Female Sexuality in Victorian Literature

Group 2

Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor’s “Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art” provides a pertinent overarching frame for interpreting the perception of female characters and figures in 19th century literature. According to the editors, literature [and art] tend to reflect the social problems and concerns of the time they were produced, and literary themes often reflected women’s lives and reinforced certain behaviors. They posit that social questions of women’s education, suffrage, legal rights, and “the specter of poverty and profligacy” all manifest in literature [and art]. To that end, we explored how women’s sexuality materializes in literature of the time from both the male and female author. We will present three separate perspectives on the female character in victorian literature. The first perspective shows the female character as written by the male author (Dickens), the next will give an account of female  character’s written by the female author and the final account will explain the critical reception of female characters.

The Male Author

David Holbrook’s Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman provides a great amount of insight into how women fit both into the works of Dickens and the society of which he was a part. Dickensian women fit into several archetypal molds that are rooted heavily in the concepts of sexuality and purity. The first of these is the angelic image of perfection: a chaste woman whose virtue is unassailable and whose innocence is the envy of all around her. This figure can be seen in OT’s Rose Maylie, Great Expectations’ Estella (though that one involves a lot of Pip’s own perception), and David Copperfield’s Agnes. These are the ideal women in Dickens’ worlds of the word, and are clear reflections of the Victorian ideology that women should be pure, spiritual, and not indulge their sexuality in any way (Holbrook 28). It is possible that this very set of ideals is what compelled Dickens to kill Nancy in Oliver Twist: Nancy was a good person, indistinguishable from Rose in most ways except that Nancy was a sexual creature, and for that Victorian society condemned her.

Another Character that can be seen throughout Dickens’ work is the unreliable mother. In Bleak House, both Lady Dedlock and Jenny assume this mantle: Dedlock has an illegitimate child for whom she provided no care (due in part to extenuating circumstances) and Jenny’s child just straight up died. Worth noting is that in Oliver Twist, Oliver only gains a measure of worth when it is discovered who his father was. His mother is mostly written off. Holbrook mentions that  “All we do know about his childhood relationship with his mother is that, when improved circumstances made it possible for him to leave the humiliating work work he endured pasting labels on blacking bottles, his mother insulted his soul by determining to keep him at the toil he loathed” (28). This relationship likely played a large role in the creation of the women about whom Dickens writes, and explains why women and mothers in particular are often cast in a poor light.

The Female Author

In his essay “Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect” Paul Schacht provides insight into the social conditions of female sexuality as represented in Charlottes Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Schacht explains that Jane’s sense of cleanliness (purity, celibacy) is that of a society, which oppressively regulates women’s sexual behavior and tends to be suspicious of sexual pleasure altogether. At Thornfield and Lowood, against the tyranny of gender (Brocklehurst etc.), Jane stages her revolt within, rather than against the external institutions that constrain her. Limited results, but internal struggle leads to self-actualization, and self-respect, which allows one to outwardly challenge these external institutions, as she does later in the novel. Schacht goes on to write, “Such domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries, who often based their claims on natural rights, while remaining wedded to natural roles. The attitude of these early activists toward ‘womanly and domestic employment’ was that of Shirley’s Rose Yorke: ‘I will do that, and then I will do more.’” (Schacht 1991). That this “domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries,” This excerpt identifies the notion of accepting certain domestic roles while maintaining a feminist sort of freedom. The fact that Schacht explains that this, “domestic zeal was not unusual among Bronte’s feminist contemporaries,” complicates the modern perception of feminism and forces the reader to view a Victorian perception of feminism that may reinforce feminine stereotypes even regarding sexuality.

Critical Reception

In her essay “Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M.E. Braddon and Ouida,” Natalie Schroeder makes the claim that feminism in women’s fiction was a major concern of contemporary critics. These critics viewed self-assertive, “masculine” behavior (read: unchastity), as a threat to Victorian society. Furthermore, critics like E.S. Dallas weighed in, saying that feminine aggression was unnatural. He reckoned that females in literature ought to be accompanied by “an evident access of refinement”, while he claimed that the opposite was occurring. He continues to say that women’s lives are not lives of action, so when they are put at the forefront of a plotline, they are therefore placed into a false position. In return, Schroeder points out that Victorian women resisted the roles that were conventionally assigned to them, rejecting “the prudish moral tone that characterized popular fiction of the 1850s.” They effectively began to rebel against the establishment. One can see from this criticism the gender-dominated society that fueled expectations of women in society, and also regulated the  image of female characters in Victorian literature.

Discussion Question: Understanding that Dickens and other Victorian writers would not explicitly express female sexuality, how do female characters in Bleak House fall into this Victorian view of sexuality?


David Holbrook’s Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman

Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor’s Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art

Elizabeth Lee’s Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality

Natalie Schroeder’s Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M.E. Braddon and Ouida

Paul Schacht’s Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect

Posted by: Kevin O’Connor

Group Members: Colin Peartree, Michael Stoianoff, Michael Adams, Hannah Glaser, and Kevin O’Connor

6 thoughts on “Female Sexuality in Victorian Literature

  1. Erin Duffy

    Group 4: Erin Duffy, Angie Carson, Jake Trost, Heather McFarlane, Cassandra Ballini

    Throughout his body of work, Dickens typically portrays women as heavily idealized pictures of purity. If a female character was meant to be a villainous, or at least morally gray, this was conveyed through her sexuality (i.e., Nancy the prostitute in Oliver Twist or Lady Dedlock, mother of an illegitimate child in Bleak House). However we would like to add that, in Bleak House, Dickens used the extreme polar opposite characters of Lady Dedlock and her daughter Esther to illustrate that society’s views of these women do not always match up with their actions.

    Lady Dedlock is portrayed as a highly immoral woman, who engages in sexual promiscuity and bears an illegitimate child, whom she ultimately abandons to the legal system. Despite these extreme character flaws and generally unethical behavior, she gets away with it all because she is a member of the upper crust of society: she is viewed as the “angel of the house” despite the fact that her so-called goodness is purely superficial. On the other hand, Esther is presented as a virtuous, moral person who seeks a better life through honest means, and she maintains this sense of goodness even though she is a poor illegitimate child. Yet despite these strong qualities, Esther is not heralded in the way her mother is.

    However, it is worth noting that Lady Dedlock ultimately sacrificed herself to protect her family’s reputation, not unlike Nancy of Oliver Twist. Until this point in the story, Lady Dedlock acted the part of the “unreliable mother” character trope, while superficially maintaining the image of the “angel of the house.” Her sacrifice allows her to truly earn the latter title. Though still a misogynistic character archetype, this change of heart makes Lady Dedlock slightly less two-dimensional and leaves some room for redemption.

  2. Joseph Fennie

    Group 5:
    From Schacht and Schroeder’s report we can conclude that Victorian society is one in which the independent female is oppressed in a sense of freedom and sexuality. Schacht explains, however, that there was an unsettled uprising against the Victorian standard seen in such forms as Jane Eyre and other feminist literature in England. This shows a more convoluted view of feminine independence in Victorian England. The contemporary critic may have despised masculinity portrayed by females as “a threat to Victorian society”, but there were those who looked to end such a belief.
    Dickens is the epitome of this confused, mixed bag of beliefs in regards to the feminist movement during Victorian times. In Oliver Twist, one of his earlier works, Dickens represents Nancy as someone who internalizes her revolt against oppressive men just as Jane Eyre did. She looks to free herself from the oppressive control of Sikes by attempting to save Oliver Twist from their clutches and ultimately becoming a martyr for independent women in Victorian England. Throughout Oliver Twist she openly voices her opinion possessing “masculine” qualities such as independence, promiscuity, and power, each time receiving an oppressive, responsive attack from Sikes or Fagin. Nancy shows that Dickens held some sort of sympathy for an independent woman, one who wants to be independent for a good, moral reason.
    However, Dickens’s view of feminism becomes cloudy in his novel Bleak House. From the very beginning, when Esther introduces herself, we read a more traditionally Victorian sentiment in this work. Dickens has Esther admit from the very get-go that “I know I am not clever”. Esther lives in a world in which she is fooled to believe that since she is a female she is simply not clever or smart. Her admittance of being purely not clever is clearly untrue, since Esther is shown to be a very capable and authoritative narrator throughout the novel. A muddy stance on feminism is created here, since we are unsure whether Dickens makes Esther to be this way in a satirical sense against oppressive Victorian society or if he truly believes that Esther is dumb because she is a woman.
    Group two noted that the Victorian view of women is purely not concrete and is actually more complex than initially believed. Dickens strengthens their argument of such a view of Victorian Society by creating female characters such as Nancy who represent a sympathetic view of independent femininity and Esther who seem to be characters that follow in the traditionalist Victorian view that women are simply inferior to men.

  3. Audrey Buechel

    Group 1:

    In Bleak House, one character that goes along with the “unreliable mother” archetype often seen in Victorian literature written by male authors of that time period is the female character in Dickens’ work, Mrs. Jellyby. In introducing such a character in chapter IV, Dickens’ writes that she “was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if […] they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (Dickens, 37), which, as we come to see, is her sole preoccupation in the novel. While she may be “present” in the house and is certainly capable of producing children, Dickens’ appears to satirize the fact that physically she is there but that all the while her attentions and mind are elsewhere, rather than at home taking care of what Victorian society believed to be women’s number one priority: the home and the children. In going against all that was the Victorian stereotype of the motherly figure as a “domestic goddess”, Mrs. Jellyby’s household is presented to us as unkept, chaotic, and the children neglected and uncared for. When conversing with Mr. Jarndyce later on in the novel, Esther and Ada voice their concern of the state of Mrs. Jellyby’s household when they state they thought “that perhaps she was a little unmindful of her home” (Dickens, 61) and that they believed “it [was] right to begin with the obligations of home; and that, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them” (Dickens, 61). In this passage it is clear to see that these two young women were concerned and unnerved by what they witnessed at the home of Mrs. Jellyby. Not only is it described as “untidy” and “very dirty” (Dickens, 37), but one of the children is tumbling down the stairs right in front of her and she does nothing else but continue to dictate her letters to Africa as if absent or not aware of what is occurring and going against the “motherly instinct” to help or protect the child. Instead, Esther steps up to the plate, and was, as Ada describes, “their friend directly” who “nursed them, coaxed them to sleep, washed and dressed them, told them stories, keep them quiet [and] brought them keepsakes” (Dickens, 62). As a result our group believes that Mrs. Jellyby fulfills the role of the absent mother, while opposing Victorian society’s concept of the “cult of domesticity.”

  4. Nikkel Gohel

    Group 6 says:

    Group 2 illustrates how Dickens often portrays women in one of two categories. The first of these two types of woman is the ideal that Dickens portrays in the angelic, innocent woman who embodies the Victorian view of female perfection. On the other hand, there is the woman who is looked upon as a failure to society: the archetypal “unreliable mother.” In his binary division, Dickens paints a picture of how women view during the Victorian age. While this is true for many of Dickens’ female characters, Dickens does make exceptions to his own creative precedents. In Bleak House for example, we see a more well-rounded and realistic character in Caddy Jellyby, who can be seen as an exception to Dickens’ adherence to female archetypes. Unlike the
    Caroline (Caddy) Jellyby, the daughter of overworked supposed humanitarian and “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs. Jellyby is shown to be quite different from Dickens’ usual female characters. Like her mother, Caddy is not in the least a passive character. While Mrs. Jellyby is said to be extremely hardworking in writing letters, lists and settlements African project, Caddy too plays an active role. However, when she is first introduced, we meet Caddy as a girl who is immersed in the idea of becoming a good housewife. Later in the story, despite Mrs. Jellyby’s apathy towards her daughter’s engagement and wedding, Caddy is shown to be strong enough to tell her mother herself that she is engaged to Prince Turveydrop (note that Prince is his first name for those of us not past chapter 23) that she will not continue helping with her mother’s African Project after she is married. Moreover, Caddy exclaims to her mother that she “always hated and detested” Mr. Quale, her mother’s hero. At another time in the story, Caddy reveals that she kept her engagement to Prince a secret from her mother for some extended period of time. Despite her frequent sobbing and single-minded determination to become a traditional housewife, Caddy’s ability to be aggressive is very unlike the typical roles that Dickens displays.
    *Spoilers* Much later on story, Caddy decides that she must take over for her husband and his dancing school after he becomes crippled. In doing so she becomes the more dominant provider in their relationship. In Caddy, we see a woman who wants nothing more than to get married and become a housewife but who instead becomes a successful business person. More importantly, she is able to do all of this despite being a woman in Victorian society. Unlike her mother, Caddy is not simply doing charity work. Furthermore, she later has a daughter who is both deaf and blind. While it can be argued that Caddy could be considered an “unreliable mother” for procreating a disabled child (shame on whoever would think such a counter-argument), we see that his is not the case. Caddy is likely seen as a great mother. During the close of Ester’s narrative (during the end of the book) *Spoilers* for instance, Esther herself claims “I believe there never was a better mother than Caddy, who learns, in her scanty intervals of leisure, innumerable deaf and dumb arts to soften the affliction of her child.” So we see that Caroline is not just a good mother but the best Esther has ever seen (notwithstanding Esther’s bias as Caddy’s very best friend).
    In conclusion, despite Dickens’ frequent use of archetypes, even in Bleak House where we see characters such as Mrs. Jellyby and Esther, we see that there’s more to Dickensian woman than simply the two archetypes that we’ve seen.

  5. Hannah Sugarman

    Group 2 asserts that Dickens’ female characters fall into a group of archetypes including repressed sexuality and possession of “domestic zeal”. Although we agree that Esther from Bleak House fits some conventions of Victorian women in that she has a great deal of shame and possibly repressed sexuality due to her background of being born out of wedlock as well as some clear maternal instincts, she is more psychologically complex and has a level of depth to her characterizations that is not seen in other Dickens characters. Esther’s godmother constantly criticizes her, viewing Esther as worthless because she is a product of wedlock. It’s clear, however, that Dickens does not intend us to view Esther in this negative light despite her morally ambiguous upbringing. By allowing Esther to be the narrator of the novel, Dickens “absolves” her of the potential Victorian-era crime of being born out of wedlock.
    Additionally, Dickens casts Esther in a maternal role that may seem typical of Victorian women. As a potential after-effect of her upbringing, Esther understands the unhappiness that children with rough childhoods face and therefore treats children kindly and with respect. However, Esther differs from the typical women of her time in that she is written with a layer of psychological depth that her contemporaries are often not afforded. Despite Esther’s compassion and cleverness, she does not view herself as competent as reflected in her narrative. However, she does live a life of action, and strives to better herself and the world around her.

  6. Group 2

    Holbrook claims that Dickens writes relatively flat female characters, often relying on Victorian stereotypes of femininity as archetypes for his characters. We agree that Dickens uses these Victorian stereotypes but argue that Dickens created more dynamic characters that complicate these stereotypes, much like Charlotte Bronte does with Jane. In Bleak House, Jenny assumes the mantle of the unreliable mother: she has an illegitimate child whose only act in life is to leave it, but upon further reading, that is less her fault than the fault of circumstance.
    Jenny can be seen actively supporting her child, even after suffering domestic abuse, covering her discoloured eye, “as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill treatment, from the poor little child.” Jenny’s felt responsibility toward the child is further shown through her diligence in caring for the child in the wake of suffering physical abuse: “…Jenny’s asleep, quite worn out. She’s scarcely had the child off her lap, poor thing, these seven days and nights, except when I’ve been able to take it for a minute or two.” Jenny’s circumstances have shaped how readers and critics assess her role as a mother.
    On the surface, Holbrook’s claim relating to flat female characters is applicable to Jenny. Given her physical state, she appears to be unfit to care for her child. However, further reading into the passages above suggests that she is in fact fit for motherhood, but she lives under the constraint of extenuating domestic circumstances that do not allow her to provide optimal care for her child. Ultimately, the death of her child adds to our rebuttal: “The dead baby symbolizes the loss of the (psychic) inheritance that a child should be entitled to, and the death of the mother’s true potentialities.” Holbrook’s statement states Jenny’s potential for motherhood has been stripped from her because she was unable to care for the child. However, the quote also suggests that Jenny does in fact have the qualities of a good mother (mother’s true potentialities), but outside forces controlled the situation.

    Posted by: Colin Peartree
    Group Members: Kevin O’Conner, Hannah Glaser, Mike Stoianoff, Michael Adams

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