“So Sped the Time”: Waiting and Interrupting in Victorian Women’s Periodicals

by Amy Valine

What can a young woman do when confronted with the opportunity to transcend the boundaries of domestic temporality and actively manipulate time, rather than merely submit to it as inevitable? According to “Only a Flirtation” (1881) and “Madge Smith’s Revenge” (1895), two short stories appearing in Young Ladies’ Reader and Women’s Life, respectively, this young woman’s choice results either in the sacrifice of her femininity or in death. Although the similarly plotted stories describe gender-role-defying action taken by women trapped in cycles of waiting, both stories discourage manipulating the boundaries of domestic time, asserting that the woman who rejects the feminine role of waiter and mimics the masculine role of interrupter does not transcend domestic time, but rather distorts women’s role within it.

In order to make interruption possible, a story must present a web of temporality in which a female character exists as a passive participant or from which she attempts to break free. “Only a Flirtation,” authored by A. C., provides this opportunity for interruption by underlining the plot with recurring time markers. A. C. situates the plot in domestic time with frequent references to clocks and the location of the moon, thus defining time as both natural occurrence and contrived entity. For instance, the opening paragraph notes that “the sun had sunk behind the surrounding hills, and the town clock on the church had struck the hour of ten”; bookending this scene, as Helen walks home “the clock was striking eleven” and “the moon continued on in its course” (73). Time therefore plays a key role in the scene; this clearly marked and inevitably passing hour, when young ladies assumedly should be in bed or at least indoors, signifies the temporal helplessness of Helen. As Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth observes, “Women’s time . . . is flexible, defined by others, their needs, their schedules, their ambitions” (qtd. in Damkjaer 17). Helen’s lover, Horace Beauchamp, can by merely “glancing at his watch” initiate the end of the conversation and of the relationship, declaring “all such things must come to an end” (A. C. 73) and leaving the quiet village for “the busy city” (74). Helen, in contrast, bound as she is by domestic time, cannot so easily forget or escape the daily and lifelong cycle of domestic responsibilities and expected feminine behavior.

A temporal divider separates the first and second halves of the story: “Five years passed away, bringing many changes” (74). These five years represent a glossed over but essential turning point in Helen’s relationship with time. During this period Helen attempts to transcend her temporal stagnation in a culturally acceptable manner, by moving to the city and acquiring social assets. Despite this effort, Helen remains in a perpetuated state of waiting, demonstrated by A. C.’s choice to reintroduce Horace Beauchamp within a temporal structure mirrored after the couple’s earlier encounter. The reversed rejection scene takes place also in September, while “the moon had already begun its course in the heavens” (74). Once again an hour has passed; Helen reproaches Horace for arriving at nine o’clock, one hour after their scheduled meeting time. Notably, Horace apologizes “for thus keeping you waiting” (74). He now assumes the feminine role of waiter, while Helen controls the encounter’s starting and ending times. Instead of returning to her proper domestic role, Helen transcends feminine temporality by rejecting the waiting Horace. However, whereas Horace has established two viable scenarios for his future—life with Helen or life in Australia—and will not suffer any irreparable interruption, Helen does not have the option of forgetting, because she does not truly have the power of interruption. In fact, she weakens and dies the following June. Her failure to successfully transcend domestic time is mirrored vividly by the story’s closing image of her dilapidated cottage, a physical representation of the domestic ruin incurred by improper time management.

This acknowledgement of women’s inability to manipulate time as interrupter and warning against attempted interruption is especially significant in its periodical context. According to Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman, Young Ladies’ Reader focused on entertainment, rather than didacticism; although the life and career options of its audience, thirteen- to twenty-five-year-old young women, “had widened considerably,” the magazine still expected the majority to make traditional choices and become wives and mothers (71). Consequently, “Only a Flirtation” can be viewed as a daring yet cautionary tale: a woman may choose to mimic masculine control of her destiny, but the story clearly presents following one’s more feminine instincts—waiting calmly until a man interrupts—as the wiser choice. Young Ladies’ Reader suggests options for young women, but it also warns them to avoid prideful independence—not necessarily for the sake of those they seek independence from (as evidenced by the unspecified fate of Horace Beauchamp), but for the sake of their own reputations and mental stability. Consequently, the presentation of domestic time in “Only a Flirtation” follows the magazine’s mission to entertain young women who enjoy rapidly expanding horizons, but it does not encourage them to pursue any extremes of liberation.

Parallel to “Only a Flirtation,” the anonymously authored story “Madge Smith’s Revenge” features two women protagonists, Cora and Madge Smith, who represent opposite ends of the time-manipulation spectrum. This story, too, includes frequent temporal markers, particularly relating to seasons and the sun. Opening with an image of “the autumn sunset,” the story immediately establishes both a temporal cycle and women’s place within it, as the author explains that Cora and Neil Rowan have been meeting “almost every evening” (“Madge” 94). Cora, assuming the traditional female role, typically arrives first to wait for Neil. He, on the other hand, asserts his role as interrupter; even while Cora plans for a spring wedding, Neil reveals to a friend his plan to end this “summer’s amusement” by traveling “back to town tomorrow” (94). After Cora—the ultimate waiter—dies from grief at this unbearable interruption to her hopes and dreams, Madge bides her time, the author inserting this temporal marker: “Day by day, week by week, month by month, so sped the time until eight years were counted” (94). Like Helen, Madge uses this time to accumulate social graces. Unlike Helen, who drowns her grief in accomplishments and status, Madge nurses her anger and manipulates these years for her own unconventional ends, seeking to make herself not merely attractive to men in general, but irresistible to one man in particular. Thus, the mature and educated Madge, rather than embodying the grace of a society woman, becomes that woman’s distortion; although beautiful, she presents an unexpectedly daunting figure, with a “cold, white, high-bred face,” “wide, fathomless, glittering” eyes, and “scornful lips” (95). Indeed, the narrator likens her to a “glacier” (95)—a romantic image, but not exactly an appealing one.

Moreover, Neil shares similarities with Horace; rather than using the intervening years as a time for self-improvement and change, he has accomplished little besides forgetfulness. Not only has he entirely wiped Cora from memory, but Neil has also “broken half-a-dozen silly hearts since then” (95). With delightful irony, the narrator reassures readers that these broken-hearted women have entered the care of “Time, the great healer” (95). In the world of “Madge Smith’s Revenge,” however, time “heals” women only through the relief of death or of maniacal revenge. Time can bring change for women, but not restoration.

In the climax of the story, Madge reverses the scene of Cora’s rejection, engineering a situation in which Neil must wait for her, rather than vice versa. While waiting, Neil ponders how “stale” and “flavourless” his life had been before Madge interrupted it. When Madge announces to her guardian, intending Neil to overhear, that he “is just the subject for a splendid flirtation,” her words transform him into “a white, ghastly, shivering figure” (95), an image contrasting vividly with emotionless and self-composed Madge. Without success, Neil pleads with her to give hope for a future relationship, again assuming the female waiting role. After Neil shoots himself in despair, Madge, unlike broken-hearted Helen, feels no remorse. She has entirely thrown off any subjection to time, substituting the hope of revenge for the hope of domestic bliss.

Beetham and Boardman categorize Women’s Life, the original source of “Madge Smith’s Revenge,” as a cheap domestic magazine for working-class women, describing it as “cheap, chatty in tone, and domestic in focus,” providing its readers with healthy entertainment, diversion, and useful tidbits of information (87). In keeping with this audience and mission, the story certainly provides entertainment, featuring reversals of fortune and grisly deaths. As a magazine which does not overtly seek to initiate cultural progress, Women’s Life presents the story as a means to explore women’s independence from domestic time, but it does not encourage this independence. Although Madge achieves her desires, her character is neither happy nor enviable. The story suggests time is a valuable commodity to women because it allows them the opportunity (given sufficient material resources) to make themselves desirable. When they assume a masculine relationship with time—that of interrupter—they risk destruction of their femininity.

Consequently, in “Only a Flirtation” and “Madge Smith’s Revenge,” domestic time marks both indefinite perpetuation of domestic life and hope for future change—albeit socially proscribed change. Both stories explore and test women’s role as non-forgetting waiters, but they do not encourage a masculine interruption of time. Perhaps the brevity of these stories might also give insight into their effects on the original readers. After spending scarcely five or ten minutes engrossed in the story of a woman who either succumbed to impetuousness rather than patiently waiting (Helen) or asserted herself as an interrupter (Madge), readers are jolted back to their domestic homes and lives, their children and dinners, entertained by these thrilling situations but indisposed to suffer death or destruction by following suit.

Works Cited

A. C. “Only a Flirtation.” 1881. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology.

Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. 73-75.

Print.

Damkjaer, Maria. Time, Domesticity and Print Culture in Nineteenth-

Century Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Print.

“Madge Smith’s Revenge.” 1895. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology.

Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. 94-96.

Print.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. I think you tapped into two really interesting topics we have seen emerge throughout Victorian literature — how relationships can result in the death of women and notions of time — and pair them in a really interesting way. I was thinking about those two topics and how they work together a lot throughout Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd.

    I am curious to hear what others have to say, because I feel like I have some observations on this, but I’m not sure I came to a concrete understanding. I think Aurora kind of inhabits an interesting mix of both the feminine and gender-defying traits. After Talbot and Aurora’s engagement is broken off, there’s some interesting slides through time with “I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers” (113) and even some ruminations of the nature of how we experience time on the same page. Throughout this time, Aurora is rendered ill and there’s a great deal of speculation on if she might die.

    When she doesn’t, in fact, die, the pages are still littered with allusions to death and the readers are told “She ought, no doubt, to have died of shame and sorrow after Talbot’s cruel desertion; and Heaven knows that only her youth and vitality carried her through” (127) and that “the two lovers who had parted … could never meet again. Between them there was death and the grave” (122). It seems that Aurora almost straddles the line between manipulator of time and the waiter; most of the men around her are performing actions while she is waiting out and surviving her illness — but we are simultaneously told that this is the sort of grievance that most heroines would not have survived, and that seems to be a common theme, as touched upon, in other Victorian eras. Some part of her has died, no doubt, but is she still alive; I wonder, if in her case, waiting almost becomes a manipulation of time?

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  2. Jordan Osterman says:

    I particularly enjoyed the story of Madge Smith in our reading, so I was glad to see you address it in more detail, Amy. You do a great job dissecting the role of time manipulation in both “Madge Smith” and “Only a Flirtation;” it is fascinating to see the parallels and differences when they’re stacked together like you have done.

    When it comes to Madge’s manipulation of time, though, you seemed to equate her actions with “the sacrifice of her femininity,” and I’m curious whether it could be seen not as a total sacrifice, but as the exploration of a new kind of femininity emerging for young women at the time. As you point out, there are aspects of her depiction that are not in line with traditional feminism (who wants to be compared to a glacier?), but also she is described with a figure “matchless in symmetry and grace, accomplished, polished and the heiress of great wealth – no wonder that lovers, old and young, knelt at her shrine.” I would argue she has taken on very traditional feminine qualities in these ways, but the “new” femininity she exhibits really comes in her actions.

    “A Chat With the Girl of the Period,” written four years after “Madge Smith” appeared in Woman’s Life, really highlighted the idea for me that Madge was exhibiting a new way of becoming a woman: “The claims that you make are the result of your reaction against the restrictions that hemmed in the lives of the girls in the days of your grandmothers. The influences that moulded and fashioned them were all negative. ‘Don’t’ was the word they were always hearing. ‘Do’ is the word that inspires you,” and “To be learned is to be unfeminine. Innocence based upon ignorance, that is what is charming. … The modern girl shivers with indignation at such a prospect being held out to her.” Madge’s actions – in her education, in her manipulation of time that you explore, Amy – all exhibit the “do” the editor of Girl’s Realm was referring to as so indicative of the modern girl. I think it is fair to see this exploration is not without pain (Madge wasn’t exactly pumped when the revenge her life was dedicated to was satisfied), but that she isn’t sacrificing her femininity so much as putting her own stamp on a kind of new femininity.

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  3. I agree with Jordan that it doesn’t seem like femininity is being rejected in the two stories. Rather, it seems as though both women are actually exhibiting the feminine ideal and seem to be rejecting, instead, domestic life. Both women, as you state, spend a significant amount of time in between the rejection scenes and reuniting/re-rejection scenes becoming ideal, socially developed young women and, as a result, actually become more attractive to the men they are trying to impress. Helen is described as having a beauty that is “fully developed” (74) and Madge is described as “a figure matchless in symmetry and grace, accomplished, polished, and the heiress of great wealth” (95). This “fully developed” beauty is what bewitches the young men and sends them back, begging, to the feet of the women. It would seem then, that both authors are all for the women taking advantage of the time apart and “bettering” themselves. This “betterment” also seems to advocate for a feminine education, one that makes women more marketable and ladylike, as Helen is described as spending four years studying before being introduced back to society: “For four years Helen studied hard at French, music, and instructive literature. Painting and dancing were added to the fashionable accomplishments, in which she tried hard to succeed” (74). Helen’s “fashionable accomplishments” in education help to mold her into the desirable woman that Horace Beauchamp pines after. Therefore, this time apart seems to increase Helen and Madge’s femininity through a feminine education and social graces. The rejection of the men, though going against the feminine, domestic ideal, seems to display more of an anxiety about the rejection of domesticity then femininity because the women’s accomplishments (social and educational) are not rejected along with the men. Rather, it is the domestic life with them they reject.

    Works Cited

    A. C. “Only a Flirtation.” 1881. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology. Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman. Manchester:

    Manchester UP, 2001. 73-75. Print.

    “Madge Smith’s Revenge.” 1895. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology. Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman. Manchester:

    Manchester UP, 2001. 94-96. Print.

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  4. Amy Valine says:

    Thank you, Brittany, Jordan, and Kristine, for your thoughtful commentary! You are helping me consider my argument more deeply and giving me intriguing ideas for possible expansion of this paper. One of the weaknesses of my paper is a lack of clearly defined terminology, and I do essentially agree with your criticism. Considering “Only a Flirtation,” “Madge Smith’s Revenge,” and Aurora Floyd in conversation with one another, I think we see perhaps not an outright rejection of femininity per se, but a redefinition of what femininity means to the Victorian woman, particularly in relation to how she interacts with and responds to time. These stories also, however, acknowledge the difficulty of actually living as a new woman.

    Brittany, I love the idea of throwing Aurora Floyd into the mix. As you point out, Aurora’s mostly happy ending suggests that she has successfully manipulated time in some sense. The narrator’s meta-commentary on what should have happened or how a proper hero or heroine would have behaved suggests that Braddon is subverting the “normal” domestic-time relationship of women—what they should be doing at certain times of the day and at certain stages of their lives. However, the havoc that ensues after Aurora’s impulsive marriage, Madge’s revenge mania, and Helen’s untimely death reminds readers that tradition does help maintain a comfortable level of order in society. In that sense, the “new femininity” that you reference, Jordan, is not so much completely embraced and endorsed as it is suggested: this rising new femininity might prevent these domestic tragedies, if only society could catch up to new women’s conception of how their lives ought to (autonomously) progress.

    Kristine, I appreciate your analysis of education’s role in these stories. In my opinion, Madge’s education itself was not a manipulation of domestic time. She is, as you say, following the expected social conventions of a young woman’s becoming “accomplished,” domestically and socially. Rather, it is how she used that education—to become irresistible to Neil so that she would have the chance to reject him—that stand out. Madge is outwardly playing the role of traditional domestic woman, but her motivations and ultimate twisting of that role reveal both that lifestyle’s faults (such as, perhaps, promoting education for marriage’s sake, rather than for personal enrichment) and the current inability of traditional femininity to transcend those faults.

    Finally, Jordan, I do like the perspective that “A Chat” lends to the Madge/Aurora/Helen conversation. Spending more time in the original periodical contexts of each of these stories would certainly give me a more accurate assessment of the fictional and real-life women who pioneered this new femininity, and of how readers—and society in general—responded to them.

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    1. M. Sheldon says:

      As I read your paper, Amy, I was struck by what you reiterate above: that it is how these women use their domestic education that creates conflict and tension in these stories. This brings to mind the Woman Question debates that form an undercurrent in the discourse of the nineteenth century. Beetham and Boardman’s anthology includes the 1859 article from the Englishwoman’s Journal “Are Men Naturally Cleverer than Women?,” which addresses the heart of women’s education. Kristine does a great job of highlighting the feminine education that made women “marketable and ladylike.” The article addresses this very issue, laying out the ways in which a more equitable system of education would lead to women who are as clever as men. The two short stories here seem to say that manipulating such ladylike education for revenge is highly problematic and, if I may, perhaps an equally problematic use of time. If a woman uses feminine education for marriage and appropriate domesticity, then great! But, if she uses it for nefarious reasons, then troubling things will happen. While Madge herself escapes alive and unscathed, her misappropriation of domestic time and feminine education cause another person to commit ‘self-murder.’ In other words, such misappropriation leads to death, be it your own or someone else’s. Is there, perhaps, space for the idea that reformed women’s education would lead to less tragic results? If we limit women to domestically oriented education, are we fostering space for deadly, unladylike outcomes?

      In considering the thread regarding the reinterpretation of femininity, I love your use of the lower-case new woman. As you may be aware, British culture in the 1890s was mildly obsessed with the idea of the upper-case New Woman. The shift from Helen’s death in the 1881 story to Madge’s actions causing another person’s death in the 1895 story strikes me as a compelling moment in the debates over the role of women within matrimonial relationships—including courtship—and in the broader culture. Madge seeks revenge through cultivating the tools that make one desirable as a wife rather than using her time to either become truly domestic or to boldly enter the masculine public sphere. It would be fascinating to place “Madge Smith’s Revenge” into conversations with other New Woman fiction. One possible point of comparison comes to mind: many New Woman characters end up single or, like Helen, dead. As Brittany points out, killing the heroine at the end of a novel was a common Victorian trope. While much New Women fiction utilize this trope, those that do not typically present their heroine as on a bleak, solitary path. “Madge Smith’s Revenge,” which only vaguely flirts with the idea of the New Woman, ends with the heroine on neither a bleak path nor her deathbed. Instead, the story ends with her sitting calmly; the narrator points out that “the light in her eye never changed, her smiling lips never relaxed” (96) as the rest of those present react to the dead body in the library. No word is given as to whether or not she marries or about how successfully she navigates the world after avenging her sister. The idea of the self-defined femininity that you and Jordan explore is compelling, and it alludes to the growing body of research into fin de siècle periodical texts that grabble with the nature of femininity and the role of women within and outside of the domestic sphere.

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  5. I really like how you contextualize your argument at the beginning of paragraph two with “In order to make interruption possible, a story must present a web of temporality in which a female character exists as a passive participant or from which she attempts to break free.” Going a step beyond thinking of women as waiters and men as interrupters, there is something more at play to make time as a whole work in the story. I like how you set up time as a concept that is almost a trap for a woman to fall into: the woman passively falls into the role of waiter while the men can enter in and control time through their roles as interrupters. It’s interesting to think of time as a means of controlling women and making them submissive agents.

    Another interesting point you bring up is that when women try to break free of this control of time by asserting some of their own control, they not only can never fully become interrupters but they also ruin the stability of time they had before. They enter a new realm that they can never conquer and ruin their chances of going back to where they were, causing them to become “waiters” in the sense that they are stuck in a limbo of feminine roles and relation to time. But if we think of Madge Smith, she is able to achieve more of a masculine control, but this then seems to distort her feminine image. She enters into the realm of masculine manipulation of time at the cost of having feminine grace and passivity. I think this goes along with your earlier point about the story “Only a Flirtation” that the story warns readers that it is a better choice to wait then try to assert some control over time. “Madge Smith’s Revenge” ends up portraying her as a cold and heartless figure with features that might make her seem not beautiful to the Victorian reader. She is thus not a figure to entirely look up to and another warning to not step out of bounds of time. I like how time functions as a control in both of these ways, because it almost seeks to control readers by reminding them that this sense of time exists for a reason.

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  6. L. Assad says:

    What a fascinating argument. I appreciate the way that you delve into the temporalities of these stories and explain how the literary construction of temporality is especially important for the women characters affected by it. “Temporal helplessness” is an ingenious way to describe it, and I love the way you compare this helplessness to Horace’s temporal independence. This dichotomy is something that I would like to pay closer attention to as I read more Victorian texts.

    It is wonderful the way you describe temporality as if it were a tangible thing. You go from discussing webs of temporality to markers of temporality, as if it leaves footprints wherever it goes. You manage to discuss temporality as if it were a leading character in both of these texts. The theme of waiting women has always interested me, and I like the way you talk about Helen’s attempt to transcend her temporal status in the second half of the story. It is intriguing to think that she can do this with a simple rejection of Horace, the person who makes her wait.

    I am very glad that you discuss the seasons as a temporal marker, because this seems to be a very apparent and significant motif in Victorian literature. Natural time seems to represent something altogether different than mechanical time, and certainly creates a different effect. It is important that you note that these stories do not seem to encourage total independence, and it is interesting that this could relate to the discouragement of destroying a woman’s femininity. Your conclusion that even the brevity of these stories plays into your argument is fantastic. It is always important to think about the reader’s perception of time as we read these Victorian periodicals.

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