 1890s in regards to gender politics and sexuality, thus invoking a change in society.
Critical Analysis of Grace and Aunt Lizzie in “Lot 99”
Grace as a New Woman
The most compelling evidence of the story towards Grace being identified as a New Woman would be her aspiration for further education. According to Greg Buzwell, a New Woman was educated, intellectual, and independent, marrying a man was no longer the inevitable way of becoming financially stable (Buzwell). Although Grace, at 19, was yet to be educated and far from independent, that was her goal and she was working towards it as best as she could. In the short story, to pursue her goal of higher education, Grace must ask her older brother, Lionel, for an advance of some of her capital as means to pay for the education. Grace describes her brother’s reaction saying “It would not have surprised him more if I had asked whether he thought it well that I should keep a tame tiger” (Radford, 270) proving how unusual it was for a girl of her age to be asking for an advance of capital. When she explains to him that she needs the money to further her education in order to maintain herself, become financially stable and, in turn, become independent. Lionel then brought forth the idea that, eventually, Grace would marry, as she is pretty. Bringing forth the idea of marriage led to Grace showing her indifference to marriage to the reader. She did explain that “sometimes on [her] country walks [she] had wished that [she] were engaged” (Radford, 271) but not for financial security and rather for companionship; someone to walk with her and wait as she admired the scenery rather than force her to continue walking as her brothers would. Grace also explained that the idea of Lionel weighing her chances of marriage and education/independence “drove all lingering romance from [her] head.” (Radford, 272). This indifference to marriage contributes to Grace being considered a New Woman because it strays from the well-known and accepted social conventions of women, marriage and motherhood in the Victorian-era. Grace’s perspective would have caught the reader’s attention as unusual and introduced them to new ideas in regards to women and independence. After Lionel had mentioned marriage, Grace argued that complexion fades and said to him “”Lionel,” I said in a tone so emphatic that again he raised his eyebrows slightly, “I shall not marry,” and I meant it.” (Radford, 271) very directly proving her indifference to marriage and pushing Lionel to allow her to pursue an education. Although Grace did try with her best efforts to convince Lionel to get her trustees to allow an advance on her capital, Lionel decided that, since she had a place to live with their Aunt, and enough money to become independent once she turned 30, there was no need to touch her capital. Since Grace was not educated enough to ask an intelligent question about the affairs, Lionel had dominated the discussion and completely shut down the idea of a higher education for her. Grace explains that “In that room [she] fought [her] first important battle and lost.” (Radford, 270). What is important about this situation is not the situation itself, but how Grace views the situation. She describes it as a battle, she describes her education as something that has been lost, and is upset, rather than indifferent, that her request for this money has been denied because it was what she thought would lead to her independence. This negative and dismal reaction works to prove Grace as a New Woman in this short story because even though, unfortunately, she did not win the battle it showed her drive to become an independent person instead of conforming to the Victorian-era social conventions. Her disappointment to have lost this battle, rather than indifference, showed that higher education was important to her and for a young woman during that time to be prioritizing an education over marriage, let alone being indifferent to marriage altogether, was socially considered unusual. Grace also explains that she “spent some hours every day in [her] bedroom studying, preparing, working for examinations, so that [she] should be ready” (Radford, 273). Even after her dreams of education were crushed by her brother, she continued studying, proving how important education is to her. Grace’s aspirations in life as well as her views on marriage were not considered proper in 1890s society, however they align with the views of the New Woman, who was on the rise at the time, which leads to the identification of Grace as a character representing the New Woman in “Lot 99”.
Arguing against Grace as a New Woman
Although Grace had qualities that could classify her as New Women in the short story, there were also things mentioned that may work against this identification. In “Lot 99” Grace describes her relationship with her brother and although he may have been viewed by the reader as oppressive for denying Grace the advance of capital for her education, Grace also mentions various things that indicate they were close, or at least kind to one another. This is indicated when Grace explains that she kissed her brother “for the first time in years” (Radford, 276) and fully supported him when he mentioned his intent to marry Nelly. Grace also mentioned in regards to this engagement that she “was not chained by conventional ideas” (Radford, 279) which can contribute to Grace representing a New Woman. She does not judge Nelly, in regards to her social position, and accepted Lionel’s choice in woman because she believed it was a union caused by love rather than social expectation. What may lead readers to argue that Grace is not a New Woman is her devotion to her brother during this time, and her support of his engagement against Aunt Lizzie’s disapproval. However, to counter this, Grace does realize that her devotion to Lionel has not seemed to improve her life in any way and comes to regret it: “Looking forward I could see nothing in my own life. Of what use was my love to Lionel? Life and health were strong within me; outside – nothing, nothing. I burst into tears” (Radford, 278-9). This proves that although she had devoted herself to Lionel she realized that her own life was important to her as well and that she was not fulfilled solely by supporting her brother, which can contribute to Grace being representative of the New Woman.
Aunt Lizzie as a New Woman
Aunt Lizzie can also be considered a New Woman in “Lot 99” through her encouragement towards Grace in regards to education and intelligence. Aunt Lizzie was a wonderful influencer towards Grace which is evident in the short story by how she treats her. For instance, one of the first things Grace mentions about Aunt Lizzie is that fact that she was speaking to someone about how intelligent Grace is (Radford, 268). The biggest indicator of Aunt Lizzie as a New Woman, as well as her influence leading Grace towards being a representation of a New Woman, in the short story would be the conversation between Aunt Lizzie and one of Grace’s mother’s friends, Mrs. Merrit. In this conversation, Mrs. Merrit, concerned about Grace, was explaining that “it was a pity for a girl to be too clever, and to lose her opportunities” (Radford, 273) in regards to marriage. Since Mrs. Merrit was clearly enforcing the importance of prioritizing marriage before education, Aunt Lizzie was quick to counter her argument by explaining the importance of knowledge. First, in accordance with the conversation, Aunt Lizzie explains that she has never found “that knowledge and intelligence are unappreciated by the other sex” (Radford, 274). After this, Mrs. Merrit explained that men do not like intelligence in their wives and that they rather a gentle and anxious to please young woman for a wife (Radford, 274) to which Aunt Lizzie replied “I have no wish for my niece to become engaged while her judgement is immature” (Radford, 274). This encounter proves that Aunt Lizzie fought against the socially accepted idea that a woman’s first priority is to find a husband and defended Grace which, since she had heard the conversation, encouraged her to continue her education. Another major contributor to Grace’s New Woman qualities would be Aunt Lizzie’s pride in her family’s traits, among them being common sense, which she believed set their family apart from others. This pride is evident in how Aunt Lizzie would speak of Grace’s mother’s lack of common sense and how lucky she was to have married her brother. This pride is also very present in the conversation between Aunt Lizzie and Mrs. Merrit. During the argument with Mrs. Merrit in regards to the importance of knowledge, Aunt Lizzie mentions that “the women in [her] family have never been dolls”, insinuating that the women in her family were knowledgeable women rather than pretty, agreeable wives. Knowledge, in Aunt Lizzie’s eyes, was more important than being a suitable wife, which is demonstrated throughout the short story, especially in this argument. This leads Aunt Lizzie to believe that she, as well as her family with whom she shares similar traits, were above women like Mrs. Merrit who prided themselves on being suitable wives, rather than being intelligent. Although this aspect of Aunt Lizzie may have influenced Grace’s views and priorities, Grace explains later on in the short story that it was Aunt Lizzie’s rational treatment that she was most grateful for. Since Aunt Lizzie noted that Grace was like her side of the family (Radford, 268), she always treated Grace as if she had always held the same common sense as herself, shaping Grace throughout her life to truly inherit the traits of Aunt Lizzie and her father’s family.
In conclusion, Grace’s ambitions in life and pursuits towards them, as well as Aunt Lizzie’s encouragement and influence on Grace, classify them as New Women in “Lot 99”. These New Woman characters are important because they offer the reader of these periodicals new perspectives in regards to the social expectations of women in the 1890s. New Woman literature being published in The Yellow Book including Volume 11 played a part in the cultural shift of gender politics and sexuality, allowing women to realize that they can want and pursue more than just marriage, and bringing forth the idea that women are capable of being more than gentle and anxious to please wives. The Yellow Book not only discusses gender politics in “Lot 99” but sexuality as well in other works like “The White Statue” which is also in Volume 11. Olive Custance’s “The White Statue” is a poem that may be about a female artist and male statue or a lesbian desire according to Hughes (Hughes, 863). Whether or not the poem is homosexual or heterosexual, it brings forth the idea of women acting on their sexual desires/impulses which was not common in the 1890s and it being published worked against the social constructs of the era while working towards the cultural shift of gender politics and sexuality. The Yellow Book published works considered controversial and challenged 1890s social constructs overall using literature and art to lead to cultural shifts and society, especially in regards to gender politics and sexuality.
Radford, Ada. “Lot 99.” The Yellow Book, Volume 11, The Bodley Head, Oct. 1896, pp. 267–281. The Yellow Nineties Online, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University, http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV11_radford_lot99.html.
Ledger, Sally. “Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 50, Number 1, ELT Press, 2007, pp. 5-26. DOI: 10.1353/elt.2007.007
Buzwell, Greg. “Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle.” British Library, 15 May 2017, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/daughters-of-decadence-the-new-woman-in-the-victorian-fin-de-siecle.
Hughes, Linda. “Women Poets and Contested Spaces in The Yellow Book.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 44, Number 4, John Hopkins University Press, Autumn 2004, pp. 849-872. DOI: 10.1353/sel.2004.0038
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