meant Victorian feminism emerged as a compelling political force.

meant that a woman’s
habitation was merely enclosed within the home. During the reign of Queen
Victoria, women were stripped of their status’, meaning it was a very patriarchal
time in which they lived. However, these concepts kept women far away from the
public sphere of the 19th century where altruistic undertakings allowed the
breakthrough of the female gender and as a result of this, Victorian feminism
emerged as a compelling political force. We very much see this breakthrough
within the two novels ‘Lady Audley’s Secret” by Elizabeth Braddon and ‘Poor
Miss Finch’ written by Wilkie Collins. These novels are sensationalist novels
in which explore the Victorian ideals of female sexuality and the
stereotypical, domesticated, passive woman of the 19th century – the ‘Ideal’
Victorian woman. 

 

POINT ONE – THE DIVISION OF SOCIAL CLASSES

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Both texts demonstrate the
vast division of social classes within a Victorian society and how class was
seen as a fundamental facet of 19th century Britain. It became
almost automatic to look down upon certain social issues and indeed encouraged
the attitude of the superior into Victorian Britain. The Victorian society was
simply divided into nobility Upper Class, Middle Class and The Working Class.
This famous Victorian social structure allowed the ability to dehumanise and
degrade certain groups of people either by putting a label how much money they earned
or whether they were physically and mentally able to work.  According to
Braddon, the character of Phoebe Marks is a “person who never lost her
individuality. Silent and self-constrained, she seemed to hold herself within herself,
and take no colour from the outer world” which denotes that the domestic sphere
indeed isolated the Victorian woman. We can infer that her husband prohibited
her from becoming a civic woman by keeping her bound to her domestic chores. The
lexical field of imagery, especially the H consonance sound suggests heavy work
load during her turmoil.

 

The title ‘Poor Miss Finch’
immediately demonstrates the way women were perceived within a Victorian
Society, implying that they were pitiable and defined by their marital status. The
word “Miss” signifies a distance between The Working Class and the Upper Class
in which would’ve indeed shocked a Victorian audience – as women were
encouraged to get married, without husbands they were seen as social failures
by the patriarchal society in which they lived. 1 The Victorian Era was also
a time of Romanticism in which courtship was an important aspect and considered
to be a tradition. Marriage signified a woman’s maturity and accountability in
the home. Romance and sexuality were not seen to be unfamiliar concepts to the
typical sensationalist Victorian Novel. Views and concepts illustrated marks
for a more shocking presumption made by the Victorian audience as such ideas
would have been looked down upon. Innovative works and urban living in fact,
encouraged a modification in the ways in which suitable male and female roles
were perceived – in fact, made equal.

 

We see how women are
perceived in a Victorian society in ‘Poor Miss Finch’ by the character of
Lucilla. Her submissive and ordered actions towards Oscar echoes the very idea
that middle-class women were discouraged from working and instead being
“Angels” of the home. The ‘Angel of The House’ was ‘central to Victorian
beliefs about the proper order of society”. 1 This was because many
‘Victorian men believed that women did not hold the intellectual capabilities’
2 which, educated, diligent men were encapsulated with. Collins describes
Lucilla as having “a baby in one hand and a novel in the other” p.11. This is
symbolic and it shows that her hands are used for motherly duties and that the
amount of children weighing her down symbolises that she is forever bound to
the 19th century domestic sphere as “motherly and wifely virtues of
childbearing and housework became associated with the role of women” 3. In
contrast, her mind tries to break away from the domestic sphere by reading. In
the Victorian era it was men who wrote letters, discussed politics and literature
4, another character in ‘Poor Miss Finch’, Madame Pratolungo, challenges this;
nevertheless, her political view is influenced by her husband “I have learnt
from my poor Pratolungo the habit of searching for the political convictions…”.
The fact that she participates in what are seen as male dominated activities
illustrates how women are progressing. Nevertheless, with her husband’s
influence still present, this implies a sudden setback in the growth in society
and suggests that women are undermined by men.

 

In contrast, the title ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ suggests that the text is
of a more superior class due to the title of “Lady”. This links to another
reoccurring theme throughout the Victorian period in which the social hierarchy
created a destructive divide between the working, middle, and upper classes.
Arguably, women and the working class were treated as second class citizens and
neither were entitled to suffrage until later in the era. 5 Middle Class and
Upper-class women were seen as social failures if they worked and once married
they were simply stripped of their own money and property. 6 The character of
Lady Audley challenges this assumption as she has direct power over her husband;
which would have implicitly been shocking to a Victorian Audience.

 

The strain and suffering of the 19th century woman played a
big part in both sensational novels.  The
very contrast between the two different portrayals of women in both novels is
questionably due to the difference in the author’s sex. Lady Audley’s Secret
(written by a woman) portrays feminist arguments and it is echoed throughout
the importance of suffrage and rebellion against 19th century
regulations. Elizabeth Braddon influences her personal life within ‘Lady
Audley’s Secret’ through the character of Lady Audley as she was living with
her partner outside of wedlock and was simply not concerned with the
traditional roles of Victorian Women. 7 In ‘Poor Miss Finch’, the echo of a man’s
perspective can be elicited through the speech of the narrator, a French woman,
Madame Pratalungo. She illustrates the difference between the two genders “we
gossiped, as women left alone often do” (p.59) reinforcing the stereotype that
women are theoretically immoral.

 

Wilkie Collins and Braddon foreshadow pre-feminist
ideas, as characters such as Lucilla and Mrs. Pratalungo are shown as using
masculine actions. WSPU.

POINT TWO – THE NEW WOMAN

 

The Victorian fin de siècle
was an age of tremendous change 9 that allowed the free-spirited, educated
mindset of the New woman; which threatened conventional ideas about the Idealistic
Victorian woman. The most
radical and far-fetched modification of all, brought concerns to the modern
role of the Victorian woman with the cumulative number of opportunities rising
within the 19th century – a male dominated world. Education and
employment prospects were seen to have improved immensely and the practice of
marriage shadowed by motherhood was no longer seen as the foreseeable means
toward securing a level of fiscal security.

 

The ‘New Woman’ is a theory
created by Sally Ledger in which art, politics, science and society
were revolutionised by embryonic new concepts and challenges that shaped a
break-through in the tradition. Ledger’s theory is depicted through the
character of Madame Pratalungo in ‘Poor Miss Finch’ as we see her strong,
opinionated personality rise from the patriarchal society in which she lived
and if she “had the strength” she would push past social barriers created by
domesticity “I would have knocked him down” p.224. The unusual ideology that
this politically robust woman wants to physically harm a man suggests the
innovation of the New woman and suggests masculinity in itself.

 

Similarly, in ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, the character
of Clara demonstrates femininity by obeying her father and giving into
societies expectations during his presence; however, rebels once he departs by
meeting with Robert Audley in clandestine “with her shawl still over her head”
p.158. This suggests that Clara is sworn to secrecy and that she is
metaphorically hiding from social standards as she knows she is not meant to be
taking the actions that she is. The novel challenges Ledger’s concept as Lady
Audley physically hurts George Talboys and is willing to do the same to Robert
Audley “if he stood before me now, I could kill him” p.243. The word “Kill”
suggests the emotional and physical turmoil that she is willing to convey. The
author, Elizabeth Braddon, does this to enhance the importance of ‘The New
Woman’ and illiterates the very notion that the importance of pursuing new
sensations inevitably, led to sex and sexuality playing an increasingly
important part in the search for new experiences. 10

 

 

 

 

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