Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


7. Women in the Nineteenth Century

Mummy, where does literature come from?
From heaven, dear.
Now go back to sleep and don’t be asking questions.

What causes literature? The Greeks thought it was the Muses. Most teachers of English have dropped this explanation as unsatisfactory but by and large they haven’t replaced it with anything else. Literature is just there and on that basis it is taught. How it comes to be there is shrouded in decent mystery. Like most decent mysteries, it’s worth asking questions about if only because, as Shaw put it, “decency is indecency’s conspiracy of silence.’”

Marxists claim that literature is a reflection of the real world – sometimes a crude reflection, but sometimes, especially if the literature is any good, the reflection is complex, dialectical, highly mediated. So what does that mean? We can answer that by taking an example – by looking first of all at the situation of middle-class women in the nineteenth century and then at the way this situation is re-created in the work of five authors in five different countries.

The first thing to note about that situation is that it was extremely boring. In England middle-class prosperity meant that one-sixth of the employed population were domestic servants. Hence the middle-class woman was normally freed from the drudgery of housework, but freed only into a gilded cage. Thackeray in Chapter 42 of his 1848 novel Vanity Fair describes Jane Osborne’s “awful existence” as she confronts her father at breakfast:

She remained silent opposite to him, listening to the urn hissing, and sitting in tremor while the parent read his paper and consumed his accustomed portion of muffins and tea. At half-past nine he rose and went to the City, and she was almost free till dinner-time, to make visitations in the kitchen and to scold the servants; to drive abroad and descend upon the tradesmen, who were prodigiously respectful; to leave her cards and her papa’s at the great glum respectable houses of their City friends; or to sit alone in the large drawing-room, expecting visitors; and working at a huge piece of worsted by the fire, on the sofa, hard by the great Iphigenia clock, which ticked and tolled with mournful loudness in the dreary room. The great glass over the mantelpiece, faced by the other great console glass at the opposite end of the room, increased and multiplied between them the brown Holland bag in which the chandelier hung, until you saw these brown Holland bags fading away in endless perspectives, and this apartment of Miss Osborne’s seemed the centre of a system of drawing-rooms.

It’s all there, right down to neat little details like the Iphigenia clock – Iphigenia being the most famous example in Greek literature of woman as obedient sacrificial victim. Then there’s the sense, conveyed through the image of the mirrors, of life as an infinite series of empty repetitions. From the prodigiously respectful tradesman to the whole atmosphere of nagging aimlessness, it’s a perfect picture of the “lady of civilisation” that Engels described as “surrounded by false homage and estranged from all real work”.

If you make someone look an idiot to suit yourself you need to reassure her by pointing out that her position is quite natural. Thackeray’s Jane Osborne is about as active and useful as a rubber shovel, but the experts insisted that this was biologically determined. William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, first published in 1857 and in its eighth edition on both sides of the Atlantic by 1894, may be taken as a standard medical textbook of the time. It described one aspect of women’s passivity – sexual passivity – as follows:

I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind ... The best mothers, wives, and managers of households, know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions they feel.

As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions. [1]

So much for the ornamental role of the middle-class woman and the justifying ideology supplied in its wake by the experts. If we turn from this absurdity to the portrayal of women by five of the nineteenth century’s most significant writers, we can see in imaginative terms some of the tensions generated by this absurdity being relived and attacked.

In the year that Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs was first published, Flaubert was bringing out his novel Madame Bovary in France. In 1878 the Russian novelist Tolstoy published Anna Karenin at the same time as Thomas Hardy’s English novel The Return of the Native. The American Henry James’s short story Daisy Miller came out the next year, 1879, and the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler followed in 1890.

In all five the story is nearly the same: a spirited, far from passive middle-class heroine sets off, more or less alone, on a confused and partial revolt against her society and the confining careers and models of conduct it offers her. The result in every case is defeat and death, death which in four cases is suicide. Emma Bovary swallows rat poison, Anna Karenin jumps under a train, Hardy’s Eustacia Vye drowns herself, Daisy Miller dies of malaria and Hedda Gabler blows her brains out.

Five stories so closely parallel appearing in five different places within a generation provide either a supercolossal intercontinental ballistic coincidence or evidence that literature in some way reflects the real world. The books are broadly similar because they all have the same root, and that is the authors’ shared sense of the tragic gap between women’s full needs and abilities and the dwarf lives offered them by nineteenth century capitalism.

Broadly similar but not identical. The five books are worth looking at in a little more detail because each author selects and emphasises particular angles depending on his own experiences and convictions.

Emma Bovary leads two lives. On the one hand there are the flabby romantic dreams which she, like all young girls, is fed. “A certain agitation,” says Flaubert, using deliberately overstuffed language, “caused by the presence of this man had sufficed to make her believe herself possessed at last of that wonderful passion which hitherto had hovered above her like a great bird of rosy plumage in the splendour of a poetic heaven.” On the other hand there’s the dismal bourgeois reality of the man she marries: “Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.” This contrast persists to the end, an appalling chasm between the squalid facts of bourgeois life and death and the sentimental and self- congratulatory image that that life has of itself. As Emma dies, vomiting blood, outside in the street a blind beggar sings:

When the sun shines warm above
It turns a maiden’s thoughts to love.

The last moments of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin are full of obsessive alienation from other people. She’s isolated and vulnerable, always liable to neurotic despair after a feeble revolt from her husband. At Nizhny station, men, peer into her face and whisper to one another – “something vile no doubt”. “A mis-shapen lady” passes. Anna is “appalled at her hideousness”, at the “grotesque and affected girl” who accompanies her and at the “grimy, deformed-looking peasant” who follows. A husband and wife enter her carriage and she finds them “repellent”. More men stare at her. She searches in panic for an escape because: “Everything is false and evil – all lies and deceit!” She gets Out of the carriage and hatred of humanity explodes into hatred of self: “I shall punish him (her lover Vronsky) and escape from them all and from myself.” She steps under a goods train.

What drives Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native to suicide is her sense of the impossibility of living a fulfilled life after many muddled struggles to achieve it. When a child she had wanted to be a man – her heroes were William the Conqueror, Strafford and Napoleon. As a woman she plays a man’s role – she takes the part of the Turkish Knight killed by St George in a Christmas play. But when she marries she is forced to confront her economically and emotionally dependent status as wife. Moments before drowning she wavers between a wan husband and a third-rate lover:

“Can I go, can I go?” she moaned. “He’s not great enough for me to give myself to – he does not suffice for my desire! ... If he had been a Saul or a Buonaparte – ah! But to break my marriage vow for him – it is too poor a luxury! ... And I have no money to go alone! And if I could, what comfort to me? I must drag on next year, as I have dragged on this year, and the year after that as before. How I have tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! ... I do not deserve my lot!” she cried in a frenzy of bitter revolt. “O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world! I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control!”

In his miniature portrait of Daisy Miller, Henry James suggests the awful punishment waiting for the woman who steps an inch out of line. Daisy, on holiday in Rome, visits the Colosseum by moonlight with a young Italian. Intolerable, as the Nonconformist conscience in the shape of Mr. Winterbourne hastens to tell her. Within a day or two she’s down with the malaria he warned her she’d catch there and she’s dead a week later. Serve her right, and let that be a warning to the rest of you out there to do as the man says.

What Ibsen examines through Hedda Gabler is the kind of stunted and perverse personality that could grow in the stunted and perverse situation of the nineteenth century middle-class woman. Cut off from all meaningful activity and afraid to drive towards it because of a conventional fear of causing scandal, Hedda conceives a brooding admiration for Lovborg who does challenge bourgeois conventions – an uncritical admiration for action that comes easily to a figure confined to passive observation. Like Hardy’s Eustacia, Hedda, after a life of repressed fantasy, is eventually faced with the reality of her unfreedom and like Eustacia she kills herself to avoid living that reality.

Bourgeois society looked at the critical reflection of itself in its own literature and was annoyed. The Revue de Paris which serialised Madame B ovary was prosecuted for “outrage to public morals and religion”. The Russian magazine that carried Anna Karenin in monthly parts rejected the final section. Ibsen was rechristened “Ibscene” and called a “muck-ferreting dog” by the British press. That press also attacked Hardy and was part of the reason why he gave up novel writing altogether in 1895.

Clearly bourgeois literature could pose and analyse the problem but could not solve it. Approaches to a solution could only come not from men like these authors but from women themselves. And they could only come not from literature but from life itself, from action in the day-to-day as opposed to the imaginative world.


In 1883, shortly after Eustacia Vye had felt “crushed by things beyond my control”, Engels wrote gloomily from England to Bebel in Germany: “Do not on any account whatever let yourself be bamboozled into thinking that there is a real proletarian movement going on here.” Yet six years later he writes to Sorge: “The movement has now got going at last and I believe for good.” The political climate changed sharply in the eighties and suddenly the boundaries of the possible seemed much wider. As Hedda Gabler, the last of our five heroines, shot herself in lonely desperation on the London stage, working-class women began to fight their way beyond despair. Sheila Rowbotham has described part of that fight in Hidden from History:

From 1888 to around 1892 there was a considerable amount of spontaneous industrial action not only by men but also by women who had never organised before. The match-girls’ strike is the best known because of the publicity the socialist Annie Besant gave it in papers and journals. However Commonweal, the paper of the Socialist League, reported several other incidents of female militancy in the same year. Blanket weavers in Heckmondwike, female cigarmakers in Nottingham, girls in a tin box manufactory in London, who pelted men who continued to work after they came out with red-ochre and flour, cotton workers, and jute workers in Dundee, took action spontaneously in 1888. The reasons for striking varied, from demands for increases to resistance to cuts, or opposition to fines. Again in 1899 mill girls in Kilmarnock came out over the bad quality of yarn they were being given. At Alverthorpe, near Wakefield, woollen weavers, women and girls, rejected a reduced rate and marched in procession headed by girls with concertinas ...

In London too women workers were helped by the new unionists and by socialists. Laundresses tried to make a union. They were supported by 27 trades councils and held a joint demonstration with railway workers in July 1891 in Hyde Park. According to the records of the Women’s Trade Union League this was the first demonstration of working women in the Park ... [2]

Middle-class women began organising to obtain the vote at the same time. The Women’s Franchise League was formed in 1889 to be followed by the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903.

A final anecdote to illustrate the immense advances of those years. In 1879 as we’ve already seen Henry James’s fictional American heroine Daisy Miller made a tiny personal gesture of rebellion and was promptly nailed by the mosquitoes. In 1912 some of her countrywomen in Lawrence, Massachusetts, struck against pay cuts, held solid for over two months and won important concessions for a quarter of a million textile workers. During one of their demonstrations a couple of girl spinners carried a banner: “We want bread and roses too.” This moved James Oppenheim to write his poem Bread and Roses which ends:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses! [3]



1. Quoted in Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians, New York 1967, pp.31-2.

2. Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History, London 1973, pp.61-2.

3. from Edith Fowke & Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest, New York 1973, p.71. The five works discussed in this section are all available in paperback. Hedda Gabler is a Methuen’s Theatre Classic and The Return of the Native is a Macmillan’s Papermac. The other three – Madame Bovary, Anna Karenin and Daisy Miller – are Penguins. All references in this section are to these editions.


Last updated on 28.7.2001