Some differing conceptions of the heroine in selected mid-Victorian novels
Embargo end date31/12/2020
In their studies of the social and moral conventions which appear to have governed Victorian attitudes to women, some present-day critics have made various statements and broad generalizations about such matters. For example, Dr. William Acton's medical opinions are frequently cited. Coventry Patmore's "Angel" is constantly referred to in the arguments of those who emphasize the way in which they believe all Victorians saw women as idealistically angelic and saintly, whereas "Walter's" My Secret Life and other stock anecdotes about Victorian sex-life and its underworld pornography, are frequently quoted in favour of a very different, but also somewhat extreme view. What this shows is, rather, that if one's evidence is selected it can be made to support almost any view; and it is, in fact, hard to accept that a case can be made out for any really effective generalization about women in Victorian literature. Not less damaging and misleading are such conventional images of the fallen woman as "an ostracized outcast" and of the "passionate" woman as someone baffling and repellent. The conventionality often lies in the writer's views as well as in the literature he is criticizing. This is seen, to some extent, in the image of the ostracized outcast in such novels of the forties as Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) and Mrs Gaskell' s Mary Barton (1848). Yet, later in the fifties, we find that society's treatment of its fallen women differed considerably and the outcast of the previous decades became the repentant Magdalen, there was apparently great hope of her redemption, and consequently novelists began to take different attitudes towards this subject as can be seen in such tales or novels as David Copperfield (1850) and Mrs Gaskell's Lizzie Leigh (1850) and Ruth (1853). Society wavered between forgiveness and partial reclamation. Then, a decade later, the fallen woman was forgiven, taken back into society and to some extent allowed to return to normal life; and this can be seen in novels such as Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton (1871) and Wilkie Collins's The New Magdalen (1873) and The Fallen Leaves (1879). The image of the "passionate" woman also underwent a similar development from felt yet unpronounced sympathy in David Copperfield to an overt fascination in Wilkie Collins's Armadale (1866) and taken to an expression of sympathy and admiration Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875). We must all see that these images cannot be taken as an innocent pictorial guide to reality, nor do they allow easy generalizations about "the Victorians". If we seek evidence about the period from fiction, novels must be read with insight and understanding and common sense. The frailties of such critics must alert us to the need for guarding against making our own mis-readings.