The Idealized View of the Victorian Woman
Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem, "The Angel in the House" is perhaps the best known of the Victorian images of ideal womanhood. Written to his wife, Patmore lauds the virtues of a dependent wife who maintains a domestic haven with little interest or activity in the larger world outside her home, husband and children. Her specific qualities of “unselfish grace, gentleness, simplicity, and nobility reveal that she is not only a pattern Victorian lady but almost literally an angel on earth” (Gilbert and Gubar, 22). Patmore’s poem became a Victorian best-seller. So influential was the poem that Nina Auerbach notes that it “became a convenient shorthand for the selfless paragon all women were exhorted to be, enveloped in family life, and seeking no identify beyond the roles of daughter, wife, and mother” (67-69). But as Gilbert and Gubar point out, even from the eighteenth century conduct books for girls stressed the feminine virtues of “modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability, politeness” (23). In exchange for embracing this domestic role, a woman was promised security and protection.
In addition to conduct books, formal education of the day for girls also reinforced their expected roles as wives and mothers in that it offered no opportunities to acquire skills that could be translated in employment outside the home to support themselves. Available education to middle and upper class girls was always provided in the home and included the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic but also the arts of drawing, singing and playing piano, skills highly valued in the well-educated young woman of the day. John Ruskin, a social thinker and England’s leading art critic of the day, advocated for the education of women for self-renunciation, not personal development, in his essay, ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’. Ruskin, an admirer and correspondent of Patmore’s,’ is acknowledged to have been heavily influenced by “The Angel in the House”, and lauded qualities such as self-sacrifice, passivity, patience and spirituality as personifying the ideal Victorian women. Reforms in education entered the public debate during the middle of the 19th century and included advocates for more rigorous education for girls comparable to boys including access to formal schooling outside their homes. It wasn’t until the Education Act of 1870 that education was established across England for all children ages 5 through 12 and was mandatory. However higher education at the university level for women remained an issue of debate. While Cambridge University established Girton College and Newnham College specifically for the education of women is 1869 and 1871 respectively, Laura Morgan Green theorizes that efforts to give women access to higher education were hampered by other cultural issues of the era. “The women’s education movement intersected with larger Victorian cultural conflicts over gender and identity, in particular between the values of domestic ideology and those of an emergent liberal individualism, provoking complex and often ambivalent responses even among its supporters” (ix). It is not unreasonable to suggest that some of the value placed on domestic ideology must surely have been because of the impact of Patmore’s paean to women as naturally creatures of a limited domestic sphere.
The idealized view of the Victorian woman was reinforced at many levels including by the highest political figure in England. Queen Victoria, the ruler of the British Empire, arguably one of the most powerful political persons of the age, was first and foremost a model of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. A popular song of the day, “Home, Sweet Home” that captured the domestic Victorian ideal, was so loved by Queen Victoria that she knighted Henry Rowley Bishop, the song’s composer, making him the first English composer to receive a knighthood. In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published offering, for the first time, a guide to running the perfectly managed home, with instructions on everything from fashion to childcare to managing servants. The book was a best-seller for fifty years.
Female dependence was even seen as an indicator of social progress. Herbert Spencer, a social theorist, proposed that a society in which women did not have to work outside the home was of the highest order. Not all thinkers and commentators of the time agreed. John Stuart Mill in The Subjection of Women (1869) argued that the confined position of women in the domestic sphere was akin to slavery. The notion of home and family as the only and true domain of women prevailed however, despite the reality, as Carol Dyhouse points out, “that large numbers of women in nineteenth-century England had no choice other than to seek work outside the home, in order to support themselves or their families…” (176). In addition to the fact that the domestic arrangements of the Angel in the House were not possible for many lower and middle class women, the expectation of safety and protection for women in a confined home environment was not assured. In fact, when domestic violence occurred a women’s dependency made her a domestic prisoner with no means of escape, turning the ideal into a nightmare and revealing the tenuous foundations of the implicit contract between husband and wife. Anna Clark points out that marital violence in the Victorian era, “...potentially undermined the legitimacy of the patriarchal sexual contract, in which men’s dominance was justified by their protection of their wives” (201). If the domestic realm does not provide the promised protection but in fact puts women in physical danger and fear for their lives, how can the ideal image be maintained? Some of the Sherlock Holmes’ stories reveal domestic violence and it is Holmes commitment to his method in uncovering the truth and constructing narrative that reveals those situations and others including property rights and female reputation.