I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

maandag 23 januari 2012

Failures: Spinsters & Old Maids in Victorian England

The proper purpose of a Victorian woman’s life, of whatever class, was to marry suitably. It was not essential for the marriage to be happy, but marriage in itself was, “the crown and joy of a woman’s life – what we were born for.” A woman who did not marry became a spinster, old maid or maiden aunt, a figure of fun, pity and derision. The Victorians became particularly exercised about redundant women after the 1851 Census showed that there were nearly 1.5 million spinsters, aged between about 20 and 40, and 350,000 old maids over 40. In the 1851 Census, there were 104 women for every 100 men in England and Wales. Victorian England was also about the British Empire. Although, as now, more men wore born than women, boys were more likely to die than girls in childhood, and men more likely than woman to die young. Men emigrated, to the old and new commonwealth, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and other places in the British Empire. For every woman who emigrated, three men did so. Men also served time abroad either as colonial administrators or as soldiers. There was an increasing tendency for middle and upper class men to marry later. Between about 1840 and 1870, the average age at marriage for middle and upper class men was 30. At the age of 30, however, a spinster was definitely past her sell-by date.

Life for the Victorian Spinster
About the only respectable forms of employment that any middle or upper class Victorian spinster could undertake were as a teacher, a governess, or a companion. Many couples with large families liked to keep an unmarried daughter at home to tend to their every whim and care for them in their old age. Although often obliged to do so, the unmarried stay at home daughter was nevertheless incomplete. She’d failed to undertake her primary duty, to be a wife and mother. Many women who didn’t marry in Victorian England lived first in their parents’ house, and when their parents died, in the house of a brother or nephew. Although such women tended to work extremely hard, provided a useful second mother and unpaid housekeeper, they were undervalued. Although until the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1868 a wife had no separate legal existence from her husband, and did not own property unless he chose to allow her to do so, nevertheless a married woman had a social status and respect that her single sister would always struggle to achieve. An individual spinster or old maid could be pitied and patronised. As a group, spinsters were damaging to society, and redundant. Although it was rarely mentioned specifically, there was a general view that celibacy in women was unnatural. Of course, an old maid or a spinster was according to social norms considered to be a virgin. That was unnatural, and a waste. Edward Gibbon talked about single English women as, “growing thin, pale, listless and cross”. Thackeray described Charlotte Brontë as, “a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood”. John Stewart Mill argued against the spinster stereotype and said that the problem was that women were badly educated. Many, such as WR Gregg, urged that single women be almost obliged to emigrate. WR Gregg went on to discuss the semi forced emigration of women that he proposed. England must restore by an emigration women that natural proportion between the sexes in the old country and in the new one, which was disturbed by an emigration of men, and the disturbance of which has wrought so much mischief in both lands.

The literary Brontë sisters often wrote about women who did not marry in their books. None of them married, and they were themselves brought up by a spinster aunt, after the early death of their mother. Charlotte Brontë turned down four separate marriage proposals as she was determined not to live with a man she did not think her intellectual moral equal. The difficulties that respectable but impoverished women faced in Victorian England is clear from Charlotte Brontë’s second book, Shirley. Being a spinster did not only involve economic insecurity and precarious dependence on male relatives. But a woman was unable to bring about marriage on her own behalf. An old maid’s life must doubtless be void and vapid, her heart strained and empty; had I been an old maid I should have spent existence in efforts to fill the void and ease the aching I should have probably failed, and died weary and disappointed, despised and of no account, like other single women.

1 opmerking:

  1. Hello Geri...Thackeray's quote is very touching and sad...but at least at the end of her life, Charlotte had found love and happiness in marraige. She had controled her own marital destiny, and didn't succumb to society's ideals of what she should do...very admirable!
    xo J~


The Parlour

The Parlour



Charlotte Bronte

Presently the door opened, and in came a superannuated mastiff, followed by an old gentleman very like Miss Bronte, who shook hands with us, and then went to call his daughter. A long interval, during which we coaxed the old dog, and looked at a picture of Miss Bronte, by Richmond, the solitary ornament of the room, looking strangely out of place on the bare walls, and at the books on the little shelves, most of them evidently the gift of the authors since Miss Bronte's celebrity. Presently she came in, and welcomed us very kindly, and took me upstairs to take off my bonnet, and herself brought me water and towels. The uncarpeted stone stairs and floors, the old drawers propped on wood, were all scrupulously clean and neat. When we went into the parlour again, we began talking very comfortably, when the door opened and Mr. Bronte looked in; seeing his daughter there, I suppose he thought it was all right, and he retreated to his study on the opposite side of the passage; presently emerging again to bring W---- a country newspaper. This was his last appearance till we went. Miss Bronte spoke with the greatest warmth of Miss Martineau, and of the good she had gained from her. Well! we talked about various things; the character of the people, - about her solitude, etc., till she left the room to help about dinner, I suppose, for she did not return for an age. The old dog had vanished; a fat curly-haired dog honoured us with his company for some time, but finally manifested a wish to get out, so we were left alone. At last she returned, followed by the maid and dinner, which made us all more comfortable; and we had some very pleasant conversation, in the midst of which time passed quicker than we supposed, for at last W---- found that it was half-past three, and we had fourteen or fifteen miles before us. So we hurried off, having obtained from her a promise to pay us a visit in the spring... ------------------- "She cannot see well, and does little beside knitting. The way she weakened her eyesight was this: When she was sixteen or seventeen, she wanted much to draw; and she copied nimini-pimini copper-plate engravings out of annuals, ('stippling,' don't the artists call it?) every little point put in, till at the end of six months she had produced an exquisitely faithful copy of the engraving. She wanted to learn to express her ideas by drawing. After she had tried to draw stories, and not succeeded, she took the better mode of writing; but in so small a hand, that it is almost impossible to decipher what she wrote at this time.

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, - vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, etc. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep, - wondering what it was like, or how it would be, - till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it. ----------------------She thought much of her duty, and had loftier and clearer notions of it than most people, and held fast to them with more success. It was done, it seems to me, with much more difficulty than people have of stronger nerves, and better fortunes. All her life was but labour and pain; and she never threw down the burden for the sake of present pleasure. I don't know what use you can make of all I have said. I have written it with the strong desire to obtain appreciation for her. Yet, what does it matter? She herself appealed to the world's judgement for her use of some of the faculties she had, - not the best, - but still the only ones she could turn to strangers' benefit. They heartily, greedily enjoyed the fruits of her labours, and then found out she was much to be blamed for possessing such faculties. Why ask for a judgement on her from such a world?" elizabeth gaskell/charlotte bronte

Poem: No coward soul is mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Emily Bronte

Family tree

The Bronte Family

Grandparents - paternal
Hugh Brunty was born 1755 and died circa 1808. He married Eleanor McClory, known as Alice in 1776.

Grandparents - maternal
Thomas Branwell (born 1746 died 5th April 1808) was married in 1768 to Anne Carne (baptised 27th April 1744 and died 19th December 1809).

Father was Patrick Bronte, the eldest of 10 children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor (Alice) McClory. He was born 17th March 1777 and died on 7th June 1861. Mother was Maria Branwell, who was born on 15th April 1783 and died on 15th September 1821.

Maria had a sister, Elizabeth who was known as Aunt Branwell. She was born in 1776 and died on 29th October 1842.

Patrick Bronte married Maria Branwell on 29th December 1812.

The Bronte Children
Patrick and Maria Bronte had six children.
The first child was Maria, who was born in 1814 and died on 6th June 1825.
The second daughter, Elizabeth was born on 8th February 1815 and died shortly after Maria on 15th June 1825. Charlotte was the third daughter, born on 21st April 1816.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls (born 1818) on 29th June 1854. Charlotte died on 31st March 1855. Arthur lived until 2nd December 1906.

The first and only son born to Patrick and Maria was Patrick Branwell, who was born on 26th June 1817 and died on 24th September 1848.

Emily Jane, the fourth daughter was born on 30th July 1818 and died on 19th December 1848.

The sixth and last child was Anne, born on 17th January 1820 who died on 28th May 1849.

Top Withens in the snow.

Top Withens in the snow.



Related Posts with Thumbnails