Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Part 8 - Darwinian (Wo)man

David Duffey: It may be possible that Princess Ida was more topical and with a sharper relevance than most of us have acknowledged; it may be more than a gentle Gilbertain jibe at the women's college movement.

Given that the waves caused by Darwin's theory are still crashing onto shore in the 1990s, let us conceive of the effect they had on secure, complacent, male-dominated mid-Victorian England.

One of the effects was in the resistance to the emerging demand of women to be treated differently. (I mean differently from the way they were being treated at the time: "equally" is not exactly the correct word.)

Darwinian theory specifically emphasized the role of selective reproduction, and suggested that increasing functional differentiation between males and females was a distinguishing feature of the evolution of higher mammals. Herbert Spencer, founding father of sociology (The Study of Sociology, 1873) propounded that the biological energy absorbed by childbirth precluded the female brain from sharing "the latest product of human evolution", namely abstract reasoning. The new sciences of psychology and gynaecology, practised by men who in other ways would be thought of as "progressive", taught that prolonged education and mental effort were dangerous to women's reproductive processes and a potent source of female ill-health.

Thus many educated Englishmen believed that the "women's movement" could actually be responsible for weakening the evolution of humankind. This fear was compounded by the evidence of the ten-yearly census, showing that from 1861 to '71, and from '71 to '81, the number of women was growing in proportion to the number of men, and that there was a remarkable lowering of the birth-rate combined with a tendency for women to begin their child bearing at a later age.

Of course it is not possible to generalise, there were great differences in the perception of women's roles between and within social classes. On the whole, though, it is likely that mid-Victorian women would see "rights" in terms of freedom from being tied to paid drudgery and incessant childbirth. It is also interesting that those women who succeeded in business or broke into the professions tended to emphasise their feminine characteristics in terms of dress and behaviour. It was only those who wished to dominate (rather than just realise their full potential) who tried to play men at their own game (Pankhurst, Nightingale, Smythe).

What I am trying to suggest is that Princess Ida may have been more challenging in 1884 than we usually realise.

Sarah Mankowski: Noted Darwinian scholar, Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Ever Since Darwin, titled chapter 28: "The Criminal As Nature's Mistake, Or The Ape In Some Of Us."

He begins the chapter by mentioning Lady Psyche's song and quoting:

Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved.

Then, the following paragraph:

"Gilbert produced Princess Ida in 1884, eight years after an Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso, had initiated one of the most powerful social movements of his time with a similar claim made in all seriousness about a group of men - born criminals are essentially apes living in our midst."

I found this interesting and wondered if Gilbert was aware of this movement, allowing Psyche and Ida to take the thinking to it's most absurd conclusion.

Judith Weis: Stephen Gould, in a book called The Mismeasure of Man discusses the "scientific" studies of Victorians designed to imply that women's education and participation in the world in general would have negative effects on their reproductive functions and be detrimental to the species. These "studies" were parallel to others which attempted to demonstrate that white people had bigger brains than other races, etc. These studies, which supported the political status quo should not (as David has done) be mixed up with Darwin, whose ideas were extremely radical. Plus the fact that Darwin was right and those people (who are generally forgotten today) were just plain WRONG! I suspect that Gilbert probably believed them though, and therefore felt justified in poking fun at higher education for women. I am convinced that Ida is, at heart, a sexist play, which makes fun of women much more than men. However, I have long ago come to terms with it and can leave my feminism at home when I go to see and enjoy it as much as the other G&S works.

David Duffey: No, no, I have not mixed it up at all. Darwin propounded that increased functional differentiation between males and females was a distinguising feature of higher mammals. Spencer et al made the other arguments. What they did was to quote Darwin to support their theories - mistakenly yes; but use him they did.

Mike Storie: One interpretation of the text of Princess Ida might suggest that the faculty of Castle Adamant taught that men are descendants of apes while women are not. Lady Psyche (Professor of Humanities) states:

For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant Being,
With a brain far-seeing -
While a man, however well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved
Now wouldn't it liven up an otherwise dull church social to propose that the Theory of Evolution applied to men, while the Theory of Creationism applied to women?

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