The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873

The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873

The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873

The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873

Excerpt

Long before the days of that Victorian best-seller, The Woman Who Did, and a full half century before Ann Veronica, the novel was sensitive to the significant changes that were taking place in the position of women. By the time that writers at the close of the century 'took up' the topic of women's emancipation, it had been so much discussed that novelists and reading public alike were conditioned to the idea of the New Woman. As far as she was concerned, the initial stages of Victorian surprise were over. Novelists might approve or disapprove, proselytise or attack, but in either case they dealt with her, deliberately, as a social phenomenon. As such, she appears a remote, documentary figure to us today. If we sympathise with her ardours and her tribulations, we do so with our minds. For our hearts to be touched we must look further back, to the time when all-embracing feminism had not yet cut her off from the rest of her sex, when she was still an individual and not a representative of a system, when feminist doctrines were making their impact for the first time on both the Victorian woman and the Victorian novel-heroine.

In these earlier novels of the Victorian age, we find that the feminist impress, although fainter, is far more fascinating. It is here that we can observe the insidious percolation, often against the author's will, of the new ideas that were beginning to undermine the Victorian domestic idyll. It was not so easy, then, as it was for authors, later, to decide on which side of the fence they would sit, for the fence was only in the process of construction. It was the age of the social novel and the different, particular aspects of feminism interested the novelist--just as they interested the contemporary Victorian woman. The self-conscious aphorisms of a Meredith heroine were still far in the distance and would have meant little to the average reader. 'Women have passed Seraglio Point but have not yet rounded Cape Turk.' What charm had a generalisation like that compared with the concrete delights of heroines who were 'going in for' Good . . .

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