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- 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.
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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,
How do nineteenth-century writers on the woman question echo, adapt,
or challenge this view?
For softness she and sweet attractive grace;
He for God only, she for God in him. (IV.296–98)
- 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."
- 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).
- 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"?
- 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.
- 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?
- How do various allusions to sex outside of marriage and to prostitution
in the selections from Mayhew and Linton complicate idealized notions
- 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."
- 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)?
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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?
- Eliza Lynn
Linton's Girl of
the Period is called "a loud and
rampant modernization." On the other
Miss Barfoot calls for innovations which
will "wake women up [and] startle them
into healthy activity."
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- How does Darwin's scientific argument about the "aesthetic
capacity of the females" resonate with discussions of feminine taste
in Linton and in Ruskin?
- Why might the issue of feminine aesthetic taste attract so much comment?
- 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?