Do We Still Have a Victorian Mindset Towards Women?
We often ridicule the Victorians for their backward views, conservative ways, and blatantly sexist mindsets. However, studying Victorian literature, there are some notable parallels between their attitudes then and our attitudes now. Fiction is a vision into the past– it shows opinions, both personal and public, and manages to convey the wider context in a way studying statistics cannot.
It is important to remember that literature is of its time. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ would not be considered a pioneering feminist novel nowadays, but in 1813 Elizabeth Bennet’s character completely defied the perfect, ‘angel of the house’ archetype that women were expected to strive for; intelligent and fiercely independent, she turned down marriage proposals for her own sake, rather than accepting them as she was expected to.
The point is that in an ever-progressing society, these views should have changed. We view ourselves as superior to the Victorians, but in fact, these examples from literature prove that we are not as forward-thinking as we like to believe.
The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (a pen name for Mary Ann Evans)
Image: a book cover for ‘The Mill on The Floss’. It depicts a small mill on the right, with two trees on the left, and stretching fields behind.
In this section of the novel, the main character, Maggie Tulliver, has just returned from an ‘elopement’ with her cousin’s lover, Stephen Guest. He essentially kidnapped her, and her only choice in the matter was to refuse him and return home. However, the whole event was incredibly scandalous, even more so when she came back unmarried.
One particular passage describes how society views the pair. In it, Eliot states that Maggie is at fault, while Stephen cannot be blamed because that’s just how young men are. They say ‘a young man of five-and-twenty is not to be too severely judged in these cases, he is really very much at the mercy of a designing, bold girl’. In terms of consequences, ‘their having parted so soon looked very black indeed, for her’.
While this passage shows how Victorians only blamed women for scandal, the same ‘boys will be boys’ mindset that we have today shines through. Women cannot get away with the same things that men can. For example, if a woman has a lot of sex, she is called a ‘slut’. There is no equivalent derogatory term for men.
In regards to rape, people always talk about what the woman did wrong, what she was wearing, whether she was drunk. Similar to how Stephen rowed Maggie away without her consent, these women have no choice in the matter and are often taken by force. Yet still, society acts like the woman is to blame. This text shows we have made very small strides in terms of attitudes to rape, despite the various laws that have been passed.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Image: Linton Heathcliff, a young boy with pale skin and messy black hair. He has a solemn expression, looking directly into the camera.
The treatment of one character in particular, Linton Heathcliff, stood out to me when reading ’Wuthering Heights’. He truly is awful – selfish, abusive, cruel – but the main reason people do not accept him is that he is too effeminate. His cousin tells him that ‘if thou weren’t more a lass than a lad, I’d fell thee this minute, I would’. However, when the other characters refer to his feminine side, they don’t do so with warmth or kindness. Instead, they mock his weakness, sickness, and pathetic nature.
This view towards ‘feminine’ men is still a dominant one in our society now. Men use insults such as ‘pussy’ to suggest weakness and say other men are ‘like a girl’ when they do things badly, implying that girls are inferior and worse than boys at everything.
Dr William Pollack coined the term ‘boy code’ to show how boys are conditioned by society and parents to deny their feelings and act tough. They must be stoic and independent, powerful and dominant, and phobic of any feminine characteristics such as warmth, empathy, and sensitivity. This ‘boy code’ is an aspect of toxic masculinity and a reason for higher male suicide rates, yet is still perpetuated by men.
The effects of the ‘boy code’ on male attitudes are astounding. Toxic masculinity has limited men to fit one very specific box, and scorn all sorts of harmless traits. For example, an article in The Independent states a study showed ‘men [are] less likely to recycle because they are worried people will think they’re gay’. What’s next on ‘unnecessary gendering of everyday actions’?
Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti
Image: Laura overwhelmed by goblins touching her with the fruit and pulling at her dress. The goblins all resemble different animals and wear sly expressions. There is a pile of fruit at Laura’s feet.
This poem, originally written for children, is about two sisters named Laura and Lizzie and the dangers of temptation. Lizzie warns Laura not to buy fruit from a group of sinister goblin merchants, reminding her of their friend Jeanie, who tasted the fruit and subsequently wasted away and died. Laura ignores the warning and buys the fruit, then becomes addicted and begins to waste away. But, she is then unable to see the goblins or buy the fruit anymore. When Lizzie realises her sister is dying, she goes to the goblins and resists their violent attempts to force her to eat the fruit. When she returns to Laura, she has the juice and pulp of the fruit smeared all over her face from the struggle. Laura kisses her sister and tastes the juice, which removes the curse of the goblin fruit and restores her youth and health.
Although Rossetti stated this was a children’s poem, many critics believe it refers to female sexual desire and the exploitation of young girls. Rossetti was working at a refuge for prostitutes at the time she composed the poem, which may have inspired her to explore the situations of ‘fallen women’.There is a lushness of sensual and predatory imagery throughout as well. Jeanie’s death is believed to represent her ostracisation from society due to having sex out of wedlock. Rossetti even mentioned Jeanie died for ‘the joys brides hope to have’, which clearly refers to sex on her wedding night.
In the poem, Laura’s exploitation is explored from her point of view. To her, the goblins ‘sounded kind and full of loves’, when in reality they were ‘leering’, ‘sly’ and ‘signalling each other’. Although we empathise with Laura and understand how she is tempted and overwhelmed by the goblins’ kindness towards her, society still ostracises and blames her.
Unfortunately, blaming young girls for being manipulated is still a prevalent view in society. An example of this is the events illustrated in ‘Three Girls’, a 2017 documentary which tells the story of how three underage girls became trapped in a child sex abuse ring. The authorities ignored their pleas for help because they were ‘unreliable witnesses’, showing how society does not help girls who are exploited or raped.
The goblins’ reaction to Lizzie’s resistance is also mirrored in men’s attitudes today. When Lizzie refuses to eat the fruit, the goblins call her ‘proud’ and ‘uncivil’, attributing unfeminine qualities to her. In today’s society, this behaviour is reflected in men calling women ‘prudes’ for not wanting to sleep with them, which is how many girls end up pressured into sex, wanting to seem more feminine.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
Image: Tess at the end of the novel, at Stonehenge where she is captured by police and taken to be hanged. She is positioned towards Stonehenge in the background but is facing the camera with a tranquil expression. She has long brown hair and is wearing a pale blue, long-sleeved dress.
This novel explores the tale of a young girl named Tess, who is raped and bears a child out of wedlock. Despite her efforts to escape her situation and lead a better life with another man, she ends up hanged for her ‘crimes’.
Tess has to deal with people destroying her reputation, her baby dying at just a few days old, rejection from the man she marries, and countless unthinkable horrors, while her rapist, Alec, earns society’s redemption and walks free from this burden.
Unfortunately, this critique on society is still relevant today. In New South Wales, only 4% of rapists reported to the police received the full-time prison sentence (via the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research). This statistic does not take into account that only approximately 15% of sexual violence is reported (via the Crime Survey for England and Wales). These numbers suggest only 0.6% of those committing sexual violence receive their full sentence, which was an issue Thomas Hardy highlighted in 1891. Over a hundred years later, rapists are still given the same freedom from penalties as in Victorian times; even now, some people believe false accusations as a more important problem than rape itself.
The modern-day equivalent of Tess’s unenviable position in society is the trauma and humiliation from people suggesting women bring rape upon themselves. A particularly horrific example is a rape case in Ireland in 2018. The defendant’s lawyer held up the 17-year-old girl’s underwear in court, and said, “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” This was part of the ‘evidence’ that led to the defendant being found not guilty. Despite protests all over Ireland, this case shows no real changes have been made since Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
\Emma, by Jane Austen
Image: Miss Bates’ character from the BBC adaptation of ‘Emma’, wearing a black bonnet and a hard expression.
In ‘Emma,’ Jane Austen uses one supporting character, Miss Bates, as comic relief. The main source of humour is her role as a spinster, which the protagonist, Emma, makes fun of at parties. Even though the narrator explicitly states that ‘she was a happy woman’, society views her as a living example of how no woman wants to end up – unmarried.
In 2014, Claudia Connell wrote an article on how she is ridiculed for being unmarried at aged 47. She states, “there have been so many occasions when I've revealed that I'm single only to have the person I'm talking to say: "Really? But you seem so nice." That's because I am nice. I don't kick puppies for fun or push old ladies down manholes – I just don't have a husband and it doesn't bother me half as much as it seems to bother everyone else.”
In the article, she outlines her other experiences. With every birthday, she is sent at least one card mocking her for being a spinster. People accuse her of being ‘too fussy, too independent, too smart’, as though those are bad qualities in a woman. She constantly has to justify why she has not found a romantic partner – the only answer being, she doesn’t know, she just hasn’t.
Connell also mentions the sheer number of books written for women exploring why they may be off-putting to men, such as ‘Why You’re Not Married … Yet’ by Tracy McMillan. No one has written an equivalent book for men, perhaps for the same reason, the word ‘bachelor’ has such different connotations than ‘spinster’. This is all to do with how society views women, in exactly the same way they did in the Victorian times.
So, Have Things Changed?
The short answer: not really.
In reality, despite mocking the Victorians, the overall view is still that women are cunning tricksters and seductresses, and our worth is in marriage. The main changes have been a woman’s right to independence, with the ability to own property and vote. But, as these examples prove, people still do not truly believe a woman should be independent.
In researching for this article, I was shocked to find quite how far our society mirrors the Victorians. Thomas Hardy, in 1891, was more progressive than many men nowadays. There cannot be true societal change until we tackle the mindset that women are inferior to men – a concept which many feminists are working hard to realise. But there is still a long way to go.