"For I Am but a Girl": Female Power in Ford Madox Ford's "The Brown Owl"

Article excerpt

This essay brings a feminist perspective to bear on the fairy-tale princess character type, both in classic tales and in Victorian literary fantasy. The essay argues that in "The Brown Owl" Ford Madox Ford's Ismara exemplifies the problematic state of gender roles in late-nineteenth-century society.

In her essay "On Princesses: Fairy Tales, Sex Roles, and Loss of Self," Jennifer Waelti-Walters defines the traditional fairy-tale princess as an emblem of subjectivity "systematically deprived of affection, stimulation, pleasurable activity, instruction and even companionship: [...] a totally powerless prisoner" (1). While this paradigm remains common in feminist fairy-tale scholarship, other critics, such as Joyce Thomas, are quick to point out that "anyone intent on finding sexist elements in the [classic] fairy tales will undoubtedly find them; [but] unfortunately such a myopic concentration reduces the tale to a single dimension, just as its cartoon versions do" (32). Combined, these views are particularly applicable to late-nineteenth-century British fantasy, produced at a time when the shifting social and political framework furnished an especially fertile ground for an artist to explore alternate visions of male and female identity. Jack Zipes characterizes this exploration in terms of a utopian visio n, asserting, "For many late Victorian authors, the writing of a fairy tale meant a process of creating an other world, from which vantage point they could survey conditions in the real world and compare them to their ideal projections" (xxix, emph. Zipes's). In the 1890s, such "conditions" included a small but increasingly vocal female contingent "no longer content with a purely domestic role [...] [and] with dangerous designs on equality" (Honig 44). The decade was marked by a tension between the real-world version of the Waelti-Walters's princess bound by her domestic sphere, and a new, more liberated woman who was sometimes labelled as "masculine."

Out of this milieu emerged an altered brand of fictional female, an essentially emancipated fairy-tale princess operating outside the classical and somewhat slippery stereotype of the "totally powerless prisoner." For various reasons, however, the power that such a protagonist wields often fails to free her absolutely from the limitations that most of her imaginary predecessors and real-world counterparts experienced. Examples of this more independent fairy-tale female abound in late-Victorian writing, particularly in work by women fantasists such as E. Nesbit, Christina Rossetti, and Juliana Horatia Ewing, whose heroines are often "credited with an ingenuity and resilience" more in keeping with the matriarchal culture out of which the oral tale-telling tradition arose (Auerbach ane Knoepflmacher 15). One of the most striking examples of empowered fairy-tale femininity, however, actually occurs in a tale by a male writer, Ford Madox Ford, whose Princess Ismara in "The Brown Owl" exhibits a combination of str ength and assertiveness, making her appear to be a noteworthy exception to the kinds of criticism imparted by Waelti-Walters and others. One must take into account, though, that Ismara also displays some stereotypically female traits and, even more importantly, that her accomplishments occur under the protection of two male helpers: her father, primarily as the Owl, and Sir Alured, her subsequent husband. Consequently, the positive aspects of Ismara's character, while furnishing insight into a woman's changing situation near the turn of the twentieth century, become undermined so that the princess's power remains problematic in terms of the work's overall presentation of female identity.

My aim in this essay is to examine the instability of Ford's characterization of Ismara as both coinciding with and opposing the fairy-tale princess stereotype. Focussing first on the forces that may be underlying Ford's vision, I begin by discussing how he implicates his real-world milieu into the tale. …