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After watching the movie “Pride and Prejudice”, I can truly understand the life of a woman in the Victorian Era. The Victorian Era in England lasted from 1837 to 1901. It was a period of major cultural transformation, gracious living and grinding poverty. Women during the Victorian Era live in another world. As seen in the movie, the place of women in society was different from our time. Women’s lives were different from each other so it is impossible to put all women as one body. During that time, there were the high or elite class, the middle class, and the lower class. For the high and middle class, women were carefully raised, well educated and treated like a possession of the family. However, the lower class women were treated like working tools with almost no respect and appreciation.
The life of a high or middle class woman in the Victorian Era can be described as a possession or a treasure of the family. Women were mainly for love interest and they were purity. Women were respected so they could not be used for pleasurable sex and physical exertion. The main career for women during that time was to get married and take care of chores in the house. Parents who had daughters were eager to have their daughters get married. In “Pride and Prejudice”, the Bennetts had five unmarried girls in the house so Mrs. Bennet tried to get her daughters married with all the chances that she could get. In addition, women during that time could not own property. Mrs. Bennet worried that if Mr. Bennet passed away, she and her daughters would have nowhere else to go. At that time, family related could marry one another. Mrs. Bennet saw this as an opportunity so she encouraged Mr. Bennett’s cousin – Mr. Collins – to marry one of her daughters so they could still manage to keep the land. However, in 1887, the Married Woman’s Property Act gave women rights to have her own property. Before that, the woman’s property was inherited from her family and belonged to her husband on marriage. Women were considered as the chattel of their husband. During this era, if a wife separated from her husband, she had no rights to see her children. A divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again (Pride and Prejudice; Nickson; A Woman’s Place in19th Century Victorian History).
Before getting married, the ladies were groomed carefully. They had to be innocent, virtuous, biddable and dutiful. They also had to be well educated and had experience in speaking French, drawing, painting, singing, dancing. Most likely, they had to know everything to help themselves become the perfect wife and perfect suitor. Married women had to take care of everything around the house. They made meals for the family, make clothes, and grew everything that the family eats. They also had to take care of the sick ones in the house. In addition, they were responsible for sewing, knitting and painting the clothes. The important job of the woman after getting married was to make sure that the home was place of solace for the family. Home was where husband and children relax and feel comfortable after a busy, hassle day from outside work (Nickson).
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Women in “high or elite class” were different from normal class. They enjoyed everything around them without having to do anything. For their past time, upper class women preferred dancing. In the movie “Pride and Prejudice”, Bingley’s sisters spent a lot of time in parties. In normal days, they stay at home wearing fancy dress, read books, or even just walk around the house. Women who were not married spent most of their time with friends. They had no chores instead they told others what to do. Same with the middle class, high or elite class only had to married and raised children. However, they had no intention with other works in the house (Pride and Prejudice, Nickson).
Not every woman during the Victorian Era was the same. Many low class women – mostly girls, young women, and unmarried older women – had to work as servants. With more and more middle class appeared in that time, the demand of domestic servants increased. Domestic service was considered to be the largest source of employment for women. Not all the middle-class families were the same. Families with lower income could only afford one servant who would do all the work in the house. Families with more income usually employed three servants. Three servants consist of a kitchen servant, a governess, and a charwoman for keeping the house clean. With the high class, they had to employ a large number of servants for their large home. The number of servants could be up to forty (Swisher 34).
A servant in that time could be very young. Some had to work at twelve or thirteen as a maid of all work. They had to work in a very poor condition. They had to work alone and were forbidden to see their friends and families. These young servants had to work seventeen hours a day. Domestic work required not just physical but also knowledge of variety of tasks. The duties of the servants consist of cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, child care, carrying coal. They had to heat up every single room, carry water to bed rooms. Housework was time consuming and difficult. Vacuum cleaner did not exist at that time, so the servants had to swept rugs and beat them to remove the dust. In addition, washing clothes was another difficult chore. Washing machines would not be invented until the early 1900s, so all the clothes had to be washed by hand. They also had to walk the ladies of the household to social functions and wait to accompany them home (Swisher 35-37).
Though women took pride as servants, however they were overwhelmed by the amount of work. A woman recalled that she got up at 4 A.M. everyday to make fresh bread and breakfast for her mistress. Another woman also had to be up at 4 A.M. to finish all the cleaning before the family was up. If a servant was seen by a member of the family with a dusty hand, that servant would be dismissed immediately. All the servants had their meals and socialized in the basement. At the end of the day, they went to their sleeping rooms which were located in the attic. Even though the servants had to work hard, they were given low respect. There was a great barrier between the member of the family and the domestic servants. The servant did not have any respect from the community. A servant could not expect any sympathy and consideration from their employers (Swisher 36-37).
Society considered domestic service is suitable for working-class girls and women. However, they disapproved of middle-class girls and women taking those jobs since they expected them to marry a man to support them and uphold middle-class values. However, some middle-class girls and women did have to work after their fathers or husbands died. During that time there were fewer men than women, so some women could not find husbands. For these women, governess was one available job for them. The governess duties depend on the family she lived with. Her primary role as a governess was to teach the girls in the family all of their subjects which included English, arithmetic, drawing, sketching, painting, music, French, history, geography, and needle work. There were only girls to teach in the house because the boys were sent away to school. The governess was there for the girls as their supervisor (Swisher 38).
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Governesses found themselves separated from their own students. In addition to the lack of identity of the governess in society, a governess lacked of personal freedom. Governess worked all day taking care of the children. The governess not just gave the children lessons; they also gave the children baths and meals. They also had to share bedroom with the children and even a bedroom with the children at night. Often times, children had the same character from their parents. As a result, the children tend to be disobedient, taunting and cruel to their governess. However, some governesses developed warm relations with the children despite all the difficult conditions. Same with other Victorian working women, governesses received low pay. Salaries of the governess ranged from fifteen to a hundred pounds a year, which was equal to a housekeeper or cook earned. By the end of the nineteenth century, the job of governess was almost come to an end. Schools were established in the community for girls and women worked as governess became teacher instead (Swisher 40- 42).
Other than governess, there were also jobs for women in the health professions. Although many women wanted to become doctors, their desires were not fulfilled. Men wanted to protect their medical profession for themselves, so they persuaded women to become nurses instead. Some nurses were women from villages who only had experience in taking care of their own children and sick relatives. Other nurses worked in public hospitals. Nurses did everything for the patients care. They slept on a cot beside the patient, prepared all the meals, and provided personal care. Nurses during the early nineteenth century had bad reputations because nurse’s patients were more likely to die than recover. However, this is due to the poor sanitation in the hospital not by the actions of the nurse. Though there were nurses who came to homes of sick people to steal and drink on the job. This led to the improvements in nurse training, since nurses before were those who were too old, too weak, too dirty, etc to do anything (Swisher 43).
Midwifery was another service similar to nursing. However, it was often overwhelmed by nursing. Midwives were hired by poor women to deliver their babies because the fees to pay for attending birth were just a few shillings. Doctors charged much more than poor women could afford. Poor women tend to trust the midwives for their skills from experience. Different from doctors, midwives did not use equipments and rarely insert their hands inside a pregnant woman. Midwives prefer using natural techniques which made the process less complicated. Most midwives during the early Victorian Era worked without formally trained. By 1872, an organization called Obstetrical Society set up a three-month training course for midwives. However, some could not afford the fees for the course (Swisher 44-45).
Although women could become skilled midwives, none had a chance to become doctor by 1850. Women were allowed to studied medicine, but they had to face a lot of obstacles. Women desire for knowledge required patience, endurance, and the will to overcome. In medical school, women with high marks on their entrance exams were more often to be taunted and abused by her classmates. After women overcame all the obstacles, they received a certificate of completion but not a regular medical degree. Even with the certification, women were separated from medical societies. Some decided to go study abroad. Elizabeth Garret Anderson went to Paris for medical education. She received her doctor of medicine degree. She came back to London and established the London Medical College for women. She taught students for twenty-three years although her fellow doctors urged her to give up her career (Swisher 45-46).
Women during the Victorian Era lived in a different world from the present. Differences between classes of women were vast. For a high class and middle class, woman had to be an ideal woman for marriage. They were treated with respect because they were seen as pure and clean not just for pleasurable sex. However, some middle class women with no husband or father to be taken care of did work as governesses. For the lower class, women had to work for domestic services facing both mental and physical difficulties with low pay and barely any respect. However, women worked hard and struggle to prove themselves in the community. Women in the Victorian Era dedicated their hard work and ultimately led to improved conditions for the women in the future.
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