Educating Women in The Legacy of Cain

If, as Jay genially lamented, The Legacy of Cain is a rather bad novel (an appropriate remark in light of Guillory’s account of belles lettres!), its many advantages for critical inquiry include its rich combination of intellectual contestations. Wilkie Collins critiques, among other things, the explanatory authority of divine providence, the certainty of inherited evil, “physiognomy as a safe guide to the discovery of character” and, by extension, empiricism as a trustworthy epistemological model for the study of human nature (7). Incidentally, there are fascinating correlations between the failures of physiognomy (the practice of reading faces runs rampant among Collins’s characters; rarely does it help them) and the literary devices of sensation and detective fiction. (After all, if characters’ appearances and behaviors were predictable indicators of their acts and intentions, how boring the resulting story would be!) For me, Collins’s commentary on the education of women, particularly with respect to religion and art, ranks among the novel’s most provocative subtexts.

The Minister believes that the “good moral discipline” of journal-writing, coupled with a good Christian education, will cure his daughters’ laziness (43). Helena and Eunice may write their own stories, but they cannot read the stories of others:  novels, newspapers, and plays are all forbidden by their father. Eunice, who is as uninterested in religion as her mother, repeatedly confesses that she does not understand herself, speculating at one point that she might know herself better if she were allowed to read novels (89). Instead of pressing this issue further, however, Collins opts for a comical anecdote in which Eunice finally gains confidence (and dubious knowledge) about her body by observing the statue of a naked Venus. Many scenes later, he subtly returns to the art of characterizing Eunice Gracedieu: after taking a dose of her father’s medicine, she “lay down in bed, waiting to be composed” (143). This semantic play on (artistic, although I would argue literary) ‘composition’ evokes the story’s central conflict:  does Eunice compose herself, do others (including chemical concoctions!) compose her, or has maternal heredity already determined her composition? I wonder: does the act of journal-writing function as an education in self-discovery, if nothing else, for Eunice? How are diaries, letters, copies and transcriptions, and writing more generally, central to the fates of the characters?

That the women’s self-narrations are bookended—contained, in a sense—by those of the Governor frustrates a reading of Eunice’s diary as liberatory (I mean, I think, writing as a liberatory vehicle of self-education and self-improvement). Helena’s diary, of course, produces the opposite effect, supplying evidence that leads to her imprisonment. As for the evil sister, what she evidently enjoys about the study of religion is power: volunteering to manage the Girls’ Scripture Class, Helena busies herself “advising everybody, governing everybody,…issuing directions, finding fault, rewarding merit—oh, dear, let me put it all in one word, and say:  thoroughly enjoying herself” (84). At various points, both Helena and her father respond to her rhetorical question: “What has become of my excellent education?” (115). She may diligently rehearse and disseminate her father’s Christian principles, but she—heaven forbid!—secretly reads “diabolically beautiful” French novels, learning evidently from their “sympathy with sin” (116). In this particular passage, Collins once again turns the subject of women’s education into an amusing jab.

While Helena revels in her Machiavellian schemes, Eunice pitiably lacks self-possession (to borrow the term highlighted by Erin). Importantly, she is not the only creature vulnerable to a lack of self-control. Mr. Gracedieu’s hysterics occasion the Governor’s reflection:  “Who could hear him, and be guilty of the cruelty of preaching self-control?” (172). The deliberately religious diction in this line makes the connection clear: “self-control,” the very quality Mr. Gracedieu lacks, is what he has tirelessly “preached” to his daughters in a religious education that has escaped Eunice, enabled Helena, and failed himself. In the sardonic twist with which the novel ends, Helena founds a religious community whose members “hail in her the great intellect which asserts the superiority of woman over man” (326). What exactly is Collins, who persistently implicates his critique of women’s education in a critique of religion, mocking here? The women—or, more precisely, the dead mothers—of this novel constitute the chief site of hereditary transmission. Many of the female characters also figure as wild animals desperately needing discipline, as objects demanding to be molded into shape. What does the The Legacy of Cain suggest about religion and the “discipline” of women? About how and what women ought to be taught? And to what ends?

Apologies for the length of this post! I will aim for brevity next time!



~ by bellonvandy on January 29, 2009.

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