Good Old Mrs. Warren (Pt. 1)

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Mrs. Warren and her Daughter, Vivie

Prostitutes.

Yes. Prostitues. I’d like to make a blog post about Prostitution and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” following a rather heated debate in my HL EngLit class yesterday.

For those of you that haven’t heard of the infamous play by George Bernard Shaw, go read it! It’s really interesting. Shaw wrote the play in 1893, where it was immediately banned upon publication. The play discusses some pretty controversial view points (well, controversial in terms of the extremely conservative Victorians), which can still be seen as somewhat controversial even today.

The titular character- Mrs. Warren- is a vivacious and wealthy business woman. Her trade? Brothels. This is known by every character except for  her very own daughter, Vivie. The play revolves around the two meeting for the “first time”. Mrs. Warren’s lifelong struggles for money result in her being able to afford to send her daughter to expensive boarding schools in Europe and eventually to Cambridge. She expects of Vivie, in return, to be grateful and take over her business. Unfortunately for Mrs. Warren, she gets more than she bargains for when her equally as lively daughter, Vivie, turns out to be pragmatic to the point of coldness and as stuck up as any other “lady”.

Shaw uses Vive and Mrs. Warren to proselytise his radical point of view. By contrasting Vivie with Mrs. Warren, Shaw’s progressive play demonstrates, through extended monologues, the hypocrisy of the upper classes, the fault in believing that wealth equates to social position and the importance of social determinism.

I really, really love this play. It started slow, I’ll admit, but when Mrs. Warren and Vivie have their monologues/ conversations the pace picks up and the debate points become more relevant.

The controversy of the play stems from Shaw’s thoughts on Women’s Rights. In Victorian times women were supposed to be raised well, have poise and beauty and then be married off to a wealthy man by her family. Sold, effectively. Marriage was rarely for love. A woman’s income depended on either working in lead factories (most dying of lead poisoning) or in bars for barely and salary or they could marry well and live off what their husband would allow them. A woman didn’t really have the power to chose what she wanted because without a husband she simply couldn’t afford to support herself in life.

Mrs. Warren’s sister Liz has an alternative to this bleak life of slavery. She became a prostitute and then encouraged Mrs. Warren to join her in the lucrative profession. Life turns around for Mrs. Warren as she comes into money and comfort for the first time in her life, she can control what she wants to do because she can support herself, she is no longer dependent on men.

There are some wonderful quotes from Mrs. Warren’s profession that I love, here are a few:

“Prosititution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together”
– G. B. Shaw, in the Preface

“No normal woman would be a professional prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable, nor marry for money if she could afford to marry for love.”
– G. B. Shaw, in the Preface

“Every man and woman present will know that as long as poverty makes virtue hideous and the spare pocket-money of rich bachelordom makes vice dazzling, their daily hand-to-hand fight against prostitution with prayer and persuasion, shelters and scanty alms, will be a losing one.”
– G. B. Shaw, in the Author’s Apology

“Unwritten but perfectly well understood regulation that members of ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession‘ shall be tolerated on the stage only when they are beautiful, exquisitely dressed, and sumptuously lodged and fed; also that they shall, at the end of the play, die of consumption to the sympathetic tears of the whole audience, or step into the next room to commit suicide, or at least be turned out by their protecters, and passed on to be ‘redeemed’ by old and faithful lovers who have adored them in spite of all their levities”
– G. B. Shaw, in the Author’s Apology

“The majority of English girls remain so poor, so dependent, so well aware that the drudgeries of such honesty work as is within their reach are likely enough to lead them eventually to lung disease, pre-mature death, and domestic desertion or brutality”
– G. B. Shaw, in the Author’s Apology

The play hasn’t even started and Shaw has already managed to bash most aspects of “respectable” Victorian life. This play is hard hitting and to the point (just like Mrs. Warren and Vivie- although their no-bullshit attitude is portrayed differently by the two characters).

Some of my favourite quotes (in no particular order- and definitely not chronologically from the play) from Mrs. Warren herself are:

“Ask any lady in London… and she’ll tell you the same, except that I tell you straight and she’ll tell you crooked”

“As if a marriage ceremony could make any difference in the right or wrong of the thing?”

“It’s only good manners to be ashamed of it: it’s expected from a woman. Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don’t feel”
(in response to Vivie asking her mother if she is ashamed of being a prostitute)

“Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn’t rather have gone to college and been a lady if I’d had the chance?”

“Oh, it’s easy to talk, very easy, isn’t it?”

“…She married a Government labourer… kept his room and the three children neat and tidy on eighteen shillings a week- until he took to drink. That was worth being respectable for, wasn’t it?”
(Mrs. Warren talks about another one of her “respectable” sisters)

“Do you think we were such fools as to let other people trade in our good looks… when we could trade in them ourselves and get all profits instead of starvation wages? Not likely”

“Where can a woman get the money to save in any other business?”

“Oh, the hypocrisy of the world makes me sick!”

“How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery? And what’s a woman worth? What’s life worth? Without self-respect!”

“Why, of course. Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same.”

“I’ve often pitied a poor girl, tired out and in low spirits, having to try and please some man that she doesn’t care two straws for…when he’s teasing and worrying and disgusting a woman so that hardly any money could pay her for putting up with it. But she has to bear with the disagreeables and take the rough with the smooth, just like a nurse in a hospital or anyone else.”

“It can’t be right, Vivie, that there shouldn’t be better opportunities for women. I stick to that: it’s wrong. But it’s so, right or wrong; and a girl must make the best of it.”

“Don’t you be led astray by people who don’t know the world, my girl.”

“No: I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider I had a right to be proud of how we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word said against us, and how the girls were so well taken care of.”

“Why am I independent and able to give my daughter a first-rate education, when other women that had just as good opportunities are in the gutter?”

I need to add more to this- perhaps about Vivie, but I also need to upload a decent blog post today. Never fear there is more to come (the actual “discussion” part of the play that my class had after we read Act 2).

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