Religion played an important role in Victorian patriarchal society. The religious domain in nineteenth-century England gave patriarchal hegemony a divine backing, thereby proving its prevalence. Most women were often denied opportunity for religious expression, which the patriarchal society considered the man's exclusive terrain. As Ruth Jenkins states, "the formation of institutional Christianity severely restricted, even denied, (women) a voice in the dialogues that shaped theological doctrines" (16). Still, there were some cases in which women had a voice in the religious institution. These women were able to break the male domination in religious matters and thus participate in "the test of unalterable principles of reason and religion" (Harman 20).
The Victorian-era literature exhibited a critique of the religious institution which contributed to female oppression. Writers like Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Mary Yonge were among those who reflected on the hegemony exhibited by this situation. Their works show women who were oppressed by the religious instructions and attempted to rebel against it. Female characters employed by Hardy, Gaskell and Yonge also demonstrate how women suffered from religious conventionality and double standards. Some of these characters made attempts to challenge the male domination and use religion as an opportunity to challenge the male dominated system with different levels of success.
In Jude the Obscure, Hardy promulgates a wholesale rejection of the religious patriarchal constraints that restrict women's freedom. He launches a trenchant attack on the Victorian religious conventionality that goes against women's search for freedom, independence, and happiness. Hardy's views on religion are articulated through Sue. She is portrayed as a woman who aspires to break away from traditional religious dictates. She therefore boldly questions the basic orthodox religious principles regarding morality and marriage.
From the outset, Sue is described as "a woman clipped and pruned by severe discipline" (Hardy, Jude 136). Sue exhibits a rejection of this stringent discipline. Her attitude and behavior rejects all conventional Victorian morality and ethics. She emerges as a woman who weighs matters by reason, thereby rendering irrelevant the idea that women are governed by their emotions. In her dissenting conversations, Sue also questions rigid religious and other social ideas regarding marriage and morality.
Sue does not keep her liberal ideology in a theoretical frame and goes ahead to allow her behavior to substantiate her religious stance. She rejects all forms of religious prayer as a manifestation of hypocrisy. Her repudiation of the religious institution is best represented in her negative view of Christminster, describing it as characterized by "timid obsequiousness to tradition" (Hardy, Jude 329). Most importantly, the fact that she leaves her lawful husband to live with someone to whom she is not married is a blunt rejection of religious dictates of her time.
Sue shows her extreme disregard for the confinements of marriage as sanctioned by religion. For her, such an institution, with its religious foundations, is the antithesis of freedom. She lambasts the extreme conventionality of society which relegates marriage into a mere obligation that has to be fulfilled. She views marriage as a "vulgar institution" that issues a 'sordid contract" in which the woman's affection should be given to the man "appointed by the bishop's license to receive it" (Hardy, Jude 256). Sue mainly criticizes the obligatory nature of marriage as she cannot accept the view of marriage as an institution where one "must and shall be a person's lover" (Hardy, Jude 267).
Like most women in nineteenth-century society and literature, Sue is trapped in the conflict between satisfying her emancipatory impulse and conforming to social norms based on religious dogma. She ultimately chooses the latter. Still, Sue's return to Phillotson is not a manifestation of defeat of her revolutionary nature; rather, it comes as a final choice that represents a fear of some supernatural power of which she may not be aware. Subsequently, her retreat into the religious domain proves to be a protective strategy. She regards her marriage to someone she does not love as a sort of punishment and source for redemption and shelter from further tragedies that may come if she continues in her transgressions. Here, Sue never contradicts herself and never abandons her repudiation of conventionality. She has always been a believer, but like Hardy, she has been critical of the religious institution that embraces conventionality and inhibits women's freedom.
Gaskell also criticizes religion for its role in fostering the gender roles perpetuated by the patriarchal society through establishing a penal system that targets women as its victims rather than men. Joana Mink observes that the nineteenth century witnessed a strong tendency to punish women who were regarded as fallen. Ruth is Gaskell's commentary on this issue. The novel highlights the hardships through which the heroine goes and the callousness of the patriarchal religious system which condones men for their sins and imposes its punishment only on women.
Gaskell's major critique of the patriarchal religion is targeted towards the double standards it employs when examining moral and ethical issues. Ruth alone faces society's negative attitude and subsequent punishment for having gone against the religious code of conduct governing sexual relations. Bellingham, on the other hand, is not even questioned. It is strange that punishment is imposed only on the woman, Ruth, although the "crime" that she committed necessarily requires the existence of a partner. What adds to the severity of this double standard is the fact that Ruth was a naive girl who engaged in a sexual relationship with Bellingham without recognizing its consequence. She says "I was very young; I did not know how such a life was against God's pure and holy will - at least not as I know it now" (Gaskell, Ruth 238).
Additionally, within the patriarchal religious parameters, women had to bear more responsibility when it came to issues of religious morality and conduct. That is why Ruth is immediately fired by her boss when she is seen walking with Bellingham. She is the only one who has to be subjected to humiliating conditions such as being called a sinner and losing her job. The ensuing stigma she wears both outwardly and inwardly is formed by religious and social construction.
The introduction of Thurston, a dissenter from the Church of England who is the Eccleston minister and his sister further show the religious paternalistic influences in the Victorian society. The minister and his sister take in the pregnant and desolate Ruth as a way of shielding her from harsh statements about the illegitimacy of her child. No one is concerned about the man responsible for Ruth's condition, and how he may have broken religious laws. Only Ruth is to blame, and only another man, the minister, can shield her from societal condemnation. Thurston's admonition of Ruth concerning a means to help her illegitimate son learn to cope with the inevitable harsh treatment he will suffer at the hands of the religious and socially-powerful men offers the insight that she lacked previously. Thurston advises Ruth saying, "The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men's good opinion
and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You
would not wish his life to be one summer's day" (Gaskell, Ruth 192).
Admittedly, the novel highlights the emphasis on female piety and the instant condemnation of women when found transgressing the religious barriers. In this sense, it is ironical that Ruth is more religious than the majority of those who pretend to be so. Her ambition was to bring up the child in a religious manner and be righteous for the rest of her life. This opens up avenues for the critique of the religious principle of mercy. Ruth ultimately realizes her sin and intends to lead a pious life and yet society does not forgive. She receives no sign of mercy from society. She was not only seduced and deserted by the same man, but was also rejected by society and had to face its harsh punishment. In brief, Ruth's story enunciates Gaskell's belief that "(the female) sex is badly enough used and legislated against" (qtd.in Beer 35).
Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family is a domesticated view of the strength of a woman's intellect and the subsequent battery upon it when such temerity is displayed against a patriarchal society. Written as a work of domestic fiction, the novel uses pathos, irony, and wit to show how the Victorian society instilled anti-feminine notions into young women's minds, a phenomenon that is supported by the religious setting of the Victorian period. This is clearly seen in Yonge's protagonist, Rachel Curtis' audacity in being conspicuously offensive yet clever when performing acts of charity by herself and for reasons not sanctioned by the church. Rachel battles the pressures to leave her elected spinsterhood for some time, but ultimately succumbs to the religious and social pressure by marrying and becoming a mother, thereby making her "much more really useful and effective than ever (she) could have been alone" (Yonge, Clever 337).
During a discussion with the malevolently-intentioned Mr. Mauleverer following a search of the "Clergy List" in which she found him to be a "cathedral canon", Rachel is quite outspoken concerning the "dogmatic enunciations" of the Catholic church (Yonge, Clever 165-166). As Mauleverer excuses the pertinence in Rachel's search and recovery of his name and reputation in the list, she responds with an independent intellect finally suppressed and assimilated into the church's patriarchal system of female control and role assignment. She says: "even some of the most superior persons refuse to lay their hands to any task unless they are certified of the religious opinions of their coadjutors, which seems to me like a mason's refusing to work at
a wall with a man who liked Greek architecture when he preferred Gothic! (Yonge, Clever 166).
Yonge's fiction is a very engaging story of life, death, and subsequent assignment of consequences toward young women who challenge the male-dominated hierarchical structure of the church, and by extension, society. This can be readily seen in Bessie's untimely death, the newborn infant's gender - male, of course, and the subsequent fall and rise of Rachel's status in the church and society through selflessly nurturing the newborn and agreeing to become domesticated. Certainly not surprising, the use of near-death recovery and sudden, seemingly undeserved deaths in the book serves to show how the Victorian religious system used to punish, threaten, tame, and ultimately reward those women who followed the church's prescriptive path. Punishment and threats were meted out to those who disobeyed the religious doctrines, after which some were tamed and rewarded for conforming.
In conclusion, the above argument shows that women in the Victorian period had to face the oppressiveness of the religious system which provided unquestionable authority to the patriarchal system under which they suffer. For the male society, men's dominance over women was religiously ordained, and women had no choice but to show complete submissiveness and acceptance to such repression. Religion here manufactured the mechanism by which male hegemony authenticated its power over women and instilled its repressive agenda. Within this context, then, women who expressed their rejection of the religious dictates faced the thrilling power of patriarchy and the deceptive balm of paternalism. Each of the protagonists referenced in this essay announces, amplifies, and then emblematizes the oppression double standard that was at the core of male-dominated religion of the Victorian period.