Phipps Toby, the arrogant playboy in Stella Miles Franklin’s 1917 play ‘Virtue’, responds to his spinster sister’s critique of his modern views on sex as ‘the point on which you are so old-fashioned’ (Franklin ‘Virtue’ 39). This is an autobiographical moment for Franklin whose suffragist New Woman claims for women’s political and economic emancipation lock her into the new century just as her feminist social purity politics catch her looking back towards the sexual morality of a previous generation. Indeed, Franklin was ‘stuck somewhere between the old and the new’ (Roe 173), sharing with her modern sisters a critique of marriage yet unable to accept its alternative – at least an alternative beyond spinsterhood. As Franklin explained in her later years, ‘death was preferable to “living in sin” to one of my codes and sensitiveness’ (Roe 184). I make the case that being ‘stuck’ at the fin de siècle –…
‘Living in Sin’: Money and Morals in ‘Virtue’, a Play by Stella Miles Franklin
This paper revives Stella Miles Franklin’s 1917 play, ‘Virtue’, a long-forgotten protest drama about economic servitude, sexual desire, and the perils of prostitution. I discuss the ways Franklin uses ‘Virtue’ to first, protest the perils of female economic vulnerability that lead working women into liaisons with men, and second, to illustrate the dangerous promiscuities associated with modern sex radical solutions to women’s sexual subordination that enslave rather than liberate. I suggest Franklin’s feminist politics on the cusp between New Womanist claims challenging sexual codes and those endorsing the sexual morality of a previous generation ideally positioned her to produce a new realism gesturing towards a modernist literary aesthetic in its economic critique of sexual expressions masquerading as ‘freedom’.
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