Florence Nightingale's depiction of women during the Victorian Age in her novel, Cassandra

Categories: Florence Nightingale

The Life and Times of a Victorian Woman

The Victorian period was an interesting period for women. Although it was named after Queen Victoria who was ruler from June 1837 until her death in 1901, women’s roles were often still as housekeeper or caregiver. She wasn’t given much freedom to do simple things, such as take care of herself and would resort to extreme measures to get that free time. Through use of prose poetry, the author of Cassandra was able to relay their opinions on the roles of women during this period.

Women’s roles have changed tremendously from the beginning of time and through the use of poetry, ideologies of its impact are presented.

Florence Nightingale was a woman who lived during the Victorian Age herself and described living during that time as suffocating. For years before she started her career, many were unaware that she first had to fight a long and hard battle to escape from her Victorian family.

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Nightingale’s Cassandra is a work of prose poetry that tells a story of the idle lifestyle that was forced upon women during this time period. This early telling of women’s lack of rights almost demonstrates how far women have come from Great Britain’s Victorian Age to the 21st century.

Of Nightingale’s accounts of women during the Victorian Age there is a reoccurring pattern of a plethora of rules and standards the women were forced to live by. Women were seen more ¬as servants of their men who were not given the privilege to complain.

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She questions often the practices of men and how often the work of a woman is shorthanded, simply because it was thought at the time to be their purpose in life. This early works of feminist literature challenges the normal gender norms for women. Nightingale accounted:

Why women have passion, intellect, moral activity—these three—and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised? Men may that God punishes for complaining. No, but men are angry with misery. They are irritated with women for not being happy. They take it as a personal offence. To God alone may women complain without insulting Him! (Nightingale, 1512)

Some women did not see the problems with their place in society, but for those who did, this quote exemplifies the unfairness of this time period.

According to “Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism”, it was studied that during this time, so many women did not see a problem with men running the household because of a concept called “pater familias,” which means the husband is the head of the household and a moral leader to his family. As predicted women’s hierarchy in the family was below her husband but she was not considered unimportant. Representations of the perfect wife appeared all over Great Britain during this time and one example of a piece of literature introducing the ideal wife also comes from a poem which is entitled, “The Angel in the House.”

The women of this Age were conditioned to not complain about their issue and were given little freedom to express their frustrations. For the women that did speak about their disdains men saw them as threats. The quote discusses men being angry with women for not being grateful for their “simple lives”. When in actuality, women were frustrated with their lack of independence and self-fulfillment. Cassandra’s controversial message only furthers from here when Nightingale says, “Poetry and imagination begin life… then comes intellect. It wishes to satisfy the wants which intellect creates for it” (Nightingale, 1512). This quote can also be applied to the statement made previously regarding the lack of self-fulfillment.

Unfortunately, there was little time for even an attempt of self-fulfillment due to some of the expectations that applied to the woman of the Victorian Age. Women were expected to take care of the household responsibilities because they were regarded as the “least…compatible with the life of “society” (Nightingale, 1513). Dinner was a sacred ceremony during this time and women were expected to not only prepare the meal, which usually took hours at a time, but were expected to always be in attendance as well. This great sacrament came with some restrictions as well.

It is undoubtedly obvious that men were considered superior during this time. So much so, that man was given an allotted time just to think.

In many such, four and a half hours, at least, are daily set aside for though, rules are given for thought, training and opportunity afforded. Among us, there is no time appointed for this purpose and the difficulty is that, in our social life, we must always doubtful whether we out not to be with somebody else or be doing something else. (Nightingale, 1513)

It is clear that the time and education of men were more important than that of a woman. The reality that women were never taken seriously during this time is astounding even with the accomplishments of the Queen. It would be assumed that a woman’s worth would better be understood under a Queen with such an important legacy that there was an entire time period named after her.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and some married women seriously embodied that statement. Living a single life during this time could be considered a cakewalk for the married women during this time. For married women it is almost impossible for them to find time for themselves and with the tight rules on attending dinner, women would often inflict self bodily harm to be absent from these events.

Yet for a married woman in society, it is even worse. A married woman was heard to wish that she could break a limb that she might have a little time to herself. Many take advantage of the fear of “ infections” to do the same (Nightingale, 1514).

The life of a married woman during this time was short of ideal. Cassandra also talks about the unfortunate reality of being married. How husbands and wives found little interest in each other after marriage. Nightingale even mentioned sex becoming the most important thing to a women’s job.

The intercourse of man and women—how frivolous, how unworthy it is! Can we call that the true vocation of women—her high career? Look round at the marriages which you know. The true marriage—that noble union, by which a man and woman become together the one perfect being—probably does not exist at present upon earth. (Nightingale, 1515)

It has never been uncommon for woman to be seen strictly as sexual beings and not for their mental capacity.

Nightingale is able to depict the lifestyle of a woman during the Victorian Age due to her own personal experiences. Many people were unaware that Florence Nightingale was a high-powered administrator who reformed the British Army medical service and helped to found the profession of modern nursing. Her background and knowledge of the Victorian Age helped her successfully relay her message to the audience. Nightingale’s Cassandra is not the only work of poetry that was able to successfully tell an important message while also being an outlet of entertainment.

Prose poetry is an amazing way to tell a story because of its unstructured format, it leaves room for open interpretation. The goal of Cassandra was to use speak about the lack of self in a Victorian household. She spoke on women almost being lost in their husbands, families and responsibilities because of the structure they were forced to live under and how they were conditioned to be the caretakers of the home. In the hopes of expressing her disdain it is clear that she wished for better women’s for rights during the time she wrote this and for future women during other time periods. This timeless classic can be compared to that of a later poem, published in 1862.

Another popular feminist author was Christina Rossetti. She devoted her life to writings about feminism and her opinions on said topic. During her time period, between 1830 and 1894, she vowed to herself that she would begin to practice the ministry. Unfortunately during this time, Church clergy was limited to only men. But, because she grew up studying theology through her dad, whom was a professor, she believed she would be the first to do it. As most feminists who express themselves through literature, Rossetti has a stunning collection of literature written by her selves and overs which require undivided attention which requires readers to be able to analyze well as well as have an open mind to understand these women’s requests.

Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”, written in 1862, captivates readers with an interesting poem about sisterhood. “Goblin Market” tells a tale of two sisters Lizzie and Laura and their unfortunate meeting of the Goblin men. The goblins attempted to subdue the sister’s into trying their fruits and while one fell for it the other ran away. We later learn the reason why the other sister ran away, which was due to the difficulty of getting the fruit again once you’ve had it first.

While Cassandra dealt with actual men Laura dealt with goblin’s who convinced her to eat fruit. The poem primarily talks about Laura’s inability to resist the urge to eat the fruit from them and the second main ideal of the poem is Laura’s part in it. Lizzie was deemed her sisters protector in the eyes of the poem where she was beaten and tortured to get more fruit for her sister.

Till Laura dwindling

Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:

Then Lizzie weigh’d no more

Better and worse;

But put a silver penny in her purse,

Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze

At twilight, halted by the brook:

And for the first time in her life

Began to listen and look. (Rossetti, 1872).

She was tortured repeatedly and never stopped to get the food for her sister. This is the first comparison between Cassandra and “Goblins Market.” It can be safe to say during the woman’s right’s movement women were the best help to women. The Goblin represents the men of the Victorian Age while Lizzie and Laura represents two types of women. One sister was able to represent the women who didn’t believe in the movement and didn’t see anything wrong with where she was. The second type of woman was in the likeness of Nightingale, steadfast and determined.

After Lizzie realizes her fate she begins to rigorously search for the fruits from the goblins. This unavailability of the fruits slowly made Lizzie stop eating. Following that, Laura then goes on a hunt to get her sister these fruits due to her sister’s frail frame and sick look. With a silver coin in her pocket she goes to the goblins in order to buy more fruits for her sister. Laura argued, was beaten down, and later respected by the goblins all to help her sick sister. The poem ends with the following phrase:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands. (Rossetti, 1862)

This is a great piece of literature to compare to that of Cassandra. As stated before, Cassandra tells the tale of an idol woman in the Victorian age. While “Goblin Market” tells the story of two sisters that had fallen in the trap of the goblin men but were able to return to full health.

As times change, there is less of a desire to only be a housewife, and more of a trend of single fathers and stay at home dads. At one point, women’s sole purpose was to take care of the family without complaints, as in the Victorian Era. Florence Nightingale was a Victorian author who fought to separate herself from her suffocating Victorian Family. In her poem she talked about women having a lack of basic freedoms like passion, intellect, moral activity. She also spoke on women’s roles as far as preparing their sacred dinner and some of the extreme measures women would take to find some time for them. She also touched on the fact that marriages in the Victorian Age rarely expressed love to each other. She compared it to not having food, as love is a nurturing benefit. Finally, she mentioned in her poem that women’s bodies were only looked at for sexual pleasure and that it’s considered women’s high career.

The poem by another feminist author that connected best with Cassandra, was “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. “Goblin Market” told the tale of two sisters who were lured by the goblin men to eat their fruit. In response, a horrible death by starvation was put upon one of the sisters while the other sister fought to keep her sister alive and well. While this can be seen as female empowerment, due to one sister going through every measure to make sure her sister is safe, it can also be seen as a calling for women to be more supportive of each other. The two poems coincide with one another by recognizing the state of women’s rights in Great Britain. Both feminist poets are able to captivate readers and make them consider the strife women have fought so that one day not only will women have the same rights as men, but gender roles will be ended altogether.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Florence Nightingale's depiction of women during the Victorian Age in her novel, Cassandra. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/florence-nightingales-depiction-of-women-during-the-victorian-age-in-her-novel-cassandra-essay

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