Ashley Cook completed her PhD at the University of Otago, New Zealand on late-Victorian fairy tales. She is now guest lecturer and post-doctoral researcher in English at the University of Tuebingen, Germany. Her research interests include women’s writing, experiences and understandings of time and temporality, gender and genre fiction.
In her increasingly elusive spare time, she enjoys extolling the virtues of children’s fiction, running, and attempting to reproduce (with varying amounts of success) cakes from the Great British Bake Off.
At a recent family dinner, I noticed that amongst the treats on our over-laden table was some chutney. I was drawn, not to its promise of a delicious red pepper accompaniment to our cheese platter, but to its logo, which, to my surprise, depicted a turn-of-the-century New Woman. Skirts flying as she cycles toward the viewer, the picture is strikingly close to those images which featured on both sides of the fin de siècle debate about woman’s place in society, many of which are collected in Patricia Marks’ Bicycles, Bangs and Bloomers (1990).
Surprised by the appearance of this challenging, gender-bending figure on a pot of preserve, and wondering what connection a New Woman could possibly have to the mass-marketing of luxury hampers, I decided to do a little research into the logo’s origins.
The manufacturers are a company called Mrs Bridges (http://www.mrsbridges.co.uk/index.php), and although their website appears to suggest they are named after a real Victorian cookery author, on closer inspection, it appears that they are rather styled on the Cook of the same name in the 1970s television show Upstairs Downstairs. The company’s own narrative, as well as our knowledge of that popular, and recently revived series, states that Mrs Bridges was a “picture of plump domesticity; a matronly cook running an Edwardian kitchen with a rod of iron and a warm heart in equal measure; a picture which surely does not correlate with the New Woman used on the company’s logo.
But whilst it is amusing that they have chosen to base their product on a pre-existing fictional character, the marketing of food through invented personas is hardly unique, and in fact, marketing through non-specific, Victorian-esque images and associations is also common. Yet, perhaps because of my own critical interest in New Woman images and ideals, this logo in particular made me question our contemporary acceptance of this kind of Victorian image. In particular, I wondered whether mixing up our associations in this way devalues the associations and aims of each figure. For instance, how would New Women themselves have reacted to their image being used in such a way?
Of course, New Women would have been well used to seeing their image being used in a less-than-flattering light in frequent satirical representations. Indeed, the New Woman was used to represent almost any social and ideological position. As Lyn Pykett notes in the foreword to The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact:
The New Woman was by turns: a mannish amazon and a Womanly woman; she was oversexed, undersexed, or same sex identified; she was anti-maternal, or a racial supermother… she was reactionary and conservative; she was the agent of social and/or racial regeneration, or symptom and agent of decline. (Richardson and Willis, xii)
The New Woman image was then always a mixed-up, contentious figure. Yet all these iterations contain some reference to ‘The Woman Question’, a connection which appears to have been lost in using it to sell luxury chutney through the narrative of the fictional Mrs Bridges.
Or has it?
The New Woman on the logo retains her obvious, confronting mobility as she seems to fly off the jar. The bicycle, as numerous critics have shown, was hugely important in giving women unprecedented freedom and independence of movement – and of thought. Now, this might at first seem incompatible with the narrative of Mrs Bridges, a woman in service. Yet, her life is also one of mobility – this time social. Although she was working for employers, it was Mrs Bridges herself, not the Bellamys ‘upstairs’, who was personally known as the creator of her dishes. Indeed, the company’s website states that “Mrs Bridges” produced, in 1905, a book of recipes entitled Practical Household Cookery (as far as I can tell, there is no title of this name by a Mrs Bridges. There are however, numerous similar works by other, or anonymous authors, and the title obviously recalls Mrs Beeton’s popular – and since reissued – book). This fictionalised biography therefore in many ways mirrors the narrative of New Women mobility, as women became known in their own right, took their freedom and became known as authors and thinkers.
One of the accusations levelled at New Women is that they were largely a middle- and upper-class phenomenon, and did not reflect working class women’s experiences or desires. Yet there were many attempts to influence and connect with working class women, particularly through New Woman and suffrage fiction. Short stories by Evelyn Sharp and Netta Syrett emphasised the ‘everywoman’. Their heroines are never identified by name, a technique which, As Angela V. John argues in her biography of Sharp, works to suggest a kind of universal figure, an empowered every-woman, the effacement of her own individual identifier serving to highlight her choice to identify not as an individual, but as part of a wider group – of suffragettes, and of women (John 57). Indeed, many New Women also had connections with socialism, and thus the association with ‘downstairs’ workers (even if they are, in this case hypothetical), may well have appealed to socialist elements. The figure on the front of the jar might then be said to serve a similar function to those suffrage heroines. The contentious and recognisable figure of the empowered, activist New Woman has been reduced to a class-free signifier of every Victorian woman.
Though an accidental by-product of the push to sell products by playing on the contemporary fascination with anything Victorian and ‘retro’, the connection between a bicycle-riding, Girton-Girl image and a downstairs Cook, known in her own right as a professional and a writer may well have been appealing to those New Women themselves. It is of course, less clear how they would have felt about their image being used to sell commercial products, rather than ideas, and I think there are interesting questions that could be asked about the contemporary fascination with Victorians – and particularly, perhaps, Victorian women – as commercial objects. But this particular use of a Victorian figure does open up interesting avenues and connections between different groups of women that New Women themselves may well have found fascinating and relevant to their cause.
John, Angela V, Evelyn Sharp (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009)
Marks, Patricia, Bicycles, Bangs, And Bloomers (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1990)
Richardson, Angelique, and Chris Willis, The New Woman In Fiction And In Fact (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001)