Get Your Victorians Right!

If you love the Victorian era and feel disappointed you haven’t lived a century ago, don’t despair – many things did not change anyway. Might be useful for your steampunk and Victorian-era RPG worldbuilding!

I’ve just finished Victorian Women by Joan Perkin, and it was delightful. It’s a part of my ongoing quest of not writing my novel, so I happen to read lots of stuff that could be called research. Structured procrastination, you know.

Do you ever get this feeling while reading history books, that you keep finding bits of very modern social or political commentary? That’s what happened to me with Perkin’s book, both in author’s comment and in quoted diaries and journals. And, be warned, I’m going to share this bits with you. So, only quotes ahead! I’ve included the page numbers, so if you happen to write a paper on Victorian women, it will be easier for you to get references right. (If you really are writing a paper on this topic, by all means, go and read this book. You’ll find it most useful.)

Funny thing, though. You’ll find two types of quotes here. Some of them are of the kind that makes you think: “damn, they’ve thought of that over a hundred years ago and we’re still have to fight for that”. The others make you think more in the lines of: “damn, it’s so very outdated and sexist, and some people are thinking just that over a hundred years later!”


(p.1) Alexander Walker, a noted physilogist, asserted in 1840: It is evident that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector: the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protection. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs: the woman as naturally obeys.

(p.25) Helena Swansick said of her teens in the 1870s, and many women would echo her ideas today: I resented the idea that I could not be allowed after dark. When it was explained to me that a young girl by herself was liable to be insulted by men, I became incoherent with rage at a society which shuts up the girls instead of the men.

(p.31) Effortless superiority was as much the trade-mark of the upper-class woman as it was of the upper-class man, and it tended to repress any possible sense of shared experience with women of other social classes.

(p.35) [In the 1850s and 60s] wealthy business and professional men … wanted educated wives and daughters wirh the leisure and knowledge to pursue aesthetic and intellectual interests and be the standard bearers of culture. They rejected the idea that it was desirably feminine to be ignorant and to waste time on trivial pursuits.

(p.40-41) Women’s wish to study medicine provoked a far from subtle response from some doctors. From the 1860s onwards they solemnly declared, without evidence of any sort, that higher education would make it difficult for a woman to conceive and bear a child. Social thinker Herbert Spencer said educated women would not be able to suckle their babies … A good deal of scaremongering followed, and women educators had to defend themselves against the charge of wrecking the health of their female pupils.

Dr Henry Maudsley published an article entitled ‘Sex in Mind and Education’ in the Fortnightly Review in 1874, using menstruation as justification for his anti-feminism. He said women could never hope to match masculine acomplishments, because their physiology acted as a handicap, body and mind being for one quarter of each month … more or less sick and unfit for hard work.

(p.42) These changes [opening university local exams to girls] were opposed tooth and nail by the influential Saturday Review, which never ceased to say that an over-accomplished woman is one of the most intolerable monsters in creation.

(p.62) Up to the First World War, most feminists supported pre-marital celibacy for both women and men, challenging the conventional view that male sexuality was uncontrollable and needed constant outlet. But it is clear that in each social class some women wanted and claimed sexual and emotional freedom, some wanted it but were afraid to claim it, and others were perfectly content to be celibate for part or the whole of their lives.

(p.78) The need to give all married women property rights was not obvious to this élite group of women, and few took part in the campaign to reform the law. As the Duchess of Manchester remarked in the 1860s, I hear much of women’s rights but I only know that I have no wrongs.

(p.94) Some young women still at school turned the wearing of corsets to their advantage; according to Cecily Steadman, a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies College in the 1870s: There was a minor ailment that gave some trouble, and that was the addiction of some girls to slight fainting fits. This was, I think, partly the consequence of measures taken in the hope of securing an eighteen-inch waist, and … some young people certainly contrived to accomplish a good deal of unconsciousness, and even to make it correspond to a surprising degree with unpopular homework.

(p.99) Lady Dorothy Nevill … disliked the advancing tide of newly-rich people who wanted a share of the privileges she enjoyed.

(p.111) [The working-class women] expected a short life, but strove for a merry one if they could get it.

(p.113) Justice was administered according to a male view of [woman’s] rights, and of how she ought to behave. It seemed appropriate that justice was portrayed as a blindfolded woman, since her scales were so tilted in favour of men.

(p.121) One magistrate advised a victim of beatings to abstain from irritating her husband. Another refused to pass sentence in wife-beating cases until he knew whether she was a woman whose bad temper gave her husband no peace, or whether the fault was his.

Women in groups were often perceived by men as potential troublemakers. Husbands often explained that they had been forced to beat their wives to keep them from associating with other women, in particular their mothers and sisters.

(p.186) There was hardly any job that men did which was not also done by women. They laboured in the fields and mines, in factories and shops, in markets and on the roads, as well as in the workshops in their homes. THey worked with their menfolk or replaced them in their absence. Yet however skilled the women were, their work was always considered subsidiary to men’s, and paid at lower rates. This custom of considering women’s work as less valuable than men’s continues to this day in many occupations.

(p.239) An important and interesting question is how and why, despite their constricted upbringing, so many Victorian women developed strong and distinctive personalities. Surprisingly, religion played a role here, in telling women contradictory things: first, to submit themselves to their husbands because women were inferior to men, but secondly, that we are all equal in the sight of God, and equally worthy of salvation. Also, the intense pressure if parents to mould girls to their purposes made some girls rebellious and determined to follow their own inclinations.

(p.240-241) Mrs [Margaret] Oliphant began a trend of portraying male characters who disappoint or let down their women-folk; she wrote of alcoholicsm wastrels and physically ailing men, a sad galaxy who reflected her own family experiences, In fact, so many novels by women were published, in which men were physically disabled, that male novelists began to complain.

So, sexism, privilege, hipocrisy, victim-claming, wage gap, and of course, men’s rights movement.

Can’t believe we still have to protest this suff.

PS. The featured image is Tea by Mary Cassatt, 19th century American painter.

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