One of Gilbert's more controversial librettos is Princess Ida, a story making fun of woman's education. I am asking this question in relation to how Princess Ida should be viewed as a text. If his opinions of learned women were positive, the libretto is probably simply a satire of something that has come into fashion. On the other hand, if his views are negative, than the ending where Ida leaves the University for her husband should be interpreted very differently.

Looking over the course of his works, it's hard to see any clear pattern on this issue.

  • Two of his main female roles (Yum-Yum and Ida) are part of some sort of "Ladies Seminary".
  • The fact that the Fairy Queen is mistaken for a woman from a ladies seminary is quite an important plot point in Iolanthe

    It seems that she’s a fairy,

    From Andersen’s library,

    And I took her for

    The proprietor

    Of a Ladies’ Seminary!

  • There is also the quote from The Mikado regarding female authors.

    And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist – I don’t think she’d be missed – I’m sure she’d not be missed!

Was Princess Ida an expression of Gilbert's opinion on woman's education?

  • vtc'd because this is about the author, not the author's work/s meta.literature.stackexchange.com/a/152/16
    – DForck42
    Feb 6 '17 at 21:44
  • 1
    it may be the case that the author's opinion affected their work, but this question isn't about that, it's simply what their opinion on the subject matter is. as per the meta discussion I've linked, since this question isn't ABOUT the literature but solely about the AUTHOR, this is off-topic
    – DForck42
    Feb 6 '17 at 21:53

NOTE: This answer answers the previous question 'What were Gilbert's views on women's education?'. I will try and also answer the new question.

It seems he was very pro-women, there is a lot of evidence to suggest he was a feminist.

From Jane Stedman's biography - W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theater:

"Gilbert always enjoyed the company of women, particularly intelligent ones, and he was attractive to them,"

He also had three sisters - Jane, Maud and Florence[1], and was extremely close to them[2], though his parents were always very distant. He had many female friends, as well as working with several female theater managers, including Marie Litton and Priscilla German Reed, and he took part in amateur dramatics with Marie Wilton.[3]

Furthermore, he asked female novelist Annie Thomas to marry him, showing he thought that a women with this job was totally acceptable, and though she refused they remained friends.[4]

So why are some of his plays based on typical Victorian women, and verging on being sexist?

Well it is likely he did this for the audience. His plays in order to be successful needed to be about that era, and if in all his plays he showed feminist views then the audience wouldn't be so interested or comfortable. Think about how Henrik Ibsen's plays went down with audiences. His play A Doll's House shocked viewers and caused great controversy from the very start when the main character - a woman - walked out on her marriage, children, and life and left men behind, quite the opposite of the Victorian idea for what women should do[5]. Another of his plays Hedda Gabler shocked the victorian audience even more[6] when a married woman takes her own life with a revolver. To avoid such things happening in his own plays, Gilbert couldn't be too open with his personal views.

We still need to remember however, that he was still a Victorian, and from the sources above he'll have been brought up from a young age being taught that woman had a lower place in society than men, as the Victorians thought. He may have been a feminist in some respects, but it is possible that the idea of women being educated was too ridiculous, even for him.

There is no clear evidence anywhere I've looked though, so we can't be sure what he truly thought.

  • Sorry but "it is possible that the idea of women being educated was too ridiculous, even for him" - it sounds like the actual answer to the actual question asked is "I think it's maybe" with no evidence, if you strip all the stuff about liking women.
    – DVK
    Feb 6 '17 at 20:45
  • @DVK like I said, there is very little evidence to be found. I've tried my best with what I found, but yes I had to make some assumptions Feb 6 '17 at 20:46
  • In my mind, the sources you added to this answer don't fix the underlying (incorrect) assumptions. First of all, the question is "is Princess Ida a negative commentary on women's education", not "is Gilbert critical of women's education." You talk a lot about Gilbert's biography, but you don't mention Princess Ida at all. Second, you're playing hard and loose with the evidence: you never define what you mean by "he was still a Victorian", or how that explains why his portrayal of women's education differs from his personal opinions on the subject. Sorry, but -1
    – user111
    Feb 20 '17 at 20:23
  • @Hamlet yeah well when I originally posted this the question was 'What was Gilbert's views on woman's education?'. SHould probably edit to say that and answer the new question. I'll try and explain a little more as well on the things you point out. Feb 20 '17 at 20:32

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