Feminism and Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century

Department of English, University of Hull, UK


The literature of 1776–1928 inevitably reflects a wide range of responses to women’s experiences, especially of home and family. Marriage is the key theme of the novel of the long nineteenth century, which records a questioning of society’s assumptions about the appropriateness and availability of marriage, especially for middle-class women with aspirations to fulfil themselves in other ways. This essay focuses first on the themes addressed by the canonical women novelists, from Austen to Eliot, as they explored the frustrations and limitations of marriage for their protagonists, and then considers the bolder challenges posed by ‘sensation’ and ‘New Woman’ novelists, and poets such as Emily Dickinson. Literature, above all, was a place where women could explore the intimate details of their emotions and social interactions, imagining new relationships and life choices, while also protesting against the injustices they saw around them.


The literature of any culture or historical period represents the experiences of individuals living at a particular time and recording their interactions with the conditions around them. However unusual or atypical for their period, poetry, fiction, drama and life writing are valued for providing at least an impression of authenticity about what it was like to be alive at that moment and dealing with the common challenges of human experience, especially the search for emotional fulfilment and contentment. For middle-class women of the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, the opportunity to read and write fiction and poetry had a liberating impact. Fiction, above all, was a place where women could explore the intimate details of their emotions and social interactions, imagining new relationships and life choices, while also protesting against the injustices they saw around them. The extent to which they could express themselves freely without fear of censure, however, was another matter, as was the opportunity to make a lasting difference to the multiple difficulties women faced, both in terms of their private domestic lives and their limited opportunities to work outside the home. The parallel work of male authors such as Dickens, Hardy and George Moore is also both innovative and conservative: on the one hand acknowledging the imperatives of desire (for both men and women) and the often brutal failures of masculinity, while on the other excoriating, exiling, or even condemning to death women who transgressed the boundaries that both sexes, outwardly, at least, felt obliged to uphold.

Influenced by the values of the increasingly powerful middle classes, the dominant themes of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature were courtship and marriage, the most urgent and compelling experience of this group, which absorbed the additional themes of work and independence. The period under review, however, traces a rise and fall of romantic ideology, culminating in the disillusionment of the ‘New Woman’ novelist with the conditions of modern marriage. While both drama and poetry ceded ground to the novel as the most popular form of literature, both for men and women, after the decline of Romanticism in the 1830s, the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti in Britain and Emily Dickinson in America, and the suffragette dramas of the early twentieth century proved powerful vehicles for the expression of women’s social and political perspectives.

The English novel from its beginnings in the eighteenth century applied a dual focus to the inner life of individuals and the broader social context of class, gender, morality and culture. Essentially it reflected the interaction between ordinary people and the society that formed them, but its flexibility was boundless, and its appeal – both to readers and practitioners – was its freedom from formal structures. As Terry Eagleton puts it, ‘The novel is an anarchic genre, since its rule is not to have rules’ (Eagleton 2005: 2). For women educated outside the public school tradition with its emphasis on classical learning, the novel seemed open to fresh approaches, its realism tempered by the possibility of romantic fantasy, the perfect combination for representing the complexities of women’s lives. By the middle of the nineteenth century Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897), herself a prolific novelist, was able to declare the age ‘quite distinctly the age of female novelists’. She adds: ‘The vexed questions of social morality, the grand problems of human experience, are seldom so summarily discussed and settled as in the novels of this day which are written by women’ (Oliphant 1855/2011: 82). Because the novel’s flexibility in many ways favoured the ‘outsider’s’ perspective, it proved a valuable tool for exposing the injustices of private life and their implications for the wider community. When a woman becomes pregnant outside marriage, for example, as in the case of Gaskell’s Ruth Hilton, Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel, Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield, or Moore’s Esther Waters, the ripple effect spreads through families, households, villages and towns, challenging their religious and moral certainties, testing their compassion, but more often than not sacrificing the woman to deep-rooted convictions about the social necessity to subjugate unruly desire, even as the surrounding community is subsumed in guilt and remorse for their lack of empathy and understanding.

From Wollstonecraft to Austen

The work of all women writers in this period may be seen as in some way contributing to the evolving formation of feminist ideas, whether negatively (by upholding the status quo), or by disturbing the settled views of their readers through the exposure of shocking cases, or by quiet examples of resistance and endurance. Both the Gothic and Romantic traditions influenced the first women’s novels’ ability to invoke fear and danger in the depiction of marriage and motherhood. What Ellen Moers first termed ‘Female Gothic’ (Moers 1978: 90), the type of novel popularised by Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) that explores women’s entrapment – traditionally in a remote castle, but also in the patriarchal family and ultimately her own body – has been mined for psychoanalytic interpretations, and more recently for reflections of historical disempowerment. ‘From the eighteenth century,’ Diana Wallace argues, ‘women writers, aware of their exclusion from traditional historical narratives, have used Gothic historical fiction as a mode of historiography, which can simultaneously reinsert them into history and symbolise their exclusion’ (Wallace 2013: 1). Revelling less in the scenes of wanton brutality associated with the male strains of Gothicism (for example Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, 1796), ‘female Gothic’ allows its heroic women to work out ways of defeating their enemies. The traces of this trend persist well beyond Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) into later novels, from Jane Austen’s spoof Gothic Northanger Abbey (1818) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) through to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), in all of which the determined heroine investigates a domestic secret hidden behind a locked bedroom door. Female gothic also broadens out beyond the staple ingredients, however to address the wider philosophical and moral issues of parenthood and responsibility, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847).

The theme of female emotional dependency, domestic imprisonment, and its wider socio-cultural ramifications preoccupied Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) throughout her career as a philosopher and novelist. Her unfinished novel, Maria (1798) intertwines the stories of the middle-class Maria and her lower-class companion Jemima, who are both imprisoned in a lunatic asylum. ‘Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?’ asks the narrator in the opening chapter, echoing the language of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (Wollstonecraft 1992: 64). Whether the views of Jane Austen (1775–1817) and her near-contemporaries, Fanny Burney (1752–1840) and Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849) can be regarded as proto-feminist has never been entirely resolved. Few women novelists before the 1880s openly condemned marriage or could envisage a realistic alternative life-choice for middle-class women outside the family, but an increasing awareness (for example from the 1851 Census figures) that ‘surplus’ women would never find a husband broadened the discussion to include the equally vexed question of vocations for single women. While Austen’s courtship novels typically end in marriage, they all include, to a greater or lesser extent, scenes where even the quieter female characters reveal their sense of duress at the pressures to conform. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1813) is appalled that both her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and cousin Edmund, expect her to marry Henry Crawford at their bidding, or, as she puts it, ‘“to have an attachment at his service, as soon as it was asked for”’ (Austen 2003: 327). More generally, she protests: ‘“Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself”’ (p. 327). In Emma (1816), which reviews from several perspectives what Emma calls ‘the difficulties of dependence’ (Austen 2012: 103) – though ironically she here refers to Frank Churchill’s problems with his domineering aunt – Jane Fairfax shrinks from entering the ‘“governess-trade”’ by application to ‘“Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect”’ (Austen 2012: 207). The unexpectedly sharp bitterness of the women’s language in both these texts is perhaps what shocks the reader most in these examples, while in others it is the situation itself that disturbs: in Pride and Prejudice (1813) Charlotte Lucas’s resignation at the age of twenty-seven to marriage with Mr Collins as the best offer she will ever have, or in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Persuasion (1818) the seemingly common, but heartbreaking experience of waiting for an honest declaration of love from a longstanding suitor. Margaret Oliphant makes fun of this experience in her late novel Hester (1883), through the comic character of Emma Ashton, a poor relation who is constantly waiting for gentlemen to ‘speak’; in the end she elopes at a moment’s notice with the disillusioned hero, following a chance encounter on a train.

The Brontës

The first overtly ‘feminist’ novel, however, is usually considered to be Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Autobiography’ of ‘a little fierce incendiary’, as Oliphant calls her (Oliphant 1855/2011: 85). The novel both shocked and excited its earliest reviewers (Oliphant among them) because of its sheer outspokenness, and continues to exert a powerful emotional influence. Jane is bored, restless, and eager for love. She has feelings for Mr Rochester before he declares any for her, and when ordered to accept a submissive position, she insists on her right to be loved and respected as an equal. Turning on Rochester, who like some of Austen’s less attractive heroes, toys with her affections, she famously declares: ‘“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?” (Brontë 1847/1999: 338). This protest is one of many in the novel, echoed, but often silently, by Lucy Snowe in Brontë’s final novel Villette (1853), characterised by its agonised expressions of loneliness and neglect. ‘“My heart almost died within me,” Lucy confesses as everyone deserts the Belgian pensionnat where she works, for the long summer vacation (Brontë 1853/1979: 227), and when she loses the treasured letters received from Dr John Graham Bretton (who is destined to marry pretty little Paulina), the grief turns her into a ‘“monomaniac”’ (her own word, p. 326) until she can be comforted by Dr John’s reassuring care. While Jane is rewarded with marriage to the man she loves, Lucy’s reward is her own school, rather than ‘union and a happy succeeding life’ (p. 596) with her lover, M. Paul Emanuel, who is presumed drowned. All four of Brontë’s novels include minor characters to whom marriage comes more easily; for Lucy, it seems at best something that happens to other women who are both more pleasing and more easily pleased. Like Wollstonecraft Brontë repeatedly explored the conflict between an idealised view of romance and the mundane reality of what many women will accept as sufficient for their needs.

For most recent critics Charlotte Brontë’s novels fall short of an unequivocal feminist manifesto. Jane may be a firebrand, who tells Mr Brocklehurst she can avoid going to hell by keeping in good health and not dying, but when Mr Rochester begs her to become his mistress she cites the Scriptures, calls him ‘Sir,’ and absconds, earning her living as a humble village schoolmistress. Feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Gayatri Spivak, challenged the more disturbing aspects of this cult text of feminism, especially the role played by Bertha Rochester, ‘the madwoman in the attic’ who has now become the symbol of colonial oppression, the insane ‘dark double’ denied human speech in the novel, but given both a voice and a history by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). For twenty-first-century feminist readers Jane has become unfashionably white, middle-class and selfish, trampling every man and woman in her way while succumbing to the most clichéd of masochistic fairytales. As Heather Glen concludes, modern feminist criticism ‘has been more concerned to place the text ideologically than to speak of its utopian power’ (Glen 1997: 13).

The same may be said of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), though its ‘utopian power’ has perhaps proved more durable, given its conflicting and overlapping perspectives and the speed with which each social arrangement is toppled by the next. As Linda Shires argues, while it may appear to replace an ‘asocial romance’ with ‘realist socialization’, its interplay of tensions points to ‘unresolvable ideological fissures’, reinforcing the ‘ideological split between Romantic individualism and social consensus that rests at the heart of the novel form’ (Shires 2001: 66). Its best-remembered protest is Catherine Earnshaw’s rebellion against bourgeois wifehood with its necessity to sit quietly indoors awaiting her baby’s birth when she would rather be running barefoot over the moors with Heathcliff. Anne Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), however, is the Brontë novel that most directly engages with the political and social issues of the day, in its narrative of marital breakdown and the wife’s bid to save her young son from being brutalised by his father. Like Wuthering Heights, the novel mediates an intimate female narrative within a controlling external male perspective, but unlike the novels of her sisters, Tenant tackles a specific legal inequality: the limited options for young wives and mothers trapped in an adulterous marriage. Although the Infant Custody Act of 1839 had by 1848 legalised custody of children under seven by wives of ‘unblemished character’, it was still practically impossible for a woman of average means to divorce her husband or retain her own property and earnings. While modern readers may be disappointed by the widowed Helen Huntingdon’s willingness to abandon her career as an artist in order to enter a second marriage, the novel nevertheless tackles not just the practicalities of survival, but also the shortcomings of education for both sexes, and the contradictions of Helen’s own initial determination to make the marriage work, while feeling ‘debased, contaminated by the union’ (Brontë 1993: 250–251). In rewriting the victorious narrative of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), whose eponymous heroine reforms her seducer, ‘Mr B’, Brontë shows how difficult it is for a virtuous woman to undo the damage done to her husband by an indulgent upbringing and the licentious society of equally undisciplined male companions.

George Eliot

Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865) also addresses both the specifics of women’s inequalities (as in Ruth) and the many limitations and frustrations of women’s domestic lives. She incorporates a much broader social range than the Brontës, from the landed gentry, the Cumnors in Wives and Daughters (1866) to the starving mill-workers of Manchester in Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855). George Eliot, too, spans a wider range, but with a focus on the rural, rather than the industrial working class. Maggie Tulliver, of The Mill on the Floss (1860) arguably hails from the most awkward social group of all: the aspirational rural lower middle class with a wider view of life’s possibilities than their rigidly conformist families. Eliot, through Maggie, shows how there is no place in St Oggs for an exceptional woman, who is both unconventionally beautiful and inconveniently intelligent, but with no outlet for her ambitions or means of escape from its judgemental outlook, unless by the bold step of elopement and a complete break with her past. While this may have been Eliot’s own real-life experience, Maggie has no openings into London journalism, like Eliot’s engagement with the Westminster Review, even though she is determined to be independent. As the novel declines to show Maggie at Miss Firniss’s boarding school, preferring to linger instead on her temporary participation in Tom’s education at Mr Stelling’s, and equally passes over what her cousin Lucy calls her ‘“dreary situation in a school”’ (Eliot 2003: 380), her exclusion from any experience except the stiflingly domestic is reinforced. Instead, her reconciliation of the ‘heart’s need’, as the narrator calls it (Eliot 2003: 124–125), with the discovery of a vocation remains unresolved for Eliot, both here and in her greatest novel, Middlemarch (1871–1872). It has disappointed many readers that while she was writing her major novels she was distancing herself from the burgeoning feminist movement led by her own friends and contacts, among them Barbara Bodichon. Although she made a small contribution to the founding of Girton College, and signed the Married Women’s Property petition of 1856, Eliot avoided any public displays of support for what she called ‘a question so entangled as the “Woman Question”’ (Letters II, 396). As Karen Chase concludes, ‘The recurrent note is that of hesitation in the face of complexities’ (Rignall 2000: 468).

Gillian Beer describes Eliot as ‘a knot of controversy for feminist critics’ (Beer 1986: 3), in that although she writes compassionately about the frustrated aspirations of ambitious women, Eliot seems to lack the vision or willingness to imagine what might happen if an exceptional woman broke through the constraints of her culture and achieved something of permanent value, as she did herself. Arguably there are several such women in her novels, culminating in Daniel Deonda’s mother, the Princess Halm-Eberstein, otherwise known by her stage name as the singer Alcharisi, doubling and contrasting in the novel with Daniel’s future wife Mirah Lapidoth; but Alcharisi’s career lasts a mere nine years before she begins singing out of tune and retires from the stage, while Mirah performs only in private domestic settings. Curtailed outcomes for women are, however, paralleled in Eliot’s novels by similarly disappointing conclusions for most of her men, such as Middlemarch’s Casaubon and Lydgate, Daniel Deronda being an unusual exception to the trend. Beer argues that the clue to Eliot’s lack of enthusiasm for the feminist cause was her insistence on the ‘difference and connection’ between men and women which makes her value ‘interdependence even above independence: and she gives it that high valuation because of (as well as in spite of) its difficulty’ (Beer 1986: 14). Hence Lydgate fails in his scientific ambitions because Rosamond drags him down, and Tom Tulliver is literally pulled to his watery death by his sister Maggie in a final version of the ‘strangling fashion’ of embrace with which she greeted him as a child (Eliot 2003: 36). For Eliot the emotions are both essential to the formation of a compassionate and humane character, but, as in the Wollstonecraft tradition, they are also a barrier to discovering and maintaining a strong vocation. In Middlemarch, two more young women graduate from school with an irrelevant education: Dorothea Brooke from ‘that toy-box history of the world adapted to young ladies’ (Eliot 2011: 86), and Rosamond Vincy from Mrs Lemon’s, where the teaching included ‘extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage’ (p. 96). Only Mrs Garth, who teaches at the kitchen table, and her daughter Mary, once an ‘articled pupil’ (p. 109), and subsequently a governess, have had anything like a useful education. For Eliot there is a direct correlation between lack of external interests and what she called ‘living too exclusively in the affections’ (GE Letters, V, 107). Though as she told a friend ‘our affections are perhaps the best gifts we have, we ought also to have our share of the more independent life – some joy in things for their own sake’ (V, 107). Eliot stresses the positive impact for men of this fuller intellectual or independent life for women, and its negative consequences where women remain trapped in a narrow round of self-preoccupation. In her essay on ‘Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft’ (1855), she counters the common assumption that men prefer their wives to be relatively undereducated. ‘Men pay a heavy price for their reluctance to encourage self-help and independent resources in women,’ she argues, too many wasting their working lives providing for ‘a woman who can understand none of [their] secret yearnings, who is fit for nothing but to sit in her drawing-room like a doll-Madonna in her shrine’ (Eliot 1992: 185).

Sensation writing

The rise of the ‘doll-like Madonna’ in the ‘sensation’ novel of the 1860s provided a new means of exposing the hypocrisies of domestic life, through the best-selling novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915), Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), and Ellen Wood (1814–1887). The ‘sensation’ novel essentially implies to its middle-class readers that the foundations of their bourgeois domestic world are the secrets and lies underpinning marriage, with women operating as both victims and aggressors. In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–1860) the triple half-sisterhood of Anne Catherick, Laura Fairlie, and Marian Halcombe (the first two with exchangeable identities, they look so similar), play out the different ills to which nineteenth-century women seem most vulnerable: arranged marriage, arranged placement in an asylum, or the perpetual spinsterhood of the plain or ugly. While the women are clearly victims of the two men, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival Glyde for whom money, rather than sexual gratification, is their main object, Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) inverts the plot so that the woman becomes the perpetrator. She perfectly fits Eliot’s description of the ‘doll-Madonna’, being introduced to the reader as adorned with ‘the most wonderful curls in the world – soft and feathery, always floating away from her face, and making a pale halo round her head when the sunlight shone through them’ (Braddon 1987: 8). A childless Madonna, in this case, as she has abandoned her son, Lucy eventually exchanges her sumptuous pre-Raphaelite boudoir for a room in a Belgian asylum, but not without leaving a trail of unsettling questions in her wake. Arguably, she is an abandoned wife after her husband, George Talboys, steals away from her to make his fortune in Australia, and what she does to make her own fortune is largely tit-for-tat. She marries Sir Michael Audley without any sexual motivation, and insists she would have made no further trouble for him or anyone else had she been left alone to enjoy her good fortune. The novel also implies that Lucy was an adept opportunist rather than insane, as she unconvincingly blames her violent behaviour on postnatal depression. The existence of a real-life case in the household of another novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who arranged his wife Rosina’s committal to an asylum in 1858, brought these sensational novel-plots within the bounds of possibility – much as Jane Eyre had, two decades earlier, embarrassed Thackeray because he too had a mad wife stowed away in an asylum. These novels vary considerably in the amount of sympathy shown to so-called ‘madwomen’, while also exposing the shams of illegitimacy, bigamy, and male inadequacy in domestic life.

Many of these themes are reflected in the more ‘respectable’ mainstream novels, albeit as subtexts: for example Daniel Deronda’s subplot of Grandcourt’s illegitimate family with Mrs Glasher, Miss Havisham’s betrayal at the altar by the already married Compeyson, and the doubling of Michael Henchard’s daughter Elizabeth-Jane, his own dead child replaced by the daughter his wife Susan bears to Newson, the man who ‘bought’ her at the wife-sale. Like George Talboys, Newson disappeared, presumed dead, throwing wife and child into enforced independence based on misleading information. Marriage in all these novels is presented as a terrifyingly unstable arrangement, both for men and women: no more so than in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess’s partners have a habit of reappearing at moments when she was most confident she would never see them again. In making his ‘pure woman’ a murderess for killing Alec d’Urberville who took her virginity, Hardy inverts Gaskell’s story of Ruth, who was herself fatally contaminated by the lover she twice nursed through illness. Throughout the century the compromised feminism of novel after novel highlights the injustices of women’s lives, both in the eyes of the law and privately, in terms of their inability to find viable alternatives to becoming the quiet wives of decent men, though it is perhaps George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894) that provides the fullest account of a working-class woman’s efforts to survive as a single mother. ‘Hers is an heroic adventure if one considers it,’ says the narrator’s voice as Esther strives to earn enough money to keep her baby safe, ‘a mother’s fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and the illegitimate’ (Moore 2012: 143). Esther’s surly, truculent personality for much of the novel ensures that she is never idealised like the patient Ruth.


It was not only novels that explored this theme, but also poets, especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) in the Marian Erle subplot of Aurora Leigh (1856) and Augusta Webster (1837–1894) in her poems about fading, ageing women cast aside by ‘respectable’ society. Webster’s Eulalie, speaker of her dramatic monologue ‘A Castaway’ (1870), asks what choice she has, ‘Of living well or ill? Could I have that?/And who would give it me?’ (ll.255–7). The mother of a dead baby, an outsider looking in, Eulalie knows what marriage expects of women, and how difficult it would be for her to achieve. Eulalie has come near to it without knowing how it could possibly work for her: a theme shared with Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), who too views marriage as an alien and impossible state for one unable to subordinate her own distinctiveness to the common denominator of ‘wife’. ‘She rose to His Requirement – dropt/The Playthings of Her Life,’ she writes of a woman who does what eluded her (poem 732), while other poems probe with a childlike curiosity what it must be like to leave girlhood and surrender one’s individuality to the mysteries of adulthood and sexual conformity. In ‘Title Divine’ (1072) she appropriates the metaphor of the women who is almost, or about to be married, to capture a sense of empowerment which is different from that of those who say ‘“My Husband”[…] stroking the Melody’. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) and Kate Chopin (1850–1904), however, in their classic texts, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and The Awakening (1899), there is no great mystery about marriage: only the recognition of the husband’s suffocating control, which turns Gilman’s wife character insane and drives Chopin’s Edna Pontellier to drown herself after two unsatisfactory affairs.

‘New Woman’ fiction

These American texts are contemporary with the British ‘New Woman’ fiction of the 1890s which takes disgust with marriage to new levels, while exploring the multi-faceted needs of this outspoken but often unhappy and frustrated character in her quest for fulfilment. First coined in 1894 by the novelist ‘Sarah Grand’ (Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke McFall, 1854–1943), the term ‘New Woman’ was, in Sally Ledger’s definition, ‘a feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwright, a woman poet’, and also a ‘fictional construct’ (Ledger 1997: 1). Ann Heilmann similarly dismisses the supposedly one-dimensional negativity of New Woman fiction, and reclaims its ‘at times spectacular exploration of female libidinal desire’, and markedly ‘ambiguous and contradictory femininities’ (Heilmann 2004: 3). Heilmann associates the beginnings of New Woman fiction with Mona Caird’s article ‘Marriage’, for the Westminster Review in 1888. Having reviewed the evolution and history of marriage, Caird (1858–1932) declares the ideal marriage is ‘almost beyond the reach of this generation’ (Caird 1888: 196). Her equation of an ideal marriage with one that is ‘free’ (in the sense of without legal ties), and therefore able to introduce diversity into its arrangements, was an idea further explored (though without much optimism) by late nineteenth-century male and female novelists alike, including Grant Allen in The Woman Who Did (1895), whose unmarried single mother protagonist, Herminia Barton, ends by committing suicide. Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) meanwhile tackles the issue of sexually transmitted diseases, of which the continuing ‘double standard’ of sexual morality for men and women was partly a cause. George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) similarly tracks the tribulations of several women at odds with the conventions of their times, and shows how their idealism unravels in the face of contemporary masculine attitudes to women and marriage, while Thomas Hardy’s ‘New Woman’, Sue Bridehead, in Jude the Obscure (1895) baulks repeatedly at the prospect of marriage, but struggles to survive without this formal sanction of her relationship with Jude. Though sometimes seen as a journalistic or literary invention, the ‘New Woman’ undoubtedly created a sense of threat to the norms of family life in the fin de siècle without producing a clear way out of the impasse.


Literature’s reflection of feminist ideals through the ‘long’ nineteenth century inevitably places marriage at the centre of its considerations. From Austen’s Fanny Price, alarmed at being forced into marriage with a man of weak principles, to Grand’s Edith Beale, who dies after contracting syphilis from her dissolute husband, nineteenth-century fiction, while paying lip service to the traditional novelistic happy ending, subjects marriage to relentless interrogation. At the same time, it stalls over alternative routes to independent self-sufficiency for women, and finds work without love, or love without marriage, bleak consolation prizes to those who make a principled stand against the social norm. It was left to the Modernists of the early twentieth century to wrestle further with these apparently irresolvable contradictions, breaking new boundaries with D.H. Lawrence’s sexually tormented men and women in love, Virginia Woolf’s historical transgender fantasy Orlando (1928), and finally, Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928).


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