Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw

Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw

• Paperback: 246 pages

• Publisher: Broadview, 2005 (originally published in 1898)

• ISBN: 1551116278

• Genre: Drama/ 19th Century Literature

• Recommended For: Fans of classic literature, specifically turn-of-the-century literature and fans of drama in general.

Quick Review: Earns a 86 %, or 4.3 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment. Mrs. Warren’s Profession Rubric

Overall, I recommend this to those interested in adding another strong female heroine to their top ten lists. Vivie has certainly made it into my top five!

How I Got Here: I’ve had this book since college, as it was on the required reading list for an English Lit. survey class. I have to admit that I didn’t read this one–I wasn’t always the best student! I finally decided to pick this one up as it satisfies tasks for the Award-Winning Challenge (Shaw was a Nobel Prize-Winner), Back to the Classics Challenge, and A Classics Challenge.

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

One of Bernard Shaw’s early plays of social protest, Mrs Warren’s Profession places the protagonist’s decision to become a prostitute in the context of the appalling conditions for working class women in Victorian England. Faced with ill health, poverty, and marital servitude on the one hand, and opportunities for financial independence, dignity, and self-worth on the other, Kitty Warren follows her sister into a successful career in prostitution. Shaw’s fierce social criticism in this play is driven not by conventional morality, but by anger at the hypocrisy that allows society to condemn prostitution while condoning the discrimination against women that makes prostitution inevitable.

This Broadview edition includes a comprehensive historical and critical introduction; extracts from Shaw’s prefaces to the play; Shaw’s expurgations of the text; early reviews of the play in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain; and contemporary contextual documents on prostitution, incest, censorship, women’s education, and the “New Woman.”

My Analysis and Critique:

For me, the strength of this play was rooted in the character of Vivie. I had an acute connection with her. Some reviews of Mrs. Warren’s Profession have included remarks that Vivie is harsh and unlikeable. Well, I’ve been called harsh and cold for my own approach to certain topics and issues in my life, and when reading this play, I felt as if I had met my former life self.

Vivie is a fascinating character (see my detailed character profile here), as is her mother, Mrs. Warren. Mrs. Warren’s profession is prostitution. She has accumulated a lot of wealth via her rise from prostitute to madam of numerous European brothels. Her success has afforded Vivie an excellent education, yet has cost her a mother, as she only just meeting her mother for the first time at the start of the play. This might account for some of her coldness.

When Vivie first learns of her mother’s line of work, she is forgiving. Yet, once she learns that the work is ongoing, even though her mother has gained all of the wealth she could ever want, Vivie is repulsed and disowns her mother. While some may argue that Vivie’s reaction to her mother’s current profession is rather more conventional than she claims to be, I think it shows more of her logic and feminist ideals. She can stand by this choice of work when it is made by a woman with no opportunities, wealth, or even hope. However, when it is made by a woman with lots of money and no need of further work, it is unacceptable. She takes particular offense to her mother, as a madam, subjecting more young girls to this line of work: “when I think of how helpless nine out of ten young girls would be in the hands of you […]!”

The rest of the characters are good, but flat: the vicar with skeletons in his closet, the fortune-hunting young man after Vivie’s money, the artist selling the merits of art and beauty, the scoundrel/gentleman. All helped move the plot along, but this is really a mother-daughter show.

Overall, I recommend this to those interested in adding another strong female heroine to their top ten lists. Vivie has certainly been added to my top five!

Side Notes:

– It’s funny that this, the second classic that I’ve read this year, takes place, in part, on Chancery Lane. Bleak House was all about it, and Vivie loves working there. This has caused me to have daydreams of Vivie battling Tulkinghorn, the misogynist lawyer in Bleak House. Tulkinghorn was pretty formidable and unflappable, but I bet Vivie could make him flinch!

– Another Dickens connection: Mrs. Warren could have opened a house for fallen women as Dickens did in real life. Dickens’ “Home” was for women in the same situation as young Mrs. Warren–young, impoverished women with no solutions to their low situations other than prostitution. Dickens provided them with room and board, as well as home-making lessons and a garden, in hopes of setting them up with future husbands abroad. Mrs. Warren knows the life of these young girls intimately and could use her wealth to help these girls rise above their situations. I’m sure Vivie would approve of that!


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