Victorian society expected men to protect and care for women. A modern feminist account argues:
The Victorian household was ideally a nonproductive center; therefore, the perfect woman should adopt an image of repose and idleness to emphasize the complementarity of the home and the world outside. . . . Delicacy was first a character trait but came to affect behavior such "delicacy" aroused concern for some whenever physical activity was suggested. . . . Nervousness and fainting were other commonly accepted manifestations of women's weakness, in contrast to men's strength. Bad or even disagreeable news, shocking sights, or poor manners could cause fainting. . . . a range of factors — physical, social, and ideological — went toward creating the languishing woman as both an ideal and a reality. [Bonnie G. Smith, , "The Domestic sphere in the Victorian Age," Changing Lives]
Weakness, frailty, and sensitivity best characterized the image of women in society. The lack of political power that women had, the physically debilitating dress of the times, and the health problems involved with childbirth all contributed to this idea of the delicate woman. They needed special care and sheltering.
Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë did not entirely support this view. At different points in their novels, they both show their female characters as frail in comparison to the male ones. Their main characters do faint, cry, and turn pale, but on the other hand, they also strive to overcome their fragility. In Gaskell's North and South, Margaret always fought against her weaknesses. Several times throughout the book she tried to hide them from others. She declared that she would contain her sorrow and accompany her father to the funeral even though that was against the custom of the time. The death of Margaret's mother weighed heavily on Margaret's heart but she "had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering." Margaret appears less overcome by the loss of her mother than the men of the family. Brontë's Jane also exhibits great strength in the midst of suffering when she recounts the pain of being homeless and starving:
Hopeless of the future, I wished but this — that my Maker had that night thought good to require my soul of me while I slept; and that this weary frame, absolved by death from further conflict with fate, had now but to decay quietly, and mingle in peace with the soil of this wilderness. Life, however, was yet in my possession, with all its requirements, and pains, and responsibilities. The burden must be carried; the want provided for; the suffering endured; the responsibility fulfilled. I set out. [Chapter 28]
She did not allow her agony to overcome her. Even though the characters of Jane and Margaret seemed frail, they fought that image of themselves within their own mind as well as in the mind of the reader and the other characters in the book. Margaret's cousin Edith serves as a perfect contrast to Jane and Margaret's strength. She cautions Margaret not to be strong-minded and Margaret replies: "Don't be afraid, Edith. I'll faint on your hands at the servant's dinner-time, the very first opportunity; and then, what with Sholto playing with the fire, and the baby crying, you'll begin to wish for a strong-minded woman, equal to any emergency" (509). Gaskell makes the uselessness of a feeble woman immediately evident.
Content last modified December 1993