Feminism in Victorian Novels? Impossible. Not when the status of women placed them just a bit above spoiled children. But I found Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and realized it wasn’t so.
I had never heard of Ms. Gaskell until I saw the popular BBC series, North &South— which is based on her novel. Captivated by the miniseries, I googled “women in Victorian times.” I also looked up the actress who played the heroine. I thought she was compelling in her role.
I am, myself, obsessed with issues of what it is to be female in my own time. So, Margaret Hale’s character resonated with me, more than the hero’s.
As England industrialized, the role of women also began to change. Ms. Gaskell was aware of this. She expressed concerns about women’s issues in letters she wrote to friends and family. She also wove these issues through her books. Sadly, the much more vocal voices of a male-oriented society drowned them. Worse, that society silenced them. Looked at them as frivolous, or worse, nonexistent.
When Gaskell first wrote the novel, she intended to call it “Margaret Hale.” Apart from labor conflicts, her novel deals with issues facing Victorian women. That a lot of Gaskell’s books bear the names of her heroines as titles attests to this. But Charles Dickens, who first published the novel, suggested a different title. One that shifted the focus to the stark contrasts between North and South England. No doubt he also thought North and South more in keeping with the relevant and important interests of the male-dominated Victorian society.
We think of a Victorian woman as someone repressed, subservient, inferior to men in abilities, and in need of a man’s protection. Walking alone in public is socially forbidden. Her role is that of wife and mother at which she might try to excel.
She gains a bit more freedom to be different and to be counted if she’s rich. But until laws were passed in the late 1800s, she loses control of that money when she marries. If she has older brothers, she may not inherit at all. Unless, of course,she has the extremely rare fortune of having an enlightened parent. Such is the case of Barbara Bodichon. A moderately known painter/activist, she inherited an equal portion of her father’s wealth.
Bodichon was also among the early feminists. She spearheaded a committee credited with the first organized feminist action in the UK (see Bodichon, above) to give women rights to their own wealth and property. Later, she wrote a radical pamphlet, Women and Work, calling for equal opportunities in education and work for women.
So, in reality, there were exceptions to the general perception of Victorian women. In fiction, Gaskell’s Margaret Hale is a character blossoming into one of those exceptions.