The Victorian era, getting its name from Queen Victoria who had a long reign over Great Britain from 1837 to 1901, was a very significant one regarding its bringing about a supreme change in the moral values of people dwelling there. It was distinct in terms of imposing a strict moral code of conduct on society. The moral values however were more prominent on women than on men. It is an interesting observation that the manner Victorian people wished to be perceived as respectable, high moral values, and family orientated. However, the upper class were anything but moral behind closed doors (use of prostitutes, etc) and did not look after their children themselves (nannies, wet nurses, and boarding schools) and the lower classes were too busy just trying to survive to get involved. Thus, it is obvious that society was extremely difficult for women. Jenkins wrote, “The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation” (Jenkins 1995).
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Victorian society had a very rigid class system to follow. The Aristocracy included people with lands, titles, positions, and wealth such as Dukes and Earls. The ladies of this class apparently had little work, but actually, they had to take care or supervise the household such that it could run smoothly. There were a lot of social gatherings and parties among this class, in which the women had to present themselves as per their husbands’ status. Sometimes these rich ladies had to see poverty when there were deaths of their husbands or fathers as they did not have any right over properties except a little money set aside as marriage dowry; the property went to distant relatives if there was no elder son. Vicinus mentions that the fundamental problem “is an acute one because it defines the problem as one of status and role” (Vicinus 1973).
The lower working class was the physically hard-working group that was poor and undernourished. Neff states, “Women who did plain sewing at home, the making of shirts generally and was designated “slop workers”, belonged to the most degraded class of needlewomen“ (Neff 2006). The women worked hard in factories, shops, and as domestic servants. Among them, the lives of factory workers had better lives as they had an off in a week but the domestic servants didn’t have any.
The Middle class was the prominent class that emerged in the Victorian age. They were the next highest class among the three. They also had land and wealth but lacked titles. Women of this class were supposed to mix with the women of their same class or the Upper one. Their position became “up” when a woman of this class got married in the upper class, i.e., the Aristocracy. In this way, they could achieve a lot of social prestige as well as wealth. The role of women in a middle-class family varied from family to family. As the middle class covered a broad area than the Aristocrats, it included families with varied financial positions. The roles of women also depended on their financial status. Some had leisurely lives just as the Upper-class ladies while some had to work in family shops (Perkin 1995).
Novels this era appears to us as documentation of the wealth fluctuations within the classes in the society due to the advent of the industrial revolution. It can well be stated that this novel is more of an adventure and dissection of the social classes of Victorian England where the most determining factors are played within the parameters of economic merits and demerits and the conflict predominantly lies in the aspects of the morality of the traditional forms of the pre-industrial revolution society and the new breed of riches and lust for fortune in the industry induced economy (Walkowitz 1982).
Soon, the First World War started and the position of women changed. The decisive role that the women performed during the course of World War I had a significant impact on their later lifestyles in terms of their social status, professional disposition, etc. Illustratively, while, a very large number of women were deployed in the front, being enlisted for services in the Navy in the US, in factories, offices, and hangars for building aircraft, a large number of them adopted the nursing and other voluntary works at the back end, keeping the “home fires burning”. This diverse involvement of women considerably redeemed their image of professionalism and versatility and expanded their possible role in society, with several of them later finding employment in the Red Cross and several European countries, extending the right of franchise to women. Now, with women doing their jobs men could no longer deny that women were their equal. It also initiated voting rights. In 1918 women over 30 get the voting right and this matured into1928 legislation that all women can vote (Foster 1985).
Foster, S., Victorian women’s fiction: marriage, freedom, and the individual. Taylor & Francis, NY.
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Jenkins, R., 1995. Reclaiming myths of power: women writers and the Victorian spiritual crisis. Bucknell University Press, NY.
Neff, W., 2006. Victorian working women: an historical and literary study of women in British industries and professions, 1832-1850. Taylor & Francis, London.
Perkin. J., 1995. Victorian women. New York University Press, NY.
Vicinus, M., 1973. Suffer and be still: women in the Victorian age. Indiana University Press, LA.
Walkowitz, J., 1982. Prostitution and Victorian society: women, class, and the state. Cambridge University Press, London.