Both genders during the Victorian and Edwardian Ages were molded into two spheres of expectations and opportunities defined solely by their sex, male and female. In the words of Austen “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. ” Men were thought to be the highest of the hierarchy, while women were made from “the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man”. “True Women” possessed the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.
Women, however, were not content to stay in this mold of domesticity within the grasps of the four virtues. Instead, some women of this time began to challenge society’s restrictions, which deemed them the “New Woman,” a woman with the defining characteristics of boldness, braveness, and bright intelligence. These New Women were not received well during this time period as they represented the restructuring of a society ruled by men. Allowing women power in society directly confronted ideology imbedded in a culture for centuries.
Authors of this time period, such as Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, and E. M. Forster, critique the world in which they live in and at times present this ideology of a “New Woman” as threatening to the world created for men. The characters presented are empowering to other women. In all actuality though, however empowering these strong female lead characters are in Persuasion, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Howards End, they are not “New Women,” but rather a hybrid of women who are slowly, and with hesitation, adapting to the changing times and definitions of womanhood in Britain at this ime in regards to two of the four cardinal virtues for the sake of time. The Latin word “pietas” and “purus” translates to dutifulness and pureness. Piety is the quality of being religious with unthinking conventional reverence to God and the beliefs set forth to follow. “True” women of the Victorian and Edwardian ages were expected to be pious and pure in conjunction with the Anglican views of the Church of England.
Marriage during this time is still a cherished bond of two people, often to join two families, increase wealth, and provide protection to the “fairer sex. Marriage is a significant point in the life of a Victorian woman. She is expected to enter into the marriage as a virgin, and to continue leading a life free of adulteration. To decide to not “properly” marry went against all of English society. It seems that the women in the three texts presented above have a personal disinterest in the institution of marriage itself, however the societal requirement pushes them towards it. It takes great strength for these women to fight society and the institution in hopes of finding true love or simply peace in their lives.
When Forster’s Howards End was published, the Victorian ideal of womanhood was a fading idea, and the ideas of what it meant to be an independent, New Woman with modern ideas, was gaining in power. Despite this gain in power for women, bastard children were still not a happenstance to shout about from the rooftops. However, Helen Schlegel believes in love and finds herself in a predicament, one of which is unacceptable in Britain. Helen Schlegel speaks about her pregnancy out of wedlock as “… omething the English never pardon. It would not be right for them to pardon it. So [she] must live where [she is] not known” (Forster 250). She does not consider the idea of marrying the man she slept with, nor does she consider getting rid of the baby, showing her progressiveness and also an embodiment of the New Woman ideology.
This decision is not to prove she is modern and a woman seeking change, rather, it proves she is basing her decisions on her morals and adapting with her surroundings nd the times. The fact that she believes her only route for survival is the path in which she is uprooted from her home, family, and connections in the world she knows continues to exemplify the fact that she is indeed not a New Woman, rather a combination between a Victorian woman and a modern one. Had Helen been a New Woman, she would have adamantly fought to stay in Britain instead of simply allowing events to unfold and accepting her fate as a possible shadow in another country.
Anne Elliot of Persuasion shares similar qualities to Helen in the fact that she is expected to be “properly” married due to societal requirements at a fairly young age. In other terms, “with all [of Anne’s] claims [to] birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence… Would be, indeed, a throwing away… ” (20).
Anne possesses all the qualities of an eligible bachelorette. However, when she falls in love with Wentworth, he is of lower class than her and holds no hope for providing for Anne in the future. Anne breaks off the engagement, proving her attachment to the aristocratic thinking that a man must provide for his wife, financially, politically, and physically. Had she married Wentworth at 19, she would have been cast from society because she “[threw] herself away” for love instead of money and societal position.
Only when Wentworth has gained money and position in society is he an eligible bachelor for Anne and she decides that the love she holds for him is no longer a trifle ideology and he is suitable enough to marry. This upper-class idea of marriage as a contract is something even Anne cannot go against. She does marry for love in the end, but she does not marry for love when he has nothing, proving she is a combination of the Victorian woman and the modern one. For conclusion on the section on piety and purity, the female leads in Mrs.
Warren’s Profession are the closest to the definition of a New Women of all the characters described thus far. Kitty Warren, the mother in the play, leads a life that is “impure” in the eyes of the Church of England. The topic of prostitution was taboo in late Victorian England so when George Bernard Shaw’s play was published in 1893, it was immediately banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its discussion about prostitution, an undesirable and dirty profession, which lead men and women to the gates of hell. Kitty prostitutes herself for money because she was granted good looks and nothing else of value.
When speaking to Vivie, her daughter, she begs for understanding as Kitty was not “brought up like [Vivie]” or able to “pick and choose her own way of life” (1804). Kitty holds no shame for her profession and while her circumstances forced her into prostitution, she chose to continue to run a brothel despite financial stability into her later years as an adult woman. Sexual agency, frightfully new term, encompasses the idea that every individual has the right to express their own sexuality to include their needs and wants.
Kitty is forced into the adult industry but uses her sexual agency to get what she wants and how she wants it. This is a very modern idea, completely going against the social norm in English society during the late Victorian era showing great parallels to the New Woman. Kitty does however, become hypocritical when her daughter is involved. “Your love is a pretty cheap commodity, my lad. ” (1797) The New Woman of the time clearly emerges when women become awakened to the idea that they deserve to have political and personal rights.
Slowly, they are breaking free of the shackles the patriarchal society placed upon the female sex. The other two virtues of domesticity and submissiveness are areas that are challenged with these new ideologies including personal and political rights. While Austen takes a very realistic approach towards the women’s role in the house, Forster’s and Shaw’s female characters are fairly modern and often times, take on typical “masculine” roles. Mental Submissiveness: Margaret never really subdues her beliefs for her husband’s. Instead she compromises but she never gives up her principles.