This month focuses upon characters. I just finished reading Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and I would like to discuss my newest favorite female character Vivie. Shaw’s play was published in 1898, and was considered to be written in “social protest”. Among its topics are new-budding feminism and prostitution. Vivie is a fascinating character of the feminist persuasion.
When the reader (viewer) is first introduced to Vivie, we find her to be both athletic and bookish. She is laying in a hammock on a summer afternoon, her bike resting against a wall. She is reading a book, taking notes, with a kitchen chair posted up next to her, piled high with “a stack of serious-looking books and a supply of writing paper.”
Shaw describes her as “an attractive specimen of the sensible, able, highly-educated young middle-class Englishwoman. Age 22. Prompt, strong, confident, self-possessed. Plain business-like dress, but not dowdy. She wears a chatelaine [a sort of fashionable chain] at her belt, with a fountain pen and a paper knife among its pendants.”
Vivie is a young woman of high intellect and practical aspirations. She has won third wrangler at Cambridge (a mathematics award), and states that her knowledge of the world is limited to “mathematics, lawn-tennis, eating, sleeping, cycling, and walking.”
She hopes to set up a law office in London, where she is already assisting another female lawyer. She explains her love for work as thus: “I like working and getting paid for it. When I’m tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it.”
Vivie dislikes anything flippant (holidays, art, romance, and beauty) and desires independence and self-sufficiency. She shocks the men that she encounters with a very firm handshake and she has an aversion to tears and fainting.
In short, Vivie is the “New Woman”. I admire this woman.
As the play progresses, Vivie doesn’t so much change as she simply grows more firm in her self. She is more confidently rooted in being independent and self-sufficient. She gives up her fancy for her young, silly suitor Frank and cuts ties with her mother who is both completely unconventional, yet too conventional for Vivie. While her mother wants her to have the most upscale, leisurely life typical of the nobility of Victorian England, Vivie is of a completely different mindset:
“Mother: you don’t at all know the sort of person I am. […] I know perfectly well that fashionable morality is all a pretence, and that if I took your money and devoted the rest of my life to spending it fashionably, I might be as worthless and vicious as the silliest woman could possibly want to be without having a word said to me about it. But I dont want to be worthless. I shouldn’t enjoy trotting about the park to advertize my dressmaker and carriage builder, or being bored at the opera to shew off a shopwindowfull of diamonds.”
Instead, Vivie has now joined in partnership with her lawyer friend on Chancery Lane and has vowed that “there is no beauty and no romance in life for me. Life is what it is; and I am prepared to take it as it is.”
While I greatly admire Vivie’s strength and determination, especially for the time period (I can’t believe that Vivie is working in law on Chancery Lane where, only about 50-60 years before, that would be unheard of with Tulkinghorn’s set [see Bleak House]!), I am concerned that she will find herself seriously lonely and regretful if she doesn’t add some “beauty and romance” to her life. I’m all for independence and self-sufficiency through work, but let’s face it, work isn’t everything. If I ever met her, I’d probably pass on the adage “Work to live, don’t live to work.” Not that I’m very good at following this, but I try really hard to be. Maybe we could support each other.
Overall, Vivie is an amazing character–one whom I will gladly add to my favorite literary females shelf, alongside Elizabeth Bennet, Isabel Archer, and Beatrice.