Consider how the Portrayal of the Female Characters in “Hobson’s Choice” Relates to the Social, Historical and Cultural Context of the Play Essay

In this assignment I am going to discuss the portrayal of the female characters in “Hobson’s Choice”. I will explore the role of women in society, both at the time the play was set (between 1870 and 1880) and the time it was written (1916). I will then go on to consider how far Harold Brighouse’s characters fit in with the social, historical and cultural context of the play.

The play was set in 1870. At this time, in Britain, men and women were treated very differently. Women had no rights. They were considered by men just to be baby makers and home planners. There were three main types of woman in 1870’s Britain. These were: high-class women, middle class and lower/working class women.

With the different classes of woman came different lifestyles.

A woman of the upper class did not work. Instead, she was a homemaker. She would not do any of the manual work, but would plan who did which jobs on which days.

A high-class lady would have had a lot of leisure time. This time would not be used to pursue sports, but to practice something cultural such as playing a musical instrument, painting, hosting parties etc.

A high-class woman would have servants for almost, if not, all housework. This included raising the children, of which she would have one or two. They would be raised and taught by a servant called a governess.

A high-class woman would have the chance at a good education. They would probably have been able to read, write and maybe do simple maths. The core of an upper class girl’s education would have been learning the etiquette of the upper classes. This would be done at a finishing school.

A woman of the middle class would probably work in a shop or office. Her job would not entail much manual work. If her family owned a business then she may work for the family.

A middle class woman might have had a little help with her housework but would have done the majority herself.

She may have had a little education and would almost definitely have been taught to read and write.

A middle class woman would probably have had a little leisure time. This time would be filled with socialising, reading, knitting etc.

A middle class woman would probably have had one or two children. In most cases, the parents would look after the children in a middle class family.

A woman of the lower/working class would have had no education as it had to be paid for and lower class families could not always afford it. Even when they could afford school, boys in the family would take priority over the girls.

A working class woman would do mainly manual work, in factories and for the upper class citizens as servants. Lower class women living in rural areas may work on the farmland.

A lower class woman would have done all their own housework, as they did not have the money to hire a servant.

She would have very little leisure time, if any at all.

A lower class woman would have several children. This was so that they could be sent to work and earn money to support the family. They would start work at about the age of eleven.

Of course, there were always exceptions to each case. For instance, a high-class family may have seven or eight children, a middle class woman may have enough money to hire a governess for her children, or maybe a working class family had enough money to send all their children, including girls, to school.

Also, in 1880, men were still completely dominant over women. The government was made up entirely of men. This meant that men made all the laws. The only female input into law making was Queen Victoria and all she was allowed to do was decide on whether or not to pass it. She could not make, change, or abolish any law. Due to women being looked on as inferior to men, they were not allowed the vote.

There was also a law that said, when a woman was married, all her possessions became the property of her husband. Only in 1882 was this law changed to allow women to keep their possessions after marriage.

Between 1880 and 1916, the year the play was written, many changes took place that affected the role of women in Britain.

Two major new inventions were introduced that opened up new job positions for women. These inventions were the telephone and the typewriter.

Advances in the education system meant that everybody was able to attend a school. Upper classes went to public schools, where fees were paid. Lower, and some middle class children went to State schools, which were free. The difference in the quality of education given at Public schools and State schools would have been quite significant. Public schools would far surpass State schools, but State schools gave the lower class children the chance to become literate, learn mathematics and other skills. This gave them a chance at a better job later in life.

In 1916, Britain was in the middle of World War 1. This meant that, due to a lack of men, women took up traditionally male jobs, such as mechanics, building, plumbing and butchery. This resulted in a change in female fashion. Instead of it being used to show off the woman’s body, it became practical and more work-related. Rather than wearing items that restricted movement, like high-heeled boots or bustles, clothing was simple and unrestrictive.

There was also an increase in female professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers). This was due to a combination of two things: a lack of men to fill the job spaces, and pioneering women.

Meanwhile, another group of pioneering women were wreaking havoc on Britain. They were the Women’s Social and Political Union, more commonly known as the Suffragettes. This group was headed by a woman called Emmeline Pankhurst. They were campaigning for women’s rights. To gain public recognition the Suffragettes would do all sorts of things, mostly acts of vandalism. These included smashing shop windows, burning down buildings, cutting telephone wires, tearing up golf greens, and slashing paintings. They were even known to knock on the windows and doors of Herbert Asquith (the prime minister at the time) and run away. Some women felt so strongly for the Suffragettes cause that they were willing to give their lives for it. An extremist named Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby and was killed to gain publicity for the Suffragettes. When a Suffragette was arrested and imprisoned they would go on a hunger strike. This meant that they would refuse to eat until they were let out. This put the Law in an awkward position; keep them locked up and let them die (which would cause bad publicity for the police and make people sympathise with the Suffragettes), or let them go without prosecution.

To combat this, the government created The Cat and Mouse Act. This allowed The Law to let the woman go when she became dangerously malnourished, then re-arrest her when she was healthy again.

Eventually the actions of the Suffragettes paid off, but not until 1918, when women over 30 were given the vote. This was then changed in 1928 to allow any woman over 21 to vote.

Maggie Hobson comes from a middle class family. Her father owns a successful shoe shop, where she works as a saleswoman. She is not paid for what she does. Maggie is a very well organized woman. She is able to look after her whole family (her father, two sisters and herself) and run the family business almost single-handedly. We know it is her that keeps Hobson’s Shoe Shop going because when she leaves to start up her own business with Willie, Hobson’s shoe shop goes under;

Willie: It’s been a good business in its day, too, has Hobson’s.

Alice: What on earth do you mean? It’s a good business still.

Willie: You try to sell it, and you’d learn. Stock and goodwill ‘ud fetch about two hundred.

This quote is from near the end of the play, after Maggie and Willie have been gone about a year. It is Willie talking to Vickey and Alice about Hobson’s Shoe Shop, saying how it has gone downhill in the past year and telling them what is thought of their father and his business in trading circles.

Maggie is a very good businesswoman. She always gets a sale and is able to work the accounting, due to her education. We do not know if she was self-taught but I think that she is as her sisters, Alice and Vickey, are not able to do the simple arithmetic needed for the accounts, whereas Maggie can:

Alice: I’m not snappy in myself. (Sitting at desk.) It’s these figures. I can’t get them right. What’s 17 and 25?

Vickey (promptly): Fifty-two, of course.

Maggie does not get on very well with her father. This is due to her standing up to him and him being so stubborn. She does know how to manipulate and control him though. She knows that if she is forceful enough he will back down against her. Maggie behaves, towards her father, as if she is the parent and he is the child. She doesn’t ask him to do things, she tells him. This behaviour is probably because, since her mother died, her father has let her take up the maternal role. This means she is used to being in charge, as she has to control her younger sisters, and so thinks it necessary to take charge of her father too.

When Maggie resides at her family home, her role is very much the mother. She cooks, cleans and looks after the interests of Alice and Vickey. They are dependant, as children would be. Although she cares for her sisters, she puts Willie before them both. She demands that they show him respect. In order to do this, she says they must both kiss him:

Alice: It’s under protest

Maggie: Protest, but kiss.

(Vickey kisses Will, who finds he rather likes it. She moves back and starts dusting furiously.)

Maggie’s relationship with Willie starts off as a purely business relationship. Their marriage was not one of love but a business partnership. In the beginning, Maggie treats Willie a lot like a child. He is extremely dependant on her and she does not leave him to make his own decisions. She even writes his wedding speech for him. Furthermore, she engineers situations to make it seem, outwardly, like a traditional marriage, where the male is dominant:

Maggie (rising and going towards the door): Then I’ll leave you with my husband to talk it over.

As the play goes on, Maggie and Willie’s relationship grows stronger and more loving. By the end of the play, the relationship has developed into a loving one.

Maggie is friendly with Mrs. Hepworth. When she comes into Hobson’s she isn’t pushy, as she is with Albert Prosser, but polite:

Maggie: Can I take your order for another pair of boots, Mrs. Hepworth?

Mrs. Hepworth: Not yet, young woman. But I shall send my daughters here. And, mind you, that man’s to make the boots.

Maggie: certainly, Mrs. Hepworth.

This is because Mrs. Hepworth has a higher social status than Maggie.

When Maggie meets Ada Figgins, she is very rude to her. This is not just because she is Willie’s Fianc�e, but also because she is of lower class than Maggie herself. If Ada had been middle class Maggie would not have been quite so rude and if Ada were high class and the same situation arose, Maggie would not come out on top, due to her inferior class.

Maggie’s marriage to Willie is not at all extravagant. Everything is kept simple and cheap. She has a brass ring, normal clothes are worn, only her sisters and their husbands-to-be are invited and the “reception” consists of a few sandwiches, tea, and cake. This shows Maggie’s non-conformist attitude, as it is not at all a traditional style wedding. It also shows her practicality, as she knows that they do not have enough money to throw it away on a wedding.

Maggie’s attitude is quite formal nearly all the time. Even with people she is close to, she is still formal. The only person she really shows complete informality to is Willie. This formal attitude means that she does not show her love the way that the average daughter/sister would.

She is also extremely self-reliant. She does not need people to plan out her life for her. She is in complete control of it herself. She also has a great many people dependant on her, and she rarely lets them down. This shows that she is generous and trustworthy too. Generosity, kindness, and selflessness are shown by the fact that she gives up a lot of time to teach Willie to read and write, but she gains nothing from it. It is simply to make his life better.

Alice and Vickey Hobson are also middle class. They are the sisters of Maggie Hobson and work in the family shop. They do not do very much work. Instead, Vickey spends her work time reading and Alice spends it knitting. They also arrange for their boyfriends, Albert Prosser and Freddie Beenstock, to come into the shop and meet with them. As with Maggie, they are not paid, they get their keep, and they also get clothing. Their father pays the draper ten pounds a year for each of them to be clothed. They have to have the latest fashions and so the ten pounds is put to good use. Maggie also gets this ten pounds, but does not seem to take advantage of it the way that Alice and Vickey do.

Alice and Vickey are not very well educated. They can obviously read, as Vickey reads a book in the shop, but they have trouble with maths. This is shown when they Vickey is trying to do the accounts:

Alice: I’m not snappy in myself. (Sitting down at desk.) It’s these figures. I can’t get them right. What’s 17 and 25?

Vickey (promptly): Fifty-two, of course.

This lack of education is probably due to their interest in men. They did not need to know how to work out sums when they could attract a man with the look of their bodies.

It becomes apparent, when Maggie leaves with Willie, that Alice and Vickey do not have any domestic skills either. They cannot cook and do not know the first thing about how to clean around the house.

Vickey and Alice are not that close to their father. When he becomes ill at the end of the play, they are not bothered enough to go back to the house and look after him. There is very little love between them and they show no respect towards him. This is shown throughout the play by the way they speak to him. They stand up to him verbally, but will not take action as Maggie does. Instead, Maggie has to push them into it.

The only thing that Alice and Vickey care about, relating to their father, is his money. It is proved when the three girls, Alice, Vickey, and Maggie, are invited to the house at the end of the play to sort out who is to move back and look after him. They do not show much remorse at the fact that he is ill, but are very concerned that, if Maggie and Willie are left alone with their father, he may write them out of his will and give it all to Maggie.

Alice and Vickey’s relationship with Maggie is, as with their father, quite loveless. They are extremely dependent on her, as children would be with a mother, but do not show affection towards her as a child would its mother. They need her to run the business because they cannot do it for themselves. When she leaves, they are completely lost without her.

Vickey and Alice are very critical of Maggie’s marriage to Willie. They think that, because Willie is of a lower class than them, that it will bring the family name into disrepute and affect their chances of getting husbands because of this:

Alice: I know, and if you’re afraid to speak your thoughts, I’m not. Look here, Maggie, what you do touches us, and you’re mistaken if you think I’ll own Willie mossop for my brother-in-law.

Maggie: Is there supposed to be some disgrace in him?

Alice: You ask father if there’s disgrace. And look at me.

I’d hopes of Albert Prosser till this happened.

Despite the way Alice and Vickey treat Maggie, Maggie still helps them by arranging the extraction of their wedding settlements from their fathers tight fist. In a way, Alice and Vickey use Maggie to get what they need.

At the beginning of the play, Alice and Vickey are both seeing men. Alice is seeing Albert Prosser, a lawyer, and Vickey has her eyes on Freddie Beenstock, a corn trader. More love is shown between each couple, respectively, than between Alice and Vickey and anyone else in the play. This is true with respect also. Despite these facts, both marriages came about due to Alice and Vickey’s pursuit for wealth and social standing.

The two marriages are not covered in the play but, I would imagine, both were lavish with no expense spared. They would be held in a church and the rings given would be gold.

Once the marriages have taken place, Alice and Vickey do not work. They expect to be provided for by their husbands, as was traditional in the 1880’s. Vickey is to have a baby, so some of her time may be taken up by the child. Alice is just a lady of leisure.

Alice and Vickey have very stuck-up attitudes. They think they are great and wouldn’t like it if anyone told them differently. They are classic snobs. Alice even looks down on her own sister near the end of the play:

Alice: Ah, well, a fashionable solicitor’s wife doesn’t rise so early as the wife of a working cobbler. You’d be up when Tubby came.

They know their social status and like to flaunt it. No respect is shown to anyone lower in class than them. They want nothing but the best, but are not prepared to work for it themselves. Hypocrisy, jealousy and greed are shown in one particular scene in the play, when Maggie comes to collect some dilapidated pieces of furniture from the house. They consist of two or three broken chairs and a sofa with the springs all gone. Alice and Vickey say how it’s no way to live, with cast-off furniture, but Maggie tells them that she doesn’t care and that when her and Willie are richer than them all “It’ll be a grand satisfaction to look back and think how we were when we began”. After hearing this, Vickey makes an indirect objection to Maggie taking the chairs by saying, “You know, mended up, those chairs would do very well for my kitchen when I’m wed”. This is seconded by Alice’s comment of, “Yes, or for mine”.

The two girls show their greed at the end of the play, as well, when they talk in secret about their father writing them out of his will:

Vickey: Can’t you see what I’m thinking, Alice? It is so difficult to say. Suppose father gets worse and they are here, Maggie and Will, and you and I – out of sight and out of mind. Can’t you see what I mean?

Alice: He might leave them his money?

Vickey: That would be most unfair to us.

This also shows that they have misgivings about both Maggie and their father. They are full of distrust.

Mrs. Hepworth is a high-class woman. She is the typical wealthy woman of the time. She does differ to the average high-class woman in the way that she feels the lower classes deserve a chance. She shows this, along with her generosity, by giving Maggie and Willie the money to start up there own business. She is a very up-front, what you see is what you get, woman. She is not afraid to voice her opinion. The divide between the classes does not bother Mrs Hepworth as much as it would most other high-class women. This suggests that she herself came from a lower class and married into the money that she has.

Ada Figgins is the extreme opposite of Mrs. Hepworth. She was born into a lower class family, lives as a working class woman, and will probably die as a working class woman. She lives with her mum, who controls her life almost completely. Her mother even had a hand in setting her up with Willie.

Ada: Wait while I get you to home, my lad. I’ll set my mother on to you.

Maggie: Oh, so it’s her mother that made this match?

Willie: She had above a bit to do with it.

Ada has no prospects for the future. She has nothing to aim for and says that Willie should sort her life out when he marries her.

Ada shows fear of the upper classes when she comes up against Maggie. Because Maggie is of a higher class that Ada herself, she backs down from her. This also shows that she is timid.

In conclusion, Harold Brighouse wanted to show the difference in class between women in 1880 and how they have changed from then to 1916. He accomplishes this very well, by portraying a stereotype of each class through characters in “Hobson’s Choice”. He then has a non-conformist, who goes against the ideas of the time, and, through her, shows how the women have changed.

Maggie is the 1880’s non-conformist. She is more like a woman from 1916. This is shown in the way she pioneers and also makes use of things other people look on as rubbish.

Alice and Vickey are stereotypes of the 1880’s middle class woman. This is shown in their attitude towards life, such as their belief that the husband should be the sole provider in a family or their dislike to work.

Mrs. Hepworth is the stereotypical 1880’s high-class woman. This is shown through her dress sense, her attitude towards Mr. Hobson, and her wealth.

Ada Figgins represents the 1880’s lower/working class. This is shown by the facts that she does not have any money, lives in a small, one or two room house with her family, has rags for clothes, and fears the upper classes.

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