Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald

Part 3: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791)

A flirtatious beauty with an illicit passion for a man educated for the priesthood: it's a description of Elizabeth Inchbald, who (like Eliza Haywood and Charlotte Lennox) spent time on the stage, married an older man while still in her teens to maintain her respectability, and turned to writing out of financial necessity.

Mrs. Inchbald met the handsome, charismatic John Kemble when he joined the acting company that she and her husband belonged to. Kemble, brother of the actress Sarah Siddons, had trained for the priesthood but instead turned to the stage; he went on to become a famous Hamlet and Macbeth. He was 20 years younger than Inchbald's husband. Soon after Inchbald meets him, according to her biographer James Boaden, she "has almost daily differences with Mr. Inchbald; and visits as constantly from Mr. Kemble." [1]

We can further guess at Inchbald's feelings for Kemble because a few weeks after meeting him she began to outline the novel that became the first part of A Simple Story. In it, a flirtatious beauty, Miss Milner, falls in love with her 30-year-old guardian Dorriforth, a Catholic priest.

The parallels between Kemble and Dorriforth are highly suggestive: both are educated at a Jesuit English College in France, both are intended for the priesthood, and both are the objects of forbidden passion. Inchbald's love for Kemble was adulterous, while Miss Milner's for Dorriforth is triply taboo since he is her guardian, a Catholic (she is a Protestant), and a priest.

Miss Milner is described by another character as "a young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl, with half a dozen lovers in her suite." [2] When the 18-year-old woman goes to live with Dorriforth on the death of her father, her pleasure-loving ways soon put them on a collision course. Dorriforth is a sober and earnest man who values "prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance." [3]

But familiarity breeds attraction: despite their apparently mismatched sensibilities, Miss Milner soon discovers that she has fallen passionately in love with Dorriforth. And one of the barriers to their union is removed when Dorriforth's elder brother Lord Elmwood dies unexpectedly; as the new Lord Elmwood, Dorriforth receives a dispensation from his vows of celibacy so that he can marry. However, another impediment soon arises in the form of a rival, Miss Fenton, whom it becomes clear Lord Elmwood intends to wed as soon as the mourning period for his brother is over.

Miss Milner has a key advantage over her rival, though: proximity. Since she lives with Lord Elmwood, he soon discovers how she feels about him, and comes to realize that he has long felt the same way about her. But this change in their relationship is not a happy one. Once Miss Milner is sure of him, she begins to act in a willful and headstrong way:
...she, who as his ward, had been ever gentle, and (when he strenuously opposed) always obedient; he now found as a mistress, sometimes haughty; and to opposition, always insolent. [4]
An invitation to a masquerade ball brings their quarrels to a head. Miss Milner is eager to attend, but Lord Elmwood forbids it. Miss Milner declares to her companion Miss Woodley her intention to go despite Lord Elmwood's prohibition. Miss Woodley remonstrates with her:
"But you know, my dear, he has desired you not—and you always used to obey his commands."
"As my guardian, I certainly did obey him; and I could obey him as a husband; but as a lover, I will not."
"Yet that is the means, never to have him for a husband." [5]
Be forewarned that there is no way for me to talk about the rest of the novel without revealing spoilers, so don't read on if you don't want to know what happens.

Miss Milner's disobedience causes a breach between them, and Lord Elmwood resolves to travel abroad to forget her. On the day he is to leave, though, and with his carriage at the door, they each realize how reluctant they are to part—and resolve to stay together forever as man and wife. And by happy chance Lord Elmwood's friend (and Miss Milner's former antagonist), the priest Sandford, is there to preside over an impromptu marriage ceremony.
Never was there a more rapid change from despair to happiness—to happiness most supreme—than was that, which Miss Milner, and Lord Elmwood experienced within one single hour. [6]
There is one troubling omen to disturb the felicity of the day, however. During their impromptu marriage ceremony Lord Elmwood realizes that they have no wedding ring; he takes a ring he's wearing and places it on her finger:
[She] felt an excruciating shock; when, looking on the ring Lord Elmwood had put on her finger, in haste, when he married her, she perceived it was a—MOURNING RING." [7]
END. Do not read on—or be forever scarred!

The copy of A Simple Story that I checked out of the library had this foreboding comment written at the end of the final chapter of the first part of the novel, and it took me a day or two before I could make up my mind to continue. The mourning ring and the scrawled warning presaged tragedy, suffering and death. And indeed those occur—on the very next page. But the novel still has two more volumes and almost 150 pages to go, and the aftermath of these events on another generation of characters to portray.

It's not known whether Jane Austen read A Simple Story, although we know that she was familiar with Inchbald's melodrama Lover's Vows (1798). Inchbald's play also features a young woman in love with a priest; a proposed household performance of the play is a key sequence in Mansfield Park (1814). There is a fascinating post on Lover's Vows and its role in Mansfield Park on Austenonly.

There may also be an echo of A Simple Story in another Austen novel: a beautiful and headstrong young heroine who disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure may sound familiar to readers of Emma.

In Miss Milner, Inchbald created a character who seems to be largely a self-portrait: a woman who is boldly willing to profess her desires and who does not always meekly assent to male authority. That Miss Milner gets to marry the object of her forbidden love is perhaps wish-fulfillment; that things do not end well for the couple is perhaps Inchbald's acknowledgment that, as in her own life, events in reality rarely work out as we might hope.

Last time: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote

The time before that: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess


1. James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald, 1833, v. 1, p. 76.
2. Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. II.
3. A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. I.
4. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
5. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
6. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.
7. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald

Part 2: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote (1752)

Charlotte Lennox as one of "The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain,"
by Richard Samuel, 1779
Charlotte Lennox, like Eliza Haywood and Elizabeth Inchbald, turned to writing out of financial necessity. Like Haywood (and Inchbald, too), Lennox may have married out of necessity: a literary and theatrical career was not considered respectable for an unmarried woman.

Lennox was fortunate to find aristocratic patrons, support among the bluestocking circle, and mentorship from established male writers such as Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Nonetheless, the literary life was a precarious one, and Lennox experienced periods of financial distress throughout her life.

The Female Quixote, like many other novels
written by women, was published anonymously.
The Female Quixote is a one-joke novel, but it's a good joke. Like her predecessor Don Quixote, Arabella has read so many French romances that she's come to see herself as one of her fictional heroines: she uses archaic language ("questionless" for doubtless, "history" for story, "haply" for perhaps), makes imperious gestures that mystify those around her, and expects men seeking her love to undergo years of trials to prove their fidelity. Needless to say, her imaginative flights lead to comical misunderstandings with those around her, who don't have quite such active imaginations or fantastical views of everyday life.

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." [1] Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading.

Here is Arabella in a mutually misconstrued conversation with her flirtatious cousin Charlotte Glanville:
Whence comes it, Cousin, added she, being so young and lovely as you are, that you, questionless, have been engaged in many Adventures, you have never reposed Trust enough in me to favour me with a Recital of them?

Engaged in many Adventures, Madam! returned Miss Glanville, not liking the Phrase: I believe I have been engaged in as few as your Ladyship.

You are too obliging, returned Arabella, who mistook what she said for a Compliment; for since you have more Beauty than I, and have also had more Opportunities of making yourself beloved, questionless you have a greater Number of Admirers.

As for Admirers, said Miss Charlotte bridling, I fansy I have had my Share! Thank God, I never found myself neglected; but, I assure you, Madam, I have had no Adventures, as you call them, with any of them.

No, really! interrupted Arabella, innocently.

No, really, Madam, retorted Miss Glanville; and I am surprised you should think so.

Indeed, my Dear, said Arabella, you are very happy in this respect, and also very singular; for I believe there are few young Ladies in the World, who have any Pretensions to Beauty, that have not given Rise to a great many Adventures; and some of them haply very fatal.

If you knew more of the World, Lady Bella, said Miss Glanville pertly, you would not be so apt to think, that young Ladies engage themselves in troublesome Adventures: Truly the Ladies that are brought up in Town are not so ready to run away with every Man they see.

No, certainly, interrupted Arabella; they do not give their Consent to such Proceedings; but for all that, they are, doubtless, run away with many times; for truly there are some Men, whose Passions are so unbridled, that they will have recourse to the most violent Methods to possess themselves of the Objects they love. Pray do you remember how often Mandana was run away with?

Not I indeed, Madam, replied Miss Glanville; I know nothing about her; but I suppose she is a Jew, by her outlandish Name.

She was no Jew, said Arabella, tho' she favoured that People very much; for she obtained the Liberty of great Numbers of them from Cyrus, who had taken them Captives, and could deny her nothing she asked.

Well, said Miss Glanville; and I suppose she denied him nothing he asked; and so they were even.

Indeed but she did tho', resumed Arabella; for she refused to give him a glorious Scarf which she wore, tho' he begged it on his Knees.

And she was very much in the right, said Miss Glanville; for I see no Reason why a Lover should expect a Gift of any Value from his Mistress.

Doubtless, said Arabella, such a Gift was worth a Million of Services; and, had he obtained it, it would have been a glorious Distinction for him: However, Mandana refused it; and, severely virtuous as you are, I am persuaded you can't help thinking, she was a little too rigorous in denying a Favour to a Lover like him—

Severely virtuous, Lady Bella! said Miss Glanville, reddening with Anger: Pray what do you mean by that? Have you any Reason to imagine, I would grant any Favour to a Lover?

Why, if I did, Cousin, said Arabella, would it derogate so much from your Glory, think you, to bestow a Favour upon a Lover worthy your Esteem, and from whom you had received a thousand Marks of a most pure and faithful Passion, and also a great Number of very singular Services?

I hope, Madam, said Miss Glanville, it will never be my Fate to be so much obliged to any Lover, as to be under a Necessity of granting him Favours in Requital.

I vow, Cousin, interrupted Arabella, you put me in mind of the fair and virtuous Antonia, who was so rigid and austere, that she thought all Expressions of Love were criminal; and was so far from granting any Person Permission to love her, that she thought it a mortal Offence to be adored even in private.

Miss Glanville, who could not imagine Arabella spoke this seriously, but that it was designed to sneer at her great Eagerness to make Conquests, and the Liberties she allowed herself in, which had probably come to her Knowlege, was so extremely vexed at the malicious Jest, as she thought it, that, not being able to revenge herself, she burst into Tears.

Arabella's Good-nature made her be greatly affected at this Sight; and, asking her Pardon for having undesignedly occasioned her so much Uneasiness, begged her to be composed, and tell her in what she had offended her, that she might be able to justify herself in her Apprehensions.

You have made no Scruple to own, Madam, said she, that you think me capable of granting Favours to Lovers, when, Heaven knows, I never granted a Kiss without a great deal of Confusion.

And you had certainly much Reason for Confusion, said Arabella, excessively surprised at such a Confession: I assure you I never injured you so much in my Thoughts, as to suppose you ever granted a Favour of so criminal a Nature.

Look you there now! said Miss Glanville, weeping more violently than before: I knew what all your round-about Speeches would come to: All you have said in Vindication of granting Favours, was only to draw me into a Confession of what I have done: How ungenerous was that!

The Favours I spoke of, Madam, said Arabella, were quite of another Nature, than those it seems you have so liberally granted: Such as giving a Scarf, a Bracelet, or some such Thing, to a Lover, who had haply sighed whole Years in Silence, and did not presume to declare his Passion, till he had lost best Part of his Blood in Defence of the Fair one he loved: It was when you maintained, that Mandana was in the right to refuse her magnificent Scarf to the illustrious Cyrus, that I took upon me to oppose your Rigidness; and so much mistaken was I in your Temper, that I foolishly compared you to the fair and wise Antonia, whose Severity was so remarkable; but really, by what I understand from your own Confession, your Disposition resembles that of the inconsiderate Julia, who would receive a Declaration of Love without Anger from any one; and was not over-shy, any more than yourself, of granting Favours almost as considerable as that you have mentioned.

While Arabella was speaking, Miss Glanville, having dried up her Tears, sat silently swelling with Rage, not knowing whether she should openly avow her Resentment for the injurious Language her Cousin had used to her, by going away immediately, or, by making up the Matter, appear still to be her Friend, that she might have the more Opportunities of revengeing herself... [2]
Arabella's imaginative world puzzles and exasperates the men around her, particularly those who wish to court her: Mr. Hervey, Sir George, and Charlotte's brother Charles. But this suggests that Arabella's fantasy world functions as an escape from male control. It also comes to seem like an unconscious protest against the powerlessness of women: the heroines of romances are imperious queens and princesses, whose "Histories" are filled with "Adventures" very different from the highly circumscribed existence of a young 18th-century woman of rank.

The men in the novel, particularly Arabella's prospective father-in-law and his son Charles, determine to "cure" her of her imaginative flights. The first attempt is made by a woman known only as the Countess, who had "when very young, been deep read in Romances," and who thus understands their appeal to Arabella. [3]  This highly sympathetic character, though, disappears quickly and is replaced by the Doctor, a Samuel Johnson-like figure who tries to argue Arabella out of her identification with the heroines of these "contemptible," "senseless," and "absurd" books. [4]

That Arabella's imaginative rebellion ends with her submission to male authority, although perhaps inevitable, is also disappointing. In the preface she wrote to the novel for its inclusion in her series The British Novelists, Anna Barbauld wrote that Lennox's story was "not very well wound up. The grave moralizing of a clergyman is not the means by which the heroine should have been cured of her reveries." [5] But perhaps there is no way to satisfyingly end a novel that suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be "cured" of their imaginations.

Next time: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791)
Last time: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess (1719-20)


1. Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others. R.W. Chapman, ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1932, Letter 48, p. 173.
2. Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote, Book II, Chapter IX
3. The Female Quixote, Book VIII, Chapter V
4. The Female Quixote, Book IX, Chapter XI
5. Anna Barbauld, "Mrs. Lennox," in The British Novelists; with an Essay and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, 1810, Vol. XXIV, p. iii. Retrieved from

Monday, August 11, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald

Eliza Haywood by George Vertue, 1725
My exploration of Jane Austen's precursors continues with three novels whose heroines exceed the bounds of propriety. They dare to give free play to their desires, whether amorous or imaginative, and then must face the consequences in a society where the erotic and intellectual economies are controlled by men. The experiences of the heroines parallel those of their creators, three women who braved scorn and ostracism by becoming writers—a disreputable choice for a woman in the eighteenth century.

Part 1: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess (1719-20)

The vilification faced by women of that era who chose occupations such as actress or writer was experienced quite directly by Eliza Haywood, who was both an actress and a writer. Women were supposed to remain in the private domestic sphere; to venture into the public literary world was to transgress on a male domain.

For her temerity Haywood was mocked by Henry Fielding in his play The Author's Farce (1730) in the character of Mrs. Novel. (Haywood evidently wasn't, or couldn't afford to be, offended; she and Fielding worked together before and after this play was performed.) And she features in Pope's Dunciad (1728) undisguised as "Eliza," where she is the prize for a (literal) pissing contest between booksellers.

Pope's poem portrays Haywood with "Two babes of love close clinging to her waist" [1]. Haywood indeed had two children by men other than her husband: the first was probably fathered by the writer Richard Savage, and the second by her long-term lover, the writer and actor William Hatchett. There is some question, actually, despite Haywood's claim that she turned to writing as a result of "an unfortunate marriage" [2], whether there ever was a Mr. Haywood. According to scholar Christine Blouch, Haywood's contemporaries believed that she had been abandoned by her husband, while her own accounts are somewhat inconsistent: in addition to the "unfortunate marriage" comment, which suggests that she may have left him, there is another reference in her surviving letters to becoming a widow at a young age. However, no marriage records for Haywood have ever been found.

Perhaps, then, drawing on personal experience, Haywood made the power of erotic passion to overcome social and religious proscriptions the subject of her first and most successful novel, Love in Excess. Published when Haywood was (probably) 26, it relates the amorous misadventures of the dashing roué Count D'elmont, whose powerful attractions cause the ladies of his acquaintance to "curs[e] that custom which forbids women to make a declaration of their thoughts." [4] In spite of these societal strictures, Alovisa (a form of Héloise) sends D'elmont an anonymous note declaring her love for him. D'elmont, though, mistakenly believes that the note comes from another beauty, Amena, pursues her with the aim of seduction, and comes close to succeeding:
"...all nature seemed to favour his design...[Amena] had only a thin silk night gown on, which flying open as he caught her in his arms, he found her panting heart beat measures of consent, her heaving breast swell to be pressed by his, and every pulse confess a wish to yield; her spirits all dissolved, sunk in a lethargy of love; her snowy arms, unknowing, grasped his neck, her lips met his half way, and trembled at the touch; in fine, there was but a moment betwixt her and ruine..." [5]
One of the remarkable things about Haywood's novel is how steamy the love scenes are; later in the century, as novels became more respectable, women writers would not venture to describe erotic pleasure so explicitly. Another remarkable feature is the presumption of the equality of desire in women and men. Later in the novel D'elmont has fallen in love with his young ward Melliora, and she with him; their feelings are not only semi-incestuous (since he is her guardian), on his part they're entirely adulterous (since he has married in the meantime). Both characters realize that their shared passion is "wrong," but are (almost) helpless to restrain their mutual desire:
"As they were passing thro' a walk with trees on each side, whose intermingling boughs made a friendly darkness, and every thing undistinguishable, the amorous D'elmont throwing his eager arms round the waist of his (no less transported) Melliora, and printing burning kisses on her neck, reaped painful pleasure, and created in her, a racking kind of extasie, which might perhaps, had they been now alone, proved her desires were little different from his." [6]
Detail of the frontispiece to the 4th edition (1722), by E. Kirkall
Of course, there are often severe consequences for women who express their desires so openly: over the course of the novel, three women wind up dying because of their love for D'elmont, and another is sent away to a convent, giving the nominally happy ending a bitter aftertaste for the reader. But the moralistic ending, in which D'elmont is reformed by finding true love and marries the heroine, doesn't obscure the novel's most evident message—a bold one for its time—which is that for both women and men, "passion is not to be circumscribed." [7]

Next time: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote (1752).


1. Alexander Pope, The Dunciad, Book 2, line 150.
2. Christine Blouch, "Eliza Haywood and the Romance of Obscurity." SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, v. 31 no. 3, Summer 1991, p. 539.
3. Blouch, p. 544.
4. Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess; Or, the Fatal Enquiry. David Oakleaf, ed. Broadview Press, 1994, p. 41.
5. Haywood, p. 63.
6. Haywood, p. 127.
7. Haywood, p. 191.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Going astray: Gumrah

"Gumrah" is translated in the subtitles of B. R. Chopra's 1963 film as "misled," a word with two main senses: "to go astray" and "to be deceived." Both meanings come into play in this story of a woman torn between the passions of romantic love and the constraints of familial duty.

Just in case we miss the point, the movie's pre-credit sequence portrays the moment in the Ramayana when Sita sees a golden deer and asks Ram to capture it. Ram and his brother Lakshman are both skeptical—they rightly suspect a trick—and before leaving Sita alone Lakshman draws a line around their cottage that he urges her never to cross:

Lakshman to Sita: So, never go out of this line

It's the social and emotional consequences of a married woman "crossing the line" that Gumrah will explore.

In the idyllic hill country of northern India, Meena (Mala Sinha) meets and falls in love with the dashing Rajendra (Sunil Dutt), an artist and a singer. Rajendra sure knows how to sweet-talk a girl:

You are my art, my soul

Meena's older sister Kamla (Nirupa Roy) and her two young children are visiting the family home in Nainital, while Kamla's husband Ashok (Ashok Kumar), a well-known barrister, has had to stay behind in Mumbai to deal with work. The two kids, Dollie and Pappu, love to play with their Auntie Meena and are just too adorable for words:


When Kamla learns that Meena and Rajendra are in love, she promises Meena to speak to their father (Nana Palsikar) on behalf of Rajendra's marriage proposal. But tragedy strikes: before she can bring up the subject, Kamla has a fatal accident. Shocked and grieving, her father approaches Meena with his misgivings about the future of the children: Ashok is too consumed by the demands of his career to raise them on his own. The children need a mother's love, says her father,

And only you can give them that love

Meena's response is immediate:

I can't do this, I can't

She goes to her bedroom, where the children are sleeping; so as not to disturb them, she takes a pillow and blanket and curls up on the floor. But in the morning she discovers that the children have made their choice:

Dollie and Pappu join Meena to sleep on the floor

Out of her love and concern for her sister's children, she bows to her father's wishes and marries Ashok—without revealing her love for Rajendra.

Ashok is not unkind, but he is neglectful: he leaves early for work and returns late, often bringing cases (and clients) home with him. It's not made explicit, but it seems as though they may sleep in separate bedrooms. Unlike other married couples in their Mumbai social circle, Meena and Ashok rarely argue, but in part it's because their relationship is rather formal (Ashok addresses her as madame and mon cher) and passionless.

One night the children ask her for a bedtime story. Meena sings to them the mournful tale of a young woman who is forced to leave her true love and marry a stranger, and whose "dreams of love remain unfulfilled":

The music is by Ravi with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi; the playback singer for Mala Sinha is Asha Bhosle. It's in this song that we see through the surface normality of her domestic routines with husband and children to Meena's deep unhappiness.

For a celebration of their first wedding anniversary Ashok and Meena are invited by Meena's father to visit him in Nainital. Meena leaves first with the children, and Ashok promises to join them later. Of course, he becomes enmeshed in work and gets stuck in Mumbai. At the Ashokless anniversary party, Meena hears a familiar voice singing "Come, my dear; my love is calling you. I didn't know our love would end so soon, and that you'd become a stranger...when once I held you in my arms." Yes, it's Rajendra, singing for the entertainment of the party (Sunil Dutt's playback singer is Mahendra Kapoor):

Rajendra urges Meena to begin meeting him again. After a brief struggle with her conscience, Meena starts visiting Rajendra every afternoon, and spends hours in his company. One evening as she's sneaking back into her father's house she unexpectedly encounters Ashok. He's finally managed to get away from the office, and he's brought her a make-up present—a diamond ring:

Meena, this ring is the symbol of my love

Through a chance encounter Ashok meets Rajendra and strikes up a friendship with him—a friendship that causes Rajendra and Meena many uncomfortable moments in Ashok's company (and Chopra excels at making us squirm along with Meena and Rajendra).

Following Ashok's advice, Rajendra winds up moving to Mumbai. Ostensibly he is pursuing his painting and singing career; his true motive, of course, is to remain as close as possible to Meena. And once he's in Mumbai, Meena finds it impossible to resist seeing him every day; if she is not being technically unfaithful to Ashok during these clandestine meetings, she's certainly being emotionally unfaithful.

One day as Meena is leaving Rajendra's flat she is accosted by an unfamiliar woman:

You are barrister Ashok's wife, aren't you?

The woman claims to be Rajendra's abandoned wife, and knows all about her visits to Rajendra. She begins to blackmail Meena; desperate, Meena hopes to buy her silence. Predictably, though, the woman comes back for more, and begins to intrude even into Meena's home. Meena finds it harder and harder to meet her demands while continuing to keep everything concealed from Ashok.

Finally, the woman's demands become so extreme that Meena is reduced to pleading with her for more time to raise additional cash—when the woman spots her diamond ring:

This ring will remain mortgaged with me

Meena has no choice but to let her take it; but she can't let Ashok see that she is no longer wearing the symbol of his love. She's then in a race against time to raise enough money to redeem the ring from her tormentor before Ashok learns the truth. But has Ashok already begun to suspect that she has transgressed the boundaries of their married life? And, despite the difficulties involved, shouldn't Meena have been honest with Ashok from the very first?

Meena is a flawed and erring woman. And yet, thanks to Mala Sinha's utterly compelling portrayal, it is impossible not to sympathize with her. Some of her choices may be poor, but her alternatives are sharply constrained by social forces over which she has no control. And this is a film in which it's clear that no one is blameless.

Mild spoilers follow. There are two models for resolving the conflict between love and duty in mainstream Hindi cinema: the Krishna-Radha model, where love conquers all, and the Ram-Sita model, where duty requires a selfless sacrifice. Which model is operative in Gumrah is never in doubt. If the pre-credit Ramayana sequence didn't clue us in, there are repeated dissolves to images of fire (Sita's symbol). So if the final moments of the film offer the resolution that we've long anticipated, at least it is shown to be Meena's choice. And complicating the facile final title card ("...and they lived happily ever after"), which I strongly suspect is the contribution of B.R. Chopra's younger brother Yash, is the depth of emotion in Mala Sinha's eyes. Her performance suggests the profound emotional costs for Meena of that "happily ever after."

Mala Sinha