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Women during the Romantic and Victorian Age (1785-1901) had very limited rights. Living in a patriarchal society created a vision that women were inferior, often times the only way to escape some of this inferiority was through hypergamy. Those women, who were unsuccessful in their attempts to woo a rich man, were left as fodder for the ever-growing industrial society, usually working intense labor or resorting to prostitution. Although most female authors were given no recognition for their writings at this time, some adopted pseudonyms that allowed their works to become extremely popular.
During the Romantic Period, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a young Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship argued that the status quo was unfair and demanded that women respect themselves enough to ask for equality; often times using satire to comment on the droll portrayal of women in Romantic society. While Victorian Period writers Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Brontë used satire and wrote strong female characters into their works “Aurora Leigh” and Jane Eyre.
Together, each period’s authors created their own ways to address the issue of women’s oppression, often through the use of satire. Romantic authors wrote anthems, empowering women and asking them to have the courage to demand respect, while Victorian authors wrote strong female characters into their works to point out the simpleminded idea that women were inferior.
During the Romantic Period women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Women were offered no formal schooling and were expected to serve man as a wife.
In her essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft evaluates the idea of understanding and obedience. How can woman be expected to cooperate with man if she has no understanding of what she is doing? Wollstonecraft is not only talking about household duties but also civil duties. Women need to be educated because whether men like it or not women are going to participate in civil affairs, most of which they have absolutely no understanding. Wollstonecraft then goes on and acknowledges the ridiculousness of hypergamy. Women reduce themselves to carnal beings, painting and dressing themselves up in the hopes of getting married, yet, this occurrence also has men to blame; if men were to become less tyrannical in their control over women and there was not change seen in the growth of women then women would truly have “weaker understandings”, although that seems highly unlikely.
Romantic society followed the works of male writers, such as Rousseau, who declared that God gave man reason to “Enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent” (Wollstonecraft 219). Wollstonecraft argues that while this may be true, it should also be extended to women, who were also created equally by God. This ultimately leads back to the underlying theme of women’s oppression in the Romantic period, liberty. Women are offered no formal schooling allowing them to learn from experience, this emulates male soldiers who are cast into the world with almost no formal schooling, creating the same educational experience as women. However, these men are regarded as smarter and worldlier and this is not because of education but because of the liberty of being able to go out into the world with civil rights and unlimited opportunity.
Soldiers, as well as women, practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. Where is then the sexual difference, when the education has been the same? All the difference that I can discern arises from the superior advantage of liberty, which enables the former to see more of life. (Wollstonecraft 221)
Romantic society often trivialized women by allowing them only to be educated in the art of finding a well-suited husband, to whom she would give her life. Jane Austen commented on the idiocy of such a lifestyle in her epistolary short story “Love and Friendship”. Austen pokes fun at many of the cornerstones of romantic novels in only the first few letters in which Edward, a man who has defied his parents and ran away, immediately asks for Laura’s hand in marriage, a girl he has only just met.
My natural sensibility had already been greatly affected by the sufferings of the unfortunate stranger, and no sooner did I first beheld him, that I felt that on him the happiness or misery of my future life must depend… We were immediately united by my father, who though he had never taken orders had been bred to the church. (Austen 528-529)
This outrageous opening is done in a way that does not hide its satirical undertone like most other romantic stories by embellishing the circumstance in lengthy background story. The reader can immediately decipher that this is an implausible circumstance unable to exist outside the realm of a story. This allows for the reader to step back and laugh at the farcical ways in which Laura lives and makes it very clear that this should not be taken seriously. Austen solidifies this idea when writing about Laura’s fainting fits. “Never did I see such an affecting scene as was the meeting of Edward and Augustus… It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and Myself -We fainted alternately on a sofa” (Austen, 531). The reactions of these women is again implausible, but not necessarily for the time and creates the thought that maybe women are taught their dainty, feminine ways. After all, Augustus never faints when he is arrested for debt.
Similar to the Romantic Period, women living in the Victorian Period did not see much of a change in the availability of opportunities or civil rights. Still, their only goal was courtship and naturally this still did not require a formal education. The extent of this education is detailed in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”, in which Aurora is only taught meaningless facts for conversation, differences in cultural costumes, how to dance, and how to please her future husband. However, Aurora is strong, she is sure of her ability in writing, which is exemplified in her denial of Romney’s proposal.
If your sex is weak for art
And I, who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship), it is strong
For life and duty
… What you love
Is not a woman, Romney, but a causer
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,
A wife to help your ends, –in her no end. (Browning 1147-1148)
Browning is acknowledging the idea that women are still viewed as inferior servants to men whose only virtue in life is to serve their husbands. However, Aurora is strong and leaves for London to become a freelance writer, ultimately publishing a book and moving to Florence, Italy. Romney once again meets Aurora a decade later and this is where one of the most satirical instances in the poem occurs, Romney apologizes to Aurora for being a simpleminded fool.
I stood upon my deed and fought my doubt,
As men will,–for I doubted, –till at last
My deed gave way beneath my suddenly,
And left me what I am… I, ready for confession –I was wrong,
I’ve sorely failed; I’ve slipped the ends of life,
I yield; you have conquered. (Browning)
This apology is very profound because it establishes Romney’s epiphany that women are in fact capable of great things and should be treated as equals. It is through her latter proclamation of God that Browning and subsequently Aurora declare the equality of women in the eyes of God; a proclamation that Mary Wollstonecraft would agree with fully. “God claims his own,/…If He cannot work by us,/He will work over us. Does he want a man,/Much less a woman, think you?” (Browning).
Victorian society, much like Romantic society, still trivialized women and their struggle for equality, seeing them as nothing without a husband in front of them. Writing under the pseudonym of Currur Bell, Charlotte Brontë, older sister to Emily Brontë, documented the brutal realities of unmarried women living in Victorian England while combatting these stereotypes with a strong female protagonist in her novel Jane Eyre. Throughout this novel Jane, a rebellious orphan who has no regard for the status quo rises through hardship to a life of success despite all odds, deriding the Victorian upper class and their conceited lifestyles. From the young age of ten Jane was sent to live with her Aunt, Sarah Reed in Gateshead Hall after both her parents died from Typhus. Jane’s life at Gateshead is miserable, because she is an orphan she has no lineage and is treated as a second-class citizen, even among her family and especially by Lady Blanche; who is the epitome of a Victorian woman. Lady Blanche competes with Jane for Mr. Rochester not out of love but because of her desire to get some of his fortune; however, when she finds out that he has no fortune she immediately becomes furious. “All eyes met her with a glance of eager curiosity, and she met all eyes with one of rebuff and coldness. She looked neither flurried nor merry. She walked stiffly to her seat and took it in silence” (Brontë). Jane is above this, morally Jane is a Saint, viewing everyone as an equal and respectfully acknowledging the erroneous assumptions made about her by the upper class. Including Mr. Rochester’s the man she secretly loves.
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart!… It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are! (Brontë)
Jane denies Mr. Rochester’s proposal for marriage because she thinks that he is engaged to another woman. This is extremely valiant of Jane and satirical of the Victorian upper class that would assume that Jane would be raving over the idea of being allowed to marry such a wealthy, elegant man such as Rochester.
Ultimately, the Romantic and Victorian Periods were a tragic place to live as a woman and a desperate struggle to survive for those women who were unmarried. Living in a patriarchal society created an atmosphere where women’s voices were seldom heard unless masked behind a pseudonym. However, some women took advantage of this and began to write novels giving a satirical view on this. The novels showed the undermining of women’s authority, by either writing empowering anthems or even introducing female characters into their stories.
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