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.
A. C. “Only a Flirtation.” 1881. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology.
Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. 73-75.
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.