Jump to: navigation, search

Anna Louisa Geertruida Toussaint (1812-1886)

Toussaint is the only Dutch female writer of her time who could actually manage to live on her literary work. Since her debut in 1837, she has been considered a writer with a masculine style who was a master in the masculin genre of the historical novel: one of the boys. The way she used historical knowledge in fiction, and the way she connected historical events with individual characteristics (masculine logic!) caused admiration.

What also made her acceptable: she was conventional as far as religion and the place of women in society were concerned. The one novel in which she explicitly presents a gender issue - Majoor Frans (1874)- shows how a neglected young girl led by a sympathetic man, develops from a brash female into a mature feminine woman. Toussaint herself said she had not enough experience with the issue of women's emancipation to have a strong opinion about it; the only topic she always emphasized was the right to education for women.

In literary history she is always presented as a writer of historical novels with a religious zeal and no interest in women's issues. From 1897 to 2006, she has generally been considered a conventional woman with possibly an uncommon talent – for a woman.

During more than a century nothing has changed in the way most people look at Toussaint and her work: she is almost always identified with some of her characters; their ideas are hers, their adventures reflect her opinions. This thematic approach of the work produces conventional images and situations.

In The Earl of Devonshire (1838), for example, we find a title hero who seems to have stolen the heart of the author, as we are told in many reviews. Toussaints denial did not work: this Lord Courtenay must be her ideal of a man: beautiful, strong, elegant, and tender. When we read with the narrator and let him lead us through the story, Courtenay is an ideal.

But if we read in our own way, look at the text itself and investigate some aspects of the story, we see things in a different light, we see the way Toussaint tells us things. It is then that we discover a completely different story, a different fabula. Here, we find Toussaints commitment to women.

By way of example, some comments on the The Earl of Devonshire.

The story is about Edward Courtenay, earl of Devonshire, and Mary and Elisabeth, daughters of Henry VIII (half-sisters). Queen Mary is in love with the earl, but he has tender feelings for the younger Elisabeth. This causes the queen’s anger and frustration, and combined with a religious rebellion this means the end of the earl. Here we see historical figures and more or less historical facts.

Toussaint also introduces non-historical figures and situations, such as Arabella, the earl’s sister, who is secretly married to a black knight, a kind of byronic hero. Because of this marriage she has to reject proposals of other men, and she is looked upon as a headstrong and frivolous woman. She has only one male friend who seems to understand her: Chandos, and no female friends. The story of Arabella is generally seen as a romantic deviation in this historical novel.

The narrator introduces the characters, and when we see them through the eyes of the figures in the novel, there is a consistency:

  • Courtenay: beautiful, emotional, proud, noble. He is a real hero, who sacrifices himself for his love. (Elisabeth said: ‘he is an angel in the art of loving’)
  • Chandos: honest, dedicated, a nobleman, his integrity as Lord of the Tower makes him incorruptible.
  • The black knight: mysterious, menacing, with burning, black eyes. He threatens, but doesn’t really use violence.
  • Mary: strict, courageous, hot-tempered, lonely. She is no beauty.
  • Elisabeth: intelligent, strong, loyal, very ambitious. Not really beautiful.
  • Arabella: headstrong, frivolous, weak, as a result of abandonment in her youth. Uncommonly beautiful (black hair and dark eyes).

The narrator sympathizes with almost all of them and explains to the reader many of the characteristics of his figures, but when the focalisation changes to the characters themselves, we see other sides of some of them.
In internal focalisation which means we see and feel what the characters themselves think and feel:

  • Courtenay shows confusion, shame and fear
  • The black knight is dedicated, stoic and has a great strenght of mind
  • Arabella has a sense of humour, is ambitious and coureagous

But in internal focalisation this in fact is also the view of the narrator. When we examine the words Toussaint gives him, we see metaphoric language. He uses rather traditional metaphors, but there is a connection with the focalization.

For example:

  • To the narrator, the eye of the black knight is the eye of a snake, to Arabella the eye of an eagle (used by the seventeenth-century Dutch poet Vondel as a metaphor for archangel Michael, the good one), even the eye of a doe (gazelle).

Toussaint loved the work of Vondel...

  • To a hostile nobleman Courtenay is a falcon (used by Vondel as a metaphor for the enemy).

There is also a connection with sex:
the men are named by metaphors and often negative ones: the narrator describes men for example as:

  • hyena
  • bloodhound
  • griffon vulture
  • panter
  • tiger
  • snake

The most notable metaphores are those used by the narrator for Courtenay: while at first he has been presented as the noble hero, he gets metaphores as:

  • Agamemnon (the Greek warrior who sacrificed his own daughter)
  • child (unthinking)
  • idol of the day
  • idol of Creation
  • snowman
  • falcon
  • worm
  • reprobate

The women are rarely named by metaphors: only once the narrator calls queen Mary a lioness, and Elisabeth no weak flower (a rather unbalanced admirer wanted to be a flower in her crown of thorns…)

Occasionally, women are called angel by men (and looking at Vondel again: he let the devil use this metaphor for Eve).

For women the text gives metonymy: the princess, her fathers daughter, the virgin queen, little needleworker, etc. Notable: Arabella is only called by her given name, sometimes "Lady".

So we see that the men, especially Courtenay, get a negative figure of speech, based on similarity and the women are refered to in figures of speech which emphasize their position in the world or the relation to the men around them.
Only of Arabella there is a rather neutral way of speaking.

Seen in this way there are two groups: men and women, led by Courtenay and Arabella.

What has the typical 19th-century narrator to say about the sexes?

In his non-narrative comments for which he uses the present tense, the narrator declares no special things about men. As far as women are concerned, he stresses how women possess inner strenght and how they are inclined to adjust to the men they love.
For this behaviour he uses figures of speech like chameleon, which he has used before in a condemning way.

Summarizing I can say that

  • the characters of Courtenay and Arabella are represented by the narrator:

Courtenay as a shining knight, a hero: the title hero
Arabella as a rather frivolous woman

  • but we see a different aspect of their personality thanks to internal focalization :

weakness of Courtenay
strenght of Arabella

  • in metaphors Courtenay and other men are presented in a negative way and Arabella and other women in a neutral way
  • in the non narrative comments the narrator arguments about the inner strenght of women and condemns their lovestricken adjustments.

Analyzing the story again we see details that confirm the alternative images of Courtenay and Arabella:

  • One of Courtenays qualities is his generosity: he is the financial benefactor of many. The money he gives however is Arabella’s;
  • Courtenay speaks of democratic values; he himself acts as a great lord and uses people and their possessions for his own purposes;
  • He presents himself as the saver of his sister, not Courtenay got her out of a burning house: he just found her in the garden;
  • Courtenay is preoccupied with his looks and his image; he pays compliments to everyone and espessially to Mary (this is one of the main reasons of his confusion and guilt);
  • Arabellas boudoir is presented as a mirror of her character; lots of art and trinkets, but actually named are four statues of:

Ulysses: the man who killed Penelopes lovers because of their attempts to use her and her possessions;

Sappho: the lyrical poet with her school of girls, to educate and love;

Mary: symbol of the mother

Medusa: punished by Athena because of the fact that she made love in the temple, in other words: went against the accepted norm. In Arabella’s room the medusahead is a waterjug: she vomits the water in a alabaster dish. Doesn’t the alabaster ring a bell? Female skin?

  • Arabella is very concerned about her brother: when he is convicted because of his so-called leading role in a conspiracy she saves him by telling about her secret marriage. In doing this she sacrifices once and for all her own reputation.

Here we see three revealing aspects:

1. Courtenay is ashamed by this confession of his sister; he turns his head away and doesn’t speak anymore to Arabella;

2. the narrator tells us that Courtenay regrets the behaviour of the daughter of his mother;

3. Arabella’s husband dies and she marries Chandos.

1) So the proud hero cannot accept Arabella’s behaviour; he ignores the fact that she saves his life.

2) In all the novel’s 275 pages, virtually no mother is mentioned (just that all mothers died – think of the wives of Henry VIII); Mary, Elisabeth and Arabella are called daughters of their father etc. But now, when she shames him, Courtenay calls his sister the daughter of his mother.

3) Arabella - a widow now – marries Chandos to live a quiet and uneventful life. When we take into account that Arabella and Chandos are fictional characters, I wonder why Arabella marries - of all people - the lord of the Tower, the prisonwarder?

Is this story of Arabella a romantic deviation in the historical novel about the earl of Devonshire?

I consider the story of Arabella as the heart of the novel: it shows clearly the position of a woman in a world of men.

This story has elements of a gothic novel:

  • the miraculous we see in the black knight with the burning eyes who appears and disappears unaccountably
  • the probable we see in the behaviour of the black knight who eventually is no more than a political opponent
  • and the sentimental: we feel the fascination and the fear of Arabella; but this threatening world disappears and order is restored
  • The story of Arabella shows the pattern of the Bluebeard story, the bad father and the absent mother – and is an example of sexual and social bordercrossing. It’s a drama the reader can live trough and feel the contradictions of society.

This makes it a story about power.

There is another embedded text: a chapter about the strong Eve and her sister, who is almost victim of a rapist. They also are the motherless daughters of a man who does not support them. Actually it is the other way around: the girls earn the families keep and Eve supports their whining father.
The very last sentence of the novel is dedicated to this Eve: Eve remained unmarried.

These stories of Arabella and of Eve are both a mirror text:
An embedded text which reflects the whole story about Mary and Elisabeth as daughters of Henry VIII, in this novel called Bluebeard.

Mary as the victim of her male advisors;

Elisabeth who can only follow her ambitions when she stays the virgin queen…

To conclude: this novel about The earl of Devonshire, the hero who is also called child, idol, snowman, worm etc., about this hero with questionable characteristics, this novel can also be read as a novel discussing women's role and taking position in the women's question.

It’s a case of giving up the traditional interpretation of an author and reading the work instead.

Annemarie Doornbos, November 2007

  • Conferences > NEWW November meetings > 2007 > Doornbos

Personal tools