Aesthetic Qualities among Shifting Gender Roles in Ella D’Arcy’s Irremediable

© Copyright 2020 Kenroy Ricketts, Ryerson University


Ella D’Arcy’s Irremediable examines the social constructs of gender roles and cross-class relations while satirizing the middle-class Victorian male archetype. It served as one of the few female contributions to The Yellow Book’s first volume, while blending into its goals of promoting aesthetic and decadent literary pieces. This in turn, provoked Victorian audiences during the fin-de-siècle.

Black image on yellow shows a large masked woman. Beside her on the left is a burning candle. Beside her on the right is a masked man.
Aubrey Beardsley, Front Cover for The Yellow Book vol 1, April 1894. Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain.

Irremediable chronicles the beginnings of and the dissolution of Willoughby and Esther’s relationship. Two characters from divergent backgrounds slip into their Victorian roles of summer romance and courting, while in some respects, deconstructing gender roles within the Victorian marriage dynamic. These ideals were questioned through the main conflict between the seemingly ideal couple, as their idealized romance burn out in their domesticity. I argue that it’s through this depiction that D’Arcy was able to express feminist sentiments regarding marriage and gender roles in a forum where it wouldn’t be held to mere scrutiny. Its discourse would challenge not only its mostly middle-class audience on traditional social norms, but would advocate for progressive change into the 20th century as a form of aesthetical social commentary.

Tensions of Social Class

The Seamstress by Ernestine Friedrichsen (1824-1892).
The Seamstress by Ernestine Friedrichsen (1824-1892). Public Domain.

Irremediable boasts several thematic tensions that challenged Victorian social norms, and to some extent, satirize Victorian tropes in its storytelling. One such tension is the relations between social classes. As the story’s main character, Willoughby represents the Victorian male archetype, a representative of the middle class. Irremediable depicts this through creating duality in his interactions with Esther. For instance, Willoughby’s dialogue is posh and refined, similar to the narrative voice: “I’m a stranger in these parts” (D’Arcy 88). It suggests Willoughby’s background as educated and socially dignified among members of his social class. On the other hand, Esther’s dialogue contains English slang with a rough, unfiltered delivery: “Imer stranger here too” (D’Arcy 89). It suggests Esther’s background as uncultured and modest, befitting of Victorian ideas of lower-class neighborhoods and towns. Despite both having come from London, this exchange establishes a power dynamic between Willoughby and Esther. Willoughby gains “interest” in Esther, after making a judgment based on her social standing (D’Arcy 89). Irremediable also dwells on inter-class relations through Esther’s job as a “tailoress” (D’Arcy 90). The narrator unveils a peek into her life through the scene where Willoughby visits her aunt’s shop. Esther’s aunt reprimands her in front of Willoughby, and orders her to return to her sewing duties (D’Arcy 92). This interaction alludes to how Esther is treated as a working-class woman. During the Victorian era, working-class women worked long hours, especially in jobs they were predominately associated with, mostly due to low wages (Parratt 31). Esther working alongside family members instead of in a factory shows her limitations of attaining any form of social mobility aside from marrying into a higher social class. Seamstresses were the subject of “stereotypical depictions” of overworked conditions (Parratt 41). For Esther, moving away from her family on her own wouldn’t improve her living standards; Willoughby therefore becomes an escapist distraction for her. Her subsequent dependence on him for peace of mind, is something Willoughby seems to use to his advantage in courting her.

Tensions in Victorian Gender Roles

Throughout Willoughby’s time with Esther, he assesses her domestic appeal through established social expectations of working-class women. The narrator points out his sentiment that “woman should also earn her keep by the sweat of her brow” alluding to a moral standard he believes Esther should live by (D’Arcy 90). Therefore, by exhibiting this ideal image, Esther attracts him. D’Arcy explores this relation further, as Willoughby condescends to Esther as he courts her into a marriage (Maier 44). For instance, the story follows a pattern where Willoughby always has Esther waiting for him, from during their courtship to their marriage. For example, he decides after a long day to visit Esther, who’s been waiting for him (D’Arcy 94). Esther’s waiting becomes a form of dependence, used as a means of keeping her eager and interested. However, this dependence encounters a roadblock in the scene where Willoughby consoles Esther after his absence, in part by bringing up the idea for marriage. Willoughby displays sympathy towards Esther, after she shares her emotional and physical plight regarding her living situation. Her question, “Don’t you care for me one little bit?” appears to Willoughby as a sign to take up the mantle of the Victorian romantic hero, and rescue the apparent damsel by marrying her out of her working-class status (D’Arcy 98). At this point, the power dynamic between Esther and Willoughby begins to shift. As Sarah Maier had noted, Willoughby had played with the idea of marriage with Esther in an earlier scene (44). Subsequently, he’s being asked for real proof of his feelings and commitment to her, to “justify his kisses” (D’Arcy 98). He feels compelled to saving her, and as a result, makes the hasty decision to marry based on his seemingly benevolent convictions in Esther as an ideal woman. From her appearance and behavior, he views her as someone who’s socially and economically beneath him. However, his efforts to save her display a willingness to accommodate and cater to her. While this portrays Esther as a Victorian damsel, she’s positioned where she expresses a demand for Willoughby to follow. Her power in her ability to compel Willoughby stems from gendered social norms. She has no power based on autonomy, but on Willoughby’s autonomous desires for her. This power starts to transform to encompass her own autonomy once they’re married, challenging the power dynamic between them.

Illustration of a male and female with their backs to each other, sitting on chairs and reading.
Their First Quarrel by Gibson. Public Domain.

Tensions Within Victorian Marriage

Irremediable depicts the romantic nature of Esther and Willoughby’s relationship as diametrically opposed between their courting and their marriage. Willoughby’s friend refers to this sarcastically, by referencing Willoughby’s reluctance to disclose details of his honeymoon (D’Arcy 99). Willoughby’s romantic convictions had fleeted. When he returns home in the following scene, he does so reluctantly instead of invoking Esther’s eagerness. It implies that his home had become in some respects a prison, rather than a refuge. For example, Willoughby finds himself “vexed” by Esther’s behavior at home (D’Arcy 107). Conversely, Esther behaves in ways not befitting of a Victorian housewife. Annie Swan describes the role of the domestic housewife of Victorian times as a woman who shows her devotion to her husband through love, obedience, cleanliness, and domesticity (qtd in Phegley 6). Willoughby instead finds his home “in its disorder”; at this point, Esther rejects the image of the Victorian housewife (D’Arcy 101). She resists Willoughby’s attempts to assimilate her to a domesticated, middle-class lifestyle. Interestingly, Willoughby’s own actions isn’t befitting of the typical Victorian husband. Annie Swan describes the husband’s role in which he shows his love through providing comfort and contentment in the home, among other things (qtd in Phegley 6). He doesn’t fulfill these requirements, resorting instead to empty gestures to dampen Esther’s frustration, to which she replies with “scorn” (D’Arcy 103). Through this exchange, we see that Willoughby doesn’t retain control over his house, as society bids him. Instead, he regrets and laments over the emotional death of his marriage. He finds himself trapped in it, not unlike the domestic housewife. In his hopes of married life with Esther, he ends up with an inverse of power between himself and her.

Shades of the New Woman

Through Irremediable’s depiction of Victorian marriage, Ella D’Arcy provides a feminist critique regarding the entrapment of female domesticity. These underlying themes corelate with notions of the New Woman, a literary movement that promoted feminist commentary through associated women writers. It gained prominence in the 1890s (Tusan 169), mingling with the literary movements of decadence and aestheticism. Sally Ledger argued that stories embodying elements of these literary movements clashed in the form of “cultural dialogues” over The Yellow Book’s tenure, debating over the social landscape of the new century (9). Regarding the New Woman, it challenged notions of traditional femininity through ideals of “social reform” and “suffrage” (Tusan 171).

A black and white poster of a woman sitting on a stool while papers are scattered around the floor and a poster with New Woman is above her.
New Woman poster from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

However, Esther doesn’t necessarily resemble the image of the New Woman. In addition to literature, the New Woman had a fashionable image depicting a modernized, socially independent middle-class woman who’s “flamboyantly clothed” (Ledger 12, 16) and became a template a woman could identify with, which diverted from “women’s traditional status as wives and mothers” (Tusan 172). Esther was of the working-class, and while married, she appears as a middle-class housewife. Yet, as a wife she shows a form of independence that didn’t leave her beholden to Willoughby’s expectations. Her defiance against him prompts his efforts to calm her (D’Arcy 102). Esther represented a version of working-class women in a domestic stage of life, a life few aspired to, as opposed to social stagnancy (Parratt 33). This visual subversion of The New Woman lends itself to notions of aestheticism, focusing more on Irremediable’s appearance of a Victorian romance, than an unfiltered tribute to the New Woman.

Notions of Aestheticism

Aestheticism within Irremediable refers to its lack of commitment to delivering a sense of moral catharsis to the audience. For instance, it plays off certain Victorian tropes, particularly the Victorian hero and damsel, as discussed earlier. However, these tropes are interpreted from a grounded and realistic perspective to produce moral ambiguity based in the “depressing truth” of reality (D’hoker and Eggermont 299). An interesting element to note regarding Irremediable’s appeal to aestheticism is how it seemingly caters to its target demographic: middle-class men. It’s clear from the narrator’s fixation on Willoughby and his thoughts over Esther’s, and that it seemingly asks the audience to sympathize with him by the story’s ending. On the surface it appears as normal: the idyllic opening of when Willoughby and Esther meet, their subsequent courting, Willoughby’s role as Esther’s Victorian male hero, and the swiftness of their marriage. But the story obviously continues on from there. It follows Willoughby into his bemoaning of the entrapment of his marriage; his inability to remediate Esther into the domesticated housewife renders him powerless against her.

black and white photo of a woman standing with leg up on chair as a man does laundry next to her
Woman watching a man as he does the laundry. 1901. Wikimedia Commons public domain.

It’s here, I think, that Irremediable shows its cleverness. Its flair for aestheticism acts as a trojan horse for its feminist social commentary. It uses the typical Victorian romance tropes and subverts them to muddle its faux-message to offer Willoughby sympathy. Considering how Willoughby uses his social privileges to attempt remediating Esther once their married, the narrator considers Esther’s perspective in regards to her treatment. She accuses Willoughby of his emotional neglect (D’Arcy 103). His parents barely acknowledge her, or their marriage; their landlady’s rudeness toward Esther labels her as an unfit wife by which, Willoughby deserves sympathy (D’Arcy 103). Esther’s frustration is justified; yet Willoughby’s more concerned with calming her, rather than understanding her. The narrator refuses to make a judgment for the reader to follow, nor moral stance to take. By using this aesthetic principle, Ella D’Arcy denies the reader finality in moral takeaways; she instead offers a social and cultural introspection.

In Conclusion

Irremediable, among other works chronicled the social and artistic tensions of the fin-de-siècle through challenging social norms in anticipation of progressive changes. From its literature to its physical craftwork, they documented the anticipations of society moving into the 20th century. Parts of this included thought-provoking works of avant-garde literary magazines like The Yellow Book released during the fin-de-siècle. Published works of the New Woman movement would serve as part of the cultural milieu which led to the Suffrage movement. However, such connections haven’t been fully explored. Other areas regarding fin-de-siècle literature include writers of color who’ve depicted racialized aspects of Victorian life and culture. Through the literary methods shown in Irremediable, and their distant connections to modernist literature, it also serves a closer look into fin-de-siècle literature’s influence on the subject, especially regarding social commentary. Examining these literary elements of fin-de-siècle commentary can help recontextualize their lingering influence in today’s literature, by how we employ our sentiments of society, politics, and our environment to challenge and shape existing worldviews.

Work Cited

D’Arcy, Ella. “Irremediable.” The Yellow Book, vol. 1, April 1894, pp. 87-108. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.

D’hoker, Elke and Stephanie Eggermont. “Fin-de-Siècle Women Writers and the Modern Short Story” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 58, no. 3, 2015, pp 291-312.

Ledger, Sally. “Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence.”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 50, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5-26.

Maier, Sarah. “Subverting the Ideal: The New Woman and the Battle of the Sexes in the Short Fiction of Ella D’Arcy”, Victorian Review, vol. 20, no. 1, 1994, pp. 35-48.

Parratt, Catriona M. “Little Means or Time: Working-Class Women and Leisure in Late Victorian and Edwardian England”, International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 15, no. 2, 1998, pp. 22-53.

Phegley, Jennifer. “Victorian Marriage: Love,
Companionship, and the Law”, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011. pp. 1-29, ProQuest Ebook Central,

Tusan, Michelle Elizabeth. “Inventing the New Woman: Print Culture and Identity Politics During the Fin-de-Siecle” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 31, no. 2, 1998, pp. 169-182.


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