Sunday, 12 December 2010


One of the most memorable novels from my English degree was Madame Bovary by Flaubert. It follows the exploits (and tragedy) of a woman educated above her status and condemned to a life of boredom and ennui, married to a country doctor. Flaubert's writing style sticks in the mind because he suffuses the novel with the ennui and claustrophobia felt by Emma Bovary. Many late Victorian novels and short stories deal with the issue of ennui: a cloying and choking kind of boredom that envelopes its victim in desperation and despair. Virginia Woolf, when being treated for depression, gave her doctor a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in an effort to point out that more isolation and boredom was not the path to enlightenment in the treatment of depression. The Victorian woman's predicament was lack of opportunity; the prohibition from the working world. But sitting here at my desk at work, I have to ask myself whether the Victorian woman really holds the monopoly on ennui, or whether it is felt equally by the modern woman of the 21st century?

How many of us still feel this all encompassing boredom but put it down, not to lack of opportunity, but to the very nature of the choices now forced upon women as a result of modernity? How many women get up in the morning, get the kids up, drop them off at school or the childminders, go to work and do everything in the reverse order on the way home, fitting in a couple of after school activities on the way? Unlike our Victorian counterparts, we have the opportunity to work but nevertheless, cannot escape the ennui of the habitual routines of everyday living in the 21st century. It is the choices we have to make that become the harbringers of our ennui. Our boredom is entrenched in the work we do, not the lack of it.

So, when you're rushing about with the kids or working hard at that boring job, spare a thought for the Victorian lady of leisure and sigh a little in the knowledge that nothing ever really changes.

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