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The Victorian Feminine Ideal

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1967 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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The aim of this chapter is to present the way in which the woman was seen in the Victorian period, the period of Queen Victoria’s reign that lasted between 1837 and 1901, and to define and discuss the Victorian ideal of femininity. A discussion on this subject will reveal that women had to posses certain qualities in order to fit the ideal of femininity. On the basis of the ideas and notions exposed in this chapter I shall show in the second chapter why Marian Halcombe is not in the standards of Victorian femininity and does not represent the Victorian feminine ideal transgressing the norms of that period.

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The thinking that there are biological and mental differences between women and men produced the idea that there should be a differentiation of gender roles too and “a woman being more delicate, fragile, reserved, yet virtuous, loving, and pretty was properly confined to the household sphere.” (Loeb 19) The Victorian society was constructed on the ideas that “woman was to wield her influence in the domestic sphere, while man exercised his power in the hazardous, hostile, public domain.” (Pykett, ‘Improper feminine’ 12) According to the patriarchal Victorian society women were incapable of performing many tasks and activities outside their homes because they had a fragile body and their gentle nature made them easily impressed. At first the attitude that men had towards women may seem a protective one but in the long run it only contributed to the oppression of women.

The Victorian feminine ideal was represented by “the angel in the house”, a term coming from Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the House, a poem dedicated to his perfect wife. The notion of “angel in the house” that was at the beginning associated with the woman from the middle-class but the situation changed by 1850 because Queen Victoria “was affectionately portrayed as the ideal wife and mother” (Abrams 102) and it came to represent the ideal woman for all the social classes. According to Nina Auerbach the perfect woman in the Victorian society was “an angel, submerging herself in family, existing only as a daughter, wife and mother.” (4) In short, the perfect woman was the domestic woman, who dedicated her entire life and resources to the well being of others. She was expected to make a goal from pleasing others never expressing wishes of her own and this meant that she had no power over her own person or mind.

Lyn Pykett after discussing William Acton’s ” representation of respectable femininity” (16) presented in his book The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857) claims in her book The ‘improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing that the ideal of Victorian femininity was constructed around “the concept of ‘proper’ feminine or respectable feminine.” (16) According to this concept of proper feminine a woman has to be asexual, passionless, innocent, self-abnegating, committed to duty, self-sacrificing, dependent, slave, victim (16) and the list can go on. These terms defined the Victorian feminine ideal but they only defined it in the eyes of men and women had to obey and try to be what others, in this case men, wanted them to be. This happened mostly because of the social and historical circumstances. Women had very few rights and the law did not protect them or give them power over their lives and it is only in 1857 that women had the right to get a divorce and only trough the Married Women’ Property acts of 1870 and 1882 they were able to have a property of their own. (Pykett 42)

However, in opposition with the proper feminine is what Pykett names the ‘improper feminine’ (16). In the case of the ‘improper’ feminine the woman is seen among others as demon, a subversive threat to the family, threatening sexual, pervaded by feeling, knowing, self-assertive, pursuing, seeking self- fulfillment and self identity, independent. (16) For the Victorians any woman that transgressed from the traditional gender roles or manifested any sign of rebellion in behavior or language was inscribed in the category of the improper femininity. It is important to mention that if women were aspiring to be placed at the same level with men and to be independent and active they were seen as a threat for the family and society. They were trying to undermined men’s authority and they were immediately marginalized. In the second chapter of this thesis I shall show that Marian Halcombe is the type of woman that deviates from the traditional Victorian conventions of femininity and that she can well be the prototype of the category of women that falls under the umbrella of the concept of ‘improper’ feminine. However, I shall show that she is not marginalized because she is different but rather admired for her courage to act independently.

If the Victorian feminine ideal is the submissive and domestic “angel in the house” it is clear that this ideal is attainable only in the context of a marriage and “the married state was certainly held up as the desirable norm for women.” (Abrams 89) Marriages in that period were rarely based on love and often women married from economical reasons and to accede to a greater social status. Moreover, young women were forced to marry older men by their relatives and even if they expected to receive affection from their husbands they more then often did not. (Abrams 81) So, the marriage was a way to confine women in the domestic sphere of the house and at the same time it was seen as a means of depriving woman of passion and her sense of sexuality and “her sexuality had to be suppressed and redeemed by taking on the roles of wife and mother.” (Abrams 157) Since the ideal of femininity was the domestic “angel in the house”, passionless and sexually passive the marriage was the perfect Victorian institution that assured its existence in Victorian England. Thus, being the perfect woman in the Victorian period meant to be a good wife and mother and femininity was not understood the way it is today, it was “modesty, patience, self-sacrifice, piety, domesticity and motherhood.” (Abrams 40)

The Victorian woman was corseted both figuratively and literally. She was figuratively speaking corseted, trapped because her life was defined by restrictions, limitations, ideals that were very often impossible to achieve, she had to give the best of her to please and help the others and to fit the standards imposed by a patriarchal society. On the other hand she was literally corseted since she had to wear a corset on a daily basis because to be the ideal of femininity implied also to dress in a certain way. So, apart from being “the angel in the house” and behaving accordingly women in that period also had to fit in some standards of physical beauty too and clothing played an important role in shaping the perfect body. The central piece of a woman’s outfit was the corset that made her waist look smaller than it really was and concealed the attractions of her body. (Thesander 51) In a way the corset can be seen as a means of neutralizing and hiding a woman’s sexuality. According to Thesander “the corset was more than a status symbol: it was a complex of control and meaning system connected to women’s ‘frozen’ position in society; not surprisingly it was thus regarded as a symbol of women’s oppression” (13) Her affirmation is justified because the corset made the woman adopt a rigid position of the body and plus it restrained her from moving freely. It limited her range of actions and influenced her behavior. It deprived her of the freedom that otherwise men had because they had much more comfortable clothes. The corset can be the symbol of the narrow view that Victorians had about women. Women had fixed gender roles and this was mirrored in the way they dressed.

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A woman’s outfit was composed from several pieces and that meant that women had to spend a lot of time being dressed because in that period women had maids who helped them get dressed exactly from the very reason that they had a lot of things to put on. The time lost in front of the mirror could have been used in woman’s advantage but no it was used to make the woman look in a certain way, the way imposed by the norms of her society. By imposing a certain standard of feminine appearance men controlled woman’s body and why not her mind and soul. They used all the means possible including clothing to make sure that women did not benefit of the freedom to choose and to act by and for themselves Thus, uncomfortable and impractical clothing and the obligation to satisfy the standards of feminine appearance imposed by the Victorian society contributed to woman’s oppression.

The Victorian feminine ideal was a part of the domestic ideology that was present in Victorian England and on the basis of gender differences women had well established gender roles that were discussed in the previous paragraphs. These gender roles limited a woman’s activity to the domestic sphere “most occupations outside the home were closed to her.” (Loeb 33) and whoever adventured outside the house was considered a “fallen woman.” (Auerbach 9) Every decent and good Victorian woman had to have and display the conventional attributes of femininity if she wanted to be seen by her family and society as the ideal woman. When Victorians decided that the woman who embodies the ideal of femininity is sexually passive, subordinate to men, a devoted wife and mother, virtuous, selfless, loving, gentle, pure as an angel and so on they only thought of themselves and did not care if women wanted to be like that or not, they assumed that a woman is like an angel by its own nature. An ideal presupposes perfection and by its nature the human being is not perfect, and implicitly neither women can be perfect, so in reality this ideal of femininity was not attained by many women and the thought that they cannot raise to the standards of that society only increased their feeling of insecurity and oppression. In fact this concept of ideal of femininity ensured the male dominance in Victorian England and it was used precisely against the women that were supposed to embody it because it prevented them for a very long time to achieve their independence.

On the other hand, around the middle of the nineteenth century there were women who began to question the set of values that they were expected to possess and the ideal of femininity and who demanded legal rights and the possibility of a life outside the domestic sphere. From that moment when women realized that they can and will be treated as equals of men their situation improved little by little and already at the end of the nineteenth century women had legal rights that gave them some of the liberty they aspired to. It is important to say that the industrial revolution created an auspicious environment for woman’s emancipation. There are many books from the Victorian period that reflect woman’s condition and situation at that time and who have as characters both the stereotypical “angel in the house” and the transgressive woman and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is one of those books. In the light of all the things discussed in this chapter I shall make in the second chapter a comparison between Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie.

 

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