1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11

  1. Much as the drama of the Renaissance uses the ruler as the representative human, so the nineteenth-century novel uses the woman. For many writers, the heroine provides the focal character through which he/she explores the relationship of the individual to society. How does the debate on the woman question as represented here and in NAEL 8 (2.1581–1606) lend itself to novelization? Discuss the ways in which any Victorian novel you choose reflects and reflects upon the debate.
  2. One of the biggest controversies within the woman question was the question of education. What were some of the objections made to the existing state of women's education? What were some of the arguments made for the importance of improving women's education? How were women themselves seen as responsible for the education of others?
  3. With its high poetic diction and deliberate archaisms, Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House (NAEL 8, 2.1586) links its celebration of women's domestic virtues to earlier poetic traditions, both pastoral and epic.
    1. Compare Patmore's depiction of his relation to the "Maid and Wife" with Milton's depiction of the relation between Adam and Eve in Books IV (lines 288–340) (NAEL 8, 1.1878–79) and IX (NAEL 8, 1.1973–98) of Paradise Lost. What do Patmore's and Milton's depictions share, both in content and in form? What makes them different?
    2. In three famous lines, Milton declares the difference between Adam and Eve, and, by extension, between man and woman more generally:
      For contemplation he and valor formed,
      For softness she and sweet attractive grace;
      He for God only, she for God in him. (IV.296–98)
      How do nineteenth-century writers on the woman question echo, adapt, or challenge this view?
  4. In the passage from Jane Eyre, exclusion from the "busy world, towns, regions full of life" forces Jane to entertain herself with "a tale my imagination created . . . quickened with all of incident, life, fire, and feeling."
    1. How do other women writers negotiate between the desire to engage with the outer world and the desire to withdraw from an often hostile society into the pleasures of private imagination? Consider for instance the very different impulses suggested by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's The Cry of the Children and her Aurora Leigh (NAEL 8, 2.1092–1106).
    2. How does an aesthetic of privacy, withdrawal, and imagination both challenge and confirm ideas such as Ruskin's of woman's "true place and power"?
  5. The woman question cast a new and disturbing light on a topic of great importance in the Victorian novel: marriage. It also forced recognition of sexual relations outside of marriage.
    1. Compare Mill's (NAEL 8, 2.1060–70) frank discussion of the physical and sexual tyranny of men in marriage with Wollstonecraft's (NAEL 8, 2.170–95) claim that women's weakness allows them to tyrannize over men. How can these two positions be reconciled?
    2. How do various allusions to sex outside of marriage and to prostitution in the selections from Mayhew and Linton complicate idealized notions of marriage?
  6. Larger Victorian debates about the relative force of nature and nurture profoundly influenced discussions of the woman question. While Ruskin and others presented true womanhood as a timeless principle, this position was challenged by others insisting that the condition of women was the result of history and "custom."
    1. How do history and custom function in the arguments made by Mill in The Subjection of Women (NAEL 8, 2.1060–70) and Eliot in Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft (NAEL 8, 2.1337–42)?
    2. How do authors who describe the histories of individual women, such as Brontë in Jane Eyre, Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (NAEL 8, 2.1092–1106), and Martineau in her Autobiography (NAEL 8, 2.1589–92) contribute to this debate?
  7. According to the Victorian gender ideology articulated by Ruskin and Tennyson's The Princess (NAEL 2.1136–37), men and women inhabit separate but complementary spheres: their essential natures qualify men and women for certain activities and disqualify them for others, so that woman are best suited for the home, and man for the workplace.
    1. Compare Ruskin's argument about the difference and complementarity of the sexes with Elizabeth Eastlake's in "Lady Travellers." How does Eastlake uphold the ideology of separate spheres when discussing women who have been removed from their proper sphere, the English "fireside"? How does she reconcile a belief in the essential domesticity of the female character with the phenomenon of the Victorian woman traveler?
    2. Eastlake asserts that Englishwomen are more thoroughly domestic than women of other nationalities, so that domesticity is understood as a culturally specific as well as naturally female attribute. How does Eastlake reconcile this contradiction? In what ways does she suggest that English men as well as women manifest the national virtue of domesticity?
    3. Victorian "lady travelers" did not just go abroad for pleasure, but also accompanied husbands who worked and often settled in the colonies. How might a national ideal of English domesticity take on symbolic importance to men and women living in a foreign culture, and how might such an ideal be made to serve the project of empire?
  8. Eliza Lynn Linton's Girl of the Period is called "a loud and rampant modernization." On the other hand, Gissing's Miss Barfoot calls for innovations which will "wake women up [and] startle them into healthy activity."
    1. Compare these two attitudes toward the value or threat of novelty in light of the larger discussion of woman's purpose and proper role. Why is novelty granted so much importance (either as threat or as salvation) in these discussions?
    2. How might the importance of novelty in the debate over the woman question be related to larger Victorian hopes for industrial and cultural progress and to anxieties about revolution? Consider, for instance, Carlyle's idea of progress in Captains of Industry (NAEL 8, 2.1029–33).
  9. When Mayhew's trouser maker declares "it is of course impossible to live upon" 3s. 6d. to 4s. per week, she is stating an economic fact. When Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh calls her aunt's "harmless . . . virtuous . . . quiet life" "no life at all," she is stating a philosophic position. She is also revealing a customary assumption that the only lives worth discussing are those of middle- and upper-class women.
    1. To what extent did the debate over the woman question contrive to ignore the real lives of working-class women? What in the position of middle- and upper-class women, as revealed in the various texts in this topic and in NAEL, contributes to this tendency?
    2. Despite the various kinds of mental and physical suffering experienced by Mayhew's poor women, some aspects of their life may have seemed enviable to "their more fortunate sisters." What might these aspects be? How might the working-class women have responded to these assessments of their lives?
  10. Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (NAEL 8, 2.1546–49) was a troubling text for the Victorians for a number of reasons. In addition to making explicit human beings' descent "from some lowly-organized form," it included detailed and naturalistic discussions of mating. Most alarmingly, it gave the female an active and intelligent role in the mating process.
    1. How does Darwin's scientific argument about the "aesthetic capacity of the females" resonate with discussions of feminine taste in Linton and in Ruskin?
    2. Why might the issue of feminine aesthetic taste attract so much comment?
  11. Both conservative writers such as Lynn Linton and Sarah Stickney Ellis (NAEL 8, 2.1583–85) and those like Elizabeth Eastlake and Walter Besant (NAEL 8, 2.1605–06) who welcome change emphasize the superiority of the English woman. Why should the woman question be so persistently a national question? How do these and other writers construct the importance of nation to woman and the importance of woman to nation?

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback   :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home