Gender Construction in “The Yellow Drawing Room”

In Mona Caird’s “The Yellow Drawing Room,” St. Vincent fixates on Vanora’s gender in curiously. He notes, disapproves, and prescribes alternatives for all her actions, tastes, and opinions. And yet, despite his quest to make Vanora a loving, lovable woman in his image, his description of gender is strikingly modern. I do not mean to say that his sense of propriety is in anywhere ideal, nor that anyone should behave according to a fictional misogynist, like Vincent. Rather, the ways in which gender appears through this story seems to suggest that Victorian society had some idea of performance and gender as intertwined.

Throughout the story, Vanora represents a problem in Victorian society. As Vincent put it, “[s]he was supremely, overpoweringly womanly,” that the “womanhood of her sisters paled before the exuberant feminine quality which I could not but acknowledge in Vanora” (Caird 105). Vanora radiates femininity from her very being. And yet, paradoxically, everything she does, undoes her. Her excessive femininity (and excessive liveliness), according to Vincent, depreciates her womanhood. He belittles her in saying that she has “many qualities and ideas that are not suited to [her] sex” (Caird 106). Yet, never does Vincent separate which qualities femininize Vanora and which un-feminize her. In fact, the same actions that define her character do so in seemingly contradictory ways. Somehow, she is a woman, perhaps the most woman-like woman in the story, but she is also somehow not quite a woman. In being lively and bright, she brings out femininity. But by not adhering to a Victorian propriety, her liveliness gives her those ‘qualities unsuited to her sex’. In short, it seems that her actions bring about qualities which then help define her gender.

While “The Yellow Drawing Room” is certainly not an early rendition of Judith Butler, the appearance and focus on gender construction through actions is striking to read from a Victorian perspective. It seems that, during a historically contentious point in female propriety, behavior was at the center of a deeply anxious discourse on gender. Behavior, actions, and performance all seems to bring about those qualities which aid in the making of gender.

2 thoughts on “Gender Construction in “The Yellow Drawing Room””

  1. This is such a good point! I definitely think that the text raises questions about the performativity of gender! Your analysis just made me think: What does a woman have to do to be “the right woman”? How do women have to perform gender to be seen as women from all different perspectives? You did a great job at describing the contradiction within Vincent’s argumentation and I agree with you. This is a very frustrating thought though because it means that someone will always think it’s unwomanly what a woman does.

  2. This analysis really highlights how the problem was not if a woman were too feminine or too masculine or too smart or too dumb, the problem with women, as per the Victorian Era ideals, is that they are women! It doesn’t matter what they do or how they portray themselves because they will never be “right” through the eyes of a man. It is interesting to bring up the idea of a woman being a blank canvas here because the idea of that is that women are whoever the men make them. This reinforces that it doesn’t matter what women do, because men will make them whatever they want them to be in their heads.

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