The Fin De Siecle is characterized as a time of both massive progress and debilitating decline in all aspects of society. The electron was discovered during this time, yet physiognomy was considered scientifically valid. Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, in their introduction to Reading the Fin De Siecle” further identify this time as “a time fraught with anxiety and with an exhilarating sense of possibility” (L&L 1). Women were not free from the grasps of this confusing dichotomy, and thus the concept of the “New Woman” was born during this time. Ledger and Luckhurst define the New Woman as “double-coded,” in which a woman could own the “image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence” while also warning against the “dangers of sexual degeneracy” and “the abandonment of motherhood” (L&L 17). I other words, “New Women could themselves be advocates of conservative causes” (L&L 17).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula explores the role of women through two female characters who exemplify characteristics of the New Woman, but from opposite ends of the spectrum. We meet Lucy Westenra through a letter she writes to her friend Mina Murray (eventually Mina Harker). She is in a fit of emotion as she believes she is in love with Mr. Holmwood: “Oh Mina, couldn’t you guess? I love him. I am blushing as I write… oh, Mina, I love him; I love him; I love him” (Stoker 64)! The repetition of “I love him” is important. Lucy is able to state what she is feeling and physically show that feeling with her “blushing,” all in a normal fashion. She is neither stone cold nor hysterical as was the typical depiction of women before this time period. Additionally, she is given the agency to state that she loves Mr. Holmwood instead of waiting for a man to choose her or choose someone for her.
This idea is further exemplified in the next letter Mina receives from Lucy, in which Lucy is faced with the very “difficult” problem of having been proposed to by three different men. She is again given agency to choose which man she wants to say yes to, a dynamic that is very different from the forced marriages that were common before. In fact, Lucy is so uncomfortable with this new found power that she “burst into tears” (Stoker 67), suggesting she has never been given this power before. Lucy then questions “why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble” (Stoker 67)? While Lucy may not have fully understood this when she wrote it, her suggestion of one woman marrying as many men as she wants (thus establishing sexual relations with many men), hints at the sexual freedoms Ledger and Luckhurst note as one of the defining characteristics of the New Woman. Lucy exemplifies many of the characteristics of the free spirited Victorian woman.
On the other hand, Mina lacks much of the emotional presence in her writing that Lucy has. Her letters act more as a log of events than passionate descriptions of her feelings, and require more in depth analysis to understand the sentiment behind the words. Our introduction to Mina’s accounts of the story are through her letters to Lucy. She speaks of being busy with “the life of an assistant schoolmistress” and her studies of shorthand. Though it is exciting that Mina is a working woman and educating herself, she is working in a job that is conventionally held by women, thus limiting her powers within the workforce. In addition, Mina remains devoted to Jonathan, her fiancée and eventual husband, throughout the entire novel. She is available to him whenever he needs her. Her thoughts do not wander in her writing toward inklings of thinking about other men or the possibilities of having desires toward other men. Further, her education in shorthand is for Jonathan, so that she “shall be useful to [him]” when he returns and begins his business. Mina exemplifies the conservative side of the New Woman. She embraces some agency, but most of it is in service to the men in her life.
Lucy and Mina are both Victorian women grappling with the newfound freedoms and struggling with the restrictions still present. While Lucy may lean more toward the free version of the New Woman, and Mina may lean toward the conservative version of the New Woman, both show characteristics of conservatism and progression. Thus, the juxtaposition and intersections of Mina and Lucy’s characters perfectly exemplify the “anxiety” of opposites so present in the Fin de Siecle, as noted by Ledger and Luckhurst.