By Juliette Huisman
It can easily be assumed that, whilst reading our fair share of novels, most of us have been able to recognise ourselves in one or two characters that we have come across. Whether we recognise certain mannerisms, laugh along with a character that has the same sense of humour as us, or whether it is something that we just cannot quite put our finger on but identify with nonetheless.
For Mrs. March, the eponymous protagonist of Virginia Feito’s accomplished debut novel, this feeling of recognition hits a little too close to home. Upon visiting her favourite patisserie in preparation for the party she is throwing her husband, she is congratulated on his accomplishment of publishing a novel and asked whether this is “the first time he’s based a character on you?” (Feito 4) Mrs. March had not really read the full novel herself, unlike how she had eagerly read her husband’s previous manuscripts, for the sole reason that she was “too repulsed by the main character” (8). In shock, and with mouth agape, Mrs. March starts to wonder whether she indeed unwittingly had been the muse for her husband’s latest main character: “a whore” (5).
After collecting herself, for appearance’s sake, Mrs. March rushes home to confirm – or, she hopes, to deny – the similarities between her and the character, Johanna, that she describes as a “weak, plain, detestable, pathetic, unloved, unlovable wretch” (16). Mrs. March concludes that the prostitute’s physical description could indeed match her own, while remarking that it was so unremarkable that it could as well be coincidence. However, she is not willing to admit that there are any similarities between her and the repulsive character. It is not until she reads the words “to my wife, a constant source of inspiration” (16) in the acknowledgements that her tears of fear come pouring out.
Throughout the rest of the novel, Mrs. March continuously observes people – her husband and the guests at the book party, whose foreboding laughs make her want to poison them – to see whether it is indeed her that they imagine when they read her husband’s work. This eventually drives Mrs. March to insanity, questioning who it is she portrays, who it is people perceive her as, and, most dauntingly, who she actually is.
While these questions regarding female identity are central in Mrs. March, they are certainly not new questions. They fall into a longer literary tradition, harking back to the works of Daphne du Maurier, Louisa May Alcott, and Virginia Woolf.
The first and most direct literary reference to this tradition in Mrs. March can be found lying on Mrs. March’s nightstand, where Du Maurier’s early 20th century novel Rebecca is put out as if to be read. In this gothic novel, the eerily similarly unnamed Mrs. De Winter’s married life is, like that of Mrs March, determined by the haunting ideas of what it is to be a perfect woman and wife. While in Rebecca Mrs. De Winter is directly confronted by the ideals of womanhood in the image of her name’s predecessor, the late Mrs. Rebecca de Winter, Mrs. March brilliantly illustrates that these ideals are also imposed by society and, most devastatingly, ourselves.
The mere fact that the narrator of Feito’s novel only and endlessly refers to herself by her married name – even when referring to moments in the past, before Mrs. March became a Mrs. March – showcases how women are defined, and tend to define themselves, by their husband through titles such as “Mrs.” The name of March itself is also not without any possible significance. Feito’s Mrs. March is not the first literary woman to be known by this name, with the title already belonging to the mother in Louisa May Alcott’s widely read novel Little Women. Alcott’s Mrs. March is portrayed as the perfect mother, woman and wife through her care, patience and selflessness. She is very much a woman in the traditional sense, stating on the topic of marriage at one point in the novel that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman” (151). This association places any other Mrs. March in the same realm of woman in the reader’s mind, thus creating expectations through tradition and its accompanying boundaries that define what kind of woman she is thus supposed, – or, perhaps, expected – to be.
The importance of this name is already plastered on the cover of every copy of the novel, with Mrs. March being both a character and the title given to the novel. The title Mrs. March reminds us of another woman in literature known as “Mrs.”: Clarissa Dalloway, the eponymous central character in Virginia Woolf’s widely acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. March refers in multiple ways – albeit in more subtle ways than to Rebecca – back to Mrs. Dalloway, both in story and the themes that are echoed throughout. Both novels start off on a morning in the 20th century, following a married woman as she makes her way into the city to pick up the last things she needs for a party planned for that evening. The party underlines, in both novels, the importance of the social roles of women, specifically married women in the upper classes of society. This emphasis on the awareness of societal roles is reflected in how women behave and in how they are conscious of how they are perceived. Both women are very much aware of this and supress what is inside, what they feel and are. Mrs. Dalloway expresses that “it rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster” (10), and supresses that what she deems not lady-like. Mrs. March expresses a similar fear of people peering behind the façade, unwilling that “the whole world would know [and that] they would see inside her, wickedest of violations” (16).
In Mrs. March this fear is internalized is such a way that it results in severe hallucinations and paranoia. At the start of the novel Mrs. March is already very much aware of how she is perceived – covering up her hands with gloves as to cover her raggedy hands, covering up every trace of not being well put together as expected of women – and this only increases as she finds out about her literary alter-ego Johanna. The fish on her plate even starts blinking as it stares at her, the paintings behind her morph to take a look at her as she turns her back, and she starts to see herself, not only in the mirror or her husband’s character, but staring back at her in the streets of Manhattan.
Mrs. March provides the reader with an insight to, and awareness of, how we are seen, how we want to be perceived, and how we allow these views to form us as women specifically. By way of getting into the increasingly fastidious mind of Mrs. March, the disturbing unease of certain views and their effects become foregrounded by the slowly disintegrating account of reality that Mrs. March gives us. From her gloves at the start of the novel, which she keeps putting back on for appearance’s sake, to the eventual unnerving feeling that even the dead are watching her, all of Mrs. March actions and thoughts are shown to be grounded in how she believes others perceive her.
Even though the story of Mrs. March is set in the previous century, and despite the fact that possible references to other literary works can date back to the end of the 19th century, such views of women – and of what women should be – are still prevalent today. The idea of the domestic angel may seem so archaic to us, a relic of a long time ago, but these traditions still seep into our perceptions today, be it willingly or not. The fact that we are still able to recognise ourselves in characters created decennia ago shows that humans, even after countless evolutions, are still more unchanging that we would like to believe.
Mrs. March tells of a continuous fight between what we show ourselves to be and what we are made out to be. Who we actually are is often lost in the middle of this muddled mess this fight leaves in our minds. Feito has succeeded in writing a novelistic account of a severely muddled mind, using both style and story to convey the decay of this female trope, while reinvigorating the literary tradition shaped by various female authors before her.
Juliette Huisman is currently a graduate student at Utrecht University, after having finished two two B.A. degrees in four years’ time. Her research focuses on psychological and historical aspects present in literary works and how they affect plot, characters and our perception of both as a result. In her spare time she likes to explore these themes herself in her own writing.
- Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868-1869. Puffin Books, 2014.
- Feito, Virginia. Mrs. March. Harper Collins Publishers, 2021.
- Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Penguin Group, 2012.