The Concept Of Domestic Ideal Evolve English Literature Essay

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The transformation of Britain in to an Industrial nation had profound consequences for the way in which women were to be idealised. New kinds of work and a new kind of urban living prompted a change in the ways in which appropriate male and female roles were perceived.

The manufacturers and professional men worked long hours in the pursuit of the capital which would enable them to live pleasantly as gentlemen of leisure, and at the end of the day were thankful to return home, or as Ruskin put it "to the shelter" [1] [1], maintained by women to ensure their husbands returned home to a pleasant environment.

The notion of separate spheres - woman in the private sphere of the home or hearth; man in the public sphere of business, politics and sociability - came to influence the choices and experiences of middle class women.

The Victorian era, is characterised as the domestic age, epitomised by Queen Victoria who came to represent a kind of femininity which centered on the family, motherhood and respectability. Accompanied by her husband, Albert, and her many children in the "sumptuous but homely surroundings" [2] [2] of Balmoral Castle, Victoria became an icon of late 19th century femininity and domesticity, as a model of marital stability and domestic virtue. Her marriage represented the ideal of marital harmony; she was described as "the mother of the nation" [3] [3] and she came to embody the idea of the home as a cozy, domestic space. When Albert died, in 1861, she retreated to her home and family in preference to public engagements.

It is difficult to ascertain what contributed to the domestic ideal or who was the ideal Victorian woman, but the example of Mrs. Frances Goodby of Leicester, of whom it was said that she carried out her duties as mistress "with piety, patience, frugality and industry" and "her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God, carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respect" [4] [4], she then exemplified the good and virtuous woman whose life revolved around the private sphere.

In the Industrial era, the ideology of separate spheres had been widely dispersed. In popular advice literature and domestic novels, as well as in advertisements in magazines and newspapers, domesticity was popularised as female domain. "Lay writers of domesticity, often religiously inspired, played an important part in establishing the social codes which informed middle class propriety for many generations" [5] [5]. The examples of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" give many contrasting views of women's place in society, largely due to the timescale between the two novels (Jane Eyre 1846 and Pride and Prejudice 1813) but also due to the status of the heroines in both novels, Jane Eyre being of lower middle class persuasion and the Bennett family being of upper middle class persuasion. However, despite these vast differences, many of the themes remain remarkably similar - concerning respectability, femininity and domesticity. Interestingly both novels have been heralded as feminist writings due to their heroine's outspoken nature and refusal to accept their situations. However both heroines do succumb to the domestic ideal, settle down, get married and presumably continue a life of domesticity at the end of both novels. Therefore by contrasting and comparing the two novels, as well as comparing to other sources from the period such as advice literature, diaries etc, it is possible to ascertain what society deemed the domestic ideal in this period.

"There is plenty of evidence to suggest that by the 1830's - 40's, the definition of women as primarily relating to the home and family was well established" [6] [6], the new middle class way of life involved a recodification of the roles of men and women. In the late 18th century, the growth of Evangelicalism played a large part on the definition of the home and the family. The Evangelical ideal was developed before the French Revolution, Cowper's 'The Part of Domesticity', for example, was published in the 1780's [7] [7]and the debate about the nature and role of women "opened the floodgates of manuals from Evangelical pen's" [8] [8] and writing's by Cowper and Moore inspired other writers and thinkers who were active in defining the meaning of manliness and femininity in the home and family. The scale on which literature, on the role of women and domesticity, existed is important for it proves the centrality of domestic values in middle class culture. [9] [9]

Within the household it was quite clearly established that men and women had separate spheres. Cultural differences were seen as natural. Women were perceived to be "more delicate, more fragile, morally weaker and this demanded a greater degree of reserve. Therefore in contrast to men, women could act as moral regenerators of the nation" [10] [10] providing a base, within the home, from which their influence could extend. "The good Evangelical woman had recognizable characteristics; she was modest, rational, unassuming and unaffected" [11] [11]. One middle class gentleman described the model woman as being able to "...endeavor to assimilate herself to you, and you to her, without either of you departing from your proper sphere....hours of relaxation are amongst the most useful, as well as the most pleasant seasons of matrimonial life, if they do not recur too frequently and if the source of enjoyment be pure and hallowed. In general you should lead her through cheerful cornfields and pastures and when opportunity offers, go out of your way to show a flowery meadow or stream" [12] [12]. In this passage it is clear that the man is considered wiser and will guide the woman into areas appropriate to her. It is these characteristics, of being vulnerable, which were attributed to women in novels and other writings. However, in the examples of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, the heroines do not necessarily adopt these traits. Instead they are often willful, impulsive and outspoken. These traits, though contradictory of the 'domestic ideal', seem admirable and necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth spontaneously arrives at Netherfield to see her sister, for example, the mud on her skirts become completely irrelevant besides the healthiness of her unselfish concern for her sister Jane [13] [13]. Similarly, Jane Eyre's confinement in the Red Room, for her unladylike lack of restraint at hitting out at John Reed, appears unjust and unfair despite her behaviour. [14] [14]

The juxtaposition, however of Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre's lively behaviour, with the repressive and pretentious society cut's both ways; for example, in Pride and Prejudice "if the vacuity of her surrounding's highlight her energy, it also encourages her to cultivate her vivacity beyond its legitimate bounds" [15] [15]. For, as the novel unfolds one begins to realise that Elizabeth's charming wit is another incarnation of willful desire and as Elizabeth "embellished her surroundings with imaginative flourishes, we begin to see that indulging the imagination can harm others", [16] [16] in the case of believing Wickham's story about Mr. Darcy. Similarly, Brontë's narrative ultimately functions as a warning against female rage, which is communicated through the character of Bertha Mason. In the end Brontë demonstrates that women's anger is very political and to be an angry woman in 19th century England is next to insanity. Bertha's un-womanliness - her masculinity in a society that raises femininity onto a pedestal - further stigmatises Bertha as a fallen woman. She embodies the unfeminine aspects of both anger and madness, which threatens masculine control of Victorian society. Bertha's punishment for this then is confinement and ultimately death.

A publication entitled, "Every Girls Book" (1860), gives a dismal picture of permitted recreational activities for women. Part one lists indoor games "like Spillkins, which would depress the liveliest maidens" [17] [17], whereas part two treats of 'ladies work' or 'fancy work', such as the "embroidery of stove aprons" [18] [18]. Such activities often left even the most dedicated domestic wife unfulfilled. Indeed Florence Nightingale wrote of her own family life in Hampshire as "Oh, weary days - Oh, evening's that never seemed to end - for how many times have I watched the Drawing Room clock and thought it would never reach 10!" [19] [19]. The growth of Institutionalised charity allowed women to expand their horizons beyond the drawing room, "it gave them the opportunity to function beyond the home and learn skills which they were denied through formal education" [20] [20].

However, voluntary visiting of the destitute by leisured women was not simply an act to pass free time but seen as an extension of women's domestic work" [21] [21].

The phrase 'women's mission to women' was used in the middle of the 19th century to describe the role of respectable women in the reclamation of the fallen. Women were seen as much more morally guided than men. "Gentle, patient and self sacrificing, it was believed that women were pre-eminently suited to work amongst the fallen and philanthropy was thus constituted as an extension of women's role into the public sphere" [22] [22]. Still, however, there was a limit on how far philanthropy could extend help to continue to be respectable. Often women worked on an "organised capacity on behalf of the church or chapel to which they belonged" [23] [23] getting poor children to attend Sunday schools, organizing mothers' meetings or sewing and thrift clubs. There was much opposition to women attending the poor within their own homes based on the belief that it would result in 'a neglect of the home' [24] [24]and that female purity could only be guaranteed in the confines of as 'outside the home is knowledge and knowledge undermines innocence.' [25] [25]

In contrast however, one of the most popular advice novels of the mid nineteenth century, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management states 'visiting the houses of the poor is the only practical way really to understand the actual state of each family in large cities…large advantages may result from visits paid to the poor,' suggesting the lines that were considered respectable were blurred. It is possible that the acceptability of philanthropy changed over time which would explain why there is no mention of charitable work in Pride and Prejudice but in Jane Eyre she is sent to the Lowood Charity School which is run by women and becomes a governess at the school herself. However, it must be noted that the school is run by spinsters, not married women, and that upon marriage the headmistress Miss Temple, leaves Lowood to fulfill her function as the angel at home. Therefore it is possible that respectability of women philanthropists was only if the women were unmarried spinsters or widows and that for married women the respectable position was as the angel of the home. Indeed Elizabeth marries Darcy and settles down to a domestic life and Jane inherits a fortune enabling her to marry Rochester and nurse and care for him - despite the heroine's earlier feisty characters and Jane Eyre's previous work as a governess. Mrs. Beeton claims 'the modest virgin, the prudent wife and the careful matron are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philanthropy, blundering heroines or virago queens,' [26] [26] and many advice novels for women, regarding philanthropy, were published during the period such as Samuel Smile's Self Help to guide women as to what was considered respectable. [27] [27]

Many of the eighteenth century moralists, such as Moore and Cowper, described femininity as innate, they also insisted that feminine virtues needed constant cultivation [28] [28]and that important characteristics were needed in women for her to be 'the angel of the house.' This term, coming from Coventry Patmore's popular poem, describes these virtues, of his wife, as "a strange beauty with extreme innocence of manner", [29] [29]Patmore wrote of the purity of a brides blush, "when she says, I will, into she knows not what". Sexual innocence was an essential quality for the respectable middle class woman. This explains Elizabeth Bennett's embarrassment, in Pride and Prejudice, at her sister's, Lydia and Kitty, behaviour, they "are always running off after the officers of the militia stationed at Meryton". [30] [30]

This is also the reason why Lydia Bennett must be married to Mr. Wickham, whom she elopes with, despite his bad character and poor wealth, because otherwise she would never be accepted in society again.

This also explains why Jane Eyre flatly refuses to be Mr. Rochester's mistress, despite their obvious love and exceptional circumstances, she follows the dictate of society which tells her to "flee temptation". [31] [31]

Women were also expected to have an in-built knowledge of the science of domestic economy and the middle class gentleman never got involved in domestic arrangements; he demonstrated his perfect trust in her skills by becoming "as helpless and unable to make shift for himself at home as she was outside the home". [32] [32]

David Copperfield thought Dora would make a good bride, despite them being poor. Confusion ensued when Dora did not develop into a good household manager, but instead played with the family dog, when she should have been learning the "mysteries of household accountancy". [33] [33]The household of David Copperfield would never prosper, for all the wife's other charms.

Despite the belief that all women were born 'angels' of the home, the sheer volume of advice literature suggests the contrary. Mrs. Beeton suggested "that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways" [34] [34]suggesting that not all women were angels in the home but had to learn domestic issues upon marriage. Certainly Mrs. Bennett, through all of her faux pas, was able to arrange a good meal for the gentlemen who called on her family, despite her unsuitable conversation topics.

Mrs. Gaskell commented on the difficulties which faced the middle class housewife when visitors called to the house, "you not being a housekeeper cannot tell the blessing it is to have a little announcement of visits". [35] [35] It also fell to Mrs. Gaskell to arrange and interview suitable servants for the single Houlbrook Gaskell, "She (the servant) bears a most excellent character. I have sent for her and been speaking again to her this morning", [36] [36] thus showing how women were expected to know completely how to run a household whilst men were ignorant of the matters.

However, as the examples of Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre and many other Victorian female ideals of this period show, the ideal woman at this time was not the meek, passive creature of societies ideal. Rather she was a busy, able and upright figure, who drew strength from her moral superiority and whose virtue was manifested in the service of others. Most women were content to nurture their husband's higher qualities in return for status, respectability and security. As Patmore put it,

"Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman's pleasure." [37] [37]

Thus the notion of separate spheres - as lived in the Industrial period - was not a blind adherence to a set of imposed values; rather it was a way of living and working based on Evangelical beliefs about the impotence of the family, the constancy of marriage and woman's innate moral goodness.

In conclusion it is possible to see from the novels Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, that although the heroines, Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre, did not conform to the ideal feminine character of the time, due to the non reserved outspokenness, the overall morals within the story suggest that this outspokenness was a failing of their character which needed to be tamed. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has to tame her character to enjoy the domestic happiness of marriage to Mr. Darcy. In Jane Eyre, Jane learns to control her early temper which eventually wins her the heart of Mr. Rochester and gives her motherhood and domestic bliss.

Jane Eyre becomes the epitome of the domestic angel through the novel, with innate moral goodness which enables her to offer her forgiveness to the dying Mrs. Reed, share her inheritance and deny her heart by running from the married Mr. Rochester.

Elizabeth Bennett learns not to allow her imagination to run wild and to overcome her own pride, since her prejudice of Darcy stem from his statement which confronts her with the very facts it is in her best nature to deny, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men" [38] [38]which deflates Elizabeth's fantasies of marriage and domestic bliss. [39] [39]

It is clear by the abundance of advice literature available on domesticity, that to be a domestic goddess was an essential quality of the middle class female. It is also clear that the separation of the sexes did mean that the female domain was the home, whilst the male domain was the public. Women's only acceptable occupation was that of charitable work, which was seen as the proper activity of the lady, "Charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession" [40] [40] being philanthropic was both a reflection of virtue and relief from a life bounded by the home.

However, even philanthropy became a subject of opposition; some believing women's morals were affected by being outside the home.

It is also apparent that domesticity was not necessarily something which came naturally to women, or there would be no need for advice books to aid women.

What was also important, in regards to respectability, was the feminine demure character, clear in both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, it was important to have certain characteristics. This is also apparent in other novels, such as Hannah Moore's 'Coelebs' where the ideal wife is described as needing to be "elegant, or I should not love her; sensible, or I should not respect her; prudent, or I should not confide in her; well-informed, or she could not educate my children; well-bred, or she could not entertain my friends; consistent, or I should offend the shade of my mother; pious, or I should not be happy with her". [41] [41] Women were advised not to leave the house too much, as it was only there that they could achieve moral excellence.

It is therefore clear, that literature was essential in implementing and maintaining the image of women as domesticated and to instill what was considered a respectable female character, but it is also important to consider that this advice was not necessarily always followed, and represented the ideal woman, whereas the middle class women in society may well have been very different.

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