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Gender Notes

English Notes > Victorian Literature Notes

This is an extract of our Gender document, which we sell as part of our Victorian Literature Notes collection written by the top tier of Oxford University students.

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'We live in an age when too many women appear to be ambitious of morally unsexing themselves before society, by aping the language and the manners of men...' (WILKIE COLLINS, Basil). Write on the representation of EITHER women OR men OR gender in the period. INTRO - Context Until 1882 a woman's money and property passed into husband's control when she married, on the grounds that a woman could have no interest separate from that of her husband. Blackstone's 'Commentaries', a legal bible, said they were "one person in law", "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage". Mill in 'On the Subjection of Women' in 1873 characterised the wife as the husband's bondservant. The "poetical vision", as Cobbe in one of her essays described the sentimental view of married life, encouraged by the endings of thousands of novels, by highly popular books of wifely instruction like Mrs Ellis's 'The Women of England': "To men belongs the potent... consideration of worldly aggrandizement"; the women of England have as their realm "the minutiae of domestic comfort", "the influence of woman in counteracting the growing evils of society is about to be more needed than ever". Coventry Patmore's 'Angel in the House' - "her, the most excellent of all, / The best half of creation's best"; "so simply, subtly sweet"; "nor happier post than this I ask, / To live her laureate all my life"; "the nuptial contrasts are the poles / On which the heavenly spheres revolve". John Ruskin's 'Of Queens' Gardens' lecture in 'Sesames and Lilies'
- "the man's power is active, progressive, defensive" but "the woman's power is for rule, not for battle... for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision". "Each has what the other has not... each completes the other"; wife waits at home ready to bind up the husband's wounds; education - woman ought have only as much as to allow encouragement for children and enter sympathetically into husband's pursuits. This notion of separate spheres... even voiced by Tennyson in 'The Princess' by the king, "Man for the field and woman for the heart: Man for the sword and for the needle she: Man with the head and woman with the heart: Man to command and woman to obey." Profound defences of women's rights made long before the very late-C20 ideology of feminism was constructed. Ultimately simply

expressed by Wilde in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' - "Why should there be one law for men, and another for women?" JANE EYRE, CHARLOTTE BRONTE - Confident assertions of female power: "I am better than you - let me go!" she declares to Rochester. "Women feel just as men feel: they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer." Yearning to escape Lowood - "I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing." "it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex" "many are condemned to a stiller lot than mine" The language of revolution written whilst revolutions were brewing across the continent: "this furious love-making was but a wild declaration of the 'Rights of Man' in a new aspect" Self-assertion: "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself." This is compromised by (and perhaps consequent of) Jane's doubts about herself - admonishes herself "Listen then, Jane Eyre"; "And yet where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday?". Even the name suggests 'heir', 'air', 'e'er' and rhymes with 'where?' But it is when Bronte explores explicitly gender relations and marriage that the most complex and contradictory aspect of the novel emerges. She relishes in speaking of Rochester as her "master" - sexual charge to the word. Yet it is this notion of mastery that is rendered problematic - Rochester's despotic behaviour to Jane before the abortive wedding is not to her taste, and she asserts herself, to which Rochester acknowledges his own inferiority, saying "you please me and you master me". Her marriage to Rochester in the end is an expression of her desire, not the self-sacrifice which St John advocates. Lady Eastlake in a contemporary review criticized the novel for the gap between Jane's professed innocence and the sexual knowledge she seems to have in the language and action of the novel - hypocrisy of women's professed innocence. Jane Eyre of course as a governess is a problematic woman - epitomizes Victorian domestic ideal, but is the figure who threatens to destroy it as a sexually available single woman; also calls to mind figures to whom governess was linked by contemporaries - when she rejects Rochester's proposal to be his mistress she insists she is not "mad", her principles are "worth"

more than the pleasure. The governess clearly indicates precariousness of unmarried middle-class woman's status in Victorian England, which is why this became a popular genre for exploring women's roles. GEORGE ELIOT Complex portrayal of the Woman Question - in 'Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft' she celebrates leading women, and has young women heroines in Mill and Middlemarch; St Theresa alluded to in Middlemarch prelude; sympathetic to feminist views but stresses values of loyalty, duty, Wordsworthian "Kindness and love". 'Scenes of Clerical Life' - suffering of women, Milly wife of Amos Barton is model of "gentle womanhood", she dies giving birth to seventh child; suffering of woman in Janet's Repentance at expense of her violent husband. 'Mill on the Floss' - Tom regards himself as "more like a girl than he had ever been in his life before" when his obtuseness with the classics leads him to be reduced to caring for Stelling's daughter. Maggie makes a story about earwig to entertain Lucy - Tom stamps on it with "profound contempt for this nonsense of Maggie's". Maggie seeks approval from men: Tom, Mr T, Riley, Stelling. Cf. Middlemarch where Dorothea wants to impress Casaubon. Even in political novel like Felix Holt, heroine Esther Lyon chooses between "moral mediocrity", complacency, wealth VS. Improvement, self-knowledge, poverty - she chooses by selecting a husband, demonstrating limits on women - Felix Holt or Harold Transome?
Fallen woman. Movement for women's rights exposed double standards by which many men lived. Prostitution was social evil, tacitly accepted as concomitant of late marriages and annual pregnancies to satiate men's sexual needs. 'The Second Mrs Tanqueray' by Pinero, Paula accused of not being a good woman, but she swears desperately "I'm a good woman! I swear I am". But the male protagonist is given leeway in that he has "lived a man's life".

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