Gender in 19th-century Britain

Kathryn Hughes explores the repressive and often contradictory expectations of women in middle class Victorian society, while examining how women such as Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning managed to challenge those expectations.

Some rights reserved. © British Library Board / British Library

Middle class girls needed a new kind of education for the new kind of life that they were leading. Once ideas about middle class gentility started to take hold from the turn of the 19th century onwards, clearly girls are leading a different kind of life. They are not helping their mothers with the housework, they’d have servants to do that. Their father’s business will be several miles away from the home, so they’re not going to be helping there. They’re at home all day, they need a new kind of set of skills to prepare them for the life ahead. The sole aim really for middle class women now is to get married to a man, hopefully one who is solvent, who’s healthy, and who her parents approve of. So she’s got to make herself attractive and that means learning particular kinds of accomplishments, the kind of accomplishments that upper class girls have always been taught, but now middle class girls are being taught too. Typically it’s learning conversational French, it’s learning how to play the piano. Some dancing might be involved. There’s also more subtle things.  She’s going to into a world where she has to learn how to behave and how to manage her physical presence, how to stand upright, not slouch, how close do you stand to other people, what happens when you need to be excused, when you need the bathroom how do you ask for that.

As always with anything to do with the Victorians, it wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. So middle class girls were certainly supposed to be educated, in the sense that they were supposed to read to expand their minds, but woe betide if they became blue stockings. That was the worst thing. Now a blue stock is a young woman who simply knows too much stuff, who reads too widely, who cares too much about what she reads. Who starts to sort of take over the kind of role that is expected of a young man, in the sense of she wants to argue about politics at dinner, she suddenly wants to start reading the classics in the original languages, Latin, Greek and heaven forbid even Hebrew. That’s the kind of girl, as far as middle class Victorians are concerned, that no sensible man is going to want to marry. She’s made herself masculine. Some doctors believed that quite literally the more a girl read, the more masculine her appearance. She would start to look hollow cheeked, something very unpleasant would happen to her ovaries, she would start to become a kind of desiccated spinster.

So the emphasis was on learning, but not too much learning. Of being able to speak to anybody in a kind of interesting and lively way, but to never touch too deeply on serious subjects. The tension also comes across, of course, with the whole kind of terrible double-bind about being sexually attractive. There was an immense emphasis on how a girl looks. Of course there is, that’s one of the main qualities she brings to the marketplace. Is she pretty? That’s terribly important, but woe betide her if she thinks too much about her looks. That heaven forbid, you know, they’re starting to express a kind of sexual desire. I mean I think you can see that very much at work, if you think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The two younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia, who are held up I think for if not our judgement at least our sort of pity, in the sense that they have become foolish girls, far too concerned with what they look like. And as we know, in the case of Lydia, it comes to a very, very sticky end.

Fashion played a very large part in defining what it meant to be a middle class woman. And interestingly at the point at which middle class women retreat into the home, and not involved in any kind of profitable labour, is the moment when women’s fashions become incredibly impractical. So from the late 1840s onwards we see the development of the famous crinoline, which is an extraordinary kind of hoop shaped, bell shaped skirt that sticks out several feet all the way round, so that women make the most extraordinary shape as they walk along.  And of course if you’re wearing a crinoline you can’t really do anything that’s terribly useful. You certainly can’t go down on your hands and knees and scrub the floor, nor can you very easily get on a train or on a bus, you know, because basically you’ll take up three seats. The crinoline is a kind of mechanism designed for keeping women in their place, literally.

There’s plenty of evidence that individual young Victorian women found this role that had been foisted on them, incredibly constraining, incredibly kind of suffocating. Indeed, Florence Nightingale, a very, very clever, intelligent, educated young woman, suffered bouts of near hysteria throughout her teens and early twenties, because she felt so constrained by the, you know, very well to do, very loving home from which she’d come. It was very nice, but she didn’t have enough to do. She longed to have a more public theatre in which she could do good works, in which she could make a difference. And so she recounts horrible experiences of not being able to eat in front of her family, you know, just can’t bear being looked at while she’s eating, a sense of which she’s sure that her tongue is too big for her mouth, all the sort of classic signs of hysteria.

And then you have people like Elizabeth Barrett, who also very educated, very clever young woman. In this case she doesn’t want to go out and do good works, she wants to write poetry. She is the greatest female poet of the 19th century. But where do you write poetry? If you are from a, again, another very well heeled family, you are expected, as Elizabeth’s sisters were, to lead a kind of life where you’re spending a lot of time organising the servants, making morning calls, looking after your widowed father, so where is Elizabeth going to find time to write this extraordinary verse? Well what she does, of course, is she becomes ill. She becomes a sort of professional invalid. She withdraws to a room at the top of the house, in Wimpole Street where she lives with her family, and she makes herself into somebody who’s sort of outside the normal run of the household. She’s not expected to do the kinds of duties that are expected of her sister, she has long hours where she can just please herself, reading and writing. And it works brilliantly for her, during that time she writes some of her best poetry.  And in a sense we know that this was a subterfuge, although it was probably unconscious, she probably didn’t realise what she was doing. By the fact that when a very handsome young poet, called Robert Browning, strikes up a friendship with her and persuades her to escape to Italy, suddenly she has no problems walking at all. She manages to sneak out of the household, get married and then a few weeks later they’re off to Italy, and there’s no sign of never being able to walk after that.

Explore further

Related videos

The Governess

The Governess

Kathryn Hughes explains the role of the governess in 19th-century society and literature. - video

The middle classes

The middle classes

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of the middle class in Victorian society. - video

Jane Austen - Gender and morality

Jane Austen: Gender and morality

Professor Kathryn Sutherland considers Jane Austen’s portrayal of female characters and her harshly moralistic outlook. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton. - video

Jane Eyre - The role of women

Jane Eyre: The role of women

Professor John Bowen explores the central role of women in Jane Eyre and the unique role of the governess in 19th-century society. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Related articles

Gender roles in the 19th century

Gender roles in the 19th century

From marriage and sexuality to education and rights, Professor Kathryn Hughes looks at attitudes towards gender in 19th-century Britain.

Victorian sexualities

Victorian sexualities

How repressed were the Victorians? Dr Holly Furneaux challenges assumptions about Victorian attitudes towards sex, considering how theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have provided new ways of understanding sex and sexuality in the period.

Foundlings, orphans and unmarried mothers

Foundlings, orphans and unmarried mothers

Ruth Richardson explores the world of poverty, high mortality, prejudice and charity that influenced the creation of Oliver Twist.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Woman Question

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Woman Question

Dr Simon Avery considers how Elizabeth Barrett Browning used poetry to explore and challenge traditional Victorian roles for women, assessing the early influences on her work and thought.