Women in the Victorian Era

What was the definition of women in the Victorian era? Written in 1847, “Jane Eyre” the novel concentrates on the role of women in the Victorian era and their rise of the new woman. It is a semi-biography and closely reflects the society of that time. The novel is a buildungsroman and it takes us through the life of a low-class woman struggling to create her identity in a male dominant, misogynistic world.

 In the 19th century, women in general had the same rights and duties but there was a very fine line dividing the lower class from the middle class and middle class from the upper class.

 In general, women had very little rights regarding education, marriage and properties. They were considered their husband’s property after marriage and before marriage were trained to become one. Charlotte Bronte depicts all three classes of women and their rights and duties profusely in her novel “Jane Eyre”.

The three main women who fit perfectly in the social classes are: Blanche Ingram in the higher class, Diana and Mary rivers in the middle class and Bessie in the lower class. Jane Eyre the protagonist, although being lower class, allows herself to step out of the stereotypical circle and create a whole new identity for herself. Jane will be discussed in more detail later on.

Blanche Ingram, a beautiful, wealthy, elegant yet aloof and showy woman is considered the epitome of women in that class. “She played…she sang…she talked French and she talked it well…” She is everything that a woman of noble background should be yet Jane says she is “Showy but…Not genuine” Being high class, Miss Ingram’s rights to a little more education than the other classes but still doesn’t possesses free will. Her duties to her husband are; to be able to dress and carry herself elegantly and with etiquette in order to exhibit her husband’s wealth and lass, she was expected to be able to read, sew, visit and receive guests, write lette4rs and see to the servants. Beauty and purity were a vital part of getting a wealthy, respected and honorable husband. Women were not supposed to have opinions regarding political issues and were only to talk to about materialistic things such as; clothes, jewelry and other accessories. Blanche Ingram possesses all of these qualities and therefore “Most gentlemen would admire her.”

Contradictory to the above, an example of higher class woman would be of Bertha mason, Mr. Rochester’s first wife. She possesses none of the above mentioned qualities and this is where Rochester’s male-dominant, misogynistic side is revealed as he locks her up in a room. Although Mrs. Rochester is crazy and mentally ill, and it wasn’t fair to burden Mr. Rochester unknowingly with her, this situation brings light to the misogynistic, male ego side of Mr. Rochester as he believes that being a male; he can lock up a female who was weak and fragile.

There is a very thin line dividing the middle from the lower class as women in both classes had to work in order to provide sustenance for themselves and their families. The only thing that was different was the kind of jobs they were given, the middle class usually worked as governesses and some also had jobs as teachers while the lower class had to find low paying work such as maids, sewing ladies or small jobs in factories or industries.

In Jane Eyre, the women who portray the mid-lower class were Diana and Mary rivers. They fit perfectly well with the typical image of middle class ladies. They are acquainted with general household work and have a good education that will let them have a job as governesses, “both possessed faces full of distinction and intelligence.” They are obedient to their brother as: they were so agreeable with each other-never fell out nor threaped.” It is indirectly known that they both were religious as St. John was very subservient to God and he cared more about working for God rather than listening to his own needs as he asks Jane to be his wife only because he her for a religious purpose. This again shows how men think that they can rule over women and force them into unwanted marriage. St. John emotionally blackmails Jane into being a missionary wife by using God’s name, “God ad nature intended you for a missionary wife…You shall be mine: I claim you-“instead of asking her, he directly claims her without her approval. What does this say about men? It tells us that no matter how religiously good a man might be, his ego will always make him dominate and rule women. By claiming her without her acceptance, St John contradicts his statement of being “the servant of an infallible master” as God doesn’t ask men to dominant women and make them do things against their will.

Bessie was Mrs. Reed’s caretaker and servant and she portrayed the lower class women. She was a good woman as she didn’t have anything extraordinary and so it would be reasonable to call her ordinary. She did her house work well, listened to her mistress and v=never disobeyed Mrs. Reed and explained to Jane why she had to behave herself in the company of Mrs. Reed, “…that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you.”Bessie although is not educated is smart enough to know her place in society and is willing to accept it but Jane on the other hand doesn’t accept this and rebels against it from the very beginning, “master! How is he my master am I a servant?”

As the novel is written towards the latter part of the 19th century, it reflects the changes taking part in society at that time and one of the major changes was the emergence of the “new woman”. Women were starting to realize and appreciate their roles in society and had started breaking and rebelling against the constraints of society set for them. This new movement gave birth to the new woman concept in the era and was the reason for major reforms in favor of women.

Charlotte Bronte’s novel is realistic and it challenges the role of women, religion and mortality in Victorian society and so she makes Jane portray the New woman that had just started to emerge in the era. Although Jane is not completely new woman, she possesses many of the characteristics found in these women. For one she is the only woman in the novel that demands equality and respect from men and is adamant not to lose her individuality to a man; “shall not be …Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin’s jacket.” “I have as much soul; as you and fully as much heart” but she contradicts her statement when she says “I will keep the law given by god: sanctioned by man.” As Jane has a strong moral background and even if she rebels against man, she can’t go against the will of God.

Leaving that aside, Jane does disobey the laws set by society and the most shocking of these is when she gets married to her master, “Mr. Rochester” as it was considered almost a sin for someone from a higher class to get married to someone from a lower class and Rochester not only marries any lower class lady but he marries his governess: who is as close to being a servant.

In Victorian times, lower class people were not allowed to even peep or glance out of their metaphorical box but Jane not only peeps but emerges from that box and raises her status to being high-class  as she gets married to Rochester and he is of a noble class.

Jane’s journey although it was very difficult and there were many temptations along the way, is a pure journey as Jane never faltered from her morals and values and even when she had to choose between love and her morals, she chose her values as they had helped her come this far; “Mr. Rochester, I must leave you.” This shows Jane’s independent spirit and struggle for morality and we can say she was right in doing so as at the end she does attain equality “we stood at God’s feet, equals as we are.”

On the whole, Jane Eyre the novel fluently and strongly reflects the society at that time and the changes taking place. It challenges the Victorian’s hypocrisy and the treatment of women in that time. There were a lot of controversies as the novel was based on realistic exposure and the Victorians felt assaulted. This just goes on to prove the Victorian’s hypocrisy as they knew what they were doing was wrong and yet they found two loopholes to show them in good light.

3 thoughts on “Women in the Victorian Era

  1. I loved the book.. and the movie.. and the whole women thing. I posted some things about this too and I have tons of books because the changing role of women was my A2 History coursework.

    Keep it up! 🙂

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