Supplementary information: Women in English Literature
Note: Supplementary information in italics.
1. Women in the Renaissance I
In Shakespeare’s day women of every class were subordinate to their men. In the play Hamlet Queen Gertrude (see picture) is “passed on” to the King’s brother when the King dies. This reflects actual practice – Henry VIII “inherited” his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, from his elder brother Arthur, who had died while still a prince. A noblewoman could own property, but the property became her husband’s if she married. The daughters of rich families seldom had any say in the choosing of a husband.
It is ironic then that England for half of the 16th century was ruled by women – and forceful women too. Mary I (1553-58) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603) were both highly educated women. Elizabeth spoke six languages fluently, played the lute and wrote poetry. But only aristocratic women had the privilege of education. The Church was now an entirely male institution since the Reformation had meant the closing of convents. In political and economic life women were largely excluded.
2. Women in the Renaissance II
While women’s economic and political power was small, they were still able to inspire respect and even fear - through their association with older, pre-Christian ideas about fertility and secret knowledge. Many villages had a “wise woman”, capable both of curing illnesses and also of throwing a spell or two. The male-dominated Church viewed such women as highly dangerous and in league with Satan. Many such women were charged with witchcraft and ended their lives burned at the stake.
This paradoxical view of women – on the one side powerless and idealised, and on the other threatening and potentially evil - resurfaces in different forms in literature down the centuries.
While Puritan sects often preached the subordination of women, their emphasis on private conscience and on the family as an agent of godliness gave women a more central role than before. The Puritan wife was a partner, if a rather unequal one. One small but influential Puritan sect, the Quakers, believed in complete equality between the sexes on spiritual matters. Quaker women were entitled to preach the Word of God on an equal footing as men.
In the Middle Ages chastity had been seen as an important virtue, but there had also been an acceptance of sensual passions in both sexes. Puritanism, on the other hand, tended to view sexual desire as something masculine, or to be associated with women of loose morals. “Good women” simply had no sexual desires, it was believed. Female sensuality became regarded as disrespectable.
4. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)
By the 18th century women were beginning to find a voice in the literary world, at least in the upper classes. Letter-writing was seen as a “feminine” form of expression by ladies of leisure, but there were also an increasing number of women who tried their hand at novels and poetry. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein, was an early feminist. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Here she appealed for women’s right to education, arguing that women’s subordination to men was neither natural nor inevitable.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s own life was as unconventional as her writing. She grew up with an alcoholic and violent father, and as a young woman went to France in the midst of the French Revolution. Here she fell in love with an American and had a child by him. When he deserted her, she found herself alone in an increasingly dangerous Paris. On returning to England she twice attempted suicide, first with laudanum and then by jumping into the River Thames.
In later life she found stability in a relationship with the radical philosopher William Godwin, only marrying him when she became pregnant (with the future Mary Shelley). Tragically she died in childbirth, only 38 years old.
5. Jane Austen (1775-1817)
At first glance the novels of Jane Austen seem like peaceful chronicles of the rather sheltered lives led by women of the English upper-middle class. But while the plots of novels like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma are apparently low-key, they are actually quite sharp indictments of the problems faced by intelligent young women in the late 18th century.
Marriage was the only way a woman of Austen’s class could ensure her social and economic position. The alternative was to become an “old maid”. In Austen’s novels the heroines find their intelligence and strength of character as much a hindrance as an aid in finding a husband. Romantic fantasies are shown to be a poor basis for a relationship. It is only by surviving social and personal obstacles that the hero and heroine are united in a happy ending.
6. The Brontës
The novels of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, show a more radical approach than Jane Austen’s to women’s predicament in a male-dominated society. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Catherine Earnshaw’s passionate nature is in constant conflict with society – and with the very institution of marriage. Catherine loves the foundling Heathcliff, but seeks social advancement by marrying Edgar Linton. The ensuing emotional conflict eventually breaks her both physically and mentally, leaving the reader to wonder whether women’s passionate instincts must always be at odds with society.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the heroine struggles to maintain her identity and dignity in her dealings with domineering men. She can only accept Mr Rochester as her husband when he, blind and disfigured, can accept her as an equal. Meanwhile the figure of Rochester’s first wife, mad and secretly imprisoned in the attic, has been seen by modern feminists as a telling metaphor for female rage and powerlessness.
Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) broke new ground in its depiction of a disastrous marriage and in the unconventional behaviour of its heroine, Helen Huntingdon, who walks out on her drunken and abusive husband.
7. Women in Victorian Britain I
The Victorian period brought changes to the daily lives of women of all social classes. Working class women, both single and married, provided a large part of the workforce in factories. While working hours could be long and conditions poor, paid employment gave some economic independence as well as the solidarity of the workplace. Domestic service was also an option – less repetitive and noisy, but also a potentially lonely existence.
For middle class women marriage was still the only way to a secure life. The post of governess was a common career choice for single women with an education. Usually poorly paid and with little security, governesses were only seen as slightly above domestic servants in rank. The figure of the governess is a familiar one in Victorian literature, the heroine of Jane Eyre being perhaps the most famous.
8. Women in Victorian Britain II
For women of the upper classes there was plenty of opportunity for a rich social life with dinner parties, charitable work and seaside holidays providing leisure activities. Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest (seen in the picture, played by Penelope Keith), may stand as a caricature of the aristocratic woman of the house, organising “at homes” (i.e. parties) and strictly administrating her family and domestic staff.
At the bottom of the social scale prostitution was the chief “career opening” for as many as 80,000 women in Victorian London. “Good taste” prevented most Victorian authors from dealing directly and realistically with the problem. In Dickens’ Oliver Twist the character Nancy is obviously a prostitute, although this is left to the reader to guess. She seems to have been forced into the trade by poverty, but retains her essential feminine compassion.
9. The Suffragette movement
By 1884 all men over 21 were entitled to vote in elections – but women were still excluded. This became the focus of the women’s movement at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The most famous campaigners were the Suffragettes (suffrage = the right to vote) led by Emily Pankhurst. They roused strong feelings, not least with their willingness to use violence and hunger strikes to advance their cause.
In the end it was the First World War that decided the issue. With the men away fighting, women became indispensable in a number of civilian jobs from which they had so far been excluded. This persuaded even the sceptics that there was no longer an argument for denying them political rights.
Even so, the 1918 Act only gave women over 30 the right to vote. Full equality came 10 years later.
10. Virginia Woolf
One of the key figures of Modernist literature in Britain was Virginia Woolf. She was at the centre of the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals and her novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves have become classics of Modernist and feminist literature. The first of these pioneered the use of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, while the main character personifies the sexual and economic repression of middle class women in the inter-war years.
Virginia Woolf’s own personal life was unconventional. She was married author Leonard Woolf from 1912, but also had a long-lasting lesbian relationship with poet Vita Sackville-West. She suffered from severe bouts of depression all her life and finally committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and drowning herself in a river.