Thursday, November 6, 2014

Victoria and The Woman Question

As I mentioned in my brief bio, one of the reasons for this blog is that I want to continue what I began in my graduate program of English literature with the study of Victorian lit. I graduated nearly six months ago, and I suppose you could say that I miss it already. Perhaps my nostalgia for school is also somewhat due to the fact that my school loan bills are now swiftly coming in; nevertheless, I am one of those people who *loves* everything about being in school and now that I am no longer a student, I find myself longing for intellectually-stimulated reflection and discussion about literature.

Without further ado...

The Victorian Era of course refers to the time period in which Queen Victoria reigned in England from 1837, when she was just eighteen, to her death in 1901.  She married Prince Albert in 1840 and thus began the proliferation of her image as the domestic empress, which co-joined her role as wife and mother in her private life with her public role as Queen of the British Empire.

Franz Xavier Winterhalter - The Family of Queen Victoria (1846)
This publication of Queen Victoria's image in a place of domestic bliss had a catalytic effect on the British public in its concern with the role of women in the public and private spheres of life. What some people might see as the prudishness or sensible femininity of the Victorian Age is certainly linked to Victoria's domestic tendency as she mothered nine children and was very dedicated to her devoted husband. Thus what has come to be known as the "Woman Question" was a topic perhaps inspired by Victoria's somewhat contradictory role as monarch and mother. The early beginnings of the Woman's Rights Movement began back in the Romantic period with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1759). A century later, however, the role of women was as controversial as ever. With authors such as Sarah Stickney Ellis, who argued for women's natural inferiority and believed that femininity was the backbone of all morality ("The Women of England, their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits,"1839), and John Ruskin, who wrote in his essay, "Of Queen's Gardens" (1864), that women should be educated only to the extent that they can hold engaging conversations with men, women were bound to the private sphere and their domestic role as "angels in the house." On the other end of the spectrum, John Stuart Mill provided insight into this overt suppression of women in his essay, "The Subjection of Women" (1869), in which he argues that men are not even aware of women's full potential because they have never been free to pursue it. 

Yet through this debate over women's proper role in society, Victoria provided perhaps a paradoxical image. On the one hand, the constant portrayals of her with her family uphold her image as the ideal "angel in the house," a woman content with her role in domesticity. Yet, she is simultaneously the Queen of the fastest growing empire on the earth at the time. Her rule saw much social and economic upheaval, and she and Prince Albert passed many reforms which aimed to improve working conditions and protect the rights of the poor working class. Not to mention this was also the height of British Imperialism, which included Victoria being crowned the Empress of India and extending the British Empire to countries as far-reaching as Malaysia, Australia, parts of Africa, and the West Indies. This precarious balance between femininity in the private sphere and power in the public sphere is perhaps the tight-rope walk that Victoria had to perform during her rule, and it sets the stage for the debates and differing opinions on the role of women that proliferated in twentieth century England. 

Queen Victoria herself hints at this struggle with her image in a letter to her daughter, Victoria, in 1858 in which she admonishes her daughter, who had just had her first baby, not to focus too much attention on her new role as mother that would cause her to, "neglect [her] other greater duties," for, she writes, "No lady, and still less a Princess, is fit for her husband or her position, if she does that." Yet later in the same letter, the Queen regrets the fact that her duties as ruler hinder her from visiting her daughter and new grandchild. She writes,
I cannot bear to think Bertie [Prince Albert] is going to you and I can't--and when I look at the baby things, and I feel I shall not be, where every other mother is--and I ought to be and can't--it makes me sick and almost frantic. Why in the world did you manage to choose a time when we could not be with you?   
These seeming contradictions suggest that Victoria struggled with her desire to be a mother and grandmother in a place of domesticity and and her dedication to her position as Queen. Later, after her husband died, she seemed more exhausted with this constant battle in her life. In 1872, she writes,
The higher the position the more difficult it is. --And for a woman alone to be head of so large a family and at the same time reigning Sovereign is I can assure you almost more than human strength can bear. I assure you I feel so done by the amount of work and interruption all day long that it affects my health and also my spirits very much at times. I feel so disheartened. I should like to retire quietly to a cottage in the hills and rest and see almost no one. As long as my health and strength will bear it--I will go on--but I often fear I shall not be able for many years (if I live). 
Just as Victoria wrote about her personal struggle with her dual roles in the public and private sphere, many other Victorians turned to the pen to engage in this topic, which turned it into a very public debate. With the advent of newspapers and journals in the nineteenth century, and the dawn of the age of the novel in the twentieth, writers could find publication rather easily and they took advantage of these literary platforms to engage in the social discussions of the day. Many of these writers were women, some under pseudonyms so they could publish more freely, but regardless of sex, it seems everyone had (and published) an opinion. So we will next take a look at some of these texts to see how they were engaging in the debate on the Woman Question in Victorian culture. 

Feel free to post comments if you had anything to add or any questions! Of course, this is a very brief overview of the Woman Question and Victoria's contribution to it through her letters. There is a wealth of information out there, and I will be the first to say I have not read it all. I am by no means an expert, just an avid learner :) 

If you are wondering where some of my information came from, like any good student, here is my works cited list:
1. The Victorian Web - - This is a fabulous site, one that I used often in grad school and that I will probably refer to a lot in this blog. It is a treasure house of articles and information about the Victorian Era. 
2. Introduction. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2B, The Victorian Age. Eds. Heather Henderson and William Sharpe. New York: Pearson, 2006. 
3. "Letters to Her Daughter, The Princess Royal." Victorian Prose: An Anthology. Eds. Rosemary J. Mundhenk and LuAnn McCracken Fletcher. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 270-271.