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Context: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Understanding the Victorian World


The world of Victorian England, a period generally defined as the time when Queen Victoria sat on the English throne (1837-1901), is one in which massive social and technological changes profoundly altered the direction of everyday life. In history, few eras can compare in terms of pure social upheaval, except perhaps our own. It is unimaginable that any author writing during this time period would remain unaffected by the changes going on around her, and Charlotte Brontë was no exception. Her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, first published in 1847, both exemplifies and attacks the world in which it is set. To really understand the novel, therefore, the reader needs to have a clear sense of what Brontë’s society looked and felt like, of what it meant to be alive as a Victorian. The context provided here is designed to help readers understand the novel, and is not an exhaustive exploration of any aspect of the time period. Its purpose is solely to make Jane Eyre easier to follow. The information, therefore, is broad rather than deep.

Because the Victorian world was so complex, narrowing the topics down into clearly defined points was a nearly impossible task. Ideas, impacts and events flow into one another, contrast with each other, and are difficult to separate out. I have done my best to create a simple list of concepts needed to read the book with understanding, but sometimes these will bleed into one another or rely upon each other for clarity. Like all history, Victorian life was complicated and contradictory.

Furthermore, I have avoided making any direct references to the characters or events in the novel at this point. As we dive into each section of the story, I will start to connect the ideas and events explored here with those in the novel. If you haven’t read the book yet, this means that this explanation will still make sense, and you can gain depth of understanding as we go. If you have already read the story, you will immediately recognize many of the social forces that compel Brontë’s characters in the descriptions below, and can begin to make your own connections. As this is meant to be a reader’s guide, not a definitive lecture, I hope that both beginning readers of Jane Eyre and old hands alike will find the story enriched by what you read in this guide, and that it will help you read the novel you enjoy, without sapping any of that enjoyment.

My goal is always to add to the glorious complexity of the text, never to tear it down or rob it of its power. To that end, I won’t be using literary theory of any sort to talk about this book. We won’t spend pages on minute examples of symbolism, and I won’t tell you that Jane is just a cypher for the repression of all Victorian women which is further expressed through Bertha’s imprisonment and destruction as a sexual being, or that Rochester represents the patriarchy of the male voice expressed though blah blah blah… In other words, we’re not going to over-analyze or criticize this book. We’re going to read it together, and seek to gain understanding of what’s actually there in the text through a rich sense of period background, and through careful examination of the character’s motivations and experiences as seen in the text. In that sense, I should warn you all that I’m a textualist: if it ain’t in there, we ain’t talkin’ about it. I don’t speculate about what characters might feel or do in a different situation, and I don’t spend time imposing 21st century psychoanalysis (no, Rochester is not bi-polar) onto 19th century human beings. The text is the key, whole and complete. It’s all you need, as long as you have a basic understanding of the time period. My goal, and my fervent hope, is that you will love the book even more when we’re done than you did when we started. If I can help with that, I’ve done my “job” here.

I have included my bibliography at the end, and references in the text to books where my sources can be found, but much of what you read here is a synthesis of what I have learned through twenty years of reading, study and exploration of this time period. Therefore, I did not make specific page references. Most of the general information here is widely available (again, not deep, but broad). If you are curious about a source, please see the bibliography at the end. And yes, that’s MLA format. I know it’s somewhat intrusive compared to footnotes, but it’s what I know and I’d rather do it correctly. Thanks to everyone for reading, and if you enjoy the guide, please let me know by a: commenting and discussing what we’re reading, and b: grabbing the final Kindle version from when it’s all done. I would love that support!

1: The Industrial Revolution Changes the Landscape of Britain

The Industrial Revolution is generally believed to have begun in the late eighteenth century, as new technologies allowed for unprecedented growth in the human capacity to produce goods for market. Before this time, Britain was a largely agricultural society, with most people uneducated and with little personal freedom. Society’s structure was extremely rigid and controlled, with little opportunity for individuals to rise to new social positions, except through war. The Industrial Revolution changed every aspect of society, from the roles of the rich to the lives of most impoverished, from city dwellers to the masses in the countryside, from the secular to the most religious. It wiped out much of what people had understood to be true about their lives for the previous thousand years in a single generation. By the 1840’s, the social effects of the revolution were already being documented and understood by the people living through them (Hobsbawm). These were most felt by industrial laborers and their new “masters,” but there were trickle-down effects felt by every member of British society.

One of those effects was the bringing of increased wealth and trade to England. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, few people traveled outside of the country, and even fewer went off to exotic locals to make their money. Most citizens lived and died within a few miles of their home. The growing markets for cotton, tobacco, and slaves meant that English men were suddenly able to visit corners of the globe previously reserved only for hardy adventurers and well-funded explorers (Hobsbawm).The Industrial Revolution essentially cemented the British Empire’s global reach, providing to enterprising young men means of gaining capital that had not existed in their fathers’ days. As historian Eric Hobsbawm says of the industrial and social revolutions of this period: “The crucial achievement of the two revolutions was thus that they opened careers to talent, or at any rate to energy, shrewdness, hard work and greed.” Prior to the revolution, for example, younger brothers of landed gentry were often relegated to life in the army or as clergymen, waiting hopefully for their older siblings to die so that they could inherit the estate. The revolution offered these same young men new ways to earn fortunes of their own, independent of their family’s distribution of old money and land. Opportunity existed everywhere, both at home and abroad, to anyone industrious and (to some degree) greedy enough to seize it.

The revolution affected landed gentry in other ways, too. Because their workers were now migrating en masse to the city to seek better-paying jobs that would provide them with a measure of independence, the landlords of great estates were hard-pressed to make their land as profitable as before. They retrenched, selling off property, and sending fewer taxes and tithes into the pockets of the government and the church. This lowering of income also meant that great houses no longer served as sponsors of the local parish priests, again shifting power away from a traditional base – the clergy – toward the general populace (Bryson). This erosion of the traditional power structures left both the upper classes and the church open to a level of criticism and general disrespect unknown in previous generations. Whereas before, a few hardy individuals had ventured to write satirical explorations of specific problems in society (often anonymously), it was now accepted that the very fundamentals of the old social order were up for grabs. Nobody was too good to be brought down, especially in fiction.

With all that movement from rural Britain to the city, the sense of whom a person could become shifted as well. Though a hierarchical social structure was generally still in place, for the first time, a reasonably well-educated person of little means could gain traction in society through hard work and modest financial success. This sudden social mobility meant that money, and one’s means of obtaining it, became increasingly as important as one’s family name (Hobsbawm). Thus, fictional scenarios that seemed outlandish in Jane Austen’s time: that a young woman of few means could secure for herself an extremely wealthy husband, for instance, became a literary commonplace (Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which was Brontë’s favorite novel, is a great example of this trend). Nobel-minded, but impoverished heroes and heroines were suddenly all the rage. The emphasis once placed solely on social position now moved to feature one’s relative dependence or independence financially. Gaining a measure of independence meant that one could move up the social scale, at least to a point, without the benefits of title and rank. Along with this new-found financial liberty came an expectation of personal liberty. People wanted to be seen as free to do what they pleased, not tied to a particular mode of life. Money gave more independence, and with that independence came an increasing need to define one’s own life in one’s own terms, without the overbearing rules set down by the church, the landlords, and the state. The battle of the upper classes against this sudden shift is also one of the new themes found in Victorian literature, playing out in everyone from Dickens’ to Gaskell’s to Thackeray’s to Elliot’s stories. Everyone was both intrigued by, and scared of, the new power of the poor to shape their own lives.

Of course, the focus on all things technological and industrial could not help but bring about a movement interested in the opposite ideals: the natural, supernatural, emotional and primitive. This movement, Romanticism, is too complex to get into in great detail in a paragraph, but it formed the basis for much of the contemporary artistic and literary vision of the time. It emphasized moving away from the purely rational and scientific approaches to nature that were just coming into power, and experiencing the world through an unfiltered emotional lens instead. This gave rise to the obsession with the dark supernatural in the Gothic works of the latest part of the period, and also an interest in exotic cultures, including those of the distant past (Hobsbawm). Art was meant to be original, spontaneous, and unfettered by traditional artistic rules, and this philosophy affected the Romantics’ means of living their lives, as well as creating their art. Free-thinking bohemian artists challenged the social norms in every aspect of society, from gender roles, to marriage and sexuality, to standards of living, to the open use of mind-altering drugs. Most of the writers of this period were not actually Romantic authors (many of the best known among them, including Brontë, Dickens, Gaskell, and Thackeray, were actually fairly conservative), but they were all influenced by artists who were, including Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Lord Byron.

2: Empire and Colonialism Opens Up the World

As the British Empire expanded, so did the influence of its new discoveries on the British imagination. Assumptions were shaken about the relative nature of humanity as the colonists came into contact with cultures utterly foreign to their own. Endless popular monographs on ethnography (the study of ethnicities) were produced and widely distributed. Some of these writings were truly shocking to the British public, exploring ideas of religion, behavior and sexuality that were completely outside what the Victorians considered “normal.” Sir Richard Burton, the great explorer of Africa and the Middle East, published extensive field notes regarding the sexual practices of the peoples he encountered, (probably gathered “first hand,” so to speak), including polyandry and female circumcision. Before his death, he translated the Kama Sutra into English, and was working on a book about the sexual practices of other cultures, including pederasty. He converted to Islam, and wrote extensively about the beliefs of other religions, and Victorians absolutely ate the information up (Lovell). So the idea that the Victorians were complete prudes about sex and religion isn’t fully accurate: they wanted the information, but they also looked down on those they encountered who practiced other than what the Victorians preached. They were both fascinated and repelled by what they learned. Still, all this newly discovered material about the world gave the Victorian public an insatiable desire for knowledge about exotic places and peoples, and that inevitably altered the way they thought about others and themselves.

These encounters with others often raised serious social questions for the Victorians about the nature of the so-called “civilized” world. These questions extended to their own middle-to-upper class world in England; to the lives of the British poor and the near-at-hand foreign cultures, such as the Irish; and to those people they had colonized overseas. What constituted “civilized” behavior was one of the primary driving questions behind late-Regency novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and later socially-critical Victorian novels such as North and South by Charlotte Brontë’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell; Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and just about every other Dickens novel; and the great Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. On a more popular front, this idea was heavily explored in works like Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and in the growing genre of science-fiction/fantasy novels. Of course, the new understanding of evolutionary theory played a role here too. This notion, that beneath the carefully groomed exteriors of British citizens lay the same primal urges and behaviors they found in what they considered “lesser” societies, both terrified and consumed the Victorian public, and became a favorite theme in literary works of all genres.

The broader question of how to justify imperial expansion also tested the philosophically-inclined Victorians. The reasoning usually involved their bringing the benefits seen in religious and cultural superiority, in exchange for commodities. Hobsbawn explains it thus:

… the man who had not shown the ability to accumulate property was not a full man, and could therefore hardly be a full citizen. The extremes of this attitude occurred where the European idle class came into contact with the unbelieving heathen, seeking to convert him through intellectually unsophisticated missionaries to the truths of Christianity, commerce and the wearing of trousers (between which no sharp distinctions were drawn), or imposing on him the truths of liberal legislation.

The point that Hobsbawn makes: that there was little moral distinction being made between gaining a path to heaven and wearing “proper” clothing, shows how spurious the motivations behind this colonization really were (and that, in all likelihood, the colonizers knew it). That the characters in Victorian novels must find ways to explain the need for Christian missionaries shows how difficult it was for people who tended to favor the abolition of slavery and the institution of individual freedoms to then find a good reason for the imposition of their own beliefs on others in the interests of trade. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” perfectly exemplifies this discomfort with the notion that there was somehow a need to head out into the world and make other people more like the British themselves. Kipling’s poem both exhorts the readers to dive into the colonial cause, and cautions them against it. It would seem that for most Victorians, economic benefits aside, empire was an ambiguous triumph.

Nevertheless, this exposure to new ideas and ways of life gave the Victorians pause, and forced them to examine their own culture and beliefs in ways the previous generation never considered (they were mostly concerned with being superior to the French). Nearly every novel written during the Victorian era questions the essential thrust of Victorian society toward colonization in some way. Many are overt critiques, but others simply ask questions, through their characters, about the morality of living as masters with others human beings. They asked themselves repeatedly: if we treat others like animals, are we not animals ourselves?

3. Science Opens Everything to Question

This question about the extent of the animal nature underlying the “civilized” exterior of the Victorian man was a very timely one. It is no small task to understand the vast changes in scientific knowledge that occurred during this period, many of which were so profound that they uprooted the most cherished beliefs of the bedrock aspects of society. To put it bluntly: prior to 1834, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist (Bryson). Once Victorian men, with their growing access to education, financial wherewithal and travel opportunities stepped out into the world, they found themselves unable to stop exploring. Being a scientist, even an amateur one (and many great early scientists were amateurs), became almost fashionable among a certain kind of middle-to-upper class man (Flanders). Knowledge was power and money. Fields like chemistry, physics, and biology exploded with new information. Naturalists travelled the globe bringing back and cataloging thousands of species of plants and animals previously unknown to science. These, the Victorians put on display (alive or dead) for the public to marvel at. It is no coincidence that almost all the great public zoological gardens, botanical gardens and natural history museums were founded during this period. Meanwhile, geology helped to drive the understanding of evolution, and the exploration of the earth’s layers brought about the beginning of paleontology. Anthropology, archaeology, psychology, and many other social sciences also took off during this period. In fact, pretty much everything we understand about the modern world is rooted in the discoveries made during the Victorian period.

Of course, one of the most important scientific discoveries to spring to mind during this period is the discovery of the process of evolution. Not just biological evolution, but also geological and social evolution were explored for the first time (Marx and Engels wrote their famous Manifesto during the Victorian era). The idea that anything could evolve, from animals to cultures, took root and thrived. The Victorians applied evolution to absolutely everything. Darwin may have written the definitive work on the subject of biological evolution, but there were others exploring the same ideas at the same time, so it wasn’t as though the idea of change over time came completely out of the blue (Bryson). Evolution finally sunk in because society was ready to see evolution’s usefulness to a whole range of studies. For example, the notion of a Biblical timeline for the development of the Earth simply could not be sustained in the face of the mounting geological evidence to the contrary. Theories about the changes sustained by the Earth over time, published years before Origin of the Species, allowed Darwin’s theories to gain a foothold in the public’s imagination. The ideas that followed: that every living thing could evolve, from people to viruses, wasn’t that hard to grasp once people let go of the religious teachings that had dominated public thought for centuries. Science moved further and further away from religion, shaking off any ties the two had forged and setting out as its own discipline, based in evidence and a growing understanding of the physical world.

The advances in medicine were equally stunning: by the late 1800’s, the cause of cholera was discovered, vaccinations for small pox were being delivered, and sewage treatment plants had been set up in London. The effect these changes had on the general health of those living in the newly-crowded cities allowed the Industrial Revolution to advance. Without them, too many workers would simply have died off from living in such close proximity to one another. The Victorians discovered that the idea of germ theory was correct: there really were little things in our environment making us sick, and this lead to the invention of antiseptics, and safer pregnancies, births, surgeries and hospitalizations. The use of ether or chloroform as an anesthetic meant there were no more operations while a patient was awake, allowing doctors to actually treat their patients’ illnesses directly. Though of course, illogical and often harmful practices like blood-letting and cupping were still in wide use, real steps toward medicine based in science and not superstition were taken for the first time in modern history. Doctors utilized accurate stethoscopes and improved microscopes to understand their patients’ illnesses through evidence-based care, and medical schools reflected this by training an ever-specialized and educated group of physicians, removing forever the idea of a doctor who was trained only through observation in the field. Toward the end of the era, x-rays and the use of radiation stunned the world, revolutionizing how many illnesses were diagnosed and treated, including cancer (Flanders).

Engineers forged steel for the first time, and with it they built wonders like the Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and railroads that spanned the country. Transportation changed from inefficient public mail carriages and small personal conveyances to the mass transport of trains and omnibuses, and everyone could enjoy the ease of the “safety” bicycle (or, toward the very end, the horseless carriage!). Warfare was forever altered by the introduction of submarines, armored ships and the Gatling Gun, which was an early form of machine gun. Communications advances included the first use of postage stamps, telegraph lines (imagine the magic of that first message passed across the transatlantic cable!), radios and telephones. Electric lights were installed into homes and onto streetlamps, illuminating the world with far less odor and fuss than gas lights had caused. Life at home wasn’t just brighter: it was much more pleasant, with hygienic advances such as easy-to-clean ceramic toilets, showers, and primitive washing machines; and entertainment from the phonograph and readily available sheet music and “ladies” home magazines. Chemists discovered how to create aniline dyes, explaining why the colors used to paint the exteriors of houses were so vivid. Ready access to inexpensive fabrics meant everything, from table tops to mantelpieces to the legs of pianos (not hidden because they were sexy, as is commonly supposed, but simply because they were a surface that could be covered with fabric) was soon draped in copious quantities of manufactured cloth (Flanders). Photography became a way of documenting this crowded and exciting new world, solidifying the memories of the lives of everyday people for the first time in history.

It is no exaggeration to say that a person born at the beginning of Victoria’s reign would find the world almost unrecognizable by the end. Everything had changed, and all the precepts on which most people based their understanding of the physical world had been forever shifted. No era had seen such significant development before, and its repercussions are still being felt today in our own rapid technological growth.

4. Religion Surges, and Brings Hypocrisy with It

As usually happens when the world suddenly blooms into scientific awareness, a certain portion of Victorian society reacted with a very firm return to traditional religion. The Victorians were at the tail end of a large religious revival that came as a reaction to the ideas of the Enlightenment and its focus on reason as the guide for morality (Flanders). For many people, that revival continued well into the new era. Science, with its notions of evolution brought structural alterations to the fundamental beliefs about the place of human beings in the universe, and that fact terrified many religious people. The Bible was no longer an obviously literal set of instructions, but became a general guide, and as is always the case when people are expected to guide themselves, folks were frightened.

The most terrified among them turned to the stricter sects of Evangelicalism. Charismatic preachers became popular, bringing with them a new focus on fire-and-brimstone preaching, and the usual false morality that quickly accompanies a rapid rise from small-time preacher to large-scale organizer and fundraiser. They lobbied to close museums and public buildings on Sundays, lectured against consumption of alcohol, and created a strict public moral code that was hard to work around. They believed men and women should live carefully compartmentalized lives, and that children should be raised with distance and a good deal of punishment. Yet they also worked hard to abolish slavery and to keep Colonialism’s worst abuses under control. Victorian novelists struggled to react to these changes in the nature of religion: how does one criticize the church while still remaining a loyal Christian? Fortunately for the poor writers, most of England had given up on loyal Christianity long before: by 1851, more than half the people in England were not attending church, and only 20 percent attended an Anglican service (Bryson). This, combined with the loss of income from the redistribution of wealth and power during the Industrial Revolution, dealt a real blow to the credibility and solidity of religion in England, opening it up to genuine critique by nearly every author.

5. If Everything We Knew about Science and Religion Has Changed, Does That Mean Pseudoscience and Spiritualism Could Be Correct?

The rise of religion in the early part of the 19th century, as well as the huge questions being raised by scientific study, created an interest in all sorts of “pseudosciences.” Most were relatively harmless, like the Victorian obsession with a perpetual motion machine, but some, like eugenics (the idea that people could manipulate human evolution through selective breeding and sterilizations) caused untold misery for millions in the coming years. The early Victorians loved stories about reanimation, or the bringing back of the dead (one could argue, given the numerous stories of a zombie apocalypse, that this particular obsession remains with us today). One pseudoscientific idea that is frequently mentioned in Victorian literature is “phrenology,” or the belief that the shape of a person’s skull reflected the inner make-up of their brain, thus giving their physical appearance a direct relationship to their character. References to the size of someone’s forehead, or their “organ of veneration” are examples of this belief in practice.

Spiritualism, or the idea that one could communicate with the dead, became all the rage during the Victorian time. Ouija Boards, séances, ghosts and faeries gained popularity. Numerous public hoaxes involving fortune tellers (“gypsy” or otherwise) were exposed, and normally quite rational people fell victim to scams involving dead relatives rapping on tables (In the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens references “the Cock-lane ghost,” a young woman who was revealed, after much celebrity, to be tapping out the messages she supposedly received from the dead on a plank hidden beneath her as she lay in bed). Harry Houdini made something of a second career for himself exposing these fraudulent schemes, but Spiritualism’s popularity continued well into the early twentieth century.

As societal expectations for everyone’s relative health and longevity shifted, and the interest in Spiritualism grew, the Victorians developed a very strange relationship with death. Though people were not really that much longer-lived than at other points in history, the promise held out by technological advances in medicine seemed to suggest that humans might, at some point, beat death. The Victorians seem to have translated this into an obsession with death and the hereafter: Victorian widows wore their black “weeds” for three years (Victoria, of course, wore hers for the rest of her life after Albert died unexpectedly in his forties). Parents used the newly-discovered art of photography to memorialize their dead children in poses suggesting they were simply sleeping. Women created elaborate jewelry and decorate pictures out of the hair of the deceased (my mother collected Victorian hair artifacts, from hair bracelets and rings to a giant, 3-D cornucopia made of hair and seeds inside a 2’-by-3’ shadow box). People idolized martyrs, particularly exceptionally innocent young women and/or missionaries. The desire to conquer death mingled with the desire to commune with the dead, creating a particularly morbid fascination that continued up to the First World War.

6. Changing Social Mores Rock Relationships

A. Marriage

One of the most profound shifts that came during the Victorian period, and that still resonates with us today, was a movement from marriage based in a community or familial interest to one based around love. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there were, of course, marriages based in love. Generally, however, marriages were seen as a way to unite two people with shared financial or social needs. Rich men usually married women whose family connections could benefit their own. Landed gentry wanted more land. Wives were bargaining chips used to create ties that would bring peace and prosperity to their families. For lower class citizens, if they were allowed to marry at all, independent craftsmen often married women with similar skills in order to gain the extra tools and set of hands to work together, and farmers or serfs married women who could help around the farm. As Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History puts it: “Couples were not to put their feelings for each other above more important commitments, such as their ties to parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, or God.”

The Industrial Revolution, however, changed that paradigm. Suddenly, young people who had been closely supervised by their parents were allowed, at younger and younger ages, to interact with people of the opposite sex. Used to independence and a sense of control in their lives, this new working class believed it was their right to marry whomever they pleased, and as anyone could conceivably rise in social position at any time, there were fewer barriers parents could raise to a marriage with a suitor who hadn’t yet made his fortune (Coontz). For the upper classes, this shift took longer to see full effect, as marriages based on capital acquisition were still prevalent well into the twentieth century. But for everyone else, the damage had been done: one had to love one’s spouse, for the first time in history.

Naturally, this created a conflict between the still-powerful notion of marriage as a social contract, and the desire of a young man and woman to find a partner suited to their mutual needs. Queen Victoria, who was an unbelievably powerful role model in all aspects of Victorian life, set the stage for disaster for many of her followers. Introduced to her first cousin Albert for the first time as an adult, she fell madly in love and had, by all accounts, a very happy marriage with a vigorous sex life. That Victoria could achieve a perfect marriage of sex and state set the stage for terrible disappointments for many people who could not achieve that same standard after the relatively constrained courtships still prescribed in Victorian life.

Most damagingly, the Victorians subscribed to a theory known as “separate spheres.” Essentially, the idea was that men and women, based upon the differences in their biology, were fundamentally unsuited to certain activities. Men, so the theory went, were the only ones strong enough in their will to withstand the terrible stresses and intellectual challenges of life in the financial and industrial world. Women, with their softer physiques, were better suited to the gentle work of the home, caring for children and ministering to the sick (but not, obviously, in a professional capacity). As English author Sarah Lewis wrote in 1840: “’Let men enjoy in peace and triumph the intellectual kingdom which is theirs, and which, doubtless, was intended for them; let us participate in its privileges without desiring to share its domination (Coontz).”

Of course, the fact that housework in the Victorian era was a dirty, slogging affair that almost all women had to at least heavily supervise, if not take full part in, did not seem to register much in the Victorian frame of mind. Perhaps this was due to the expectation that the Victorian woman would create a domestic atmosphere that was, on the surface, so tranquil that her husband would never realize the amount of miserable scrubbing that went on behind the scenes while he was gone (Coontz). The home, and the wife, was there to serve as a moral compass to the men, who were so sullied by their time spent in contact with filthy, filthy lucre that they needed their wives to act as a moral palate cleanser upon their return. Sarah Lewis finishes her quote by saying: “The moral world is ours – ours by position, ours by qualification, ours by the very indication of God himself.” As might be imagined, this was a difficult position for a woman to maintain, every single day of her life.

The doctrine of separate spheres created problems that rippled through Victorian marriages and relationships, making it nearly impossible for people to achieve the happy marriages they so desperately sought. To start with, it was incredibly difficult for men and women to relate to one another, since they were not allowed to communicate the daily trials of their lives with their spouses. Men were supposed to keep the stresses of the business world (including financial failure) from their poor wives, and women were expected to sweep away all domestic concerns the moment their husband walked in the door. This led to a world where husbands and wives had little in common and even less to share. Both, therefore, retreated into a world of incredibly intense same-sex friendships. Men routinely shared their beds with friends, and women wrote passionate letters to each other. Today, these relationships would almost certainly look sexual, but the Victorians saw nothing unusual about them (Coontz). The effect, that men spent their after-work hours at “the club” or, depending on their social class, the pub, and that women lavished their emotional attentions not on their spouses, but on their friends, left marriages unsatisfying. That said, this new focus on love matches meant that over time, men and women began to see one another as partners in their relationships, beginning the long slide toward equality we are still traveling today.

Sexually, the Victorians created for themselves a world that would astonish the modern participant. Women, seen as the upholders of all moral virtue, were not just expected to repress their desires, but to simply not have them. Stephanie Coontz notes: “It became accepted wisdom in the nineteenth century, at least among middle class advice writers and physicians, that the “normal” woman lacked any sexual drives at all.” Though there is no real evidence that anyone told their daughter to “lie back and think of England,” frankly, that might as well have happened. For Victorian women, sex was often a painful duty to be borne as best one could. One survey, conducted much later, found that for women of this era, around 25% had found sex unsatisfying, or even repellent (Coontz). It would be irresponsible not to mention how miserable this often made the men in these relationships. Not just unable to please their wives, but often realizing that sex was causing someone they loved pain, men tried to find other outlets for their frustrations. Many resorted to prostitution, which was rampant in Victorian England. Others tried to emulate their wives and bury their sexual desires, seeing male chastity as one of the highest virtues possible (Coontz). The modern perception that the Victorians were repressed comes not just from our lasting stereotypes, but from truth: both men and women subverted their sexual desires to a point that they found creating healthy sexual relationships nearly impossible.

The focus on female sexual purity was not always accepted as a good idea. As is often the case in societies were repression is institutionalized, there were those who fought against the ideas inherent in the doctrine. As already mentioned, Sir Richard Burton translated The Kama Sutra during this period. His explorations of female sexuality around the world were widely read. That said, despite spending his premarital life voraciously pursuing sexual experiences, he married a woman who was a virgin, and then (as far as historians can tell) stayed faithful to her for the rest of his life (Lovell). Whether or not he utilized the techniques he had learned with his wife is something debatable, but upon his death, she burned his most scandalous manuscripts (a devout Catholic married to a man who had converted to Islam and then pretended to convert back, mostly to please her, Isabel Burton had her share of hang-ups. Almost certainly she burned Richard’s manuscripts out of fear that he would lose his place in heaven with her if they were allowed out: a rather sad attempt to put that horse back in the barn). Women of the time suffered from a host of “illnesses” that seemed to be based almost entirely in sexual frustration, often resorting to seeing doctors who literally got them off with the newly-invented vibrator (Coontz). One physician “formulated a philosophy of free love and uninhibited sex called Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion” published in 1855 and selling nearly 90,000 copies in eleven different languages (Bryson). During this period, women led campaigns to make marital rape a crime, to give a woman rights to her own property, and to change divorce laws to allow women to leave their husbands as easily as men left their wives. Not all these campaigns were successful, and of course full suffrage took many years to achieve, but the roots were being created. Young women, independent for the first time in history due to their jobs in factories, began to experiment sexually and to control their own sex lives. Birth control was widely available by the end of the 1880s, and as the century turned, Stephanie Coontz describes a shift from “sentimental to sexual marriage.”

For a woman during this period, to not fit in with the social norms was to invite ridicule or worse. “A woman who didn’t conform to the conventions of femininity was ineligible for its privileges and was often considered fair game for abuse” (Coontz). The emphasis on women as pure, innocent, sexless creatures meant that the slightest infraction could destroy a woman’s reputation forever. Sexually transmitted diseases were rampant during the period (probably due to the visits male Victorians were making to all those prostitutes), especially syphilis. This disease, often brought home to unsuspecting spouses, was particularly insidious. For some, it seemed like nothing more than a cold. But for those who progressed to third-stage syphilis, life was utterly miserable. It ate through soft tissues, particularly cartilage (leaving many sufferers without noses to speak of), and caused terrible rashes, boils and open sores. If it spread to the brain, it caused horrific madness. Entire wards were devoted to the poor wives of men who had given them syphilis, but whose husbands never developed the third stage disease itself. The treatments involved chemicals as deadly as the disease. The Victorian obsession with sex as dangerous was, therefore, not entirely unfounded. Its long term effects on women’s health and sexuality, however, are still resonating with us today. There’s a reason the store is called “Victoria’s Secret,” after all: we still hold onto that view that all sex is at best naughty and at worst, deadly.

B. Childhood

Restricting sexual relationships to marriage, and the new focus on the home as the center of one’s life, meant that children were highly valued during the Victorian period. By the end of the century, children were increasingly sent to something modern observers would recognize as a school, instead of leaving education as a commodity primarily available to the wealthy. Educating poor children was rather frowned upon for most of the era, as they were seen as incapable of taking any advantage of it, but at least for middle-class children, school was a new reality. Wealthy Victorians idolized childhood: painting glowing portraits of their apple-cheeked darlings; creating new legions of toys; and for the first time, expecting children to behave like children instead of tiny adults. Infant mortality rates (as well as those of new mothers) had dropped, and medical advances allowed societal expectations of childhood to shift from a time of terrible danger to one of play and growth.

Parents, too, shifted their expectations away from one another and their relationship, toward time spent with their children as a family. Though wealthy men still came home to perfectly dressed poppets who were immediately whisked away back to the nursery by their nanny, for many upper- and middle-class couples, time spent with their children became an expectation, rather than a burden. Victoria loved to paint portraits of her children, and she and Albert seem to have had closer relationships with them than previous monarchs would have had. This does not mean that Victorian children were not often shut up away from their parents, or that their relationships in any way imitated the very child-centered ones of today. Victorian parents believed to some degree that withholding affection was good for children, and that a child who received too much love would turn out spoiled and miserable (Flanders). Nevertheless, the Victorians were the first group to really see childhood itself as sacred, sweet and special, and this brought many happier days for the children born into enough wealth to enjoy the privileges suddenly bestowed on them.

7. Beauty is Not Just in the Eye of the Beholder.

All of these shifts in society’s ambitions and values: prosperity earned, rather than given; a sense of racial and social superiority from Empire; an emphasis on purity; increases in health; the changes of focus in marriage from social contract to love; and a fascination with Queen Victoria’s impossible standards, led to an obsession with the surface beauty of all aspects of life. Appearances, both physical and social, became the paramount points upon which people and relationships were judged. It mattered very little to the Victorians how things actually were: what was important was how things looked to other people.

During this period, a rise in women’s publications contributed to the sense that perfection could, and should, be the aim of every woman in her home and in her appearance. Advice books proliferated (Bryson). Magazines devoted just to the furnishing and running of the home were enormously popular. In an ambitious, hard-driving time, women were expected to keep their home running smoothly and without much apparent effort. If a woman couldn’t achieve a near-impossible standard of both perfection and ease, she was a failure as a wife and mother (Flanders). And since women could not work outside the home, failure to perform as a wife or as a mother was essentially failure to perform as a woman. For men, the standards were high as well. They had to be excellent providers for their families, good fathers, and powerful men of industry or science. The Victorians held themselves up to ridiculous standards, and they knew it. The superficiality of their world was a popular theme in much Victorian literature and poetry.

Dichotomous Continuums: One Way to Approach Victorian Literature

To fully absorb the complexity of the Victorian world is nearly impossible. Even those who lived in it struggled to understand how they were supposed to navigate a place where such extremes were the expected norm. To the Victorians, their own society was both the greatest ever achieved, and the most frustrating and confounding. Think of Dickens’ masterful introduction to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Though he is, in fact, discussing the period of the French Revolution, he notes in the final section how the description could just as easily apply to “the present period.” The Victorian world was one of superlatives, without shades of gray.

To the authors of this period, from Dickens to Brontë to Thackeray to Elliot, this place where only the most severe dichotomies were acknowledged was a difficult one. They longed for balance… or better yet, for moderation. Again and again, Victorian novelists place their most beloved characters not on the polar extremes, but in a hard-earned middle ground. Characters who stayed as outliers throughout the books tended to have very, very bad things happen to them.

I call this approach the “dichotomous continuum.”

This is, to be fair, not a term that actually works. A dichotomy, by nature, involves two sides of the same coin in direct opposition to one another: good/bad; high/low; hot/cold. There is no middle ground available in a true dichotomy. But it is useful, when studying the works written in this period, to throw out the traditional definition and think of polar opposites as placed along a line, with one extreme at one end of the line, and the other extreme at the opposing end. Using this model, if you consider the Victorian’s approach to science versus religion, for example, those characters who are solely interested in science without a jot of spirituality live at one end of the scale, and those who blindly follow religion in the face of scientific evidence live at the other. The Victorian novelist would probably place their main character somewhere near one extreme at the beginning of the book, but over the course of the story, as the character learns and grows, he/she would move toward the middle ground between the two. In this scenario, that might involve accepting evolution while also praising God for thoughtfully creating such a useful way of understanding the world. Again and again, Victorian novelists kill off (or badly punish) those who refuse to move from the more extreme ends of the scale, and reward those who try to live more balanced lives. Thinking of any novel from this period as a series of explorations toward a centered world view will allow the reader to better understand why some characters thrive, and others fall away to oblivion.

Big Questions: What the Victorians Were Asking about Themselves

As you read Victorian novels, keep in mind these simple questions that so dogged the Victorian author and reader:

Can we conquer death?
If we came from animals, how close are they to us?
What does our version of civilization mean if:
– all these people we meet manage to live without it?
– we can lose it?
What will the future look like?
What roles are appropriate for men and for women?
What does it mean for all of us if we acknowledge true human equality?
Does social acceptability make a concept morally correct?
How do we rectify scientific principles with religious faith?
What does it mean to love another person?
How do we find a comfortable middle ground?

I hope all of this will be helpful as you approach Victorian literature. The more literature from this time period you read, the clearer these issues become. Not every aspect of this outline appears in every novel, but these general threads connect all Victorian literature with the lives of the people who created the works. This complex, contradictory world in which they lived allowed Victorian authors to craft masterful representations of people who seem so inherently flawed that they are instantly, recognizably human. It is this vivid humanity that makes the literature from this period so compelling to modern readers, and preserves for us the spirit of an age whose familiar themes still echo powerfully in our own world.

Works Cited

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010. eBook.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home. New York: WH Norton, 2003.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution. New York: Random House, Inc., 1996.

Lovell, Mary S. A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard & Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

2 Responses to “Writing: A Reader’s Guide to Jane Eyre, Part 1 — Context”

  1. wildacademicwoman

    I just met someone who was struggling to finish reading Jane Eyre, and I urged her to finish the book! Anyway, what a great introduction–looking forward to reading more.


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