Is Boredom Gendered? How M.E. Braddon’s Portrayal of Writing, Boredom and Gender in The Doctor’s Wife Still Rings True Today

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

All writers get bored. Every substantial writing project drags at times and everyone regrets having started on the foolhardy pursuit at some point. Sometimes I think that successful writers are just those who are determined enough to power through to the end no matter how bored of their project they become.

Having been working on the new Women’s Writing Bootcamp I’ll be offering in the summer, which focuses on highlighting and capitalizing on a female learning style, I’ve started wondering if boredom is gendered. So I started trying to think of representations of boredom in novels. Kafka’s  The Metamorphosis is the first to come to mind: Gregor Samsa transforms into a giant dung beetle rather than continue to go to his soul-destroying travelling sales job. Dickens loves to portray bored characters as well. Pip in Great Expectations is a fantastic example, as is Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.

Lady Lileth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lileth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

These quick examples off the top of my head already show a pattern in gendered boredom. Gregor Samsa is bored because he is alienated from his work; he is a victim of the capitalist system. Pip is bored because he has no work and no profession. The life of leisure of a gentleman does not fulfil him. However, Lady Dedlock’s boredom is of a different kind. She is always “bored to death”, a repeated phrase that comes to sound like a mid-nineteenth century version of depression. As a wealthy woman, Lady Dedlock’s occupations should be socializing and spending time with her children. The fashionable world has no interest for her and her only child has been hidden from her since birth. Dickens was surely indicating a causal relationship here.

Another, more specific, question then came to mind. Did these writers ever attempt to portray boredom with writing in their fiction? One fantastic example occurred to me: The Doctor’s Wife by Mary Braddon. An adaptation of the plot of Madame Bovary, The Doctor’s Wife follows the progression of a young woman, Isabel, who finds herself abandoned by her criminal father and, at least partly out of desperation, marries a dull country doctor, George Gilbert. Isabel is extremely bored and begins a platonic relationship with a local nobleman, Roland Lansdell. Various characters marvel over the power of Isabel’s imagination. Her belief that Roland shares her platonic intentions turns out to be a romantic product of this imagination, leading her to end the relationship rather than consummate it as did Emma Bovary.

Boredom with Writing

To return to the issue of boredom with writing, Isabel’s sensation novelist novelist friend Sigismund Smith suspects Roland’s intentions long before they are revealed to Isabel and he judges the problem to be Isabel’s boredom. She would not be susceptible if she were more fully occupied. Sigismund suggests that she try writing a novel to cure her boredom:

‘I dare say, you do find life rather slow work down here; and I can’t help thinking that if you were to occupy yourself a little more than you do, you’d be happier. Suppose, now,’ cried Mr. Smith, palpably swelling with the importance of his idea,—’suppose you were to WRITE A NOVEL! THERE! You don’t know how happy it would make you. Look at me. I always used to be sighing and lamenting, and wishing for this, that, or the other: wishing I had ten thousand a year, or a Grecian nose, or some worldly advantage of that sort; but since I’ve taken to writing novels, I don’t think I’ve a desire unsatisfied. There’s nothing I haven’t done—on paper. The beautiful women I’ve loved and married; the fortunes I’ve come into, always unexpectedly, and when I was at the very lowest ebb, with a tendency to throw myself into the Serpentine in the moonlight; the awful vengeance I’ve wreaked upon my enemies; the murders I’ve committed would make the life of a Napoleon Buonaparte seem tame and trivial by comparison’.

Sigismund’s experience of novel-writing sounds anything but boring, but his assurance of his own ability to represent all of these fantastic events smacks of overconfidence. He has no truck with expertise or experience. Braddon playfully mocks her own fictional counterpart, who at one point pauses in his writing to jab at his own throat with a paper knife to determine from which direction a man would slit his own throat. This is a very male sort of excitement: plunging into the work of writing about any topic at all with an abundance of confidence that it will be pulled off successfully.

In fact, Sigismund claims that Isabel will cure herself of interest in Roland and make herself become bored of him, by the very act of writing about him: “if I were a young lady, and had a kind of romantic fancy for a person I ought not to care about, I’ll tell you what I’d do with him,—I’d put him into a novel, Izzie, and work him out in three volumes; and if I wasn’t heartily sick of him by the time I got to the last chapter, nothing on earth would cure me”. The implication is that all of the titillating events of these novels become mundane and perhaps easily knowable once committed to paper, hence Sigismund’s need to constantly create new heroines, new villains and new crimes.

Isabel does briefly attempt to take Sigismund’s advice:

She wrote a few chapters of a novel; a wild weird work of fiction, in which Mr. Roland Lansdell reigned paramount over all the rules of Lindley Murray, and was always nominative when he ought to have been objective, and vice versa, and did altogether small credit to the university at which he was described to have gained an impossible conglomeration of honours. . . . But Mrs. Gilbert never got beyond a few random chapters, in which the grand crisis of the work—the first meeting of the hero and heroine, the death of the latter by drowning and of the former by rupture of a blood-vessel, and so on—were described. She could not do the every-day work; she could erect a fairy palace, and scatter lavish splendour in its spacious halls; but she could not lay down the stair-carpets, or fit the window-blinds, or arrange the planned furniture.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Like Lady Dedlock, Isabel’s boredom stems from female transgression. Lady Dedlock has no children (that she knows of) and no productive female occupation. Isabel is more interested in novels and local noblemen than in her household or her husband. But what is interesting here is that when Isabel attempts to write, she has no problem going for the big, important events. It is the trivial, more female realm she has trouble with. She is fully capable of daydreaming up a “wild weird” plot complete with graphic deaths worthy of one of Sigismund’s novels. What is missing from her writing is discipline: the “every-day work”, “stair-carpets”, “window-blinds” and “planned furniture” that support the wild plot to take place. This is why her grammar is a law unto itself. It is the boring part of the writing that Isabel rejects.

Braddon’s Critique of Bored Women

Mary Braddon was one woman writer who had no problem with the boring, “every-day work” of writing. She wrote over 80 novels during her lifetime—under a number of different pen names and for a wide range of middle brow and penny dreadful publications. She often had two or three novels being serialized at the same time. According to the narrator of The Doctor’s Wife, Sigismund Smith’s work ‘enjoyed an immense popularity amongst the classes who like their literature as they like their tobacco—very strong’. The same could be said of Mary Braddon’s work. This is to say that I don’t think it is the sensational content that is the subject of critique here. Isabel is not meant to be read as a silly girl who can’t come up with any realistic details to place in her novel.

Rather, I think Braddon is making a more subtle point about women and their occupations. Isabel simply does not have enough to do to occupy her powerful mind. The problem is not her; it is the setting in which there is no occupation that suits her. Braddon is suggesting that her intellect deserves occupation more equal to its powers. At the end of the novel, Isabel busies herself with innovative philanthropic projects. As for novel-writing, the more specific problem is that she simply has no training in the basic building blocks such as grammar or how to persevere to the end like all sensation novelists and all writers have to do regardless of how bored they become with the project.

For me, the most interesting thing here at the moment is the idea of training. Early in the novel Sigismund finishes his latest installment of the Smuggler’s Bride while a messenger boy waits to receive it to deliver to the publisher. Pressure such as this as well as a need to generate income are what drive the sensation novelist and these conditions are much more effective training than Isabel has ever had. I am going to be thinking hard about what sorts of training work best for women over the next few weeks.

Readers, what experiences have taught you about how to do the ‘every-day work’ of writing? Let me know in the comments below.