«Verfasserin Julia Lackermayer angestrebter akademischer Grad Magistra der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Mag.phil) Wien, im Oktober 2008 ...»
As the years that followed are not part of the period this thesis is primarily focused on, the subsequent development with regard to female enfranchisement will only briefly be summarised here. In 1918, the Representation of People Act granted the right to vote to ‘all women over the age of thirty who were householders, the wives of householders, university graduates or occupiers of property worth 5 per year’ (Tickner, 236). The age limit was most likely a result of politicians’ concerns to keep women in a minority. Moreover, women over 30 were considered to be more domestic, whereas younger women’s beliefs and ideas were feared to contribute to a destabilisation of the system.26 Ten years later, women were enfranchised on equal terms as men – that is over the age of 21.
2.3. Women and Employment
From the 1860s onward, a gradual progress concerning middle-class women’s participation in paid employment could be perceived. This was mainly due to the afore-mentioned improvement of female admittance to education. Occupations were to be found in the medical, clerical, retailing and education sectors.27 Kathryn Gleadle further argues that the stability of nineteenth-century society, however, remained by and large intact as gender differences were reiterated when women entered those positions, for example, by expanding certain concepts such as female benevolence and gentility to medical and nursing professions.28 It is also important to note that this kind of female employment was not yet the norm as ‘for the majority of women, this was a period of stasis, not change. Women continued to engage in ‘traditional’ activities – such as domestic management, child care and philanthropy’ (Gleadle, 139). Similarly, Bonnie Smith states that
ideology first made working-class women into a disadvantaged group in the workforce. As the ideology gained expression in medical, poetical and philosophical terms, it also encompassed the middle-class woman, who was seen as even more unsuited for work than her lower-class counterpart. (Smith, 182-183) Another factor that contributed to the focus of public debate on middle-class women’s employment and the limited range of socially acceptable jobs available to them was the rise of single women. From 1851 to 1871 Great Britain saw an increase of unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 45 from 2,765,000 to 3,228,700.29 In this context, it is again important to note that different standards were applied to working-class women, who had an easier access to paid employment in agriculture, hand manufacture, domestic service, factories, but also to prostitution.30
2.4. Women and Marriage
At the beginning of the Victorian era, common law did not grant women a separate identity from their husbands. It generally stated that anything a wife earned belonged to her husband.31 Over the subsequent decades women gained some rights concerning their status in marriage, but men still continued to be the governing figures. In this connection, Gleadle points out that [t]he perpetuation of male authority within marriage is not surprising, given that most women remained economically dependent upon their husbands; educationally disadvantaged in comparison to them and without political rights. (Gleadle, 174) A shift in the general understanding of marriage, then, was accompanied by amendments in the property rights of married women together with changes of the
grounds women could cite to sue for divorce, both of which were again primarily beneficial to middle-class women.32 The Divorce Act passed in 1857 can be considered as a first step towards the recognition of a woman’s control over her property in certain specified cases as it granted her all the rights of an unmarried woman with respect to property after a judicial separation or divorce.33 The reasons for which a divorce could be petitioned for, though, were essentially different for men and women. The new law generally granted men the right to divorce their wives if they had been guilty of adultery. Women, however, had to prove that their husbands had committed an act of adultery plus some ‘aggravating circumstance’, which meant either bigamy, cruelty, desertion, rape or incest.34 In other words, it was deemed to be natural for a woman to forgive her unfaithful husband, whereas a man was never to pardon an act of infidelity by his wife. Commenting on this prevalent hypocritical concept in Victorian culture, Deborah Anna Logan argues that [p]erhaps nowhere is the power differential between Victorian males and females more clearly seen than in the sexual double standard, which demanded female chastity (a “moral” standard) while promoting the tradition of male sexual activity prior to marriage as necessary to men’s health (a “scientific” standard). (Logan, 18) Female adultery meant a threat to the family and a danger for society as a whole because the family was also seen as a microcosm of the nation. Therefore, Lord Cranworth, the Lord Chancellor and sponsor of the Divorce Act commented on whether a husband should forgive his adulterous wife that [n]o one would venture to suggest that a husband could possibly do so, and for this, among other reasons […] that the adultery of the wife might be the means of palming [a] spurious offspring upon the husband, while the adultery of the husband could have no such effect with regard to the wife. (Cranworth, quoted in Edelstein, 209) An important stage in the improvement of married women’s legal position was the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 that allowed wives to own and control their ‘own property’. This basically included Cf. Lewis, Women in England, 78.
Cf. Holcombe, 11-12.
Cf. Nead, 52.
- 16 the earnings and property they acquired by their own work after passage of the Act; money invested in several specified ways – in annuities, in savings banks, in the public stocks and funds, in incorporated or joint stock companies, in the shares of provident, friendly, building, loan, and other such societies, and in insurance policies on their own or their husbands’ lives; and with qualifications, property coming to them from the estates of persons deceased. (Holcombe, 20) By 1882, a more extensive Married Women’s Property Act was passed. It granted a married woman the same status as an unmarried one and the right to a ‘separate property’, which meant the right to retain any property that she acquired before as well as after marriage, to sue and be sued with regard to her property and to dispose with it in her own discretion throughout her life as well as after her death.35 Furthermore, it also conferred responsibilities to women for the support of their families.36 Moreover, divorces gradually began to lose some of the stigma attached to them.
Other factors that played a role in a slow but gradual alteration of the traditional conception of patriarchal marriage in the second half of the 19th century were the accessibility to contraception, and the possibility of spinsterhood as an alternative, which nevertheless continued to be viewed inferior to marriage and motherhood in a majority of cases.37
In England, the 19th century was marked by the growth of an influential middle class. As Lynda Nead stresses, this middle-class could not be perceived as one single entity, but rather as an amalgamation of diverse occupational groups with a variety of different incomes.38 Therefore, a way to create a particular group identity in order to distance oneself from the other classes was needed. According to Nead, [t]his class coherence was established through the formation of shared notions of morality and respectability – domestic ideology and the production of clearly demarcated gender roles were central features in this process of class definition. (Nead, 5) The separation of gender roles led to the creation of the ideal woman as a model of moral virtue, who significantly differed from men in her sexuality. Men’s sexual urge was conceived as active and vigorous whereas female sexuality was considered to be weak and passive. This ideology turned out to be one of the primary grounds on which middle-class homes and marriages were based.
Consequently, any female behaviour that did not conform to this established norm was considered deviant. Women’s sexuality was generally constructed around the opposition between virgin and whore, the respectable and the fallen.39 Logan points out that the Victorian era was confronted with a ‘madonna-harlot dichotomy’ (Logan, 6f) without leaving room for categories in between, and Mary Poovey argues that [t]he place women occupied in liberal, bourgeois ideology helps account for the persistence in the domestic ideal of the earlier image of woman as sexualised, susceptible and fallen. […] The contradiction between a sexless, moralized angel and an aggressive, carnal magdalen was therefore written into the domestic ideal as one of its constitutive characteristics. (Poovey, 11)
Secondly, it should be mentioned that the Fallen Woman does not really coexist alongside the model of the New Woman. Neither is the latter merely a new term for the former. It could rather be argued that the New Woman is a new model of womanhood that has emerged from the previously established dichotomy.
The following chapter aims at a detailed discussion of the three major roles ascribed to Victorian and Edwardian women in everyday life as well as in literature.
3.1. The Angel in the House
As Vicinus points out, throughout the 19th century the prevalent attribute expected from women was respectability.40 Respectability, then, was generally considered to mean that a woman acted ‘womanly’ by knowing her place in society, which was at home. Along these lines, the Victorian ideal of womanhood was that of the Angel in the House, a term that originated from the title of a poem by Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854 and revised up until 1862.41 It is an account of Patmore’s wife Emily and describes his concept of the ideal wife. The poem was not instantly popular, but became increasingly famous throughout the second half of the 19th century. In his analysis of the poem, Ian Anstruther notes that ‘[t]he effect on the poem, and thus on Coventry, was slow, but sensational. The poem began to sell in thousands, especially in cheap editions’ (Anstruther, 8). A passage that reflects quite well the general tone of the poem and its evaluation of wives is
The Wife’s Tragedy, the beginning of Canto IX:
Virtue, passivity, innocence, purity, dependence, compassion, love, and beauty – the desirable female traits of the 19th century – are mentioned in this extract. In order to point out the prevalence of this Victorian attitude towards femininity, it will prove informative to mention other important representatives, operating in different cultural domains in nineteenth century England. John Ruskin, one of the most eminent Victorian art- and societal critics, for example, gives the following description of the ideal and ‘true’ wife in his essay ‘Of Queens’ Garden’, written
in 1865 and later published as the second preface to Sesame in Lilies in 1871:
[…] home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light far, for those who else were homeless. […]. But do not you see that to fulfil this, she must – as far as one can use such terms of a human creature – be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good;
instinctively, infallibly wise, – wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with the narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an
- 20 infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service – the true changefulness of woman. (Ruskin, 122-123)42 Similarly Dr William Acton, an established authority on venereal disease and
A perfect ideal of an English wife and mother, kind, considerate, selfsacrificing, and sensible, so pure hearted as to be utterly ignorant of and averse to any sensual indulgence, but so unselfishly attached to the man she loves, as to be willing to give up her own wishes and feelings for his sake. (Acton, quoted in Nead, 19) The woman, thus, occupied a saint-like status, a notion that to some extent also implies a certain degree of sexlessness, as already set forth at the beginning of this paper. Furthermore, this concept accounts for the fact that any form of ‘deviant’ behaviour was usually heavily stigmatised. Women who became perceptible as sexual beings, tended to be categorized as ‘fallen’, a common perception that was subject to change in the course of the period to be considered. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that, in the words of Lewis, ‘[w]hile Victorian women were supposed to be passive and pure, Victorian men were excused the odd moral lapse on the grounds that it was a natural result of their virility’ (Lewis, Women in England, 112). This prevalence of double standards will also be a significant aspect in dealing with the plays in question.
Moreover, it can be claimed that the Angel in the House was confined to the domestic realm whereas her husband inhabited the public domain. According to Nead, this situation and its connection to an evolving cult of domesticity is due to a development that started in the late 18th and early 19th century when the home and the workplace began to be separated.44 Women were increasingly defined as being naturally suited for domestic duties whilst men were said to be more fit for dealing with the ‘world outside’. The assumption that men and women occupied separate spheres is closely related to scientific theories of sexual differences.
Besides the already mentioned Dr Acton, Charles Darwin, for example, was another prominent figure who supported this idea. In his work The Descent of