Tuesday, 12 March 2013


"Conventionality is not morality"
(Charlotte Bronte , Preface to the second edition of "Jane Eyre")

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre - 2011

(see also THE WOMAN QUESTION  ppt in the widget box on the right  

We already discussed about "The Woman Question" studying Jane Austen's novels. Unfortunately, things hadn't changed in time and Victorian women still had to bear a subordinate social role.
Queen Victoria, "the mother of the nation", personified 19th century middle-class femininity and domesticity perfectly. Supported by her beloved husband Albert and surrounded by her nine children, she presented a kind of femininity which was centred on the family, motherhood and respectability.

The ideal Victorian woman was the "angel of the house"; her place was in the home, a shelter from the busy and chaotic public world of politics and business; she was the pious, respectable and busy wife, mother and daughter.
Victorian women did not have the same rights as men: they could not vote or hold political office. Men could divorce their wives for adultery, but wives could do so only if adultery was combined with cruelty,  bigamy or incest. Women had limited education and, therefore, limited employment opportunities. The accomplishments of middle-class  women were trivial, such as needlework, since it  was not respectable for them to earn a living. They were expected to marry and to limit their public interests to unpaid charitable work. The only choice for an unmarried  woman who wanted to support herself and maintain her class position and reputation was to work as a governess, which meant a low wage and an ambiguous state, neither a servant, due to her class, nor a proper young lady. Unmarried women would occasionally emigrate but poor working conditions and underemployment drove thousands of working - class women into prostitution.
Several writers, especially women writers such as Emily and  Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans),  depicted heroines that didn't embody the ideal Victorian woman since their Catherine Earnshaw, Jane Eyre or Maggie Tulliver are rather unconventional and even rebellious. 
The Bronte Sisters and Mary Ann Evans published their works under male pseudonyms but they didn't accept any other compromise: as writers they wanted to be as free as men and their heroines embody their passionality and wish for self-assessment.  For example, "Jane Eyre", Charlotte Bronte's second novel, was admired by her contemporaries but it was also vehemently criticized on social and moral grounds: love was too easily allowed to transcend social class and the emotions too explicitly portrayed!

Famous Victorian Heroines

1. Becky (Rebecca) Sharp - Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
Becky Sharp is the central character in Vanity Fair and Amelia Sedley's opposite. She is the orphaned daughter of destitute parents, and she learns early on to look after her own interests in all situations. Becky values money and social status above all and is thoroughly corrupt in her pursuit of them. Her most well-known (though often doubted) observation is that for five thousand pounds a year, she could be a good woman. Selfish, unscrupulous, manipulative, and ambitious, she is capable of appearing sweet, mild, and even timid . 


2. Jane Eyre - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The protagonist and narrator of Jane Eyre, Jane develops from an angry, rebellious, 10-year-old orphan into a sensitive, artistic, maternal, and fiercely independent young woman. While Jane's social class‹continually poor in an atmosphere of wealth‹is one of her biggest barriers, it best serves to underscore Jane's need for independence, both financial and emotional. She rejects marriages to Rochester and St. John because she understands she will have to forfeit her independence in the unions, and marries Rochester only when she has attained the financial independence and self-esteem to maintain a marriage of equality. This self-esteem is gained through Jane's making her mark in various worlds‹Lowood, Thornfield, and particularly Moor House‹in which she is valued for her humanity and values. Paralleling Jane's desire for independence is her search for a proper set of religious values. She rejects the extremist models of Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John, eventually settling on a spirituality of love and connection.

3. Catherine Earnshaw - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Catherine possesses a wild, passionate nature. If Heathcliff can be considered the main protagonist of Wuthering Heights,  then Catherine Earnshaw is the dominant female spirit which prevails the novel. She is a character dominated by obsession and her single greatest obsession is her love for Heathcliff. It is this which gives food to her soul, which controls her life and gives a sense of meaning, purpose and direction to her existence. The love which she professes for Heathcliff is not mere romantic love; neither is it based on mere physical attraction, it is an identification, a union of souls-: "Without Heathcliff" she says "the universe would turn to a mighty stranger".

4. Maggie Tulliver - The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The protagonist of The Mill on the Floss. The novel tracks Maggie as she grows from an impetuous, clever child into a striking, unconventional young woman. Maggie's closest tie is to her brother Tom, and she seeks—and constantly feels denied—his approval and acceptance. Maggie is clever and enjoys books, the richness of intelligent conversation, and music, but her family's downfall lends her a quieter, troubled side that tends toward self- abnegation. With her dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, Maggie is often associated with the Tulliver side of the family, and, specifically her father's sister, Mrs. Moss.

 It was published in 1891 after several rejections by publishers uncomfortable with the controversial subject challenging the sexual morals of Hardy’s times. Today, it is viewed as a classic, but its theme of innocence spoiled and driven to murder by the errant ruling class received mixed reception by critics and the public.

 These are only some of the famous heroines that proposed a new different female model which clashed with the ideal stereotyped in Victorian society. 


As a definition, "The Woman Question" was invented by the Victorians. This is not surprising: theirs was the first age in which issues of sexual discrimination in politics, employment, education and family became the concern of the whole nation. It was as pressing an issue as industrialism or the theory of evolution. Public opinion was divided on which reforms should be allowed and which not. Queen Victoria, for instance, encouraged the founding of the Queen's College for Women (1848), the first of its kind, but considered giving women the right to vote "mad folly".
At about mid-century things began to change. Some women tried hard to gain access to colleges and professions: the most famous was Florence Nightingale , who became a national legend for her work in hospitals.
An influential voice of support for women also came from John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873), one of the leading philosopher of the age, who spoke in favour of female emancipation. His The Subjection of Women (1869) considered the role of the husband in history and compared it to that of a tyrant.

John Stuart Mill
By the end of Victoria's reign the situation had improved: women could study and take a degree at twelve university colleges, and study but not take a degree at Oxford and Cambridge. On the social side women were also very active and began to organize themselves. The first Petitions to Parliament asking for women's suffrage date back to the 1840s, but women didn't get the vote until 1918.
In literature the change from the woman of 1837, the year of Queen Victori's accession to the throne, to that of the last years of her reign is exemplarily put by two prose works: Autobiography by Harriet Martineau (1802 - 1876), which describes women's unfair social conditions in the first part of the century, when they had to conceal and repress their intellectual abilities; and The Queen's Reign by Walter Besant (1836 - 1901), which esalts the great social and cultural advancements made by women during the Victorian Age (although too optimistically).

In the paintings that reflect the Victorian compromise women are usually formally dressed and have no sexual connotations. They do show some sensuality in the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites - bare feet and arms, loose flowing dresses - but then the atmosphere is dreamy or medieval, not realistic and contemporary. Typical are Dante Gabriele Rossetti 's many portraits of the "Pre-Raphaelite Goddess": the beautiful, sad and sensuous woman found in many poems and pictures of the time.

Dante Gabriele Rossetti, Lady Lilith
Continental painters, on the other hand, showed more freedom in their treatment of woman. In the works of the French Impressionists she apprears as a flesh and blood person, caught in relaxed and informal poses - as in Edgar Degas La classe de dance  or Edouard Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.

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