Women's Situation in The Victorian Age

Reflected in the Victorian Literature

The Victorian Age was a long period of time of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. Queen Victoria ascended to the throne when she was only 18. During her and Prince Albert's reign, England triumphed with life-changing technological advances and immediate prosperity. The steam engine marked the glorious reign of Queen Victoria. London was the center of attention in the 19th century due to its continuous developments. There was an increasing growth in population and advances in industrialization. On the contrary, despite all the glory and wealth, It was a time of depression for the country that also caused numerous sufferings. Factory workers and laborers were suffering due to the increasing capitalism as they were paid very low wages. Besides, child labor was very common during the 19th Century. Children especially worked in factories and they made good chimney sweepers since they come in handy thanks to their physical features enabling them to sweep the chimneys very well. Yet, because of the poor work as well as living conditions children were malnourished and died at a very young age. There was also the presence of strict gender roles in Victorian society which limited women in terms of rights, education, and opportunities which put women secondary as they were inferior to men. Literature was also affected by such issues in society and it served as a tool that documented history as a literary medium. Many novelists reflected the major problems in their novels indirectly. This article will examine the difficult living conditions, women's struggles, and changing gender roles in Victorian society through the novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy.


A Victorian Factory


Oliver Twist (1838), one of the most popular pieces of Victorian literature, is a novel written as a response to the difficulties in society, such as social issues, which criticizes it as a whole. Charles Dickens reflects on his ideas about the conditions of children and utilitarianism in his works. He also criticizes the place of women in society indirectly. There are two fallen women figures in Oliver Twist. One of whom is Oliver’s mother Agnes. She is a lower-class victim of the society. Her name is not even known by the townspeople and she had to give birth in a workhouse to her son. The other fallen woman is Nancy who is a heroic character thanks to her efforts to save Oliver from the dangers of the criminal world in the streets of London. Both women are highly passionate, and it is their passion that puts an end to their life. They both sacrifice themselves for the man they love which brings greater misery and shows a passionate woman as a dangerous being in the Victorian mindset. There is also the aspect of missed chances in the novel Oliver Twist, Nancy denies leaving the city when she is offered help which brings her downfall. The other woman in the novel is Rose who is weak, passionless, and an angel in the house. If Rose had been passionate as Agnes and Nancy it was most likely that she would be a fallen woman as well. However, she remains chaste and obedient, devoted to her household. Thus, this gives an important message about the set of rules and proper behaviors of Victorian society that passion is a dangerous emotion that leads women to their deaths. Rose was aware of the fact so she controlled her passion so perfectly that she chose to remain in the house. To save herself from misery, she restricts her emotions so that she can be an ideal decent Victorian woman.

Oliver Twistasksg for supper


The second novel that gives a glimpse into Victorian life is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is a fictional autobiography published in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell. The novel involves the themes of bildungsroman and governess novel. The main character is an independent woman who had an angry and rebellious nature as a child. She is emotionally destructed by her cousins and treated badly by her male cousin John Reed. She undergoes a lot of changes and becomes successful as a young woman. She sees the emotional view of life in her adulthood, she gains more responsibilities as a governess in the Thornfield House. Her independence plays an important part when she chooses not to be the secret second wife of Rochester and her major life decision of refusing to marry John proves that it should be her who should make important life decisions for her future. She also refuses to be an angel in the house by this refusal. Even though she was weak in the beginning she not only improved emotionally but also financially. However, there is also a woman who was victimized by male domination in society. Bertha Mason. She marries Rochester as a result of an arranged marriage by her father that leads her to madness eventually, she is an angel in the house but is a victim of society as well whose improvement was blocked and kept as a prisoner in the attic. While Jane becomes a self-independent woman who earns her own money, Bertha suffers as an angel in the house.

Bertha Mason, the angel in the house who went mad


 The late--Victorian author Thomas Hardy complained that novelists of that time were not sincere, so he wrote his novels with high sincerity in a pastoral world. His novel Far From the Madding Crowd (1874,) changes the set of gender roles in Victorian society. The main character Gabriel Oak has some feminine qualities, he has a childish aspect, is very emotional, loving, easily disturbed, and easily blushes since he is inexperienced with women. The female character in the novel, Bathsheba Everdene is a woman who does not want to be controlled by her husband, she is independent. The way she rides her horse fascinates Gabriel and attracts her attention. She is an independent woman who goes to the farmer’s market to present her products which impress the townspeople. In contrast, she has been a victim of her husband who brings her many troubles. He asks for money to play horse race, never helps during a storm, and his continuing affection for Fanny disturbs her. She falls in love with Troy so easily because she needs affection since her pride was wounded by the lack of affection that brought her many emotional troubles. However, she falls in love with Gabriel so slowly when notices his loyalty, he is there whenever she needs him. They both improve greatly. The other woman character is Fanny who is a fallen woman in society, Troy promises her to marry but ignores her instead. She searches for Troy even in stormy weather and dies with her illegitimate child.

The Book Cover of Far From The Madding Crowd - 2015 Collins Classics

To conclude, all three novels Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, and Far from The Madding Crowd illustrate the social issues as well as the struggle of women in Victorian society. They criticize society, class differences, gender roles, abuse of women, male- domination, and poor living conditions in society. The attitude toward women's individuality between Dickens and Bronte is highly different since in Oliver Twist a woman who remains chaste and obedient saves herself, but for Bronte, it is the worst. The time difference can also be a factor since the mindset has begun to change over time in Victorian society. For Bronte, A woman stays at her house and goes mad as if she feels trapped, she tries to break her chains but is unable to. Thus, Bronte is openly in favor of female individuality. Her work Jane Eyre is revolutionary by letting women speak for themselves and be free. However, she has no ambition other than to get married. On the other hand, Thomas Hardy writes near the end of the Victorian age and provides a more realistic and pessimistic glimpse of women's position in the Victorian age with his novel Far from The Madding Crowd which highlights the idea of social class, reversal of gender roles as well as reversal of fortune in a pastoral world. As an independent woman, Bathsheba Everdeen carries the weight of her husband on her shoulders. Yet, her lack of affection makes her choose the wrong man who becomes a burden. Hardy was in favor of women's independence. Yet, romantic relations should be logical instead of affectionate in his view. Also, contrary to Bronte's idea, Hardy thought that women have more aspirations than marriage which finally shattered female inferiority.

Later, thanks to the important revolutions, some difficulties tried to be improved in terms of the struggle of Women. Women were able to work thanks to industrial advances, and the Women’s Property Act enabled them to own property individually. Education for women had been important and later political regulations had been made. Most importantly the Suffragette movement of 1903 gave women the right to vote.