Date of Graduation
In his three operas of the early 1880s--Patience, Iolanthe, and Princess Ida--W. S. Gilbert directs his wit at free-thinking women. Although the overt subjects of these operas (Aestheticism, the reform of the House of Lords, and women's education) have received much critical attention, the subplot--the conflict between men and women--has not. In all three, the tension in the plot is the result of the sexual struggle; and, in all three, Gilbert trivializes the feminist idea of woman's independence and advocates the Separate Spheres theory, which postulated that equality between the sexes was not possible because of the God-ordained biological difference between men and women. The unwritten "natural" laws of Victorian society, based on these sexual differences, were reinforced by written laws which upheld men's "natural" superiority by removing from women, through marriage, any control they had over their possessions, their children, and their lives. In these operas, Gilbert punishes those women who transgress the "natural" laws. The women--the heroines and the dames, in particular, but also the female choruses--are corrected by the male-controlled society and safely married off by the end of the operas. In Patience, the women are controlled by love--either artificial, aesthetic love or sincere and practical love; "womanly" women are paired with "manly" men, and the asexual Bunthorne is left without a mate. The power of love almost destroys the "Separate Spheres" in Iolanthe, causing chaos as the women invade the masculine world of law and politics. However, not even love can overcome the "natural" differences, and the fairy and mortal worlds are separate once again at the conclusion of the opera. In Princess Ida, the women try to overcome the "natural" differences through education, but they are defeated in their war with the men by their biological duty to provide "posterity." Gilbert's advocacy of the Separate Spheres theory pleased his conservative audience; it also dates these three "Woman Question" operas more than the overt satire he aimed at the Victorian concerns of Aestheticism, political reform, and women's education.
Hoffman, Cheryl Conover, "A study of the women in W. S. Gilbert's "Patience", "Iolanthe", and "Princess Ida"; or, the folly of being feminist." (1988). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 9046.