Women in Victorian England: Thoughts on a Few Novels by Victorian Women

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Note: This post may contain spoilers for Wives and Daughters, Agnes Grey, and Middlemarch.

Although the three Victorian novels by women that I read this summer all dealt with Victorian women’s limits in society, each captured distinct roles of women in society in radically different ways. The titles reveal the depth of each novel. Agnes Grey (by Anne Bronte, 1847) is about one woman’s experience. It is told in the first person and Agnes’s naïve view of her situation and her relationships at times becomes wearisome (despite the fact that the novel is quite short). Wives and Daughters (by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1864-1866) focuses on the many different relationships a woman develops with those around her: mother to daughter, daughter to mother, daughter to father, sister to sister, wife to husband, and so forth. Middlemarch (by George Eliot, 1871-1872), by far the superior novel of the three, was simply delicious in its writing and in its depth of the relationships explored in a medium-sized community, the fictional Middlemarch.

I always thought I preferred a romantic story, and I certainly did appreciate the romance in Wives and Daughters and the little bit of it in Agnes Grey. But Middlemarch, as a fine work of realism, invited me in to conversations and relationships that seemed nothing less than real, and the romance in that novel was all the more palpable because of the realism.  I suspect that Middlemarch is a new favorite novel. I need time to let it simmer, and I’ll certainly reread it in a year or two.

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey was such a short novel, especially in comparison to the other two I’m discussing today, that it seems unfair to address it in an extended space. I read it one evening, and nothing amazing stood out to me about the story.

In retrospect, I think Agnes was a rather self-absorbed woman telling about her life: her family was brought to poverty, she went out as a governess, the children were brats, and she found herself interested in the local vicar. Agnes, however, seems somewhat blinded by her own situation, and cannot grasp the romance of someone being interested in her. Anne Bronte’s love story, in other words, was severely lacking in romance.

Agnes Grey was a bit too dense to be an intriguing heroine, and her story was so matter-of-fact that it became boring. Despite a short length, Agnes Grey seemed unable to focus on any intriguing issue: it was simply one woman’s story. Surprisingly, that wasn’t satisfying.

As a story about a woman’s plight, however, Agnes Grey certainly has a place. Since it was written so much earlier than the other two novels I read, it also provides a little bit of context. What options did a woman such as Agnes have in the 1840s? The anecdotes of the children’s misbehavior were amusing, and while Agnes strikes me as a rather dour personality, the story was still captivating enough to keep me reading (even if I was rolling my eyes at Miss Grey’s dense demeanor). Such novels make me quite glad to live in a modern era where I do have options as to what I do with my life.

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters was a purely satisfying story (even if the end is missing). Molly is a nearly perfect protagonist in her consistent sincerity and her unfailing honesty, and it may be that some dislike her for that: she does not seem real enough. I like romanticized heroines, though, so she was just right for me. Her gorgeous step-sister Cynthia is her opposite, unintentionally falsifying love and breaking the hearts of all the men who fall for her.

In some respects, the women and the men in Wives and Daughters do come across as stereotypes: the wicked stepmother versus a loving mother figure; the lazy, good-looking older son against the successful-but-ugly younger son. But somehow, the novel rises above stereotypes and superficiality. The unspoken emotion in the novel gives the story a gripping tension that I quite enjoyed (and which is lacking in the movie). Molly’s inner conflicts deepen the novel, and the relationships she and the others develop make the characters far more complicated than they may seem at first.

For example, the novel examines the concept of keeping one’s word. Each character makes a promise to someone. To name just a few: Molly promises Harriet to be good to her new stepmother, Cynthia has made a promise to Mr. Preston, Roger promises his brother to keep his secret, and Molly has made a promise to Roger and Osbourne both. Each character is full of secrets, and their word is as good as their bond: Roger doesn’t hesitate, for example, to return to Africa to fulfill his obligations (unlike the movie suggested), even though he has profound reasons not to do so. I was fascinated by the ways in which such promises were unbreakable to each person who made one, despite the serious consequences. It revealed a side of human character that I feel no longer predominates: it seems giving one’s word means far less today.

I think Elizabeth Gaskell’s writings deserve a bit more attention, and Wives and Daughters is a perfect example of why she is a good introduction to the classics. Her writing is easily accessible, her issues are real, and yet all ends a bit deeper than at first it may appear. Note, however, that Wives and Daughters stopped one or maybe two chapters short of the end by Elizabeth Gaskell’s sudden death. There is something so disappointing in not reading Gaskell’s own satisfactory conclusion to the romance, for we know it would have ended wonderfully. I should note that the Project Gutenberg version does not include the Cornhill Magazine editor’s conclusion with information from Gaskell’s notes; I finished the book late at night and had to scramble to find my hard copy of the book to read the Magazine editor’s conclusion. I also found it online here. Nonetheless, the novel as a whole is not disappointing but rather satisfying, and I think I may have to revisit Molly’s story again in the future.

Middlemarch

And then we come to Middlemarch, which was by far the most satisfying of the three novels.

At more than 800 pages, Middlemarch has a depth of character and breadth of themes that appropriately reflects an entire community. Middlemarch shows how the fate of each individual is tied to the community, for the novel illustrates the connections between people. Despite the fact that I do, already, call it a favorite novel, I fear I cannot adequately praise it at the end of this already long post. I hereby promise to revisit this novel again, for I suspect that upon reread it will be a treasured favorite novel.

Middlemarch is the story of the position of woman in different relationships in a community. It follows the lives of a number of women in the community, tying them all together by the end. Unlike in Wives and Daughters, these women are developed far beyond stereotype and romance, although there are occasional hints of both in their characters. Unlike Agnes Grey, the novel and the characters feel cohesive despite its length.

The first women is Dorothea Brooke, a strong-willed intelligent woman hoping to expand her mind and longing to help a scholar (since, as a woman in 1830s England, she herself cannot be). Dorothea’s fate seems to form the crux of the novel, and I was fascinated by her dilemma. Unlike Agnes Grey, who is naïve about the world, Dorothea knows exactly what was going on in the community, how various relationships affect her life, and how to make a difference on the plight of the less fortunate. She is sincere and compassionate. She is self-confident. She is completely likeable.

Yet Dorothea has a blind spot, and that is her understanding of her influence as an intelligent woman. In her endeavor to help a scholar, she marries the old and completely unromantic Edward Casaubon, and almost immediately finds herself stagnated in an unsatisfying relationship in which she is not respected, adored, or appreciated in any way. As Casaubon subdues her, Dorothea finds a friend who does appreciate her, and she struggles to balance a simple friendship with duty to her husband.

The other central women in the novel are likewise well-developed. Although Rosamond Vincy is also strong-willed, her self-centered approach to life means she uses her strength to manipulate those around her. I despised Rosamond. In Nymeth’s post, she indicates that Rosamond has only been taught to be a spoiled rich wife; she is not to be held completely responsible. I was not quite so nice in my scrutiny as I read. Her story, intertwined with that of the very likable Lydgate, is frustrating and somewhat heartbreaking. As a selfish woman, she ruins lives and breaks hearts. Her unhappiness is her own fault.

Mary Garth is not mentioned as frequently as the other two women, but I took to her as I had to Dorothea. Although Mary is from a lower class and is a working woman, one can’t help but admire her frank attitude toward life. I wished she had received something from Featherstone: she deserved it. Yet, her work ethic means that she expects those around her to do their part, and she does not want anyone’s charity, even Featherstone’s. Her relationship with Fred Vincy needs to be one of mutual trust and proper work, for she does not want a lazy husband. I loved her strong-willed personality, as I did of her father Caleb Garth.

Nymeth mentioned that Middlemarch is a story of unhappy marriages, and I have to agree. The Bulstrodes, the Vincys, the Casaubons, the Lydgates: it seems no one is completely happy. Eliot portrays these relationships realistically. The many little resolutions give the novel a romantic side, and yet Eliot still manages to keep them incredibly realistic. I almost believed this was a try story. For example, I loved the sexual tension in the best scene of the book:

The rain was dashing against the window-panes as if an angry spirit were within it, and behind it was the great swoop of the wind; it was one of those moments in which both the busy and the idle pause with a certain awe. (Chapter 83)

(I know I already gave a spoiler warning, but I won’t quote any more. It would be irrelevant to quote it in full. You must read it in context.)

Middlemarch is a definitive Victorian novel. Although it tells the story of an era ten fifty years previous, it captures the conflicts that seem to define Victorian England: woman versus men, rich versus poor, politics, and what it means to be an artist or a scholar in a world that is growing increasingly modern. I look forward to my reread so I can focus on the other conflicts beyond that of the plight of women.

George Eliot has been praised as an eminent Victorian writer. When I began Middlemarch shortly on the heels of reading the other two novels, I finally understand what it is that makes her so great. I enjoyed all of these novels, but Middlemarch was, from the beginning, far superior.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I love the depth in this post. I’ve considered seeking out more victorian novels next year (this year seems booked already, oy vey!) Love making lists. 🙂

  2. I feel so dumb! I had no idea Wives and Daughters wasn’t finished. Sheesh, I’m relieved I didn’t start reading it–that would have driven me crazy.

    1. Jenny, oh no! I should have said this better in the post: the fact that it was technically unfinished really has no impact on how wonderful the novel is! Seriously, you can tell how it will end, and it’s still very satisfying — just make sure you have a copy with the editor’s last chapter. I hope that doesn’t discourage you from reading it. It really is a great book, despite Gaskell’s death.

  3. I skipped the latter two reviews, because I didn’t want any spoilers on books I might read one day (especially Wives & Daughters), but I loved your review of Agnes Grey. You know that Agnes drove me nuts! I felt like she DID have more choices than she let on in that time period. She was just doing what she wanted to do, only it didn’t turn out all idealistic as she expected. I felt then that it’s unreliable to be considered representative of women’s choices in 1840, to a certain degree. Agnes wasn’t THAT poor, and she didn’t HAVE to go to work. She wanted to. She chose to. And I think that negated a lot of the idea of women being forced to do certain things. I much preferred Anne Bronte’s other novel, which is far more telling when it comes to women’s situations in that time.

    1. Amanda, I think you make a great point. Agnes wasn’t that limited, I suppose. I found her incredibly naive though. It’s like she was bored of her life and wanted something different and yet couldn’t get out of herself enough to see her place in society.

  4. As you know, I read Agnes Grey not that long ago and I actually enjoyed it a good deal. I did think the story was one of those “sensible romances” that are actually somewhat lacking in the romance department, but I enjoyed the wit and gentle humor (similar to Austen) in the writing, so for me that made up for the lackluster romance.

    Haven’t read the other two, but your discussion of Middlemarch is probably the most compelling one I’ve ever read. Despite its scary length, I’m sorely tempted to give it shot!

    1. Steph, Middlemarch was wonderful because it is so long! There is time to sink in to the characters. Highly recommended. And like I just said on your blog, I have a hard time comparing Agnes Grey to any Austen I’ve read! She was just so self-centered and naive to me…

  5. I do love George Eliot. I am so glad I decided to pick her up when I was in college. I have grown up a little while reading her work. It has been a long time since I’ve read Middlemarch though, but I remember loving it when I did read it. Eliot is great at developing such deep and moving stories.

    My only Gaskell experience was when I read Cranford in June, but I really loved it. I am looking forward to getting my hands on her other work and reading it as well.

    As for Bronte…that one is a way off, although I know that I’ll get to it eventually.

    Excellent post!

    1. Allie, I’m reading another Eliot next month for book club! So I’m looking forward to experience more of her craft. and I’ve really enjoyed the Gaskell I’ve read. Not as well written, maybe, but the stories are well pulled together so I’ve enjoyed them!

  6. I agree, Middlemarch is “the” Victorian novel. Eliot was way ahead of her time, wasn’t she. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know you have a wonderful site

  7. I’m behind on blog-reading, so apologize for this late comment, but enjoyed this triple-thread review. I come somewhere between you & Nymeth on the Rosamond/Lydgate issue – actually, the first time I read Middlemarch I had much your same reaction (hated her, quite liked him), but on my second and third readings I’ve liked him less each time and felt more compassion for her. He prizes exactly the helpless, surface-y, brattish qualities in her that end up causing them both tragedy, because he imagines himself as a “gentleman” married to a “lady,” and his version of a lady is decorative and innocent rather than intelligent and capable (witness how he’s put off by Dorothea’s brains early in the novel).

    Plus, he’s totally oblivious to how much money they’re spending – if he wants to be the “head of household / protector” figure married to a decorative, empty-headed female, he needs to man up and figure out how to budget a household, you know? He just kind of blunders into his situation expecting to have it both ways: the pretty, helpless lady who will hang on his arm, and somehow also a competent housekeeper with a good head on her shoulders. So I think he’s at least as much to blame as she is.

    1. Emily, so interesting. I think I’m going to really enjoy my reread of Middlemarch when I get to it. You are right on Lydgate, but for some reason I really liked him this time around! Hmmm. Already looking forward to that reread.

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