Discussion Questions for Sarah Scott’s Millennium Hall
by Amber Chiac
1) The women of Millennium Hall are obsessed with cleanliness, purity and virtue. The women’s clothes are described as having “the same neatness and the same “cleanliness.” The girls’ clothes are described as “extremely white and clean” (13). Even the architecture is depicted as “perfectly clean.” For instance, the narrator describes the chairs as made of “wood as white as possible” and states that “perhaps there was never a garden so neat” (141). One of the peasant women tells the narrator, “there never passes a day that one or other of the ladies does not come and look all over the house… [it is] all for our own good, for we cannot be healthy if we are not clean and neat” (19). Is there a connection between cleanliness, orderliness, rationality and control? How might this be related to traditional views of the female body (and the disabled body) as dirty, leaky, chaotic, contaminated and existing within the realm of nature? How does Scott alter the god/man/woman hierarchy by presenting woman as logical, clean, contained and passionless? How is this related to the fact that Millennium Hall is a “reversal” of the traditional conduct book and a “concrete” rather than an “abstract” utopia?
2) Building off the last question, why does Miss Maynard know everything about the women of the house? Is there privacy at Millennium Hall? The biographies of the women are riddled with deception and betrayal but such vices do not seem to exist at Millennium Hall. Do the women renounce privacy in order to live a peaceful existence? Or are women so pure in the company of other women that privacy is unnecessary?
3) According to Wilson’s introduction, some critics have noted an “undercurrent of lesbianism” in A Description of Millennium Hall. In her article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich conceptualizes lesbianism as involving much more than only sexual relations. Rich suggests we use the tools of “re-vision” and the “lesbian continuum” to detect homoeroticism in places where it did not or could not find articulation. Keeping this in mind, let’s examine the following:
The women of Millennium Hall sincerely care about men but they never really “fall in love” with them. The female characters never feel the passion or the lust that the male characters feel. In the novel, men have more to gain from heterosexual relationships than women do. Heterosexual relationships render female characters poor, stupid and sad while female friendships bring them peace, enlightenment and happiness. One could argue that the closest thing to a genuine love story in the text is the friendship between Miss Morgan & Miss Mancel. Miss Maynard describes their friendship as one that brings the women “infinite joy” (105) and suggests that they were reunited by providence. Their friendship is sometimes described in erotic terms. Referring to Miss Morgan and Miss Mancel, Miss Maynard says, “who from their childhood have been so connected, that I could not, if I would, disunite them in my relation; and it would be almost a sin to endeavor to separate them even in idea. (76) Scott clearly naturalizes same-sex intimacy between women and may be suggesting that it is godlier than heterosexual intimacy.
There is no normative concept of family at Millennium Hall. As Johns states, “form follows function” at Millennium Hall: “there is no master plan” and women “tackle each problem and project according to the needs and circumstances of the moment” (14). Scott subverts the traditional family structure and the institution of heterosexual marriage on the ground of irrationality. For instance, Miss Mancel and Miss Morgan act as mothers to the inhabitants of Millennium Hall and this turns out to be a particularly rational and effective mode of domestic/economic organization.
4) Millennium Hall is populated entirely by women except Mr. D’vora (when he was alive) and some “disabled” men. Miss Maynard describes Mr. D’vora as “a man of great understanding” and a man with an “incomparable heart.” Speaking of Mr. D’vora, she says, “misfortunes had softened common humanity into a most tender disposition” (44). One of the disabled men that live in the hall is described as having led a “wretched life…in the hands of one of those monster-mongers” and as having an “extreme weakness of body” (73). Why did Scott choose to include these men in the story? Is she saying that victimized men are akin to women? What does this suggest about Scott’s representation of women as exceptionally (essentially?) empathic and benevolent?
5) What aspects of this novel are prescient of contemporary feminist practices and ideas? What aspects are regressive?
In this novel, Scott critiques systematic oppression through richly detailed biographical information about each of the women who founded Millennium Hall. This supports the feminist epistemological approach of privileging partial perspective and demonstrates that the personal is political. Scott illuminates the ways in which “the social contract obscures the sexual contract on which it depends” (Johns, 92). Female emancipation is associated with the empowerment of other marginalized people, such as the poor, the sick, the disabled and people of color (the latter in The History of Sir George Ellison). However, Millennium Hall is not an equalitarian community: there is a firm class hierarchy and the disabled inhabitants are kept in an enclosure and referred to as “monsters” and as “wretched.”
Scott depicts men and women in very essentialist terms. Miss Maynard declares, “Every thing to me loses its charm when it is put out of the station wherein nature, or to speak more properly, the all-wise Creator has placed it.” Women in this novel have no sexual agency and their worth is based primarily on their “virtue.” Their happiness and wellbeing is important but only because it renders them good Christians. Women are still subservient but instead of being subservient to men, they are equal with men in their subservience to god.
6) Who is the intended audience of this novel? To answer this question we should examine why the women decided to create Millennium Hall. What was the major motivating factor? To passively escape the influence of evil men or to actively set up an experimental community with other women?
The obvious answer is that this novel was written for men. The novel ends with Lamont (described by the narrator as a “coxcomb”) reading the New Testament. He tells Miss Maynard that he is “convinced by the conduct of the ladies of this house that their religion must be the true one” and his thoughts are “engaged in a scheme to imitate them on a smaller scale” (191). In Sir George Ellison, the narrator goes on to implement the principals of Millennium Hall in his slave plantation.
Another possible answer is that the text is written for women. When Lady Emilia explains to Lord Robert that Miss Selvyn does not wish to marry him, she says Miss Selvyn is “so entirely happy in her present situation, nothing in the world should induce her to change it.” When Lord Robert inquires as to whether Miss Selvyn has “any particular objection to him,” she “shrewd the uselessness of this question, since the reason of her refusing the honor he intended her, would have made her reject the addresses of every man in the world” (ebook, 207). Scott chose a woman (Lady Barbra Montague) as her life partner and she wanted her readers to know this was a viable and pious option for them as well. Scott advocates consciousness-raising among women and valorizes the virtuousness of female friendship.