Femininity and deviance in Mary Cholmondeley’s The Lowest Rung

Oulton, C. (2017) Femininity and deviance in Mary Cholmondeley’s The Lowest Rung. In: Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1900s and 1910s, 10-11 July 2017, Canterbury.

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First published in volume form in 1908, Mary Cholmondeley’s short story collection The Lowest Rung focuses on respectable women’s social isolation and marginalised status in the context of their response to risk. Of the four stories included in the collection three involve criminality, deviance or both. But unlike the sensational plots of her major novels these stories use the threat of criminality primarily as a means of benchmarking the moral choices of the female protagonist. As in her earlier story ‘The Pitfall’ (1901) it often transpires that ‘the bad women are better than the good ones’.
‘The Hand on the Latch’ reworks a familiar narrative trope as a wife caught up in the American Civil War disobeys her husband’s strict warning and opens the door to a wounded soldier during his absence; ‘The Lowest Rung’ uses the figure of an escaped convict to investigate what social exclusion might mean for women of different classes; ‘The Understudy’ is set in the context of an unhappy love affair revisited years later and ends with the death of a female alcoholic.
It is characteristic of Cholmondeley’s late fiction that the apparent dullness of the middle aged women who inhabit these stories should be animated by an unsettled yearning for lost opportunities or regretted choices. In both ‘The Hand on the Latch’ and ‘The Lowest Rung’ the trope of criminality is complicated through ambiguity and narrative substitutions. But the worst punishment is reserved for the guiltless single woman whose story is reflected back to her by the ‘understudy’ of the title and who chooses for a second time to avoid emotional risk, leaving a deviant woman to marry the man who had originally loved her.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English Literature
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Humanities > International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICWW)
Depositing User: Prof Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton
Date Deposited: 14 Aug 2017 08:15
Last Modified: 14 Aug 2017 08:15
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/16088

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00