Briefly Outline a Selection of Victorian Values
This essay is going to briefly outline a section of Victoria values such as separate spheres, religion and family. Outside the family sphere, one had to strive for self-improvement and industry in ones working life, and developed nations. The main focus of this essay is going to be on fallen woman. In the Victorian era women were seen as pure and clean because of this view, their bodies were seen as temples which should not be adorned with jewellery. A woman should be reminded that marrying she gives up many advantages.
A few artists such as William Holman Hunt and Augustus Leopold Egg and many more portrayed these Victorian values through narrative artwork and this essay is going to discuss a few of these artist’s paintings such as The Awakening Conscience and Past and Present. The role of women was to have children and tend to the house in contrast to men, according to the concept of Victorian masculinity. If they didn’t achieve this the their husbands would have mistresses outside their marriage. Decorating the home and wearing fine dresses became a way for women to express themselves.
Religion went through it’s changes as Victorian’s lost interest in God. [Patterson 2007 online] However, Great Revivals would sweep across the countries of the world changing the lives of many. The separate spheres framework holds that men possessed the capacity for reason, action, aggression, independence, and self-interest thus belonging to the public sphere. Women inhabited a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so called inherent qualities of femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness, all derived, it was claimed insistently, form women’s sexual and reproductive organization. Patterson 2007 online]In reality women held an important position as wives since they took care of the household, any servants, helped with their husband’s work, and managed the finances, however from the male’s point of view, women were nothing more than overly emotional and mindless creatures ruled by their sexuality Mary Wollstonecraft penned her anger at the unfair and unjust inequality that where imposed upon women by a vocal male majority in an attempt to redress this balance.
A women’s role in life in the nineteenth century was decidedly placed within a male context; both sexes were to be seen acting within different realms with the men occupying what was to be known as the public sphere whilst the women were to be found in the domestic sphere [Gordon Marsden 1955]. Perhaps this splitting of realms, within the working and lower middling classes at least, into their respective roles was by-product of increasing industrialisation and its resultant hazards such as long working hours and poor working conditions imposed upon the family unit.
The majority of women did not have the option not to marry: it was simply a necessity for survival. Because society prevented women from making their own living, there was an inescapable dependence upon men’s income; Barred by law and custom from entering trades and professions by which they could support themselves, and restricted in the possession of property, woman had only one means of livelihood, that of marriage her [Gordon Marsden 1955].
Therefore, no matter what the women desired, most were predestined to become wives due to their economic reliance on men. Secondly, to be even considered as a potential wife, women had to be not only virgins, but were expected to remain innocent and “free from any thought of love or sexuality” until after they had received a proposal The fallen woman was quite a theme for the Pre-Raphaelites. In this painting, The Awakening Conscience, we see a mistress rising from the seat of her lover, seemingly stricken with the realization of what her life has become.
The Awakening Conscience, painted by William Holman Hunt, is filled with symbolism: a cat crouches under the table devouring a dead bird, the woman’s hands are adorned with rings on every finger except where a wedding ring would be, and on the floor we see unraveling wool. The model in this painting is Annie Miller, who Holman Hunt “rescued from obscurity”. He was engaged to her and launched a campaign to better her [Gordon Marsden 1955]. As a women, then ,the first thing of importance is to be content, to be inferior to men, inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength.
Ruskin’s defence of the Awakening Conscience in his letter to the Times helps to subvert the idea of women being dependent upon men; he refers to the model repeatedly as the ‘poor’ ‘lost’ girl. He victimises her and renders her as virtually helpless as she ‘starts up with agony’, her ‘eyes filled with tears of ancient days’. Ruskin attempts to address the composition’s power and immediacy from which ‘there is not a single object in all the room–… but it becomes tragically if rightly read’[Hollis,P 1979]. He concludes that Hunt’s work challenges its contemporaries and that ‘there will not be found one powerful as this to meet … he moral evil of the age… to waken the mercy the cruel thoughtlessness of youth, and to subdue the severalties of judgement into the sanctity of compassion[Rutherford online n. d]. Hunt’s the Awakening Conscience, in this context may be seen as a form of morality text. The work was a direct outgrowth of mid-Victorian society which believed that prostitution posed an inherent threat to the stability of the middle-classes as prostitution encompassed and symbolised the worries of a newly industrialised society which could lead to social instability and perhaps even to a complete social breakdown.
It was believed that he slide into prostitution was the end of a more general moral breakdown in one’s life which was believed to stem from the act of seduction, in 1840. William Tait in Magdalism, defined a woman’s seduction as an ‘act of corrupting tempting, or enticing females from a life of chastity, by money of false promises’. The 1850 Westminster Review wrote that ‘women’s desires scarcely ever lead to their fall; for the desire scarcely exists in a definite form until they have fallen; it may therefore be seen that the ideal women becomes de-sexed in her search for moral virtue [Rutherford online n. ]. William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience represents not only a contemporary life subject of a fallen Magdalene but can be loosely interpreted as an example of portraiture by Pointon’s definition in which we can see that the woman became as symbolically objectified as her image. In contrast Augustus Leopold Egg’s painting, known as Past and Present Nos. 1–3, (1858), is a triptych in the genre of narrative painting. The subject is the ‘fallen woman’ and together the three paintings depict an entire scenario from discovery and outcast to the moments before the woman’s final demise.
One picture shows the children alone in the home; the other picture shows their mother living under the Adelphi Terrace arches in London. The paintings “illustrate the tensions in Victorian culture between morality and sexuality”. Egg’s “moral narrative on social issues”[ Patterson 2007 online ] was successful in drawing public attention to the need to address gender roles and their consequences such as divorce. The sad woman in the third picture, most likely contemplating suicide, is a result of legislation that allows a man to divorce his wife without compensation for adultery [Patterson 2007 online].
Prostitution, was legal during the Victorian era, seemed to embody the second of the two categories of women present in Victorian society: the first was the pure wife and mother, the angel in the house; the other was the depraved and sexually-crazed prostitute. “Prostitution was a product of middle-class society and only socialism, it was claimed ,could put an end to the evil”[Nead L 1988]. However because wives and mothers were not truly respected, my belief is that prostitution reflected what men really considered all women to be: whores for the gratification of their sexual desires.
And indeed in Victorian England a large number of women were prostitutes: “In a society that forced women into a position of economic dependence upon men. In conclusion men’s and society’s consistent definition of women’s roles according to their separate spheres and the reproductive system can also be seen through what today we would consider the ‘weird’ sexual values of Victorians. The issue of adultery was also skewed to favour men. While a wife’s adultery was sufficient cause to end a marriage, a woman could divorce her husband only if his adultery had been compounded by another matrimonial offence, such as cruelty or desertion.
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