Rachel's blog

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.

03 The role of women

Filed under: Sin categoría — Raquel Sanchez Sogorb at 4:22 am on jueves, mayo 23, 2013

In the mid-nineteenth century, a woman would have carried the burden of «staying in her place.» In other words, she was subject to the generally accepted standards and roles that society had placed upon her, which did not necessarily provide her with liberty, dignity or independence. A woman’s place was in the home, as domesticity and motherhood were considered by society at large to be a sufficient emotional fulfillment for females. The transformation of Britain into an industrial nation had profound consequences for the ways in which women were to be idealized in Victorian times. The role of women was to have children and tend to the house in contrast to men, according to the concept of Victorian masculinity.

How Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and North and South deal with the role of women.

Although Jane Eyre contains a number of sharp criticisms of the treatment of women and the social roles assigned to them, it also demonstrates that women can live their lives on equal terms with/ or independent of men. The book is in favor of women without being against men; but all the most sympathetic and important women characters are married by the end of the novel, Jane included.

If Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane Eyre had truly existed in that time period, she would have defied most of these cultural standards and proved herself a paradigm for aspiring feminists of her day. Jane’s commitment to dignity, independence, freedom of choice, unwillingness to submit to a man’s emotional power and willingness to speak her mind were fostered by some female characters in the novel.

Even though, we are talking Jane Eyre as a feminist, she did not take the streets with her feminist ideals, but she expressed her view of women’s equality almost subconsciously, through word and deed. An example could be, when Mr. Rochester’s attempts to lavish her with jewels and expensive garments for her wedding. In fact, she says that «the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation».

The character of Jane is not the traditional heroine of the time. In many romantic novels of the Victorian era, the heroine was beautiful. Jane is described by Charlotte as «simple and plain». She also differs from the traditional heroine in her strength as a woman. Charlotte created a woman character that was equal to the male character. Jane is not equal in status or class, but in emotional strength and maturity. This went against society’s beliefs of the time, because Victorians traditionally believed that women were not capable of strong emotions.

Pride and Prejudice begins with the anonymous figure of a rich, single man, the novel is actually concerned with the plight of the poor middle-class, single woman. Most of the women we see here like the Bennet girls or Charlotte Lucas are caught in a bind. These girls are too high class to get jobs, jobs are not really an option for proper young ladies in early 19th-century England, but not high class enough to inherit wealth to support themselves. Basically these women have two options: wedding bells or penny-pinching old maidhood. Pride and Prejudice offers us a look into this rather intensely feminine world of courting, marriage decisions and social realities.


As we know, women in England in 1800’s, which is when Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set, had one primary function, which was to marry, and marry well. The Bennet girls have  a temporarily comfortable life, because in the absence of sons, when their father dies his property will be inherited by their cousin, Mr. Collins. For this reason, the Bennet’s mother is usually  in a frenzy trying to orchestrate the marriage of her daughters. Elizabeth, her second of four girls, is a delightful young lady who refuses to lose her individualism and personal identity in a society that encourages women to do exactly that.

However, much like her father, Elizabeth does not take too seriously her mother’s flighty schemes to get her married. The role of women, especially upper crust women in England at the time is to look beautiful, speak only of pleasantries, and marry quickly, preferably to someone with some wealth at his disposal.

On this eve of the Industrial Revolution, this world stands in stark contrast to the one that will soon evolve in Britain, where women’s roles will transform into something completely different. As we could notice in North and South;

The dismissal of Gaskell’s work as no more than charming and pretty is typical of the kind of criticism that would devalue a writer simply by referring to her femininity.

As if to challenge this type of attitude herself, Gaskell shows how Margaret Hale in North and South ends up having a lot more to her personality and character than the «ladies’ business» Henry Lennox speaks of in the opening chapter.

As a sensible and balanced person she is quite able to do both, playing the part of a lady when she is in London, and playing the part of a responsible decision maker when she is back with her parents in Helstone, or in a dispute between the workers and their master in Milton.

So, one of the very issues Gaskell tackles in North and South is the role of women. Nothing is further from the truth, therefore, than Lord David Cecil’s assertion that Gaskell accepted the limits imposed on her. Margaret Hale proves to be a very responsible person, and shows great strength of character and judgement in all her decisions regarding the relocation of the family’s life. She knows exactly where they should stay, and is willing to say the ‘right’ things for the sake of her parents, even when she is unsure herself.

Margaret Hale is an archetypal pro-feminist heroine who challenges some of the constraints that are imposed upon her sex, but only from within the overarching context of existing gender roles. She prefers to discuss politics with men than fashion with women, asserts her right to attend a funeral, travel alone and ultimately, to visualize and confront an independent destiny for herself. At the same time, her influence upon the story is consistently in keeping with the Victorian woman’s role as homemaker. She is a gentle and motherly peacemaker, who know when has to behave in different situations.

After being faced with the most important women in the novels, we realize that the heroines are above all high class or middle class women. Because of this, we cannot see all the points of view, like the working class women. The only poor women who appeared in these stories are, Bessy Higgins in North and South, but almost the end she dies; Jane Eyre herself, comes from a poor life, but then she marries Mr. Rochester and becomes rich; and in Pride and Prejudice, we do not know about the servants, because they are occupied of celebrating advantageous marriages.

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