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Women in the Victorian Era. Oscar Wilde’s comedies "Lady Windermere’s Fan", "A Woman of no Importance" and "An ideal Husband"

Hausarbeit 2014 18 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. Victorian feminine standards
2.1 Prescribed role of women
2.2 Value of marriage
2.3 Women’s disadvantage in comparison to men

3. The concept of the ‘Fallen Woman’
3.1 Cultural concept of the ‘Fallen Woman’
3.2 ‘Fallen Women’ in the plays

4. The concept of the ‘New Woman’
4.1 Cultural concept of the ‘New Woman’
4.2 Tendencies of the ‘New Woman’ in the plays

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited 16

1. Introduction

Debating about women’s status in society goes back to the “Book of Life” and passes from the Fall of Man, over the years until today. Still, the condition of women is a highly-charged political issue. In Victorian era, this topic had been even more hotly-disputed.

In general, the period during Queen Victoria’s reign offered extremely interesting milestones and concepts, like the Industrial Revolution or dandyism. However, the subject that caught my personal interest the most, is how women were treated at that time. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to question how contemporary morals in the Victorian era affected women’s lives and condition. These findings will be based on Oscar Wilde’s comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of no Importance and An Ideal Husband. Besides, the titles in the references for Wilde’s plays are abbreviated with ‘Fan’, ‘Importance’ and ‘Husband’. In the past three decades a number of researchers have sought to determine women’s roles and inequality in late Victorian era. The findings in secondary literature in this paper are mainly based on Martha Vicinus’ anthologie Suffer and Be Still which includes essays on this topic by Helene E. Roberts, as well as works by Judith Rowbotham, Pat Jalland, Peter Raby, Sally Ledger and some other authors who have been briefly mentioned. The overall structure of this study takes the form of four main chapters, including this introductory chapter. The first section (chapter 2) of this paper will examine the Victorian feminine standards, in particular, it deals with the prevailing ideals that women had to fulfil in order to protect their good reputation. Apart from these roles women had to meet, the topic of marriage which was indispensable for a good woman will be covered. Last but not least, this chapter also deals with the moral ambiguity, women’s disadvantage in comparison to men. The third chapter is concerned with the cultural concept of a ‘Fallen Woman’ and seeks to point out typical ‘Fallen Women’ in Wilde’s plays. The fourth chapter presents the findings of the research, focusing on the cultural concept of the ‘New Woman’ and ‘New Woman’-characters in Oscar Wilde’s plays. Finally, the conclusion gives a brief summary and critique of the findings.

2. Victorian feminine standards

As pointed out in the introduction to this paper, the two ideas of Oscar Wilde’s criticism of Victorian society will be examined. But before proceeding to analyse the concepts of the ‘Fallen Woman’ and the ‘New Woman’, it will be necessary to start off by investigating Victorian feminine standards. The given broad overview of the general role of the woman in Victorian society, the value of marriage and women’s disadvantage with respect to men, enables us to retrace the theories introduced in chapter 3 and 4. This second chapter thus serves as a basis to understand the prevailing ideals that set up the ‘New Woman’ and the ‘Fallen Woman’.

2.1 Prescribed role of women

Man for the field and woman for the hearth: 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; All else confusion. (Tennyson)

This extract of a poem by Lord Tennyson expresses that the gender roles therewith were clearly divided women’s and men’s scope of duties: Women belong to the kitchen, they are responsible for the housework and affections, where as men ought to work, keep the business which requires intellect and should lead the family. Anything else would be the wrong way round. This quotation also raises question about injustice between the sexes which I will seek to answer in the last point (2.3) of this chapter. The imposed role of women is one of the most significant aspects of the Victorian era and has been studied by many researchers. In her study of the typical Victorian woman, Martha Vicinus claims that the ideal of women had been the ‘perfect wife’ who was an ‘active participant in the family’ and ‘[fulfilled] a number of vital tasks [in the household]’ and supported her family through caring of her children, cooking, as well as sewing clothes (Vicinus ix). Women were educated by their mothers to walk in their footsteps and being ‘trained’ to become ‘[the] perfect lady […] who kept her family, centering all her life on keeping the house clean, the children well-disciplined and her daughters chaste’ (Vicinus xii-xiv). To put it more (simple), other scholars even spoke of ‘professional household fairies’ as a synonym for the ‘perfect lady’ and her domestic duties (Robotham 99) or ‘ordained by God to be dutiful wives and mothers, guardians of the homes and family’ (Jalland 7). Referring to the last point made by Vicinus, chastity was an important matter: Before girls were married, they were taught to be entirely pure, sexually inexperienced and uninterested. Once married, the prevalent ideology of the ‘perfect lady’ demands a devotion for child bearing, motherhood and inherent affection brought up under the ‘watchful eye’ of their parents (Vicinus ix). This idea of hiding feelings is proclaimed by Oscar Wilde in A Woman of no Importance when Lady Caroline corrects Hester Worsley of showing too much passion for Gerald Arbuthnot:

It is not customary in England […] for a young lady to speak with such enthusiasm of any person of the opposite sex. Englishwomen conceal their feelings till after they are married. They show them then.’ (Importance 1, 47-50).

As far as the ‘Angel in the house’ (Rowbotham 9) is concerned, women should not simply run the household, but somehow also delight or slightly amuse their husbands and his guests. Therefore, Rowbotham maintains that a wife being a pleasant hostess contributed immensely to her husband’s and visitors’ respectability towards her; and ‘[in] addition to evening entertaining […] the woman and her apprentices were required to develop and maintain a network of suitable social contacts’ (61). Similarly, Evelyn Everett Green defines a woman’s role as she needs to have an idea of the ‘leading questions of the day’ and pay a little attention in politics (qtd. in Rowbotham 128). In spite of that, Deborah Gorham argues that ‘to urge too much information on her audience, and trying […] to impose her point of view instead of deferring to those older, wiser and masculine’ would be inappropriate (qtd. in Rowbotham 128). Furthermore, the scholar of that period John Ruskin highlights in his work Sesame and Lilies his prevailing duties for women, insisting that a flawless woman should be ‘sweet ordering’, ‘enduringly, incorruptly good; instinctively infallibly wise’ (qtd. in Rowbotham 83) and that women, according to Ruskin, should be inspired ‘not for self-development, but for self-renunciation’ (Dyhouse 174). In other words, Roberts affirms that ‘[sentiment’s favourite domain in Victorian times was near the warm cozy heart of the home where the wife, sweet passive and long-suffering, waited patiently for the return of her husband’ (Roberts 48). Again, it becomes clear that a woman’s place is the house where she waits tolerantly for her husband. In terms of education, Jalland states that education took place entirely at home (Jalland 10), notwithstanding that Rowbotham maintains ‘[…] at least a year or two at school became increasingly seen as admirable addition to a girl’s education’. However, agree about ‘that there was still a feeling that home was the core of female education’ (Rowbotham 137). Nevertheless, education was inevitable and raising patriotism for emancipation as concomitant of female enlightenment created the foundation of the ‘New Woman’, which will be further analysed in chapter 4. In fact, the women’s role consisted in being a good wife, mother and housekeeper who consistently looked after the children and her husband’s well-being. So far this part has focussed on the general role of women in the Victorian era and hence makes an important point of feminine Victorian standards, the following section will discuss the value of marriage.

2.2 Value of marriage

The gap between moral standards in the Victorian era and nowadays diverge immeasurably. Therefore the purpose of this part is to explain how marriages were arranged and why it was so important to get married in this age. Pat Jalland defends the idea that marriage in those days was regarded as an indispensable ‘institution’, but was a conventional reserved agreement that did not incorporate romantic feelings. Thus, the significance laid on commercial interests and replicating oneself (Jalland 45). As noted by Stone, relationships were progressively motivated by love as it is the case of Lady and Lord Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan (‘Windermere and I married for love’, (Fan 1, 308)), even though partners were primarily selected by parents in order to exchange social and economic prosperity (qtd. in Jalland 45). This is certainly true for the Duchess of Berwick who wants to ‘find a healthy husband for her daughter before the end of the season’ (Raby 320). Another example of this traditional interest in wealth is Mr Dumby who questions Lord Augustus about the compatibility with Mrs Erlynne (‘And her income, Tuppy? Has she explained that?’ (Fan 3, 232)). This is also exemplified in The Woman of no Importance when Lady Hunstanton mentions that Sir Thomas Harford ‘wasn’t considered a good match for her’ (Importance 2, 401) since ‘the daughter of a Duchess would be expected to marry someone much higher in rank than a mere baronet’ (Raby 338). Under these restraining circumstances it happened that some partners were ‘equally lovable, but less suitable [and therefore potential spouses] were considered and set aside. […] affection would normally increase with time.’ (Jalland 75-76). This evidence in parental choice can be seen in the case of Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband:

LORD GORING (expostulating) My dear father, if I am to get married, surely you will allow me to choose time, place, and person? Particularly the person. LORD CAVERSHAM (testily) […] It is not a matter of affection. Affection comes later on in married life. (Husband 3, 219-25)

In most cases, in order to assert the noble selection ‘the upper class sought to prevent undesirable alliances while permitting controlled access to social advancement to provide a safe national marriage market for the élite’ (Jalland 46). Strictly speaking, money and marriage correlated. As it can be expected, if a young lady married an unwelcome partner opposing to her parents’ preferences, the parents would take steps against it (Jalland 49). In the same way as money and status was the level of society a matter of matrimonial selection; a familiar social background was indispensable. Whoever ignored social rules has been disregarded by society (Jalland 52), as will be presented in the following chapters. Furthermore, Jalland points out that ‘[even] if money was not necessary for its own sake […], the possession of means was thought to say something about the character’ (55). On top of that, conformity with age, vitality, political and religious beliefs were preferential components and yet these criteria were not utterly essential if class, capital and affinity were entirely guaranteed (Jalland 93). Returning briefly to the issue of a woman’s role in society, one can only conclude that women were more dependent on an appropriate marriage than men. As far as women were only involved in domestic affairs and had hardly been educated, they had no possibilities to earn money. They necessarily had to find a rich men in order to survive, whereas men were enabled to work somewhere and thus they had not been dependent from women at all. Overall, marriage was mostly dependent on parental influence including financial matters and had a great value and a huge impact on society inasmuch as alliances determined people’s welfare extremely, particularly the basis of women’s livelihood.

2.3 Women’s disadvantage in comparison to men

So far this chapter has demonstrated the woman’s role and the value of marriage in the Victorian era. It is now necessary to explain the disadvantages of women compared to men. As was pointed out before, Tennyson radically degraded women and Ruskin advocates this attitude, pointing out that women ‘in any rank of life, ought to know whatever her husband is likely to know, but to know it in a different way’ and that women shall ‘know the same language, or science, only so far as may enable her to sympathize in her husband’s pleasures, and in those of his best friends’ (qtd. in Rowbotham 83). According to Sarah Tytler, this quotation clearly exemplifies that men thought there was no chance that any intellectual utterance could derive from female beings neither had they believed that women could ever seek in keeping pace with a ‘male genius’ (qtd. in Rowbotham 115). So does also Lord Caversham: ‘No woman […] has any common sense at all […]. Common sense is the privilege of our sex’ (Husband 3, 233-234). As far as double standards are concerned, Victorian morals were built up upon it. The following definition illustrates what is meant by double standard:

[A] rule, principle, judgement, etc., viewed as applying more strictly to one people, set of circumstances, etc., than to another; applied specifically to a code of sexual behaviour that is more rigid for women than for men. (OED)

For instance, women were brought up to renounce their personal concerns to put their husbands’ requirements before her own, thus women tolerated mental suffering without protesting (Jalland 288). Usually, women had been treated disrespectfully as the subsequent citations by Cecil Graham and Lord Goring perfectly indicate. Cecil Graham insulted a female by reducing her to ‘some woman’ (Fan3, 380) and Lord Goring verified this limited understanding of female beings, stating that ‘[a] man’s life is of more value than a woman’s’ (Husband 4, 454). Consequently, a respected physician at that time, Dr Gregory set out this idea by telling women ‘[…] you must bear your sorrow in silence, unknown and unpitied. You must often put on a face of serenity and cheerfulness, when your hearts are torn with anguish, or sinking in despair’ (qtd. in Dyhouse 175). This statement puts emphasis on the complete dedication to others. These are opposing maxims, because they only applied to women, not to men. It corresponds to the traditional idea of feminine fragility, weakness and incompetent creature who is to be guarded and commanded by the sex in higher rank (Eltis 125). The most striking example is the double standard with which unmarried woman and unwed mothers were treated. Thus this image of the woman was publicly displayed as a creation of amusement and mockery in ‘music halls and operettas’ (Vicinus xii). Since Mrs Erlynne and Mrs Arbuthnot are being made fun of and were discriminated, the unmarried dandies get away scot-free without any scorn. This is also the case of infidelity. The following examples show that a woman is being punished for that whereas adultery committed by men is regarded as normal. Yet the problem of the ‘Fallen Woman’ is further demonstrated in the next chapter. Women having made a mistake were considered as ‘worthless, vicious [women]’ (Fan 4, 182). In contrast, men are ‘running after all kinds of petticoats (Fan 1, 310-311). As Lord Augustus asks ‘Would you introduce her to your wife?’ (Fan 2, 90), it is obvious that this was a coded message to ask if Mrs Erlynne was Windermeres mistress (Raby 318) and therefore expresses that having a mistress and committing adultery was not an unfounded suspicion among men. Thereupon Lord argues that ‘[women] are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us […]’ (Husband 4, 450-451). He imposes restrictions to women and likewise expects that no woman would plead him guilty for any flaw but furthermore excuse him. This idea is a contradiction in terms and once more proves the huge injustice between men and women. This unpunished misconduct of men is also recognized by Lady Hunstanton who declares ‘all the married men live like bachelors’ (Importance 2, 40). Above all, young Puritan Hester Worsley questions this double standard and demands equal right and equal punishment regardless to one’s gender:





Titel: Women in the Victorian Era. Oscar Wilde’s comedies "Lady Windermere’s Fan", "A Woman of no Importance" and "An ideal Husband"