Women's Literature in the 19th Century: British Women Writers

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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 73-99. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

In the following essay, Showalter describes how women authors in the Victorian age, including George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, were unable to escape the condescending judgment of critics who refused to believe that women were capable of producing art that was equal to that of men.

To their contemporaries, nineteenth-century women writers were women first, artists second. A woman novelist, unless she disguised herself with a male pseudonym, had to expect critics to focus on her femininity and rank her with the other women writers of her day, no matter how diverse their subjects or styles. The knowledge that their individual achievement would be subsumed under a relatively unfavorable group stereotype acted as a constant irritant to feminine novelists. George Eliot protested against being compared to Dinah Mulock; Charlotte Brontë tried to delay the publication of Villette so that it would not be reviewed along with Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth. Brontë particularly wanted to prevent the male literary establishment from making women writers into competitors and rivals for the same small space: "It is the nature of writers to be invidious," she wrote to Mrs. Gaskell, but "we shall set them at defiance; they shall not make us foes."1

We tend to forget how insistently Victorian reviewers made women the targets of ad feminam criticism. An error in Gordon Haight's A Century of George Eliot Criticism illustrates this common modern oversight; Haight quotes E. S. Dallas as saying of Eliot that no "Englishman" could approach her as a writer of prose. The word Dallas actually used was "Englishwoman."2 To Haight, such a distinction may seem trivial; to George Eliot, it was not. Gentleman reviewers had patronized lady novelists since the beginning of the nineteenth century; in 1834, for example, the reviewer for Fraser's had gloated prematurely over what he believed to be the true authorship of Castle Rackrent and The Absentee: "Ay: it is just as we expected! Miss Edgeworth never wrote the Edgeworth novels … all that, as we have long had a suspicion, was the work of her father."3 But the intense concentration on the proper sphere of the woman writer did not appear in criticism until the 1840s. Victorian critics strained their ingenuity for terms that would put delicate emphasis on the specialness of women and avoid the professional neutrality of "woman writer": authoress, female pen, lady novelist, and as late as Hurst & Blackett's 1897 commemorative volume, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, the elegant "lady fictionists," described by "living mistresses of the craft." Through the 1850s and 1860s there was a great increase in theoretical and specific criticism of women novelists. Hardly a journal failed to publish an essay on women's literature; hardly a critic failed to express himself upon its innate and potential qualities.

This situation, similar to the expanded market for literature by and about women in the late 1960s, suggests that the Victorians were responding to what seemed like a revolutionary, and in many ways a very threatening, phenomenon. As the number of important novels by women increased through the 1850s and 1860s, male journalists were forced to acknowledge that women were excelling in the creation of fiction, not just in England, but also in Europe and America. As it became apparent that Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth were not aberrations, but the forerunners of female participation in the development of the novel, jokes about dancing dogs no longer seemed an adequate response.

One form of male resistance was to see women novelists as being engaged in a kind of aggressive conspiracy to rob men of their markets, steal their subject matter, and snatch away their young lady readers, to see them as "dominating" because of superior numbers rather than superior abilities. As late as 1851, there were a few hardy souls who continued to deny that women could write novels. Coventry Patmore conceded that "there certainly have been cases of women possessed of the properly masculine power of writing books, but these cases are all so truly and obviously exceptional, and must and ought always to remain so, that we may overlook them without the least prejudice to the soundness of our doctrine."4 Some reviewers found the situation so embarrassing that they had to treat it as an unfortunate accident. In 1853 J. M. Ludlow glumly advised his readers, "We have to notice the fact that at this particular moment of the world's history the very best novels in several great countries happen to have been written by women."5 But by 1855, even before the appearance of George Eliot, the emergence of the woman's novel was so striking that most readers and reviewers would have agreed with Margaret Oliphant in linking it to other symptoms of social progress: "This, which is the age of so many things—of enlightenment, of science, of progress—is quite as distinctly the age of female novelists."6

Even those critics who disapproved of changes in the doctrine of the two sexual spheres were far from advocating women's retirement from the literary field. The new questions of women's place in literature proved endlessly fascinating, and the Victorians approached them with all the weight of their religious commitments and their interest in the sciences of human nature. Although most periodical criticism, especially between 1847 and 1875, employed a double standard for men's and women's writing and seemed shocked or chagrined by individual women's failures to conform to the stereotypes, a few critics, notably G. H. Lewes, George Eliot, and R. H. Hutton, were beginning to consider what women as a group might contribute to the art of the novel.

Most of the negative criticism tried to justify the assumption that novels by women would be recognizably inferior to those by men. When the Victorians thought of the woman writer, they immediately thought of the female body and its presumed afflictions and liabilities. They did so, first, because the biological creativity of childbirth seemed to them directly to rival the aesthetic creativity of writing. The metaphors of childbirth familiarly invoked to describe the act of writing directed attention toward the possibility of real conflict between these analogous experiences. In an 1862 review of Mrs. Browning, Gerald Massey wrote: "It is very doubtful if the highest and richest nature of woman can ever be unfolded in its home life and wedded relationships, and yet at the same time blossom and bear fruit in art or literature with a similar fulness. What we mean is, that there is so great a draft made upon women by other creative works, so as to make the chance very small that the general energy shall culminate in the greatest musician, for example. The nature of woman demands that to perfect it in life which must half-lame it for art. A mother's heart, at its richest, is not likely to get adequate expression in notes and bars, if it were only for the fact that she must be absorbed in other music."7

Second, there was a strong belief that the female body was in itself an inferior instrument, small, weak, and, in Geraldine Jewsbury's words, "liable to collapses, eclipses, failures of power … unfitting her for the steady stream of ever-recurring work."8 Victorian physicians and anthropologists supported these ancient prejudices by arguing that women's inferiority could be demonstrated in almost every analysis of the brain and its functions. They maintained that, like the "lower races," women had smaller and less efficient brains, less complex nerve development, and more susceptibility to certain diseases, than did men. Any expenditure of mental energy by women would divert the supply of blood and phosphates from the reproductive system to the brain, leading to dysmenorrhea, "ovarian neuralgia," physical degeneracy, and sterility. Physicians estimated that "maternal functions diverted nearly 20 percent of women's vital energies from potential brain activity."9

Female intellectual distinction thus suggested not only a self-destructive imitation of a male skill but also a masculine physical development. Elizabeth Barrett referred in a general way to this widespread association when she apostrophized her heroine, George Sand, as "thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man," but it was often used more snidely in allusions to George Eliot's "large hand" and "large eye"—metaphors of artistic mastery that invariably suggested to the Victorians large noses and large feet.10 This physical imagery was further popularized by Victorian phrenologists like George Combe, who believed creative traits to be revealed by the shape of the skull. The bizarre theories of the phrenologists and the quacks were reinforced by the expertise of scientists like James Macgrigor Allan, who stated dogmatically to his fellow anthropologists in 1869 that "in intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application."11 Advanced thinkers were influenced by these ideas even if they rejected them. George Eliot wondered whether women's lack of originality might be attributable to her brain structure: "The voltaic-pile is not strong enough to produce crystallization."12 Mill, refuting the brain-weight argument in The Subjection of Women, thought it necessary to mention that the heaviest brain on record belonged to a woman.13

Although women writers often believed that they did labor under innate handicaps of mind and body, they nonetheless felt pressured to prove both their reliability and their physical endurance. What women must demonstrate, Eliot wrote, is the capability for "accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command."14 As they met deadlines, edited magazines, and coped with the strenuous burdens of part-publication and serialization, women writers expressed more openly their irritation with those sisters who exploited the old stereotypes of weakness and sickliness. In reviewing Harriet Martineau's Autobiography in 1877, for example, Mrs. Oliphant could not conceal her annoyance at Martineau's woeful claim that overwork had destroyed her health and would send her to an early grave. Oliphant commented that "many a hard literary worker will smile at these tremendous prognostications."15 Similarly, women physicians like Alice Putnam Jacobi made a point of debating male doctors on the question of female health and of correcting some of their more peculiar assumptions. Even so, arguments from physiology retained sufficient force in 1929 to lead Virginia Woolf to ignore a century of three-deckers and suggest that women's physical weakness meant that they should write shorter books than men.16

Another explanation given in criticism for the inferiority of female literature was women's limited experience. Vast preserves of masculine life—schools, universities, clubs, sports, businesses, government, and the army—were closed to women. Research and industry could not make up for these exclusions, and, as indicated in Fraser's, women writers were at a disadvantage: "A man's novel is generally a more finished production than a woman's; his education and experience give him a wider range of thought and a larger choice of character, and he usually groups his personages and incidents more artistically, and writes better English than his rivals."17 As a form of social realism and a medium for moral and ethical thought, the novel obviously required maturity and mobility in its creators. Further, it required a complete set of emotions. Since the Victorians had defined women as angelic beings who could not feel passion, anger, ambition, or honor, they did not believe that women could express more than half of life. E. S. Dallas proclaimed it "evident that from that inexperience of life, which no amount of imagination, no force of sympathy, can ever compensate, women labour under serious disadvantages in attempting the novel."18

Denied participation in public life, women were forced to cultivate their feelings and to overvalue romance. In the novels, emotion rushed in to fill the vacuum of experience, and critics found this intensity, this obsession with personal relationships, unrealistic and even oppressive. The chief fault of Julia Kavanagh's Daisy Burns, according to the Westminster, was the fatiguingly sustained high pitch of emotion that it shared with other novels by women: "Human nature is not so constituted as to be able to keep a never-failing fountain of tears always at work; deep passion and wild sorrow pass over us—whom do they spare?—but they are not the grand occupation of our lives, still less the chief object of them."19 The question of whose lives were so occupied is neglected here; the reviewer writes from the masculine perspective. Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Mrs. Oliphant, and Florence Nightingale also criticized the overemphasis on love and passion in feminine fiction, but they understood that lack of education, isolation, and boredom had distorted women's values and channeled creative energy into romantic fantasy and emotional self-dramatization.

The simplistic psychology and naive religious optimism characteristic of some feminine writing reflected a female subculture in which confirmation in the church was often the most dramatic external event between the schoolroom and marriage; church-organized charity work, the only activity outside the home; and piety, the speciality of women and children. Reviewers deplored the immaturity of the fiction but could not bring themselves to do away with or expand the role. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins parodied the Puseyite fanaticism of Charlotte Yonge's Heir ofRedclyffe in Household Words; even Guy's death scene they found "marred or made obscured, either by the writer's want of experience of human nature, or utter uncompatability of abstraction from one narrow circle of ideas."20 W. R. Greg, although he abhorred the "false morality of lady novelists," their faith in the expedience of self-sacrifice and in the workings of providence, could not see how women's ethical horizons could be much expanded: "If the writer be a young lady, whole spheres of observation, whole branches of character and conduct, are almost inevitably closed to her."21

While it was theoretically possible for women novelists to write about female physical experience, including childbirth and maternal psychology, they faced many obstacles to self-expression in their own sphere. Victorian women were taught to keep these experiences to themselves, to record them in very private diaries (such as Mrs. Gaskell's diary about her first child, Marianne), or to share them in intimate friendships with one or two other women. There were strong taboos against sharing them with men. As one historian explains: "From early childhood, girls … were taught self-effacement and modesty, were encouraged to feel shame about their bodies, and were advised to try to 'hide' the natural conditions of menstruation and pregnancy. The single woman of the middle-class was forced to deceit if she was to taste any of the freedom of knowledge given her brothers. The married woman of the class was constantly told not to trouble her husband with her own petty problems, to bear the pain of illness in silence, and to prevent knowledge of all indelicate matters from reaching 'innocent' ears."22 Women educated to perceive themselves, in the popular horticultural imagery of the period, as lilies-of-the-valley or violets seeking the shade were understandably ambivalent about the self-revelation necessary in fiction.23 The conflict between art and self-exposure, rather than any physical weakness, probably accounts for the stress symptoms of sickness and headache suffered by novelists like Geraldine Jewsbury, who fell ill each time she completed a book and finally gave up writing fiction on her doctor's orders.

Victorian critics agreed that if women were going to write at all they should write novels. Yet this assessment, too, denigrated and resisted feminine achievement. Theories of female aptitude for the novel tended to be patronizing, if not downright insulting. The least difficult, least demanding response to the superior woman novelist was to see the novel as an instrument that transformed feminine weaknesses into narrative strengths. Women were obsessed by sentiment and romance; well, these were the staples of fiction. Women had a natural taste for the trivial; they were sharp-eyed observers of the social scene; they enjoyed getting involved in other people's affairs. All these alleged female traits, it was supposed, would find a happy outlet in the novel. "Women," wrote E. S. Dallas, "have a talent for personal discourse and familiar narrative, which, when properly controlled, is a great gift, although too frequently it degenerates into a social nuisance."24 Such an approach was particularly attractive because it implied that women's writing was as artless and effortless as birdsong, and therefore not in competition with the more rational male eloquence.

To critics who sentimentalized and trivialized women's interest in psychological motivation, the novel was the inevitable crystallization of femininity. The spectacle of J. M. Ludlow, straining to explain away Mrs. Gaskell and her sister writers without appearing ungentlemanly or making any concessions about female intelligence, is an instructive illustration:

Now, if we consider the novel to be the picture of human life in a pathetic, or as some might prefer the expression, in a sympathetic form, that is to say, addressed to human feeling, rather than to human taste, judgment, or reason, there seem nothing paradoxical in the view, that women are called to the mastery of this peculiar field of literature. We know, all of us, that if man is the head of humanity, woman is its heart; and as soon as education has rendered her ordinarily capable of expressing feeling in written words, why should we be surprised to find that her words come more home to us than those of men, where feeling is chiefly concerned?25

By eliminating from his definition of the novel all the qualities he could not bring himself to see in women, Ludlow could accept even his own response to women's novels without having to modify any of his stereotypes. So intent was he on showing the perfect compatability of the stereotype and the product that he could dismiss the question of "expressing feeling in written words" as the merest trick of the literate. Rather than protesting against such criticism, women writers, as we have seen, reinforced it by playing down the effort behind their writing, and trying to make their work appear as the spontaneous overflow of their womanly emotions. This strategy was partly a way of minimizing the professional and intellectual aspects of the work, and partly a way of describing the powerful drives for self-expression that, especially for feminine novelists like Mrs. Oliphant, made the act of writing initially a possession by the muse: "I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me."26

The feminine subcultural ideology did, however, have strengths as well as weaknesses. Men like Ludlow and Dallas, and even Hutton, may have regarded fiction as a form of repressive desublimation for women, a safe and suitable channel for energies that might otherwise have been turned to business, politics, religion, and revolutionary action. But feminine novelists, as Lorna Sage brilliantly suggests, came to take their role as the educators of the heart very seriously, so that "while deferring to male knowledge and power, they subtly revise and undermine the world from which they are excluded." Sage describes how Margaret Hale in Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, for example, quietly introduces the industrialist Mr. Thornton to the feminine values of domestic duty, familial loyalty, and personal affection, so that gradually his discussions of political economy, collective action, and violent strikes recede into the background. Gaskell transposes the political into "local, individual terms, much as she tames Mr. Thornton and redirects his savage energies into private life."27 I would add to Sage's observations the fact that the women's victories are economic as well as emotional. Like Jane Eyre and Shirley Helstone, Margaret not only tames Thornton but also, in a final humiliation, endows him with her legacy so that he can pay off his debts and keep his mill. To get a great deal of money and to give it to a man for his work was the feminine heroine's apotheosis, the ultimate in the power of self-sacrifice.

One of the most persistent denigrations of women novelists was the theory that only unhappy and frustrated women wrote books. G. H. Lewes, writing in 1852, was one of the earliest to analyze the "compensatory" nature of female literature:

If the accidents of her position make her solitary and inactive, or if her thwarted affections shut her somewhat from that sweet domestic and maternal sphere to which her whole being spontaneously moves, she turns to literature as to another sphere.…The happy wife and busy mother are only forced into literature by some hereditary organic tendency, stronger even than the domestic.28

In 1862, Gerald Massey repeated Lewes' point: "Women who are happy in all home-ties and who amply fill the sphere of their love and life, must, in the nature of things, very seldom become writers."29 And the same idea, in almost the same words, was still cropping up as late as 1892; Catherine J. Hamilton's introduction to Women Writers: Their Works and Ways concurs: "Happy women, whose hearts are satisfied and full, have little need of utterance. Their lives are rounded and complete, they require nothing but the calm recurrence of those peaceful home duties in which domestic women rightly feel that their true vocation lies."

Feminine novelists responded to these innuendos of inferiority, as to others, not by protest but by vigorous demonstration of their domestic felicity. They worked hard to present their writing as an extension of their feminine role, an activity that did not detract from their womanhood, but in some sense augmented it. This generation would not have wanted an office or even "a room of one's own"; it was essential that the writing be carried out in the home, and that it be only one among the numerous and interruptible household tasks of the true woman. Mrs. Gaskell wrote in her dining-room with its four doors opening out to all parts of the house; Mrs. Oliphant half-complained and half-boasted that she had never had a study, but had worked in "the little 2nd drawing room where all the (feminine) life of the house goes on."30 When interviewers came to visit, Mrs. Linton would display her embroidered cushions, fire-screens, and chair-seats; Mrs. Walford would pour tea; Mrs. Oliphant would pose in black silk and lace. Mrs. Craik modestly described the position of the feminine novelists: "We may … write shelvesful of books—the errant children of our brain may be familiar half over the grown world, and yet we ourselves sit as quiet by our chimney-corner, live a life as simple and peaceful as any happy common woman of them all."31

This grass-roots approach, this domestication of the profession, was also a trap. Women novelists might have banded together and insisted on their vocation as something that made them superior to the ordinary woman, and perhaps even happier. Instead they adopted defensive positions and committed themselves to conventional roles. If womanliness was defined as something that had to be proved, it had to be proved again and again. The feminine writers' self-abasement backfired and caused the kind of patronizing trivialization of their works found in George Smith's obituary of Mrs. Gaskell: "She was much prouder of ruling her household well … than of all she did in those writings."32

Even a sophisticated critic like Lewes, who believed that a full knowledge of life was dependent upon the depiction of feminine as well as masculine experience, had difficulties in separating a theory of female literature from his own sexual stereotypes. In his significantly titled pre-George Eliot essay, "The Lady Novelists," Lewes begins with the "abstract heights" of female "nature," rather than with the empirical evidence of female achievement:

The domestic experience which forms the bulk of woman's knowledge finds an appropriate form in novels; while the very nature of fiction calls for that predominance of Sentiment which we have already attributed to the feminine mind. Love is the staple of fiction, for it "forms the story of a woman's life." The joys and sorrows of affection, the incidents of domestic life, assume typical forms in the novel. Hence we may be prepared to find women succeeding better in finesse of detail, in pathos and sentiment, while men generally succeed better in the construction of plots and the delineation of character.33

Obviously, being "prepared" to find such a polarization of narrative skills would affect critical judgments. When Lewes turns, in a rather whimsical way, to specific writers, he can only discern the combinations of Sentiment and Observation that he has already decided are feminine traits: the signs of gentility, domesticity, and breeding that the title of his article implies. For Lewes, as for other Victorian critics, women of genius did not require a modification in sexual theory; the apparent exception was readily seen to be charmingly and ineffectually disguising her true womanhood. Thus, Jane Austen's books are first and foremost "novels written by a woman, an English-woman, a gentlewoman"; George Sand has vainly "chosen the mask of a man; the features of a woman are everywhere visible"; and Sand's philosophy is "only a reflex of some man whose ideas she has adopted."34 When he gets to Charlotte Brontë, Lewes has a moment's trouble with his categories, but he reminds the reader that if one is not "blinded" by the masculine force of Jane Eyre, one can perceive the "rare powers of observation" that stamp it as feminine.35

A much more successful effort to define a theory of female literature was Richard Holt Hutton's "Novels by the Authoress of 'John Halifax,'" which appeared in the North British Review in 1858. Hutton, who later became a percipient and responsible critic of George Eliot, used his review of Dinah Mulock to analyze "the main characteristics on which feminine fictions, as distinguished from those of men, are strong or defective." Hutton began his article with practical criticism and moved outward toward the theoretical; although he would obviously have come out with different views with Austen or Brontë, rather than Mulock, as his chief example, his inductive method was a good one, and he was careful to keep his generalizations narrow. Hutton recognized the problems of choosing a representative female author, and explained that Mulock had been selected chiefly because she was not a genius, but a competent writer who might better represent "the kind of faculty which is potential or actual in most clever women."36

Hutton agreed with Lewes that "feminine ability has found for itself a far more suitable sphere in novel-writing than in any other branch of literature,"37 but he attributed the predilection of women's deficiencies in intellectual training and discipline, rather than to any positive correlation between female psychology and narrative realism. For the philosophical modes that he valued most highly, he thought, women substituted documentation, a copious circumstantial descriptiveness. Observation thus could be seen not as an innate feminine gift but as a developed compensatory skill. Hutton theorized that differences in masculine and feminine education and intellectual processes had led to two poles of narrative structure. In men's novels some kind of philosophy, some general idea, dictated the artistic composition of the narrative. The characters were placed in this broad intellectual framework, like Waverley in Scott's contrasts of past and present, or Becky in Thackeray's satire. Women's novels, on the other hand, concentrated on the characters themselves. Reader identification with the characters gave those novels a special intensity, but one that was transitory since it was intellectually limited. By these standards, Hutton defined Dickens as a "feminine" writer, one of the many indications in his article that he was not insisting on rigid biologically sexual terms.

Yet "feminine" is always a pejorative term for Hutton. He found that even in delineating character, their specialty, women were at a serious disadvantage, partly because of changing fashions in the novel:

In many ways, the natural limitations of feminine power are admirably adapted to the standard of fiction held up as the true model of a feminine novelist in the last century. It was then thought sufficient to present finished sketches of character, just as it appeared under the ordinary restraints of society; while the deeper passions and spiritual impulses, which are the springs of all the higher drama of real life, were, at most, only allowed so far to suffuse the narrative as to tinge it with the excitement necessary for a novel.38

In other words, when readers began to look to fiction for a more ambitious realism, for psychological analysis, and for intellectual subtlety, women were handicapped by the social pressures of feminine gentility. Women were expert at rendering the surface, but art now required an exploration of the springs of life.

Like Lewes and Mill, Hutton felt that lack of imagination was the "main deficiency of feminine genius": "It can observe, it can recombine, it can delineate, but it cannot trust itself farther: it cannot leave the world of characteristic traits and expressive manner, so as to imagine and paint successfully the distinguishable, but not easily distinguished, world out of which those characteristics grew."39 Because they were unable to speculate about motivations, to project themselves into the unseen interiors of their characters, particularly their male characters, women writers, Hutton thought, were increasingly being forced into use of the autobiographical form to give their books superficial unity and a center of imaginative authenticity. Although a vivid central character based on personal experience seemed to be within their abilities, women's concentration on such a character could wreck the novel's aesthetic balance.

Hutton traced this deficiency in imagination to cultural circumstance rather than to nature. Women were at a disadvantage, first, because their direct experience was so limited; and second, because they were poorly educated, especially in the masculine fields of science, economics, and philosophy, which developed the ability to generalize and theorize: "The same mind that has been trained to go apart with laws of matter, and laws of wealth, and laws of intellect, and to elaborate them as if no outer world for the time existed at all, also enables men to go apart with conceptions of character."40 On the other hand, Hutton thought, "the patient and pliant genius" of women enabled them to deal with the evolution and gradual growth of character; because of this ability to portray growth, writers such as Mulock or Charlotte Yonge could deal with moral and spiritual problems without becoming didactic.

Hutton had to modify some of these views when George Eliot appeared on the scene, and he might have modified them sooner if he had understood Jane Eyre, Villette, or Wuthering Heights. But literary stereotypes adapted very slowly to any real evidence of feminine achievement. If we break down the categories that are the staple of Victorian periodical reviewing, we find that women writers were acknowledged to possess sentiment, refinement, tact, observation, domestic expertise, high moral tone, and knowledge of female character; and thought to lack originality, intellectual training, abstract intelligence, humor, self-control, and knowledge of male character. Male writers had most of the desirable qualities: power, breadth, distinctness, clarity, learning, abstract intelligence, shrewdness, experience, humor, knowledge of everyone's character, and openmindedness.

This double standard was so widely accepted through about 1875 that critics and readers automatically employed it in the game of literary detection. Approaching an anonymous or pseudonymous novel, reviewers would break it down into its elements, label these masculine or feminine, and add up the total. The predominance of masculine or feminine elements determined the sex of the author. As a critical instrument this practice was not very reliable; considering the odds based on chance alone, the percentage of correct guesses is not impressive. Male writers were occasionally misidentified as women. R. D. Blackmore's first novel, Clara Vaughan (1864), had a female narrator; and the Saturday Review, convinced they had detected an authoress, used the opportunity for an attack on maidenly ignorance: "Another decided feature by which our lady novelists are wont to betray the secret of their authorship is the characteristic mode in which they unconsciously make sport of the simplest principles of physics, and of the most elementary rules or usages of the law."41 Blackmore had practiced law in London for five years. But even embarrassing errors such as this could not persuade reviewers that the sexual double standard needed revision.

Jane Eyre was published in 1847; and Adam Bede, in 1859. Both novels appeared under pseudonyms, and on both occasions critics were baffled by qualities in the novels that could not be simplistically defined as masculine or feminine. When the authors behind the pseudonyms were revealed to be women, critics were dismayed. The main difference between the two episodes was that Charlotte Brontë had been shocked, dismayed, and hurt to discover that her realism struck others as improper; George Eliot had seen what had happened to Charlotte Brontë, and was prepared.

Early critics of Jane Eyre were obsessed with discovering the sex of Currer Bell. "The whole reading-world of England was in a ferment to discover the unknown author.… Every little incident mentioned in the book was turned this way and that to answer, if possible, the much-vexed question of sex."42 Incidents included clothes, domestic details, and conversations. Harriet Martineau, for example, determined on the basis of chapter 16, in which Grace Poole sews curtain rings on Rochester's bed drapings, that the book "could have been written only by a woman or an upholsterer."43 Circumstantial evidence aside, the presentation of female sexuality and human passion disturbed and amazed readers. If Currer Bell was a woman, they could not imagine what sort of woman she might be. Even while critics acknowledged the presence of genius, they felt stunned by its unconventionality. The Christian Remembrancer declared that it would be hard to find "a book more unfeminine, both in its excellencies and its defects … in the annals of female authorship." According to Lewes, "a more masculine book in the sense of vigour was never written."44 Others, like the American E. P. Whipple, were "gallant enough to detect the hand of a gentleman" in composing the "profanity, brutality, and slang."45 The relationship between Rochester and Jane, and Jane's admission of passion for her married employer, could not be accepted. Thus one sees over and over in the reviews words like "sensual," "gross," and "animal." Tom Winnifrith, who has written a comprehensive study of the reception of Jane Eyre, has the impression that the most hostile reviews were written by women.46

The appearance of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë while the novelist's fame was at its posthumous height convinced critics that Brontë could not have been guilty of immorality, and also provided them with some explanations for her knowledge of passion. The Saturday Review was happy to exonerate Charlotte and to blame her education in Brussels for the unfeminine sophistication of the novels:

Women regarded her novels with that sort of fluttering alarm which is always awakened in unpolluted breasts by the signs of a knowledge greater than their own. Men recognized the truthful touches which these novels contained, but wondered how they came to be there, for the general purity of their tone refuted the notion that they were the symptoms of depravity.… We cannot doubt that Miss Brontë derived an instruction which to a less noble, unstained and devotional mind might have been perilous, from her residence in a foreign school, her observation of foreign manners, and her analysis of the thoughts of foreigners.47

The Quarterly Review looked closer to home, at the influence of Branwell, "thoroughly depraved himself, and tainting the thoughts of all within his sphere."48 Many readers, including Charlotte Yonge, felt that Branwell's influence on his sisters had been dastardly, but they found it comfortably in accordance with their notions of male and female temperament.

George Eliot, as the editor of the Westminister Review and the translator of Strauss and Feuerbach, had already offended conservative factions. As the mistress of Lewes, she had put herself outside the boundaries of Victorian respectability. Thus she risked more critical hostility by revealing herself than Charlotte Brontë did, as she, Lewes, and the publisher Blackwood were well aware. It was the example of Jane Eyre, however, that Lewes cited in explaining the pseudonym to Blackwood: "When Jane Eyre was finally known to be a woman's book, the tone [of criticism] noticeably changed."49 Furor about the sex of the author characterized the publication of Adam Bede, as it had the publication of Eliot's first, less successful book, Scenes from Clerical Life. With a few distinguished exceptions, reviewers believed George Eliot to be a clerical gentleman. The Saturday Review later confessed, "to speak the simple truth, without affectation or politeness, it [Adam Bede] was thought to be too good for a woman's story."50

Barbara Bodichon and Anne Mozley were among those who guessed the truth. Bodichon, a radical feminist, rejoiced in the authorship as a triumph for womanhood: "1. That a woman should write a wise and humorous book which should take a place by Thackeray. 2. That youthat you whom they spit at should do it!"51 Anne Mozley, the reviewer for Bentley's Quarterly Review, was certain that the book was a woman's in spite of its felicity, force, and freedom of expression because it was written by an outsider, an observer: "The knowledge of female nature is feminine, not only in its details, which might be borrowed from other eyes, but in its whole tone of feeling … the position of the writer towards every point in discussion is a woman's position, that is, from a stand of observation rather than more active participation." Her review went on to cite other evidence of female culture as proof that a woman had written the book: "the knowledge of female nature … the full close scrutiny of observation … acquaintance with form life in its minute particulars … the secure ground … in matters of domestic housewifery." Finally, Mozley triumphantly cited, "women are known dearly to love a 'well-directed moral.'"52 Mozley's analysis was shrewd and perceptive. The brilliant conjectures of the Westminster Review, however, were not; the editor, John Chapman, had learned the secret from Herbert Spencer. He nevertheless congratulated himself on his prescience when the pseudonym was revealed to the public in 1860.53

Lewes hoped that the pseudonym had won the book a fair reading; to Barbara Bodichon he wrote: "They can't now unsay their admiration." But he was wrong. At least one journal went back for a second look. William Hepworth Dixon, the editor of the Athenaeum (who sometimes reviewed his own books under a pseudonym), wrote a vicious notice for the gossip column: "It is time to end this pother about the authorship of 'Adam Bede.' The writer is in no sense a great unknown; the tale, if bright in parts, and such as a clever woman with an observant eye and unschooled moral nature might have written, has no great quality of any kind."54 With the appearance of The Mill on the Floss, criticism of George Eliot noticeably changed and cheapened; it placed her among the "modern female novelists" and judged her by the collective standards. The Saturday Review was "not sure that it is quite consistent with feminine delicacy to lay so much stress on the bodily feelings of the other sex."55 The Quarterly went back to its sneers at female ignorance: "There are traces of knowledge which is not usual among women (although some of the classical quotations might at least have been more correctly printed)."56

The Brontës, in their radical innocence, confronted all sexually biased criticism head-on. Charlotte constantly had to be restrained by her publishers from attacking critics in the prefaces to her books, and she frequently wrote directly to reviewers and journals in protest. She admonished the critic of the Economist: "To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment."57 Anne Brontë prefaced the second edition of Wildfell Hall with a defiant declaration of equal literary rights: "I am satisfied that if the book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be." George Eliot stopped reading reviews of her books when criticism became personal; all were vetted by Lewes. However, one sees signs of self-censorship both in her shift after 1860 to less autobiographical fiction, and in her careful elimination of possible double entendres in proof.

George Eliot was virtually alone among feminine novelists in speculating about the psychological and moral impact of women's experience on the structure and content of the novel. She found most of the feminine literature of her day inept and derivative, and wondered "how women have the courage to write and publishers the spirit to buy at a high price the false and feeble representations of life and characters that most feminine novels give."58 She considered some of the literature inauthentic, "an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire."59 In "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot denounced the covert victories of feminine values, the fantasies of instant intellectual mastery and intuitive spiritual authority. She understood that the habits of the professional were at variance with the indoctrination of women, but, in literature, as in other activities, she wished women to substitute "the hard drudgery of real practice" for feminine fantasy and self-indulgence.60 Eliot also believed, however, that women writers had a "precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience," a speciality that was grounded in the maternal emotions.61 Somehow, she thought, the maternal affections would lead to "distinctive forms and combinations" in the novel.62

The feminine novelists did share the cultural values of Victorian middle-class women, and they clung to the traditional notion of femininity. They were not, however, simply ordinary women who happened to write books; they were different from the start. Lewes and Massey were partly correct that "happy wives and busy mothers" did not become writers, but they failed to understand that women with strong imaginative drives and achievement needs could not be content with domesticity. Even those women writers who began to work because they needed to earn money soon found themselves changed by the disciplines and rewards of the profession. They were not like "any happy common woman"; they were more organized, more businesslike, more assertive, more adventurous, more flexible, and more in control of their lives.

Being Victorian women, they were concerned about these changes in themselves. Geraldine Jewsbury worried about the psychological transformations of female professionalism both in her letters to Jane Carlyle and in her novels. In the latter, she put her own doubts, ludicrously exaggerated, into the mouths of libertines and rogues: "The intrinsic value of a woman's work out of her own sphere is nothing, and what are the qualities developed to make up for it?… The bloom and charm of her innocence is gone; she has gained a dogmatic, harsh, self-sufficing vanity, which she calls principle; she strides and stalks through life, neither one thing nor another."63

Critics, too, wondered if the women novelists had removed themselves so far from the sphere of the common woman that they had lost the power to describe it. Richard Simpson pointed out some of the obvious problems in a review of George Eliot:

Though she ought to be able to draw women in herself, for the simple reason that she is a woman, yet she may be too far separated from the ordinary life of her sex to be a good judge of its relations. The direct power and the celebrity of authorship may obscure and replace the indirect influence and calm happiness of domestic feminine life. For admiration and affection do not easily combine. Celebrity isolates the authoress, and closes her heart; it places her where experience of the ordinary relations of the sex is impossible, and where she is tempted to supply by theory what is lacking in experience. She gives us her view of woman's vocation, and paints things as they ought to be, not as they are. Women work more by influence than by force, by example than reasoning, by silence than speech; the authoress grasps at direct power through reasoning and speech. Having thus taken up the male position, the male ideal becomes hers,—the ideal of power,—which expressed by her feminine heart and intellect, means the supremacy of passion in the affairs of the world.64

On the contrary, women novelists had authority to describe the lives of ordinary women, those powerless lives of influence, example, and silence, precisely because they had outgrown them. As critics like Simpson uneasily sensed, they were writing not only to develop direct personal power, but also to change the perceptions and aspirations of their female readers. The strong utilitarian thrust of feminine criticism—what good will this book do us?—was partly the spirit of the age, but it was also a part of the search for new heroines, new role-models, and new lives.


  1. Clement K. Shorter, The Brontës: Life and Letters, London, 1908, ii, p.30.
  2. A Century of George Eliot Criticism, Boston, 1965, p. 37. Dallas's review of Felix Holt in the Times, June 26, 1866, p. 6, discusses Eliot's place relative to Jane Austen "among our lady novelists," and concludes, "We don't know any Englishwoman who can be placed near her as a writer of prose."
  3. "A Dozen of Novels," Fraser'six (1834): 483.
  4. "The Social Position of Women," North British Reviewxiv (1851): 281.
  5. "Ruth," North British Reviewxix (1853): 90.
  6. "Modern Novelists—Great and Small," Blackwoodslxx-vii (1855): 555.
  7. "Last Poems and Other Works of Mrs. Browning," North British Reviewxxxvi (1862): 271.
  8. Introduction to The Half-Sisters, London, 3 vols., 1848.
  9. John S. Haller and Robin M. Haller, The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America, Urbana, 1974, pp. 65-66.
  10. Browning's sonnet, "To George Sand: A Desire" (1844), was frequently cited by critics of women novelists. Gerald Massey writes that Eliot "lay hold of life with a large hand, looked at it with a large eye, and felt it with a large heart" ("Last Poems and Other Works of Mrs. Browning," 271).
  11. "On the Real Differences in the Minds of Men and Women," Journal of the Anthropological Society of Londonvii (1869): lxix For a discussion of Allan's ideas, see Katharine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature, Seattle, 1966, pp. 219-221.
  12. "Woman in France," in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney, New York, 1963, p. 56.
  13. "The Subjection of Women," in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, Essays on Sex Equality, ed. Alice S. Rossi, Chicago, 1970, ch. 3, p. 199.
  14. "Three Novels," in Essays of George Eliot, p. 334.
  15. "Harriet Martineau," Blackwood'scxxi (1877): 487.
  16. A Room of One's Own, New York, 1957, p. 134.
  17. "Novels of the Day," lxii (1860): 205.
  18. "Current Bell," Blackwood'slxxxii (1857): 79. See also "The Lady Novelists of Great Britain," Gentleman's Magazine, n.s. xl (1853): 18-25.
  19. "The Progress of Fiction as an Art," Westminster Review,lx (1853): 372.
  20. "Doctor Dulcamara, M. P.," in Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from "Household Words," 1850-1859,ii, ed. Harry Stone, Bloomington, 1968, p. 624.
  21. "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," National Reviewvii (1859): 148.
  22. Mary S. Hartman, introduction to Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, New York, 1976. I am indebted to Mary Hartman for allowing me to read her book in manuscript.
  23. See, for example, Miss M. A. Stodart, quoted in Inga-Stina Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Female Novelists, London, 1966, p. 39: "Publicity can, to woman, never be a native element; she may be forced into it by circumstances, but the secret sigh of every truly feminine heart will be for the retirement of private life. The lily of the valley which shields itself under the huge high leaf, the violet which seeks the covert of the shady hedge, may both be forced from under their retreat, and be compelled to stand in the broad open sunshine, but will not their withered and blighted petals tell us that they are pining for the congenial shade?"
  24. "Currer Bell," Blackwood'slxxxii (1857): 77.
  25. "Ruth," North British Review,xix (1853): 90.
  26. Robert Colby and Vineta Colby, The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Marketplace, Hamden, Connecticut, 1966, p. 5.
  27. "The Case of the Active Victim," Times Literary Supplement (July 26, 1974): 803-804.
  28. "The Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, n.s. ii (1852): 133-134.
  29. "Last Poems of Mrs. Browning," 271.
  30. Autobiography, pp. 23-24. In her interviews with Victorian women novelists, Helen Black frequently notes that all evidence of the woman's profession is absent from the home: "Where are the manuscripts, the 'copy,' the 'proofs' …? There is no indication of her work on the old oak knee-hole writing table" ("Rhoda Broughton," Notable Women Authors of the Day, Glasgow, 1893, p. 40).
  31. A Woman's Thoughts About Women, London, 1858, p. 58.
  32. "Mrs. Gaskell and Her Novels," Cornhill Magazinexxix (1874): 192.
  33. "The Lady Novelists," 133.
  34. Ibid., 135, 136.
  35. Ibid., 139.
  36. "Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax," North British Reviewxxix (1858): 254, 255.
  37. Ibid., 254.
  38. Ibid., 257.
  39. Ibid., 258.
  40. Ibid., 260.
  41. Quoted by Waldo Dunn in R. D. Blackmore, New York, 1956, p. 112. See also Kenneth Budd, The Last Victorian: R. D. Blackmore and His Novels, London, 1960, p. 33.
  42. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, London, 1919, p. 271.
  43. Harriet Martineau, Autobiography,ii, London, 1877, p. 324.
  44. "Jane Eyre," Christian Remembrancerxv (1848); "Currer Bell's Shirley," Edinburgh Reviewxci (1850): 158.
  45. "Novels of the Season," North American Reviewlxvii (1848): 357.
  46. The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality, London, 1973, p. 125. Mrs. Gaskell noted that "women infinitely more than men" disapproved of Ruth as well (Letters, p. 226).
  47. "The Professor," iii (1857): 550.
  48. James Craigie Robertson, "Eliot's Novels," cviii (1860): 470.
  49. Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography, New York, 1968, p. 268.
  50. "The Mill on the Floss," ix (1860): 470.
  51. Letter of April 26, 1859, in The George Eliot Letters,iii, ed. Gordon S. Haight, New Haven, 1954, p. 56.
  52. "Adam Bede and Recent Novels," i (1859): 436-437.
  53. See "The Mill on the Floss," Westminster Reviewlxxiv (1860): 24-33.
  54. Haight, George Eliot, pp. 290-291. For an account of Dixon, see Leslie Marchand, The Athenaeum: A Mirror of Victorian Culture, Chapel Hill, 1941, p. 80.
  55. "The Mill on the Floss," 471.
  56. James Craigie Robertson, "George Eliot's Novels," cviii (1860): 471. "The parenthetical hint that the 'classical quotations' in my books might be 'more correctly printed' is an amusing example of the genuineness that belongs to review-writing in general, since there happens to be only one classical quotation in them all," Eliot wrote John Blackwood (February 20, 1860; Letters,iii, pp. 356-357).
  57. Shorter, The Brontës,ii, pp. 63-64.
  58. Quoted in Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere, p. 12.
  59. "Woman in France," Essays of George Eliot, p. 53.
  60. "Three Novels," Essays of George Eliot, p. 334.
  61. "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Essays of George Eliot, p. 324.
  62. "Woman in France," p. 53.
  63. The Half-Sisters,ii, p.23.
  64. "George Eliot's Novels," Home and Foreign Review,iii (1863), in David Carroll, ed., George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, New York, 1971, p. 241. See also Coventry Patmore, "The Social Position of Women," North British Reviewxiv (1851): 279: "Books are written by literary men and women, a class whose peculiar temperament very often unfits them for the performance of duties, and the enjoyments of the quiet pleasures of domestic life; and this unfitness too frequently betrays itself in erroneous notions concerning the average condition of the family life."


SOURCE: Sears, Albert C. "The Politics and Gender of Duty in Frances Power Cobbe's The Duties of Women." Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 2 (spring-summer 2000): 67-78.

In the following essay, Sears argues that Frances Power Cobbe viewed the transition of the women's movement into the political sphere not as an abrogation, but rather as an extension of their domestic duties.

In 1880 Frances Power Cobbe delivered her series of lectures, The Duties of Women, to audiences in London and Clifton (near Bristol), inciting women to assume political roles in the public world. Later, in 1881, the lectures were published, and they successfully went into several editions in England and America.1 Only a few years earlier, Cobbe's own activities might be seen as exhibiting the kind of public power to which she called women in these lectures. In 1878, her article "Wife-Torture in England" effected Parliament's amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act. The article so thoroughly exposed the inadequacy of laws pertaining to domestic violence that Parliament answered her call for legislation by passing a bill within two months.2 Cobbe's actions illustrated what would be one of her most salient points in her last lecture of The Duties of Women: "We are bound to do all we can to promote the virtue and happiness of our fellow-men and women, and therefore we must accept and seize every instrument of power, every vote, every influence which we can obtain, to enable us to promote virtue and happiness" (178-9). This essay seeks to understand why Cobbe reserves this call for political power until the very end of her lecture series, especially when it follows several talks that seem to emphasize women's traditional duties rather than their acquisition of rights. The lectures reformed familiar rhetoric on women's domestic duties so that women could acquire agency within the public and political arena. The emphasis on duties rather than on rights or equality may seem contradictory, particularly coming from such an advocate of women's rights as Cobbe;3 however, access to the public world for Cobbe is not a right for women, but a responsibility. Her goal is to achieve "the power which makes us, not the equals of men (I never care to claim such equality), but their equivalents" (168). In other words, Cobbe wants women to retain their gender difference with pride, at the same time that they utilize that difference to achieve the equivalent of men's power in the public arena.

The Duties of Women surveys many of the themes found in Cobbe's other writing: intuitive morality, animal abuse, despotism in marriage, celibacy for women, domestic violence, and women's suffrage. It is primarily the latter, though, that Cobbe especially wants to address in the lectures, even though her remarks on the vote arrive only in the last section. Cobbe, herself, had already been participating in the Central Committee of the National Society for Women's Suffrage, contributing pamphlets to the organisation's goals during the 1870s.4 While it took until 1918 for women to join in national elections, the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 did provide unmarried women ratepayers access to municipal elections. Women's participation in school elections soon followed. Local government, then, afforded women the kind of duty Cobbe describes at the end of her lectures: "The possession of votes for municipal elections and the occasional election of women (like the excellent Miss Merrington) as Guardians of the Poor are also vast strides in the direction of public usefulness for women" (176). While Cobbe's discussion of such usefulness primarily profiles the state of married women, rather than that of the single woman like herself, the lectures reveal, even to the housewife, women's potential for public work and politics.5

Cobbe hierarchically structures the lectures around the principle that women's public and political duties are a logical and necessary extension of essential and domestic femininity. In her first lecture she classifies duties into three categories: religious, personal, and social. Religious duties clearly are at the top of Cobbe's hierarchy, but she does not lecture on them since "no one … has been silly enough to suggest that there is any difference between the Religious Duties of a man and those of a woman" (39).6 The principal subject of the lectures, then, is the personal and social duties of women, each of which has several detailed subcategories. After she elucidates the moral characteristics of personal duty (chastity, temperance, veracity, courage, and the vindication of rightful liberty) in the second lecture, Cobbe spends the remaining lectures exploring social duty. It is in the social duties (woman as a member of the family, as mistress of the household, as a member of society, and as citizen of the state) that Cobbe transforms woman's private role into a public one. The hierarchy keeps the practitioners of Cobbe's system from moral conflict as they perform these various duties. She states, "the first thing to be done is to determine their relative rank in the hierarchy of moral obligations, so that, if they ever seem to clash (they cannot really do so), we may know at once which of the two possessed the first claim on our obedience" (39). Women must first fulfill and their "private duties" (187) within the home and toward the family in order to enter the public realm of politics. If followed carefully, the exacting hierarchy leads women to political power within the public sphere. Cobbe's code of duty is not intended as a path to personal freedoms; rather, it helps women extend their domestic talents to the public world.

Her discourse on duty conforms to the broad Victorian conception of the term. Walter Houghton connects the notion of Victorian duty to self advancement: doing "the best for yourself was to do the best for society" (Houghton 188). Furthermore, "[s]ocial ambition, driving one to the utmost economic effort, was the blessed means of social progress" (188). In other words, Houghton suggests that duty entailed advancing oneself socially at the same time that one was improving society. Cobbe's sense of duty parallels Houghton's description; as will be seen in the last lecture, Cobbe demonstrates that women have an important role in the betterment of society. However, she drastically downplays the desire for ambition and self advancement that is so important to Houghton's definition. As Jane Lewis and Martha Vicinus both note, Victorian women connected duty with service to others rather than with fulfilling one's own desires (Lewis 6, 11; Vicinus 16,30).

Interestingly, a similar work that structures duty hierarchically is Samuel Smiles's Duty, with Illustrations of Courage, Patience, and Endurance (1880), published the same year that Cobbe delivered The Duties of Women. While Cobbe and Smiles address vastly different audiences in terms of class and gender, their similarities suggest conventional thinking about duty in the second half of the nineteenth century.7 Like Cobbe, duty for Smiles begins with an "abiding sense of duty to God" (Smiles 13). From there duty stretches outward in concentric circles from the self (11), starting with "duty to one's family" and "duty to our neighbours," and then leads to "duty to the state" (13). Cobbe, like Smiles, begins with duty to God and duties of inner personal morality, and then gradually progresses from the family to duties as citizens of the world. What is critical for both writers is that social and public duties must follow the fulfillment of personal duties.

Such a discourse that espouses power while seeming to limit individual freedom may sound contradictory to the late twentieth-century reader. Cobbe is interested in the ways female gender can be restricted, but she insists that such restriction does not result from following the discipline she advocates. She asserts in her first lecture that women have suffered from a host of "artificial restrictions" (15) that have prevented them from fulfilling their natural duties. Indeed, the nineteenth-century woman's life, Cobbe states, has become a "spectacle of waste" (13), because she has been prevented from achieving her "natural happiness" (13). Happiness for Cobbe can occur only through the completion of one's natural duties, which for women are linked to maternal femininity. The capacity to give birth naturally makes women loving, sympathetic, and nurturing. Cobbe's complaint, then, is that "artificial restrictions," such as "senseless fashions of dress" (15), lack of education, and the encouragement of frivolity and self-indulgence in girls, separate women from their natural femininity and hinder the fulfillment of their natural duties.

Cobbe's affirmation of an essential maternal femininity, which leads not to restriction but to freedom, coincides with her belief that gender is tied to sexual difference. She adapts the essentialist notion of "separate spheres" in such a way that she retains any power that domesticity affords women, while rejecting what she sees as confining. She opposes "the miserable claustration of women, their sequestration in their separate portions of the house, their banishment from all social pleasures of the other sex …" (20-21). Cobbe's language is important here: she wants to collapse the strict division of the sexes into private and public worlds, by underscoring how women's isolation from the "male" world has been an impairment to the fulfillment of their true duties. Cobbe, however, never rejects woman's propensity toward domesticity; rather, she redefines the concept into "domestic freedom" (22). Domesticity, then, becomes a direct path to power for women. Philippa Levine states: "For many women committed to the fight for women's rights, the most effective weapon was not the total rejection of that ideology but rather a manipulation of its fundamental value. After all, if women's purity made them the natural custodians of religious teachings and values, then their effect in public life could only be uplifting" (13). Barbara Caine similarly notes that "while Cobbe accepted much of what is generally termed Victorian domestic ideology, she rejected the notion that women were designed to serve men" (138). Cobbe's prescription for female power in The Duties of Women functions in the way Levine and Caine assert: the lectures revalue the codes of gender that nineteenth-century culture ascribed to women.

Elizabeth Langland has recently interpreted domestic ideology in terms of the power and agency it afforded middle-class women. She criticizes the belief that domesticity made women into passive victims; she carefully shows how the middle-class Victorian woman became a powerful agent through the ideology:

[M]iddle-class women were produced by domestic discourses even as they reproduced them to consolidate middle-class control. Such a reinterpretation of the subject and agency complicates more traditional analyses of women's roles in Victorian society and forestalls a view of women as victims passively suffering under patriarchal social structures; it equally prevents a picture of them as heroines supporting unproblematic values in the way they deal with society on issues of gender and class.


Thus, Langland complicates our understanding of domesticity in important ways. Such a reading helps to reveal the complex nuances of Cobbe's representation of women's duty. It is unquestionable that moments in Cobbe's lectures restrict the freedoms that women would gain after she wrote; nonetheless, she thoughtfully reworked her culture's construction of gender to help women reach their potential as agents for social good.

While domestic freedom does not stress self-interest and the acquisition of personal rights, such duty, as Langland shows, did not necessarily make women completely powerless. More importantly, many women at the end of the nineteenth century reshaped the dominant domestic ideology of the period to emphasize women's active duty to make the condition of women better. Among them was Cobbe, who retained a commitment to the betterment of women's lives by redefining the static gender discourses into ones that gave women agency. Cobbe understands the primary threat to women's progress to be the "growth of hardness and of selfishness among women as their lives cease to be a perpetual self-oblation, and they … pursue ends of their own" (24). The objective for women is not "a larger and freer life, but of a life of higher self-reverence, broader piety, more tender goodness, purer purity, truer truth" (26). Of course, such directive coming from Cobbe may sound ironic, because by the time she is speaking, her life had been unencumbered for many years within an unconventional domestic arrangement with Mary Lloyd.8 It is true that Cobbe's freer life did not begin until her mid-thirties, after she had fulfilled her duties as a daughter, caring for her ill and widowed father.9 Nonetheless, she wants to foreclose the belief that women need more freedom to do whatever they please; consequently, she retains a component of the nineteenth-century gender discourse that defines women's nature as passive and selfless. Here she clearly focuses on the traditional option: woman as pious, moral, and pure. Yet, she ultimately reframes this discourse so that it leads directly to women's power within the public sphere. The challenge to Cobbe's late twentieth-century audience is to understand that the power Cobbe advocates comes out of the nineteenth century's traditional conception of female gender rather than the belief that women need to be relieved of such confining roles.

A comparison between Cobbe and a writer like Sarah Stickney Ellis helps to demarcate how Cobbe is producing a more powerful position for women. Ellis states in The Women of England (1837), as Cobbe would later, that the deterioration of women's moral character would render them "less influential, less useful, and less happy" (Ellis 14). Similarly, both writers underscore "disinterested kindness" (48) as one of women's primary virtues. Yet, unlike Cobbe's reformulation of domestic ideology, Ellis maintains that women's duties should be restricted or sequestered, to use Cobbe's terminology, within her private and domestic space. Ellis illustrates her preference for women's private life over public life in the following passage:

[A] high-minded and intellectual woman is never more truly great than when willingly and judiciously performing kind offices for the sick; and much as may be said, and said justly, in praise of the public virtues of women the voice of nature is so powerful in every human heart, that, could the question of superiourity on these two points be universally proposed, a response would be heard throughout the world, in favour of woman in her private and domestic character.

(Ellis 34-5)

For Ellis, then, public duties are never fundamental to a woman's life, because they are not central to a her nature; essential feminine nature will always overpower the dutiful women's intellect. Thus, a woman remains isolated in her limited sphere. Cobbe, on the other hand, will see the "public virtues" of women more closely related to those she has in the home.10

A close look at the second lecture of The Duties of Women reveals how Cobbe reworks the earlier vision of gender found in Ellis. In the foundational level of duties, the personal, Cobbe lays out her essentialist ideas about gender. Personal duties concern "inward rather than outward virtue" (38), and consist of such moral qualities as chastity, temperance, truthfulness, courage, and free will. Cobbe genders the first three personal duties (that is, chastity, temperance, and truthfulness) female and the last two (courage and free will) male, naturalizing specific qualities as essential either to women or men. The "potential Motherhood in every true woman's heart" (16) supplies women with precious feelings of love, tenderness, and sympathy. Furthermore, Cobbe notes that men possess a "natural boldness and combativeness" (58) that inclines them toward courage. For women, however, these qualities are not inherent: for women to be courageous and true "is really praiseworthy and honorable" (58), just as it is praiseworthy in a male "to curb his passions and be chaste and temperate" (58).

Despite maintaining biological difference as gender difference, Cobbe does call for some gender fluidity between men and women. For example, "virtue is essentially the same thing for every moral being, and, among moral beings, for a man and for a woman. Thus we recognize that, in speaking of the duties of women, we are not concerned with a different set of virtues from those of men—heroes and men—saints, but with just the same virtues exercised in a somewhat different field" (34-5). Cobbe claims that "whatever be the aim and end of the creation of a man … that same aim and end is ours" (35). All human virtues or personal duties, whether those natural to women or men, lead to the same end. Even though men and women have essential propensities toward certain of these virtues, each sex must adopt the other's to be moral. Cobbe calls for a female identity that is innately maternal and domestic and actively acquired by adopting traditional male virtues. Her discussion of courage illustrates this point. Courage is a natural masculine virtue, yet women should not be excluded from employing it to achieve their duties. Much like her earlier discussion of domestic restriction and freedom, Cobbe here believes that gender should not be restricted by its essential nature: "There is no point wherein the great moral heresy of the different nature of virtue in men and in women has had more miserable consequences than in this matter of courage; and now we who renounce that heresy must make it one of our first cares to develop among us this virtue of courage, hitherto so neglected" (74). Cobbe, then, dichotomizes gender, but she also wants both women and men to inculcate in themselves the personal duties natural to the other sex. Elsewhere she claims that women are "made of some more plastic material" than men, and they are capable of molding their identities ("The Final Cause of Woman" 1). She insists on women's natural domestic identity, but wants room for variation: "The woman, by being nothing but a domestic being, has failed to be truly domestic. She has lost the power of ministering to the higher wants of those nearest to her, by over-devotion to the ministry of their lower necessities" (14). In The Duties Cobbe illustrates how the plasticity of women and domesticity can be stretched so that women can engage in political work.

Cobbe also manipulates traditional codes of gender when she explains a woman's social duties. As a woman proceeds up the hierarchy of duties, she must maintain her commitment to the personal duties outlined above. These allow her to enter "the vast expanse of Social Duty … and its ever-widening horizon" (86). Cobbe represents social duty as an endless potential: once a woman proceeds into the realm of social duty, she enters a threshold of social power. Virtue is important above all, but social duty affords women worth-while labor that betters their fellow creatures. In the third lecture she creates a vital link between personal and social duties: "Our Personal Duty is the setting of a little divine kingdom in our own breasts: our Social Duty is the extending of that kingdom, first making our homes a province of it, then spreading it as best we may, and as our poor powers may permit, in all directions …" (87). While this passage is conventional in its call for women to make the home a place of virtue, Cobbe emphasizes that this is the location where future possibility emerges. She transforms the home from woman's private realm into the gateway to public power. It is the place where personal duty gets transformed into social duty, through a woman's power of influence.

Cobbe states clearly that personal duties are at the top of the hierarchy of women's duties: "Do not be shocked or startled if I lay it down as an unquestionable principle that Personal Duties have supreme obligation, and must never be postponed to Social ones" (40). Her claim here is somewhat ironic since she will indeed be most interested in social duties; however, she wants her audience to be clear that personal duties lead to social ones. It may be more useful, then, to think of Cobbe's hierarchy as a ladder that women climb gradually. As they ascend, they increase their public responsibilities while continuing to carry their private ones. Despite their stated importance, personal duties take up only one early lecture in The Duties of Women. Women's social duties and duties toward the state seem to have been more important to Cobbe. Indeed, when she later wrote her autobiography she excerpted a substantial portion of only her last lecture on women's duties to the state.11 So, despite the stated significance of personal duties within Cobbe's hierarchy, they are less important to the lectures as a whole. Through the lectures Cobbe carefully works toward her revolutionary statement about women's duty: the redefinition of women's traditional role for power within the public sphere.

The woman's lower level of social duties is typical: these duties involve her familial relationships, in which her moral status provides the foundation for her duty. For example, in a mother's relationship with her children, Cobbe asserts that "[t]here is, first, the duty of conducing to her child's moral welfare, the highest of all her duties" (100). Cobbe becomes more remarkable, however, when she begins to redefine woman's role as household manager. In her effort to declare women's power within the domestic sphere, she adopts the metaphor of queenliness to describe women's housekeeping of the home and the state.12 She replicates earlier accounts of domesticity when she claims that "the Englishwoman's home is the Englishwoman's kingdom; and those homes with all their faults and shortcomings, are the glories of our country" (138). John Ruskin, in 1865, also employed this metaphor to define women; in "Of Queen's Gardens" he asks: "What is her queenly office with respect to the State?" (160). While Ruskin does affirm that women have "a public work and duty," this duty "is to assist in the ordering, in the comforting, and in the beautiful adornment of the State" (160). Ruskin's call to women is less a public and political power than it will be for Cobbe. He confines women's public role to the sacred and moral dimensions of women's nature:

Power to heal, to redeem, to guide, and to guard; power of the sceptre and shield; the power of the royal hand that heals in touching, that binds the fiend, and looses the captive; the throne that is founded on the rock of justice, and descended from only by steps of mercy. Will you not covet such power as this, and seek such throne as this, and be no more housewives, but queens?


While the implications for women's power in Ruskin's statement might be suggestive, he leaves them abstractly understated. His ethereal language tends to obscure the potential for power that Cobbe wants to reveal, and it skirts the practicality that will be important for Cobbe. Throughout her lectures, Cobbe wants to explain explicitly how a woman should fulfill her duty. She wants women to understand how to "bind the fiend" and "loose the captive," matters that Ruskin leaves unclear.

Cobbe interprets queenliness so that once women rule within the home, they can become powerful and political rulers outside the home. "Out of the English home," she states, "has sprung much of that which is most excellent in the national character" (138). Furthermore, it is women's "peculiar and inalienable right" (139) to make the true English home. Men, in fact, "can no more make a home than a drone can make a hive" (139). Cobbe draws a distinct relationship between the home and the nation; because they are both managed alike, women have a natural place in the affairs of the nation. She states the public role of women's housekeeping duties more concretely than does Ruskin: "If we cannot perform these [duties] well, if we are not orderly enough, clear-headed enough, powerful enough, in short, to fulfil this immemorial function of our sex well and thoroughly, it is somewhat foolish of us to press to be allowed to share in the great housekeeping of the State" (151). Like Ruskin, Cobbe notes women's skill in keeping order within the household; however, keeping order within the state is more than domestic adornment for Cobbe. She claims that "womanly genius for organization applied to the affairs of the nation would be extremely economical and beneficial" (151). Since women are experts at household management, they could skillfully manage the government, curing it from "such wastefulness as Chancellors of the Exchequer keep the State" (151). Just as she bends the essential qualities of masculinity and femininity, so Cobbe here bends the tenets of domesticity so that they become women's path to active political life.

Cobbe sees the risk she takes when she encourages women to become "housekeepers of the State." Even though social duties are at the bottom of her hierarchy (or, if one likes, at the top of the ladder), they are duties with which Cobbe is extremely concerned. She is moving toward justifying a public and political role for women that is central to women's duties. She asks women to complete their lives by taking up causes of philanthropy and reform. She clarifies, however:

Remember, pray, that I say emphatically "adding to … private duties," not subtracting from them. I should think it a most grievous and deplorable error to neglect any private duties already incurred for the sake of new public duties subsequently adopted. But, in truth, though we read of "Mrs. Jellybys" in novels, I have failed yet to find, in a pretty large experience of real life, a single case in which a woman who exercised public spirit, even to the extent of self-devotion, was not also an admirable and conscientious daughter, wife, mother or mistress of a household. This spectre of the female politician, who abandons her family to neglect for the sake of passing bills in Parliament, is just … an illusion of the masculine brain.…


Mrs. Jellyby we will recall from Dickens's Bleak House as the satirized philanthropist who, as Mr. Kenge states, "'devotes herself entirely to the public'" (Dickens 26) at the expense of running a disgraceful home full of her own dirty and ill-attended children. The effect of Dickens's representation, of course, is the disavowal of any public role for women. Cobbe's incisive criticism of Dickens discloses the restrictive aspect of domestic ideology within the male literary imagination. For Cobbe, public work is the natural extension of all that domesticity embodies. She is aware, nevertheless, that a criticism against public women will be that they are neglecting their household duties, as Mrs. Jellyby does. Cobbe's argument thus hinges on her hierarchy: women can only add to their private duties pertaining to the home and family. The hierarchy of duties prevents the occurrence of household neglect, because public spirit necessarily entails the fulfillment of private duties.

For Cobbe, it seems that women's duties toward the state were, in fact, most important in her lectures. In her autobiography, Cobbe quotes from a letter she wrote in 1884, several years after the lectures, which points to her concern about women's role in the public sphere: "'If I may presume to offer an old woman's counsel to the younger workers in our cause, it would be that they should adopt the point of view—that it is before all things our duty to obtain the franchise'" (2: 532). This statement seems to contradict what Cobbe claims with her hierarchy of duties; yet, the whole point of the hierarchy is to lead up to this final public and political duty. Indeed, it is the subject of Parliamentary franchise that concludes Cobbe's lectures: "[I]n asking for the Parliamentary franchise we are asking, as I understand it, for the power to influence legislation generally; and in every other kind of franchise, municipal, parochial, or otherwise, for similar power to bring our sense of justice and righteousness to bear on public affairs" (Duties 182). What this means for Cobbe and for her audience is adopting a "public spirit" that extends women's "sympathies beyond the narrow bounds of our homes" (182). In short, women should enlarge their natural domestic duties so that public duties become equally essential.

Martha Vicinus suggests that part of Cobbe's success as a public woman was "due to her willingness to work within the traditional definitions women's duties" (16). At the same time, her unmarried and childless status must have enabled Cobbe to participate in a full public life, "untrammelled by husband or children," as she herself had once described the "old maid" ("Celibacy vs. Marriage" 233). She had not the duties she insisted the mothers in her audience must fulfill before taking their domestic skills to the public world. Some years earlier she noted that the single woman "has not fewer duties than other women, only more diffused ones. The 'old maid's' life may be as rich, as blessed, as that of the proudest of mothers with her crown of clustering babes. Nay, she feels that in the power of devoting her whole time and energies to some benevolent task, she is enabled to effect perhaps some greater good than would otherwise have been possible" (233). Despite her difference from the women she addressed in the lectures, she could share with her audience her vision of how the power that was inherent within women's traditional domestic roles could help women cultivate public spirit to become "Citizens of the State" (Duties 174).


  1. See Cobbe's Life: "These lectures when printed went through three editions in England and, I think, eight in America …" (2: 549).
  2. See Bauer and Ritt.
  3. Most of Cobbe's writing concerning women calls for the improvement of their rights. Besides "Wife-Torture in England," see in particular "Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors," a piece that argues for married women's rights to their own property.
  4. See "Our Policy: An Address to Women Concerning the Suffrage" and "Why Women Desire the Franchise."
  5. Cobbe appears to assume her audience to be primarily mothers: "I hope you, my friends, who are mothers, and possess the experience which I shall never know, will pardon my presumption in laying down before you what appears to me the leading outlines of parental duty" (98). For further discussion of Victorian women's struggle to gain political rights, see Levine, Victorian Feminism, chapter 3: "The public sphere: politics, local and national."
  6. Cobbe does, though, refer her audience to her book Religious Duty.
  7. Smiles's discussion of women's duties is more rigidly defined by "separate spheres" than Cobbe's, however. See, for example his discussion of Florence Nightingale (236-39).
  8. For accounts of this "female marriage" see Caine (128-30) and Raftery (93-4).
  9. See Cobbe's Life (1: 206-7), Caine (116-17), and Raftery (98-100) for discussions of Cobbe's relationship with her authoritarian and imperious father, Charles Cobbe.
  10. See also Caine for differences between Ellis and Cobbe (51,130-31).
  11. See Life of Frances Power Cobbe (2:550-52).
  12. See Langland for additional discussion of this metaphor (65-6).

Works Cited

Bauer, Carol and Lawrence Ritt. "'A Husband is a Beating Animal': Frances Power Cobbe Confronts the Wife-Abuse Problem in Victorian England." International J of Women's Studies. 6 (1983): 99-118.

Caine, Barbara. Victorian Feminists. NY: Oxford UP, 1992.

Cobbe, Frances Power. "Celibacy v. Marriage." Fraser's Magazine 65 (Feb. 1862): 228-35.

——. "Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors." Fraser's Magazine 78 (Feb. 1868): 777-94.

——. The Duties of Women. 1882. Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1978.

——. "The Final Cause of Women." Woman's Work and Woman's Culture. A Series of Essays. Ed. Josephine E. Butler. London: Macmillan, 1869. 1-26.

——. Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, 1894.

——. "Our Policy: An Address to Women Concerning the Suffrage." London: National Society for Women's Suffrage, 1870. Online. The Victorian Women Writers Project. Indiana University. Internet. http://www.indiana.edu/~letrs/vwwp/cobbe/ourpolicy.html.

——. "Why Women Desire the Franchise." London: National Society for Women's Suffrage, 1870. Online. The Victorian Women Writers Project. Indiana University. Internet. http://www.indiana.edu/~letrs/vwwp/cobbe/cobbewhy.html

——. "Wife-Torture in England" Contemporary Review 32 (1878): 56-87.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. Ed. Morton Dauwen Zabel. Boston: Houghton, 1956.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. The Women of England. Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits. 1839. Philadelphia: Herman Hooker, 1841.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, 1957.

Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.

Levine, Philippa. Victorian Feminism, 1850-1900. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1987.

Lewis, Jane. Women and Social Action in Victorian and Edwardian England. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991.

Raftery, Deirdre. "Frances Power Cobbe." Women, Power and Consciousness in 19th-Century Ireland, Eight Biographical Studies. Ed. Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy. Dublin: Attic Press, 1995. 89-123.

Ruskin, John. "Of Queen's Gardens." Sesame and Lilies, The Ethics of Dust. 1865. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1951. 84-123.

Smiles, Samuel. Duty with Illustrations of Courage, Patience, and Endurance. NY: Harper, 1880.

Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920. Chicago: U of Chicago P,1985.


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Yonge was the most popular and prolific novelist associated with the Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement or Anglo-Catholic Revival. Led by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, this group resisted the trend toward liberalism in the Church of England during the mid-nineteenth century, urging a return to the stricter doctrines and more elaborate rituals derived from Roman Catholicism. Although Yonge wrote nearly two hundred works, including histories, juvenile novels, historical romances, biographies, and essays on religious topics, she is best remembered for novels that portray the tensions, rivalries, and intense affections in middle-class domestic life during the mid-Victorian era.

Yonge was born in the Hampshire village of Otterbourne. Educated at home by her parents, she received instruction in ancient and modern languages, history, literature, and theology. At fifteen, Yonge was prepared for confirmation by the theologian John Keble, the vicar of a nearby church. Keble, whose 1833 sermon on "national apostasy" had led to the establishment of the Oxford Movement, inspired in Yonge an ardent religious fervor. Keble became her literary mentor and, along with her father, edited all her manuscripts until his death in 1866.

Although her family initially disapproved of her desire to become a writer, as it was considered socially improper for a woman to profit from her own labor, they agreed to let Yonge continue writing as long as all proceeds were contributed to missionary activities. In 1851 she founded The Monthly Packet, a magazine she edited for nearly half a century and in which many of her novels were serialized. Following the publication of The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), a novel presenting traditional Christian ideals of piety, self-sacrifice, and devotion to family, she became a highly popular novelist.

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: British Women Writers

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: British Women Writers