Essay: Women in literature

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The Edwardian period is often seen as a period of pleasure, peace and prosperity sandwiched between the enormous achievements in invention, culture and industry of the Victorian Age and followed by the devastating human catastrophe of World War 1. In 1908 Britain’s status was firmly established; it led the world in trade, its Empire covered one tenth of the globe, it had huge financial investment in the USA and large amounts of control in South America. Domestically its citizens (those who were already rich) prospered and lived comfortably in large houses while sections of the poorer members of society were employed in domestic service to them. Despite the outward appearance of affluence it was nevertheless a period of great contrasts. According to Roy Hattersley this period is “constantly described as a long and sunlit afternoon” but beneath it was a simmering caldron of change, marked by industrial unrest and much struggle in social and political life. In Edwardian society men controlled wealth and women, rich or poor, remained the underclass.

In 1908 women born to wealth were not expected to cook, wash or look after children because they employed poorer (female) servants to do that work for them. In 1910 girls from privileged backgrounds were encouraged to grow up to be “good wives and little mothers” , nurturing future male governors of the Empire, moving seamlessly from being the possession of their father to being within the powerful control of their husband. Working class women doing the same job earned less money than the men they worked alongside. All working women were expected to pay taxes but were not allowed to vote and to have a say in what happened to those taxes. The education of women was considered non-essential and was believed to actively detract from her femininity. Women were expected, like children, to be seen and not heard and to make the domestic space a refuge for a man from his daily chores. A public life was considered the domain of a man while the woman remained at home.

In literature the novel, the great cultural invention of the Victorian age, was still thriving and in addition new forms of writing such as the short story emerged. During this time newspapers flourished introducing a new way to disseminate information quickly. With large amounts of leisure time available for the wealthy and the introduction of the ’weekend’ for workers many people could spend their money on recreational activities such as music and theatre and there soon developed a significant distinction between ‘high art’ forms and ‘low art’ or popular culture. In this essay I have chosen to look at three genres of writing; the autobiography in ‘diary’ form, the traditional novel and the lyrics of popular music hall song. These writings were chosen to reflect three stages in a woman’s life (the early adulthood of Brittain, the ‘marriageable age’ of the Schlegel sisters and the middle age of the performer Vesta Tilley) in order to explore how contemporary ideas about gender were addressed. I have focussed on the ways in which the writing exposed the tension that existed between the traditional notions of what was considered ‘womanly’ with the ways in which an individual character attempted to transcend that prescribed role. Some women ignored conventions about their sex (rebels) whilst others used to them to negotiate social and economic barriers (reformers) and still others upheld gender conventions at the same time as appearing to rebel against them (performers).

Vera Brittain’s autobiography of her earlier life is perhaps most famous for the description of her work as a nurse during the Great War and her developing pacifism as a result of the loss of her closest friends and brother. Born in 1893 Testament Of Youth recalls Brittain’s relatively affluent early years in northwest England (“our Macclesfield house represented all that was essentially middle-class in that Edwardian decade”) and draws on her memory and diaries written over a number of years. It is a document of her girlhood and early adulthood and contains enormous detail of contemporary reference both to domestic events but also to national events showing evidence of her curiosity and attempt to see beyond her provincial background.

Before Brittain became a nurse her documented girlhood during the period 1908-1914 was particularly marked by her overwhelming struggle to achieve an education comparable to that of boys at the time. “I visualised a world in which women would no longer be the second-rate, unimportant creatures that they were now considered”. As a young teenager she saw opportunity afforded to men who “seemed to have much more choice as to what they are intended for” and saw the pursuit of an education as the way to secure it. For Brittain an education and the access to ideas would give her the passport to a world of adventure and freedom that in the Edwardian era was available only to men: “All doors…. to the more adventurous and colourful world, the world of literature, of scholarship, of art, of politics, of travel, were closed to me”.

In 1910 her struggle was not just against the gender restrictions prevalent at the time regarding the education of women but also against the fearful attitudes by men (and other women) towards such a pursuit. In order to be able to qualify for University her initial fight was against her “misguided but resolute” parents, particularly her father, who showed “persistent determination” that she should be turned into “an entirely ornamental young lady” and who held typically conservative views about her future role. She notes the starkly contrasting attitude towards her brother: “The idea of refusing Edward a university education never so much as crossed my father’s mind” who hoped to push him into the Indian Civil Service. This attitude was typical of her social class during the period. In her own diary Emmeline Pankhurst notes: “The education of the English boy, then as now, was considered a much more serious matter than the education of the English boy’s sister. My parents, especially my father, discussed the question of my brother’s education as a matter of real importance” whereas a girl’s education “seemed to have for its prime object the art of making home attractive”.

The 1876 amendment to the Education Act of 1870 had made schooling compulsory for 5-10 year olds. In 1881 however only 82% of children of both sexes were actually benefitting from this as poorer parents could not afford to do without income earned by their children. By 1899 the age limit was extended to 14 years but girls, in particular, had to fight for schooling beyond that level, again many poorer girls having to help at home with younger siblings. Brittain had been able to attend “a school for the daughters of gentle-men”, paid for by her parents, but this was substandard and in general the nature of schooling for girls was less academic than boys and centred on subjects largely suitable for the domestic domain. The school curriculum for girls included sewing, cookery and infant care and the more formal academic subjects like mathematics, science and history were reserved for boys. Despite the foundation of women’s colleges and the opening of Universities to women for the majority of girls, fifty years later, their sole purpose was to marry and tend the home. Brittain notes that it was “typical of the average well-to-do girl of the period to assume that the desire for power… could only be fulfilled by the acquisition of a brilliant husband” and that she was unusual is seeing marriage as restrictive and “would yet further limit my opportunities”. By 1912 education offered Brittain not only access to ideas but also access to a different kind of life, a life of spirited independence, “my desire for a more eventful existence and a less restricted horizon”, she wrote “had become an obsession”.

Between 1908-1914 working-class girls were rarely able to benefit from access to education beyond the minimum age and were destined for work in factories or in the vast area of domestic service. Ironically upper class and aristocratic women, who we might have expected to be more fortunate, fared just as badly, but in a different way. They were taught at home by governesses and remained as poorly educated, as they had been a hundred years before. They were often sent to establishments in Europe, which were designed to give them with social graces and sophistication (“I was never sent to be ‘finished’ – i.e. to be shaped yet more definitely in the trivial feminine mould”). Some of these wealthier girls had access to family libraries but were strongly discouraged to actually read, as Brittain notes: “we were never allowed to have the newspapers themselves. Politics and economics were still thought … to be no part of the education of marriageable young females”. In this way Brittain shows us that conventional notions of femininity during the Edwardian era were actively enhanced by a girl’s lack of education.

Brittain tells us that it was not only books alone which enlightened her but also her educators. Her headmistress, “who I now suspect to have been secretly in sympathy with the militant suffrage raids and demonstrations”, was “an ardent though always discreet feminist”. It is interesting that at this time teaching (like nursing) was a role available to women (and one that had to be relinquished upon marriage) but the dissemination of new or radical ideas about women’s equality had to be covert. It was a teacher for instance that took Brittain to her first Suffrage meeting which she describes as “a practical introduction to feminism” and the same who secretly defended her against local (women’s) accusations that she was “ridiculous, eccentric” for wanting to “go to an English town to study the literature of my own language”. When Brittain finally achieved her ambition to go to university she still had to negotiate the difficult social rules that restricted women living away from the protection of their father. “I was not allowed to go to (my brother’s) rooms lest I should encounter the seductive gaze of some other undergraduate”. Education not only exposed Brittain to intellectual ideas but also to the life and experiences of those less privileged than herself: “It never occurred to me that in nine households out of ten, linen sheets, hot and cold running water and thickly carpeted floors were unattainable ambitions rather than accepted facts of everyday life” This exposure would in turn serve to focus her great reforming political choices later on in her life.

The pursuit of an education did mean freedom for Brittain as well as for many girls who followed a similar path: freedom to potentially earn a wage, to manage an independent life and to travel but they still did not achieve equal status to men. Access to education gave young women the ability to learn about new ideas and ways of doing things but it also risked exposing the restrictive, regressive nature of Edwardian society. It represented a dangerous and threatening prospect for many men (and some women) who were resistant to the changes it would bring and saw it as representing moral and social decline: If girls sought an education they might also seek emancipation, and if women did that then the poorer workers could follow suit and the whole hierarchy of Edwardian society would be undermined.

Woman’s autobiography during this period was not a popular form. Relatively few women were considered to have a sufficiently interesting life to be worthy of reading about – their lives were thought dull and predictable in comparison to many men whose careers as statesmen, philosophers and war heroes made them a more obvious choice of this form. Women’s lives were not usually conducted in the public sphere and so there became a cultural belief (in addition to the political one) in their inferiority. In 1914 Emmeline Pankhurst published her diary in America but many women writing about their experiences were only published in later years. In her autobiography, published in 1927, Isadora Duncan wrote; “The autobiographies of famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details, and anecdotes which give no realisation of their real life. For the great moments of joy and agony, they remain strangely silent”. Not so in Brittain’s case but then ‘Testament of Youth’ was not published until 1933. Brittain’s story written in diary form selects personal events in her life and has the benefit of hindsight by putting these events into an historical context for the reader. Brittain was unusual in that she didn’t solely concentrate on domestic matters or write in a series of anecdotal fragments but conveyed her own perspective upon public issues of the time. It is also written chronologically which some critics believe was a more linear, masculine form. It appeared to be a different matter for women writers in the area of fiction as during the 19th century women were well represented by such novelists as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Eliot (despite changing her name to a more recognisably masculine form). One belief is that women novelists could use the traditional novel form to ‘hide’ behind a fictional character who was then permitted to behave in a way that would be socially unacceptable in real life by the author herself. Perhaps this was also the case for some male novelists too, such as E M Forster.

“The girl who is not economically independent is not free…”
(Lady McLaren, Women’s Charter of Rights and Liberties, 1910)

Forster’s female characters have been considered by many critics to be some of the most well developed fictional characters and notable for their complexity and substance. In Forster’s novel, Howards End, we see examples of women, some ten years older than Vera Brittain, struggling to comply with, and even openly defy, the gender roles that have been prescribed for them by a male heterosexual establishment. Here the pursuit is for equal rights and agency, not education. Written in 1910 by EM Forster ‘one of the most esteemed English novelists of his time’, Howard’s End tells the story of the relationship between the educated Schlegel sisters and an Upper class English family the Wilcoxes (“temperance, tolerance and sexual equality were unintelligible cries to them”). Forster presents four women characters (three are upper middle class women and one is working class) each of which attempts to negotiate discrimination and inequality in an Edwardian male world.

The least fortunate of the women characters is Jacky who occupies the worst position by Edwardian standards. She suffers a double inequality: one by being poor and the other by being a woman. Entirely uneducated she is described as “bestially stupid” so her only option for improving her status in any way is by working in a factory or by marriage. As a sixteen-year-old girl she was ‘seduced’ into a relationship with the older, richer and married Mr Wilcox. Forster describes her as “not respectable”, “cheap” and “past her prime, whatever that prime may have been”. At the point we meet her in the book she is desperately clinging onto the one man who might be able to ‘save’ her. She believes that her attachment to a man is her only salvation. Her prospects are poor and Forster predicts a future for women who fall into a similar situation: “They end in two ways: Either they sink till the lunatic asylums and the workhouses are full of them… or else they trap a boy into marriage before it is too late”. Forster highlights the gender hypocrisy of Edwardian society: While Mr Wilcox seems to suffer no resulting guilt from his behaviour Jacky loses all her status and respectability, becoming an object of shame to other characters.

Mirroring Jacky in her dependence upon a man is Mr Wilcox’ wife, Ruth. She is wealthier and embodies the more Victorian values of a virtuous, deferential married woman. Her interests are narrow, confined to her family and the domestic space and her only abiding passion is for her childhood home. Even though she is a woman of property (“Howard’s End was her own property… the house had been all her dowry”) she has yielded all her economic power to her husband. Ruth’s “steady unselfishness” is code for having allowed her husband to make decisions on her behalf. Mr Wilcox tells Margaret “they had never disputed” and sees her ceding power to him as “woman’s noblest quality”. Ruth herself believes “that the arguments against the suffrage are extraordinarily strong” and that “it’s wiser to leave action and discussion to men”. She may well have been the type of woman who favoured Mrs Humphry Ward and chose to join the Women’ National Anti-Suffrage League (1908). For the contemporary reader it is interesting to see in this novel that as well as receiving support from some men, female suffrage was not universally supported and was often significantly undermined by other women.

Margaret, the elder of the two Schlegel sisters is the beneficiary of a much better education (she knows about books, literature and art) than either Jacky or Ruth Wilcox and she subtly refuses to fall in line with the strict gender rules of Edwardian society. At twenty-nine, she has become the parent of both of her younger siblings, (“they had been left motherless”) taking over all the financial responsibilities of the household. In addition she has her own ideas, which are influenced by socialism and women’s suffrage so she is altogether more modern and progressive. Forster has not created a ‘radical’ personality in Margaret though. She is careful to temper her reactions and behaviour in public and to appear to conform to the accepted feminine rules required in Edwardian society. Margaret’s approach is to subsume her own intelligence (“she said nothing when the Oxford colleges were identified wrongly”) to not contradict a man she knows to be wrong (“she had made a special point of kowtowing to the men”) and to play a subservient role of servant to master in public at all times. Her power is as a reformer rather than a rebel.

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