A woman’s social role in the nineteenth century was quite ambiguous and uncertain. Britain’s transformation into a powerful industrial nation profoundly affected the Victorian perception of the ideal woman. As new kinds of professions emerged along with new ways of urban living, a change was triggered in how the nation perceived appropriate male and female roles. More specific, the separate spheres notion – which was nothing but a type of segregation through which the woman and her activity were confined to the private sphere of the household, whereas the public sphere of business and politics belonged to the man – came to influence the choices, experiences and nonetheless, the mere existence of all women, both at home and at work. (Morgan,1-5)
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During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), a woman’s place was in the home, as society considered motherhood and domesticity to be all that a woman needs in order to feel happy and fulfilled. These kind of misconceptions kept women far away from the public sphere in more ways than one. The Victorian era is also referred to as the domestic age. Queen Victoria herself, also described as the mother of the nation, became the embodiment of the idea of home as a cosy, domestic space. Therefore, it comes with no surprise that the Victorian family was considered to be a very valuable part of the everyday life throughout the era.
In 1861, the term Household General was used for the fist time – as a title given to the mistress of the house – by Isabella Beeton in her manual Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this particular book, the mistress of a household was described as the Commander of an Army or the leader of an enterprise. In order to run a respectable household and secure the happiness, comfort and well-being of her family she had to perform her duties intelligently and thoroughly. For example, she had to organize, delegate and instruct her servants, which was considered a not so easy task as many of them were not reliable. She was expected to organize parties and dinners with the sole purpose of bringing prestige to her husband, also making it possible for them to meet new people and establish economically important relationships. At the same time she had to make sure she devoted enough time to her children and towards improving her own abilities and cultural knowledge. (Beeton,1-11)
Another duty described by Beeton is that of being the sick-nurse who took care of ill family members. This required a good temper, compassion for the suffering and sympathy with sufferers, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order and cleanliness; all qualities a woman worthy of the name should possess in the nineteenth century.
In Victorian times, a woman was also obliged to take care of her parents in case of illness, even if this stretched over months and years and often implied a great sacrifice of self-interest on her side. A very special connection existed between women and their brothers. Sisters had to treat their brothers as they would treat their future husbands. They were dependent on their male family members as the brother’s affection might secure their future in case their husband treated them badly or they did not get married at all.
Educational perspectives for the nineteenth century woman were also narrowed down to the confinement of one’s housewhold, or of anything related to it. Up until the late 1840s women’s schools were small and the academics leaned more towards the role they would eventually play in the family. The most common attitude was that education of women needn’t be of the same extended, classical and commercial character as that of men. Slogans such as A Good Home is the Best of Schools were made up to promote self-formation in the family. (Lamonica,14)
The Victorian middle-class society had to admit that knowledge was power. However, there was the widely spread belief – among men especially – that women could not be intrusted with such power. Victorian women were supposed to know only the things necessary to bring up their children and to keep the house. That’s why subjects as history, geography and general literature were of extreme importance, whereas Latin and Greek were of little importance. Women who wanted to study such subjects as Law, Physics, Engineering, Science or Art were satirized and dismissed. People thought it unnecessary for women to attend university. It was even said that studying was against their nature and could make them ill, or it would just make them neglect their household duties. They were to stay more or less an “ornament of society” and be subordinate to their husbands. Obedience was all that was required of them. ( Morgan, 36)
Schools principally run by women provided a curriculum similar to what was being taught to boys. However, it was still the purpose in educating women to keep them in their role as the domestic middle-class wife and mother. John Ruskin, a writer during this period, believed that a woman’s education should be such that it take into consideration a husband’s need to share his interest with his wife and conduct intelligent conversation with her.
To get a better understanding on how women were defined and trully perceived in the eyes of the Victorian society, it is more than sufficient for one to read the following excerpt from The Saturday Review (1867):
As it is, the universe to her is only a collection of rich bachelors in search of wives, and of odious rivals who are contending with her for one or more of these two wary prizes. She thinks of nothing except her private affairs. She is indifferent to politics, to literature – in a word, to anything that requires thought. She reads novels of a kind, because novels are all about Love, and love had once something to do with marriage, her own peculiar and absorbing business. Beyond this her mind does not stir.
However, despite this superficial image of the woman as an ornament of the society, a growing number of men and women believed that changes needed to be made to this altered perception of the female’s true role. Many understood that this was indeed a problem which, in the long run, affected not only the women themselves, but also their families and the nation as a whole.
In response to these early voices which pleaded for the emancipation of young ladies all across England, new professions were opened to women in the nineteenth century among which the most popular were those belonging to the medical sector such as nursing, midwifery, and doctoring. However, women were accepted mostly in the domain of nursing, as their work was carried out under the strict authority and supervision of male doctors. As far as it concerned the Victorians, the doctor’s profession usually belonged to the men and women were not expected to break this convention too soon. In other words, a woman surgeon was simply something unheard of, reason for which men confined women only to their role as nurses.
Besides the medical domain, however, the Victorian upper class woman had only a couple of legitimate paying occupations left to chose from. Among these few, were the positions of writer or governess. But not even these granted women the same freedom men enjoyed in the same professional fields.
Governesses had a quasi-invisible role in the Victorian household and quite an awkward one aswell, as they were neither servants nor real members of the family. They often had their meals alone, a fact which could be easily considered a sign of their peculiar social status. They generally came from middle-class families and were well educated, but because they were paid for their work, they weren’t quite considered part of the family. (Horn, 333-344)
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This type of position was often believed to be as one worth pitied, and the only possible way out of it was to find a husband. During those times, it was not an uncommon thing for young governesses to enter secret affairs with the master of the house and eventually to marry him.
However, not all of them were fortunate enough to live a Jane Eyre-type of happy ending. Once the children they tutored grew up, most of them for forced to look for a new position. Either way, this occupation was subjected to uncertainty as its barer had to be always on the move and constantly adapt to new families and situations.
Most of the greatest English novels were written during the Victorian era, and many are still widely popular among readers even today. Perhaps this would not have been the case if it were not for the women writers who dominated the vast novel market in Victorian England.
However, during the Victorian period, women writers were measured from a social rather than a literary point of view. Therefore, it was widely thought that novels by women should be modest, religious, sensitive, and pure – just like women were considered to be. Many of the Victorian women writers refused to rally to this belief, however, rejecting the imposition of nonliterary restrictions on their work. Perfectly aware of their artistic responsibilities, these women writers refused to make concessions to secure commercial success.
It is a known fact that not only the BrontÑ‘s, but also female authors like George Eliot or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as their lesser-known contemporaries repudiated, in their professional lives, the courtesy Victorian gentleman-critics might show to their works. They desired rigorous and impartial criticism as most women writers did not wish reviewers to be kind to them if kindness meant overlooking their literary weaknesses or flattering them on their accomplishments simply because of their sex.
Instead of the derisive reviews they expected, they found themselves confronted with generous criticism, which they considered utterly condescending. Elizabeth Barrett Browning labeled this type of criticism “the comparative respect which means…absolute scorn.”
As far as it concerned Victorian critics, they were virtually obsessed with finding the place of the woman writer so as to judge her appropriately. Many simply admitted, bluntly, that they thought Jane Eyre would be a masterpiece if written by a man,but instead, they found it shocking and disgusting written by a woman. This was, perhaps, one of the main reasons why women writers would oftenly choose to publish under a male pseudonym – and so did many, including the BrontÑ‘ trio.
Moreover, conservative reviewers sometimes associated an independent heroine with carefully concealed revolutionary doctrine. Novels such as Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre were considered radical feminist documents. This type of criticism was an affront as it dealt with women writers as a whole, rather than treating them as individual artists.
Striving to detach themselves from a group stereotype, many expressed relatively conservative views on the emancipation of women (except on the subject of women’s education) and put more emphasis on their own domestic accomplishments.
However, in identifying themselves with women who had chosen the traditional career path of marriage and motherhood, these writers encountered still another obstacle in the way of their creativity. Due to excessive Victorian prudery, virtually all experience that was uniquely feminine was unprintable. No nineteenth-century woman dared to describe childbirth, much less her sexual passion. Men could not write about their sexual experiences either, but they could write about sport, business,crime, and war – all â€šclosed’ activities for women. What is amazing is the sheer volume of first-rate prose and poetry produced by the Victorian women writers.
Born a woman in the Victorian era, Anne BrontÑ‘, besides being a governess, chose also to write. As the image of the age’s social background has been roughly sketched out in this rather introductive chapter, we are furtherly close to understanding the motifs and motives behind Anne BrontÑ‘’s writing.
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