The Struggles of Women in Victorian England in Princess Ida, an Opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

“Come, mighty Must! Inevitable shall!” Blanche, an ambitious instructor at the illustrious Castle Adamant, exclaims this as she contemplates her future at the school. She is welcoming of change and its possibilities. She understands that change and reform in the way things are done can be beneficial, depending on one’s point of view. W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan saw these changes happening in the world around them when they debuted Princess Ida.

Change was something that all of Victorian London was wary of, but the end of the nineteenth century brought a tidal wave of it.

Women were gaining more status in society and old ways of thinking were being challenged. As one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s longest and least successful shows,, Ida did not seem, at first, to be very influential; however, it still managed to pull the strings of straight-laced Victorian London by satirizing controversies, addressing issues, and questioning old values.

After seeing Princess Ida, the first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta I had ever seen, I found it to be clever, dry-witted, and glib, but it also raised a few red flags.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s portrayal of women, I thought, was bigoted and chauvinistic – but was that the point? Was that part of the satire? When I viewed it through a satirical lens, their reasoning made more sense. While they portrayed women as overly weak and flirtatious, men were portrayed as pigheaded and misogynistic. Other people I discussed this with had different viewpoints of this reasoning.

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One person agreed about the extremes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire, such as the stark contrast between Ida’s arranged marriage and her complete isolation from men. However, this person said, human nature inevitably wins over her obstinance and she marries Hilarion.

Another person called more attention to the truth that could be found in the satire. Although some of the characters, like Ida’s brawny brothers or one of her flirtatious pupils, seem outrageous, these stereotypes are well-known and well-used even today. We can see this by the thuggish football players we see on television or the ditzy valley-girl types in movies.. Gilbert and Sullivan used these cliched characters to highlight their absurdity – even Hilarion’s name even points to the “hilarity” of his sensitive, beta-male stereotype. These opinions helped me formulate my own opinion of what the show was all about.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire comes from the social issues of the Victorian era which they were addressing. The first is arranged marriage. By having Ida and Hilarion marry at the ages of one and two, Gilbert and Sullivan were satirizing the notion of arranged marriage. In the Victorian era, large, wealthy families would often organize a marriage when the couple in question was young, often out of convenience. Princess Ida, however, takes the idea one step further by having the couple actually marry at an infantile age.

The feminist symbol of Castle Adamant is Ida’s response to this outrageous practice. Arranged marriages have dwindled as women have gained more liberties, and though they still happen today, most take place among religious societies. Another Victorian controversy which Princess Ida addresses is that of Darwinian Evolution. “We are all taught,” says Psyche in Act II, “…that Man, sprung from an Ape, is Ape at heart.” Later, she sings, “The Maid was beauty’s fairest queen/with golden tresses/like a real princess’s/while the ape, despite his razor keen/was the apiest ape that ever was seen!” Gilbert and Sullivan use Darwinian Evolution to explain the division between men and women in Princess Ida: This was why Ida and the women of Castle Adamant are so against men and marriage. Darwin’s ideas were earth-shaking in straight-laced Victorian England, but today it is a fairly established theory for the development of humans.

Perhaps the most expansive issue addressed in Princess Ida is that of higher education for women. Before Princess Ida was completed, higher education for women was a controversial topic. It was not until the show debuted that it was a well established concept: Westfield College at the University of London, which was cited as the model for Castle Adamant, was established in 1882, two years before the show began its run. In the twenty-first century, women’s higher education is still well established. Third-world countries, however, still struggle with giving women basic rights, let alone higher education. Unfortunately, the same kind of oppressive chauvinism that existed in the nineteenth century still exists in some countries today. Although this may be the case, most societies seem to be stepping away from, and not toward, this practice.

Other than Princess Ida, works of literature have discussed these issues that were so prevalent in Victorian England. Women and their roles in the world appear in all sorts of stories, including those which I studied in an English Literature class. The rapid changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have brought about many questions regarding a woman’s role: Is she meant to be subservient to men? Is she meant only to nurture? Jane Austen wrestled with these ideas even in the early 1800s. Austen’ works often dealt heavily with arranged marriage and the seemingly absurd customs of society. While she did seem to view women as the gentler sex, she also portrayed them as the more intelligent and intuitive one as well, especially in her exploration of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. She asserted that any marriage should be based on love, not convenience or closure.

This sort of issue is often discussed by her characters, such as Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Twentieth century writer D.H. Lawrence was fascinated with relationships of all kinds. His short story “Tickets, Please” shows women as dominant, given their new leadership positions during the first World War. These young women, who work on railway cars, are powerful, stoic, and vengeful. A young man courts and breaks the heart of each one, causing them all to turn on him and nearly beat him senseless. This kind of portrayal of women is similar to Gilbert and Sullivan’s portrayal of the women in Castle Adamant, although somewhat more volatile. Though they may be mild and flirtatious, they can also be as strong-willed and stubborn as men. This change in the way women were portrayed in literature came not long after Princess Ida, as women gained more rights and a better reputation.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida might not have been an earth-shaking operetta, but it identified – and poked fun at – the problems of conservative Victorian England. However, the show addresses issues that were worth discussing and bringing to light. Whether or not changes have been made, Princess Ida was a small victory for the struggling women of the time. They saw that they had the right to be educated and respected, just as men did. The stereotypes that held them back did not have to define them if they could prove to society that they were more. Their lives could change, and for the better, as Blanche believed: “Oh weak, might be!… How powerless ye/for evil or for good!/… Ye have deceiv’d the trust I’ve shown in ye!/Away, the Mighty Must alone shall be!”

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The Struggles of Women in Victorian England in Princess Ida, an Opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. (2022, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/the-struggles-of-women-in-victorian-england-in-princess-ida-an-opera-by-w-s-gilbert-and-arthur-sullivan/

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