Female Social Roles In Victorian Literature


This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

During the period between Victorian and modern age, female social roles have changed significantly; however, they still have remained some convention inherited from its previous generation. To examine women and society of their time, Charlotte Brontë in nineteenth century and Virginia Woolf in twentieth century could provide the reflection in a clear and realistic way. However, there are similarities and differences in female social roles in their ages. The aim of this study was to compare and contrast Brontë and Woolf's portrayal of women and their contemporaries in terms of professions, marriage, and awareness. It is concluded that even though the Victorians pioneered to give the emancipation of women, they were hardly abandon the domestic marriage in Brontë's fiction. On the other hand, Woolf had claimed women rights should be developed by economic independence, but she did not deny matrimony. This may be interest feminists, socialists and literature readers, especially who want to know more about women modern times.




1. Working Women in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

1.1 Similarities

1.2 Differences

2. Wives and Mothers in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

2.1 Similarities

2.2 Differences

3. The Awareness of Women in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

3.1 Similarities

3.2 Differences




Female social roles have changed dramatically from Victorian age (1837-1901) to modern age (from twentieth century to the present), and literature would reflect in a vivid way the relation between women and their eras. Writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf are particularly influential on the literature and the contemporaries in Victorian and modern age. As the female writers, which are not valued in their generations, Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf have more closeness and concern to the women in their society.

Before and at the beginning of nineteenth century, a model of femininity was the 'perfect lady,' which was inherited as a Victorian ideal of women. Family and morality were the base of Victorian society, and girls were all taught to submit to the authority and matrimony (Vicinus 1972). The concept of 'The Angel in the House,' which was referred to the embodiment of Victorian women, was prevail in the Victorian society. As a result, women in Victorian Age were regarded as incompatible and excluded in many professions. Showalter(1999) points out that the first professional activities of Victorian women are either in the home or in womanhood. From the nineteenth century, however, the prevalence of education attributed to the gradual rising incidence of working women. Besides, by the struggles of individuals and feminists, the obstacles to the entry into professions for women, whose exclusion and incompatibility in work had been debated, were removed in the beginning of twentieth century. (Swindells 1985) Meawhile, the concept of morality and family was strongly suspected by the critics and feminists, who argue that there is no 'The Angel in the House.' Within a century, not only female social roles but also female awareness had been emancipated from restraint, though some conventional notions had still remained.

The purpose of this paper is to compare female social roles in Charlotte Brontë's Victorian fiction and Virginia Woolf's modern literature in terms of three aspects: working women, wives and mothers, and awareness of women. Women and professions in Brontë and Woolf's literature will be compared and contrasted firstly. Then the similarities and difference of married women their work will also be examined. Finally, how female consciousness is portrayed in their work and its development from Victorian to modern age will be discussed.

1. Working Women in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

1.1 Similarities

Nineteenth century is a crucial period for modern age because of the gender attitude and practices and professional structure which people inherited were formed. Besides, despite of the fact that the entry of Victorian women with professions had not happened in significant numbers (Swindells 1985), the idea of professionalism in Victorian age also stimulates the inspiration of the contemporary novelist, Charlotte Brontë and the modern writer, Virginia Woolf. Due to the fact that women have gained more access to education since the middle nineteenth century , both Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf have positive stance on women professions because "women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do." (Brontë 1985:141)

Women and professions are presented in Charlotte Brontë's novels. The most prevailing occupation for young girls in the middle-classes in Victorian Age is governess, as Charlotte Brontë's Jane, the well-educated heroine, in Jane Eyre. To quote from Françoise (1974:155), "…she is completely free in her work, that her relations with her pupil Adele are good…, she deplores Adele' French coquetry and frivolity. Mr. Rochester has enough books in his library for her teaching methods." In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë depicts the background of a governess' life in her employer's family.

In Virginia Woolf's viewpoint, it was possible that women are kept away from academies and institutes, but women cannot be forbidden from using the pen, paper and writing desk. Katharine Hilbery in Virginia Woolf's Night and Day is the implication of her approval of female professionals. During the daytime, Katharine helps her mother write the biography of her grandfather Richard Alardyce, who is a well-known poet, and she develops her interest at night. In addition, Katharine Hilbery is expected to be a writer to inherit the talent of her family estate. Virginia Woolf uses Katharine as her idea of a feminist: marriage is not the only destination for women.

As the incidence of working women has increased, writers as Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf create their own heroines concerning the relation between female and professions. Though they belong to the two generations that female capabilities are often denied, Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf share the same point that women can do as good as men in vocations. However, there are some different development of their novels which represent Victorian and modern ideologies of women who have jobs, and they would be discussed in the following section.

1.2 Differences

In the late Victorian age, the conventional social roles of women, who start to demand their own welfare and seek for more constructive roles in society, met great challenges (Vicinus 1972). Therefore, there has been a rise of the number of women who have professions since Victorian age. In the literary work of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf, there are different implications and stances of working women's final outcome.

Women in Charlotte Brontë's fiction are affected by the ideology that marriage is the ultimate goal for women in Victorian age. Françoise points out that Jane in Jane Eyre, ends up by marrying after being independent and free for a time, and that she gives up the task of a tutor and enjoys the moral satisfaction. Jane also indicates that Victorian married women in working-class were still minority. Another heroine in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Shirley Keeldar, who longs for pursuing an occupation, would never stray from the domestic model eventually:

"Caroline," demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, "don't you wish you had a profession--- a trader?"

"I wish it fifty times a day. As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands, and to occupy my thoughts."

"Can labour alone make a human being happy?"

"No; but it can give varieties of pain, and prevent us from breaking our hearts with a single tyrant master-torture. Besides, successful labour has its recompense; a vacant, weary, lonely hopeless life has none." (Brontë 1977:235)

This passage represents the confrontation of love and professions in Victorian age. Though Caroline wants to have a richer life by working, professions for her still cannot be prior to love and marriage. The function of work is to "prevent us from breaking our hearts with a single tyrant master-torture." As Vicnus (1972:xi) pointed out, 'many young women suffered the pangs of unrequited or false love, as described by Caroline.'

On the other hand, Virginia Woolf claims that women must be economically independent to develop their professions. In A Room of one's Own, Virginia Woolf particularly points out the difficulties that women as vocational writers have met. The imaginary heroine, the talented Shakespeare's sister, is neglected and rejected by the society. If she has the room of her own, her creativity would be valued.

In Professions for Women, Virginia Woolf states her opinions after the beginning of women's liberation from work in early twentieth century:

The whole position, as I see it---here in this hall surrounded by women practicing for the first time in history I know not how many different professions-is one of extraordinary interest and importance. You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent. Your are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning; the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? (Woolf 1942:153)

In the process of making the entry into the work, women had won their own rooms and five hundred pounds a year, which Virginia Woolf regarded as necessary. She considered professions for women as 'extraordinary interest and importance.' The 'room,' professional work, was no longer possessed only by men. Finally, women had the decision to 'furnish,' 'decorate,' and 'share' the room. In sum, women in the beginning of modern age had strived for their rights to get the access to the professions, the innovation and great progress in female history.

2. Wives and Mothers in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

2.1 Similarities

Since most of the literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf explore the relation between female and their contemporary era, marriage hardly fails to be neglected. Calder(1976:59) states, "marriage [in Victorian age]was the core of social life and social aspiration." In the early twentieth century, modern society still remains the domesticity and morality inherited from Victorian age. Thus, female roles in the fiction of both Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf inevitably follow the conventions of the idea of marriage.

Marriage is a social success in Victorian age, and being unmarried is considered the failure of women's lives. In Jane Eyre, Jane's marriage with Rochester is domestic, with her total dedication to her husband. Jane is in the social doctrine that a Victorian woman should be all devoted to her husband and children, and that her duty is to provide a comfortable and domestic life for her mate On the hand, Caroline in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley finds that an unmarried woman is doomed to be the victim of society, as shown by Miss Mann and Miss Ainsley. Single women are in the sacrificed social status, just like the homeless and unemployed people. (Françoise 1974)

Similarly, Virginia Woolf's women are "cast in a highly traditional mould" and "still confined to a 'female sphere'"(Stubbs1979:233). Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse leads an well-ordered life and creates the harmony not only be giving birth to children but also by giving a peaceful life for them. In fact, the stability of the family is based on the nature endowing with life, the mother. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa is the hostess arranging the party in her house, and she is also the symbol of the natural bond to the convention and society despite of the fact that her husband and her are an unequal couple. (Marder 1968)

In sum, the ideas of marriage in the ages that belong to Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf are similar; that is to say, wives and maternity are the basis of stability and the core of domesticity. Nevertheless, Poovey (1988) has indicated that the Victorian subordination of one to another is always unstable, and the inequality can explain the emergence of the opposite, the various movement of feminists. The change of the structure and the ideology of family has implied in Virginia Woolf's later novel, Three Guineas.

2.2 Differences

Marriage in Charlotte Brontë's literature differs from Virginia Woolf's in terms of the women's subordination. In Victorian age, men control over women in relationship and matrimony, both of which are suggested in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. However, this situation has changed in modern age, when masculine power has gradually eroded. Instead of staying in the masculine domination, people start to be suspicious of the value of marriage in modern age. Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas has indicated the decadence of family.

In Jane Eyre, the theme of mastery of male power could often be seen. In Jane's childhood, she is demanded to call John Reed "my master." When she develops the relationship with St. John and Rochester, she insists on her personal will and freedom. However, she expresses her struggle and inability to avoid the domination of St. John: "By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference" (Brontë 1977:423). As for Rochester, he completely masters Jane, not only as an employer but also a man. Jane says, "for a moment I am beyond my own mastery" (Brontë 1977:272). She cannot resist the attraction of male domination from Rochester, even when she tries to escape from him. In the end, the rebellious and ambitious Jane submits to her master, Rochester, and finally becomes "absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh." (Calder1976)

In Virginia Woolf's opinion, unlike Charlotte Brontë, marriage to women is a way to show subordination in masculine society. Once women are married, they lose their independence, self-identity and the bond with society. In Mrs. Dalloway, it suggests that it's likely that women are the prisoners in marriage; nonetheless, Clarissa, the protagonist, still can feel at ease and find a way out in matrimony by arranging a party at home. May (1981:134) claims, "Mrs. Dalloway is about degrees and kinds of relatedness and human beings to one another, varying from lonely madness to self-compromising sociability." Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas is based on her observation of the society. In the beginning, the Victorian family (the Pargiters) seems stable but gradually falls into decadence. Eventually the members of the three family have been separated, and many of them remained unmarried or even isolated. At the end if the story, the children and grandchildren gather in a party, which indicates that time has brought the revolution and breakdown to traditional Victorian society.

From the literary work of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf, we can discover the development of the idea of marriage from Victorian to modern age. Virginia Woolf, as a female writer, examines and criticizes women's role in marriage, which is an ultimate goal for Victorian women.

3. The Awareness of Women in the Literature of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf

3.1 Similarities

More work opportunities provided for women were the implication of female's awareness of the importance of economic independence. Therefore, independent heroines could be seen in Charlotte Brontë's literary work in Victorian age (Vicinus 1972). Besides, they became the foreshadow of Virginia Woolf's modern literature. Independent heroines are often portrayed in their fiction.

In Charlotte Brontë's novels, Shirley and Jane Eyre, the outspoken main female protagonists are the models of women independence. Shirley Keeldar, who describes herself as 'a woman, and something more,' is an economically independent woman in Shirley. In addition, Shirley also suggests that the dependent relation is always unstable and leads to misery. Like the workers to their owners, wives are maltreated and ignored. In Jane Eyre, Jane will not succumb to the reality, and it could be seen from her rebellion in childhood to her pursuit for knowledge and love in womanhood. Jane is not satisfied with the feeling of confinement: "Then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life… I desired more of practical experience… more of intercourse with my kind…"(Brontë 1977:140).

Françoise(1974) also points out that Jane does not deny her love for Rochester and that she confesses and attentively listens to his depiction of his story, as a result of her refusal to the traditional feminine roles: reliance, modesty and shyness. According to Showalter (1999), Jane's running away from Rochester is her self-preservation. In Jane Eyre, as cited by Showalter (1999), Jane tells herself, "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself" (Brontë 1977:344). For her, action is always the way to independence. Françoise (1974) claimed that Charlotte Brontë's heroines represented the female disobedience to conventional rules and the liberty of the Angel in the House.

In modern age, Virginia Woolf also claimed the importance of being economic independent and having a room for one's own for women. As Virginia Woolf (1945:112) stated in A Room of One's Own, 'the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think,…then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.' If the room of one's own is a place for the feminine conference, which contains the authority, politics, and aggression in male world, it will be a grave, as Clarissa's attic bedroom in Mrs. Dalloway. However, if it is a center combined with female tradition and culture; if people here make efforts to women independence, then Shakespeare's sister, the future Virginia Woolf, may appear eventually. That female shares the equality with male is not a fantasy (Showalter 1999). In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Lily, a female painter, eagerly wants to prove her ability to Charles Tansley, who claims that women cannot paint and write. She represents the women of independence and female's desire of overtaking the gender boundary.

Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf have indicated the female awareness and independence of their contemporary ages; however, it seems that Victorian women still fail to be separated from domestic marriage. The differences of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf's heroines in terms of female awareness will be examined in the following section.

3.2 Differences

Though both Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf have portrayed and declared their stances toward women awareness, they have endowed them with different characteristics and destinies suggesting the conventional notions in Victorian and modern age. In Brontë's novels, however, female roles ultimately cannot avoid the bond of marriage, which is considered as the destination of Victorian women. On the contrary, Woolf's women would not always follow this pattern. Furthermore, she has pointed out the flaw of Brontë's fiction.

In spite of the fact that most of the heroines in Brontë's novels are passionate, restless, and often contradictory in their inner world, they are often tied to matrimony at the end of the story. Both Brontë's Jane Eyre and Shirley provide the evidence of convention that Virginia Woolf attacks. Love and marriage are significant ingredients in the literature in nineteenth century.In Jane Eyre, Jane is ambitiously desired to pursue the vastness of knowledge. Meanwhile, like Shirley Keeldar in Shirley, she can only contemplate marrying a man who can be her master (Calder 1976). Similarly, the two heroines in Shirley, Caroline and Shirley, hunt for independence; however, both of them quest for ideal mates as well. The pattern of Jane Eyre and Shirley is similar to some extent: those female protagonists have no choice but being dominated by men at last.

In twentieth century, Woolf's Night and Day shows that women's consciousness has challenged the social notion concerning female roles and that marriage to women is not the only solution. Though being in the dilemma of the fact that if she should break the convention and disobey the expectation from her family, Katharine Hilbery can decide her own future. Besides, in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, she argues that Charlotte Brontë's writing inherits masculine style, "It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman's use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands" (Woolf 2000:77). Virginia Woolf regards that literature has been authorized by men since ancient time; thus, masculine sentences are inevitable even in women's literary work. Showalter (1999) has expressed a similar view that female writers had been deprived of the language of their own style and the awareness of ambition, and their deprivation had extended from Victoria's reign to the twentieth century. The delicacy and fastidiousness of Woolf's language is an expansion of this feminized style.


Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf's portrayal of female characters had reflected the female social roles in Victorian and modern age. In the transition between nineteenth and twentieth century, the women's ideology and the social norms had changed, while some of them still had been inherited. They were presented in Brontë and Woolf's literature in a various and fascinating way.

To compare and contrast women in the literary work of Brontë and Woolf, the female roles in professions and marriage and their awareness were chosen. More and more women had had their vocations, which meant that they had the economic independence; however, Victorian women still could abandon it for marriage. Besides, it was discovered that while domesticity had been valued in both Victorian and modern age, people gradually had found the flaw of the subordination of wives. As for women's inner world, self-discovery and thirst for independence were both considered in Brontë and Woolf's literature. Unlike Brontë, Woolf had emphasized the significance of women's own income and feminine language. It is concluded that female had gained more freedom in modern age and that Virginia Woolf strongly supported the idea of gender equality and was optimistic toward the future women status.

Writing Services

Essay Writing

Find out how the very best essay writing service can help you accomplish more and achieve higher marks today.

Assignment Writing Service

From complicated assignments to tricky tasks, our experts can tackle virtually any question thrown at them.

Dissertation Writing Service

A dissertation (also known as a thesis or research project) is probably the most important piece of work for any student! From full dissertations to individual chapters, we’re on hand to support you.

Coursework Writing Service

Our expert qualified writers can help you get your coursework right first time, every time.

Dissertation Proposal Service

The first step to completing a dissertation is to create a proposal that talks about what you wish to do. Our experts can design suitable methodologies - perfect to help you get started with a dissertation.

Report Writing

Reports for any audience. Perfectly structured, professionally written, and tailored to suit your exact requirements.

Essay Skeleton Answer Service

If you’re just looking for some help to get started on an essay, our outline service provides you with a perfect essay plan.

Marking & Proofreading Service

Not sure if your work is hitting the mark? Struggling to get feedback from your lecturer? Our premium marking service was created just for you - get the feedback you deserve now.

Exam Revision

Exams can be one of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever have! Revision is key, and we’re here to help. With custom created revision notes and exam answers, you’ll never feel underprepared again.