, Research Paper
The Role of Women in Victorian England
The evolving role of women in Victorian England is the main subject of George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel deals with the struggle that many English women faced in the later part of the nineteenth century as they struggled for independence and finding means to support themselves. Prior to the women’s equal rights movement, which began in the middle part of the 1800s, women were either expected to marry or follow careers as nurses, governesses, servants or teachers as their main means of survival. However, as English society advanced and the life expectancy of women began to exceed that of men’s English women began to have more and more difficulty in obtaining a suitable income (Gissing 338).
When Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, the number of women exceeded the number of men by over 500,000. This made it impossible for every woman to find a husband and also led to too many women entering the “traditional” female fields mentioned above. Women were forced to find new jobs to support themselves such as the clerical and business realms. For the women not lucky enough to find a suitable husband or who lacked the education necessary for a professional life the alternatives were prostitution and slaving in shops. This dark contrast is illustrated well by Gissing through Mrs. Eade as a prostitute and Millie Vesper, who is able to find a job and works hard. This problem mainly affected the lower and middle class women, as the upper class women were considered attractive because of their family’s social standings and economic situations. The lower and middle class women had nothing special to bring to a marriage and generally only the beautiful women of those classes succeeded in finding a husband. The middle and working class women had a slight advantage over the lower class women because they generally had a slightly better education, which afforded them the opportunity to obtain some employment somewhere. However, without marriage the only employment readily available to women was in the service profession and generally at a low income. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the women’s “mission” was considered to serve in the nursing field, or as servants and to train servants (Melman 356). The only managerial position available to women during the time was as a married woman in charge of her household and the servants that worked for her. The women were expected to train the servants and show them exactly how the household chores were supposed to be completed (Melman 355-56).
Gissing illustrates the employment problems faced by Victorian women quite well in The Odd Women, dealing mainly with the working class. Gissing manages to cover all the opportunities available to women and the pros and cons of these options. Alice Madden is a woman with a typical education in the over-saturated field of education. Alice is forced to work as a teacher and a governess, and even as a nurse at one point, for a very small wage. Alice must compete with many other women and has difficulty even finding a job, let alone one that will pay her enough to survive on. Alice used religion to find strength to deal with the difficulties in her life. Virginia Madden has no real education and is able to make a small living for herself by caring for an old woman but is unable to find another job when the woman passes away. Virginia is also plagued by the fact that there are too many women trying to find the same job as her. Virginia was subjected to terrible condition while working for the old woman but continued because she knew she could not find anything better. Virginia eventually took to drinking to deal with the problems in her life. Monica Madden serves to illustrate the terrible working conditions of shop clerks in Victorian England. This field was also inundated with young women trying to earn enough money to survive. Monica was forced to work extremely long hours and received very little time off. Through Monica the reader also learns that many women suffered from ailing health because of the working conditions but that the owners were not overly concerned because they knew there was more women waiting to replace the sick ones. Miss Eade is another shop clerk who is able to find another profession. In order to escape from the deplorable conditions she faced as a shop clerk, Miss Eade becomes a prostitute and lowers herself to selling her body to survive. Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot represent the radical feminism that was just beginning to sweep across England. Rhoda and Mary are both trained in the clerical profession and live comfortable lives. Although their comfort comes mainly from Mary’s inheritance, Gissing is making a point by associating the feminist point of view and the clerical profession with comfort. Rhoda and Mary devote most of their time to teaching young middle class women the clerical profession and how to survive as a single woman, or spinster, in Victorian England. Milly Vesper is one of Mary and Rhoda’s students and she also lives a somewhat comfortable life. Milly studies hard with Mary and Rhoda and is also being prepared to take a place with Mary and Rhoda in their quest to continue to educate and liberate Victorian women. Before Monica’s marriage, while the two of them were roommates, Milly’s life was displayed as a simple, yet fulfilling one. Milly was not wealthy nor did she lead a life of luxury but she did not struggle and was content with her life. It allowed her to live the way she wanted and not to have to rely on other people. Milly was a free woman. Gissing’s varying sketches of his female characters in The Odd Women serve as a feminist statement. Gissing is saying that women must begin to seek employment in fields other than the traditional ones. If women want to continue to evolve and advance their social position in Victorian England, they must find new ways to earn a living and provide a suitable income to live on according to Gissing.
It is altogether a story of odd women, women who suffer in the dreadful whirl of English daily life, because the brutal truth is there are too many women to be married, and most of them are quite unfitted to realise for themselves that to be successful, to burst the bonds which encompass their narrow, sordidlives, they must be ‘odd’ (Gissing 333).
The traditional jobs of women are overflowing with too many women which is creating lower wages and harder working conditions and indifference for the women by their employers. Unable to find traditional jobs or to marry Gissing is stating that women must challenge traditional social views.
Gissing also makes comments on marriage and the role it served as women struggled to find independence in Victorian England. Gissing used Monica as his main illustration of marriage’s role in women’s struggle to find liberation. Monica decided to marry because she felt it would improve her lifestyle and allow her to live comfortably. However, Monica’s life only gets worse because of her marriage and instead of finding the comfort and freedom she was searching for she finds repression and difficulty. Monica’s marriage to Edmund Widdowson came at a time when she was beginning to regain control of her life with the help of Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn. Monica’s health was improving and her life was beginning to gain comfort. After Monica’s marriage her health once again began to decline and her marriage also helped lead to her death. Gissing used Monica’s marriage to make a statement against marriages of convenience for young Victorian women. Gissing also makes a similar comment through Bella Royston. Although, Bella did not marry, she left Mary and Rhoda to seek love with a married man. Bella hoped that this man would take care of her and allow her to live a free and happy life. Once the man turns Bella out on her own she suffers greatly, ultimately committing suicide. When commenting about the role of married women in Victorian England and the desire of men to control their wives Monica Caird said, “It will be a happy day for humanity when a woman can stay in her own home without sacrificing her freedom” (Gissing 375). Caird is alluding to one of the biggest problems married women faced – being governed by their husbands. Gissing is making a strong feminist comment through these two instances by saying that women must find their own means of support and not try to look for it through men. According to Gissing, if women want freedom and security in their lives they must achieve it on their own and not through marriage. Until women are considered equals with men, women will never have total freedom in marriage.
Gissing represents the changin role of women and the new feeling of feminism that was being born in England through the contrast of the opening and ending of The Odd Women. The book opens while the Madden women are still young girls. At the time women were not expected to work and were even considered of a lower class if they did work. “‘I don’t think girls ought to be troubled about this kind of thing,’ he said apologetically. ‘Let men grapple with the world; for, as the old hymn says, ’tis their nature to.’ I should grieve indeed if I thought my girls would ever have to distress themselves about money matters” (Gissing 31). This quote by Dr. Madden in the opening paragraph of the novel sums up the current view of women’s role up to the middle of the nineteenth century. “By the beginning of the nineteenth century the powerful concept of “refinement” prescribed that all women outside the working class abstain from gainful employment except in cases of extreme necessity (Atlick 51). However, by the end of the novel the women following the new feminist views and providing for themselves in fields that females had just begun to enter are the women living comfortably and experiencing success in life. Mary and Rhoad are helping Milly and Miss Haven with their endeavor to begin a feminist newspaper and are ready to begin printing it. “We flourish like the green bay-tree. We shall have to take larger premises Miss Barfoot was never in such health and spirits – nor myself. The world is moving” (Gissing 332). Here Rhoda is telling Alice Madden about the success that Rhoda and Mary have experienced in their endeavor to educate and liberate women. Rhoda’s quote is a representation of the success that the feminist movement was having and how the role of women was slowly beginning to change as the twentieth century approached.