Victorian Feminism

Topics: Feminism, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning Pages: 6 (2137 words) Published: April 29, 2010
In the following essay, I will discuss the topic of feminism and the influence it had on Victorian literature. I will present my argument in relation to the ideology of the period, the female intellect associated with certain literature and the criticism that such authors faced during the period. I will argue that as a result of the oppression suffered, female authors saw such offense as their foundation for their production of literature. I will base the bulk of my argument around the author Charlotte Bronte and her novel “Villette” while simultaneously using additional sources such as that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to further verify my position. In 1837, R. Southey, in a response to Charlotte Bronte’s poetry, stated that; “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To these duties, you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.” (Gaskell, pp 102-3)

It was the mind frame such that of R. Southey that the following argumentation is based on. It was the acceptance of these one sided ideas that originally placed women in a secondary position in all aspects of society and it was in this acceptance that the ideology of society convinced women they were inferior to the male intellect. The female acceptance of a male dominated society is evident in nearly all aspects of Victorian literature regardless of its recognition by the author. For example, the character of Lucy Snowe in Villette, to a large extent depicts the mind frame and depression of a female during the period. Bronte purposely placed Lucy in an equal class setting as a male of the novel Dr John however showed how drastically diverse their lifestyles were. On the one hand we have Dr John, a man where limitless opportunities are granted to him through the course of his life and then subsequently we have Lucy. She does not only represent the social antithesis of Dr John but also symbolises an in-depth depiction into the psyche of Bronte’s intellect. By means of Lucy, we witness Bronte’s pessimistic outlook for feministic liberation to be achieved and this is evident in the character of Lucy in the desperate aspect associated with her portrayal. Though it is important to notice it did not prevent Bronte from expressing her ideals through her literature. Further evidence of the inferiority complex among women writers of the period is perhaps more evident in other female authors such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is perhaps the most palpable display of an inferiority complex in relation to the female mentality of the Victorian period when we observe her letters and poetry. From these pieces of literature, it is quite evident she viewed femininity inferior to that of masculinity. Soon after the death of M. Fuller in July of 1850, Browning apprised the majority of Fuller’s work as “quite inferior” compared to what might be expected from the intellect of the opposite sex. (David. D, p 145)

More revealing was the statement Browning made in a letter to H. S. Boyd in regards to the literature of Harriet Martineau. Browning constantly praised Harriet for the “male” aspects of her intellect. In the letter to Boyd, she claimed “Martineau is the most logical intellect of the age, for a woman.” (David. D, p 146)

Browning, along with her peers as evident in Matus’s “unstable bodies” found it uncharacteristic for a woman to be of a logical standpoint in her literature. In J.L. Matus’s “Unstable Bodies,” we are made to understand that “logic” is purely a male property as “nurturance” is solely a female’s property. (Matus, p 220)

The mentality of Brown stresses and confirms my view that the ideology of society in the Victorian period placed the position of women underneath that of men and as a resulting consequence had the...

Bibliography: Cambridge, Mass: London: Harvard University Press, c1982
2 Basham, D, “The trial of woman: feminism and the occult sciences in Victorian literature and society” Basingstoke: Macmillan Professional and Academic, 1992
3 Belsey, C. “The Feminist reader: essays in gender and the politics of
literary criticism “ London : Macmillan Education, 1989
4 Eagleton, M. “Feminist literary theory: a reader” Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
5 Gaskell, E, “The life of Charlotte Brontë” London: Penguin, 1997
6 Matus, Jill L “Unstable bodies : Victorian representations of sexuality and maternity.”
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995
7 Rowbotham, J, “Good girls make good wives: guidance for girls in Victorian fiction.”
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989
8 Singley, C. J, “Anxious power: reading, writing, and ambivalence in narrative by women.”
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