[Revised and adapted from the author's article of the same title from Women's Studies Forum No. 8 (March 1994), Kobe College Institute for Women's Studies, Japan. Click on the illustrations to enlarge them and usually for more information about them.]

decorated initial 'A' warning note, however, was sounded by Charlotte Yonge, in the series of calamities which befall her philanthropic Rachel. At the death-bed of the little lace-maker, this so-called "clever woman" most bitterly regrets her wrong-headed efforts to help:

"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, my poor child," said Rachel, kneeling by her, the tears streaming down silently.

"Please, ma'am, don't cry," said the little girl feebly; "you were very good to me. Please tell me of my Saviour," she added to Rachel. [The Clever Woman of the Family 2: 82]

It is dreadfully overdone, but there is a fine irony in those words of gratitude (which echo Jo's "He wos wery good to me, he wos!" in Dickens's Bleak House 203). Rachel's total incompetence makes her restlessness at the beginning of the novel seem mere affectation: she is not able, not fit to be other than a man's helpmate. Now she knows it, she can step into the confines of marriage with relief. Taking her on, the dashing Alick Keith says (and we feel the double edge to his words), "These last weeks have shown me that your troubles must be mine" (2: 150). This novel was published in 1865.

Marcella with Mrs Hurd, the poacher's wife, and her sickly, dying son Willie — her presence not entirely appreciated. [Click on the image for more details.]

By the '90s, Mrs Ward, herself a noted philanthropist, had also lost some of her confidence in such social gestures. The young heroine of Marcella, an idealistic girl fresh from art school in London, is quite a different type from Catherine in Robert Elsmere. Her diamond engagement ring sparkling on her ungloved hand, she makes a strange picture in the Hurd family's scene of misery — the village labourer's wife, with her infant wrapped in an old shawl, is icy with cold, as are her two little daughters and haggard, chesty son. Marcella's father feels she is making herself "ridiculous" by her sympathy with these destitutes, and we are told that Mrs Hurd herself resents Marcella's interference, feeling her presence "a burden and constraint": the fact is that "the villagers keep away when she's there" and Mrs Hurd would prefer the kind of support which they could offer (Marcella, 299-301). There is also some tension between the idea that compassion, in itself, is ennobling, and the suggestion that Marcella finds much personal satisfaction in her involvement. In other words, Ward reveals some very profound reservations about the worth and appropriateness of, even the motives for, such "tendance" (259).

The fact is, that for a girl to do good work in this as in any other area, she needed aptitude and training. Marcella has neither, having been a particularly fractious child and having wasted the years up until fourteen at a particularly inadequate school. Behind her new devotion to the poor labourers lie years of uncertainty about her own position in society, a certain histrionic religiosity which developed at her second school, and the socialist ideals recently acquired in London. Quite apart from the difficult question of whether personal gestures can or should be expected to set right large-scale social injustice, there is still (in the '90s) the more specific issue of the girl's preparation for life — or rather, her lack of it.


No wonder the Victorian heroine is a woman in crisis. Pulled this way and that by the pressure of domesticity on the one hand, and dawning ambition on the other, without the means to make an informed choice — and very little to choose from, anyway — she often succumbs to a strong-willed man in the end. As in Charlotte Brontë's novels (even Jane Eyre) psychosomatic illness or some catastrophic excursion into the larger world may mark her progress along the way. It is not the novelist's job to propose solutions to social problems: the major women novelists of the age steered clear of feminist propaganda. But by expressing their own tensions, even strait-laced traditionalists like Yonge allowed protest to peep through paradigm, and in so doing suggested what the first items on the new agenda had to be: the provision of equal educational and career opportunities for women.

Related Material


Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Q. D. Leavis. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. Norman Page. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Ward, Mary Augusta. Marcella. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1919.

_____. Robert Elsmere. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1907.

Yonge, Charlotte. The Clever Woman of the Family. 2 Vols. London: Macmillan, 1865.

Created 8 July 2018