Gender and Options in Victorian Novels

An essay I wrote for my Victorian Literature class


Victorian Novels  

April 18, 2007

Gender and Options in Victorian Novels

One of the main themes addressed in Victorian novels are the choices available to their characters and whether or not one’s gender hinders or increases the options available to them. Other factors play a role in limiting and expanding these options. Class for instance, is another strong factor. People are born into a certain class and are expected to act accordingly to “their class.” Movement among classes, particularly upwardly movement, is taboo and people generally died as members of the same class into which they were born. Occasionally moving to a higher class is possible but most often that movement was possible for only men and not women. Even for men that movement is only made possible by the choices that they have and also the wider array of choices available to them because they are men. The main characters of David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Villette all begin in roughly the same place. By the end of the novels the three are in decidedly different places. Though different, these endings find David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe enjoying success in their own unique way. To find this success they take different paths which are determined by the options and choices are available to them and how they respond to those options.

David, Jane and Lucy are children who are orphaned at a young age. David’s father dies six months before he was born and his mother dies when he is ten years old. Jane’s parents died shortly after she was born. Lucy is slightly older than David and Jane, she is fourteen, but seemingly does not have parents. No mention of her blood relatives is given. She is seen only at her Godmother’s house giving the impression that she is has also been orphaned. At this point David and Jane are at the mercy of people who are not their parents and are too young to have control over their lives. David wishes to escape the neglect at the hands of the Murdstone’s by returning to school. Instead, at the tender age of ten,  he is sent to work in a finery plant. Jane,   who is also ten years old, seemingly has choices after the incident of being locked in the red-room for hitting her cousin John. She can either go to live with her vaguely referred to poor relations or she can go to school. Jane, who does not wish to “go a beggin,” chooses instead to go to school even though she has little idea of what school is (Bronte 20). Jane’s refusal to go live with her relatives brings up the issue of class. She does not know this relative of her’s, who turns out to have had some wealth (he is a wine merchant), and the only impression she has of them is given to her by her aunt. Despite hating living at Gateshead she will not take the option to leave if she has to be poor. Of the two options that she is presented with the options she chooses is to not be poor.

David, on the other hand, is not given a choice. He wants to go to school but is put to work, as Murdstone puts it, to both begin his “fight” with the world and to also to begin his life on his “own account” (Dickens 134, 135). David and Jane find themselves in similar circumstances yet Jane’s wishes are granted and David’s are not. Not only is Jane given options but she is allowed the freedom of making her own choice and then is given that choice. David is not even asked what he would like to do, though he tells Miss Murdstone on his own, but instead is told what he will do. David as a man is expected to make his own way through life whereas Jane, a girl, is only given the choice to be a burden on one (her relatives) or a burden on another (Lowood). The option to work and make it on “her own account” is not there. Are David and Jane being groomed for adulthood when David, the man, will be expected to work, and Jane, the woman, will be expected to be a wife and mother? Of course, any job available to either of them would be no more than hard labor at with little pay. Should ten-year old children even be allowed to work is not at issue. The issue is what work they should be doing and how it will prepare them. The choices they are given will get them started on a particular path that they follow throughout their lives. David is being taught that men should work and Jane is being taught that women should be either care takers or be taken care off.

Lucy is in a different situation than both David and Jane. The narrative of Villette skips eight years of Lucy’s life. A brief mention of her “kinsmen” is mentioned but otherwise at the age of twenty-two she is “alone” (Bronte 40). Like David and Jane, Lucy finds herself in a life altering position only she does not have other people to make decisions for her. She also finds herself, at an age that could not be considered young, with no real talents or developed skills to market herself with. She speaks French fluently so it can be assumed that she is educated but still she finds herself in a position being able to do nothing but act as a “sitter-upper” for a bed-ridden woman (Bronte 48). Because she hasn’t been taught any real work skills, her only option is to be a baby sitter. When David is that age he is already working. His lack of a choice seems to have benefitted him– he is taught self reliance at an early age.

After the death of Miss Marchmont Lucy is again faced with being alone and being unable to support herself. At this point her only option seems to be to find another person to be a companion for. Lucy is again saddled by the Victorian more that says women are fit to not be more than governesses or companions. Her tuition guides her to London where she learns that English women are valued on the European continent as governesses. This presents Lucy with the option of going to Europe and getting out of England with its “desolate existence” (Bronte 55). This does not seem to be much of an option for Lucy. When she gets to Europe she will know no one and be able to do little more than what she did for Miss Marchmont.

Jane, eighteen, finds herself in the position that Lucy does at twenty-two. After Miss Temple leaves Lowood, Jane finds she is unable comfort herself in Miss Temple’s absence and she wishes to leave Lowood. As she thinks about her dilemma Jane remembers how she would look out at the horizon and wonder what type of world was out there and how she would like to see it–“…now that I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” Jane’s thoughts of leaving and seeing the world mirror Lucy’s desire to leave the place that no longer was a home to her. But unlike Lucy, Jane had an infrastructure in place that would help to guide her in her decisions. The Lowood school provided both an opportunity for employment for Jane, it could provide a referral for Jane if she were to seek new employment and it also had already provided Jane with the training to work as a teacher. Jane could wonder what she would find should she decide to discover it for herself but if she did do that she would not be doing it all alone. The referral from her superiors at Lowood would go with her as would her credential as a teacher.

With these two things to aid her Jane would appear to have an advantage over Lucy. More possibilities would be open to her than to Lucy who had no recommendations or credentials. Is it true that Jane had more options available to her than Lucy? Only by looking at Jane’s referrals and credentials more closely does it become apparent that she does not. Jane is able only to work as a governess to small children, under fourteen by her own admission, which, along with teaching, is one of the two positions available to women in Victorian England. Jane has been a part of the system that has subjected women and that system is so ingrained in her that she thinks that leaving one teaching position for another is a big change. Lucy has not been a part of that system or structure that prepares women for their role in society and therefore has more freedom and more options. She will be moving more than the seventy miles distance that Jane will travel from Lowood to get to Thornfield.

As it turns out, David is the luckier than both Lucy and Jane and winds up having more options available than either of them. David’s luck comes in the form of Aunt Betsey. Having a relative who will be able to care for him, make decisions for him and guide him properly puts David on a life journey that will have many paths open to him. The law, journalism, judges clerkship are three of the things that are available to David before he settles on becoming a writer. Of course these things are open to him because Aunt Betsey has the money to pay his dues into a lawyering apprenticeship. Money is always a great equalizer, but if it were Jane or Lucy would they also be able to clerk for judges? It is doubtful that money would have allowed Jane and Lucy an entry into the business world. Their options as girls and then later as young women were too limited to allow for such an extreme deviation from the norm. Instead, being from a wealthy family would have served to make them more attractive marrying prospects. In Villette, Polly and Minerva both come from wealthy families both spend more time looking for a husband than they do in trying to formulate a career for themselves. Even with the independent woman Lucy as a role model to use no interest of working ever develops in either of them.

Unlike Jane, Lucy did not have a job waiting for her when she left London for France. Her hopes were merely to find work in a family as governess. This does not seem like much of an option for the person who wanted to take in the world and see how she fared. And only a the good fortune of meeting Ginerva and hearing of the school in Villette prevented her from landing in France with nowhere to go and no job. Taking a job as English teacher at a private school may have been more exclusive than working as a governess for one family. Except for being a proprietress at a school of her own, being a governess, a nurse or a teacher were the only options available to her. Other than the actress Vashti, all the women in Lucy’s life were wives, widows or worked at one of those three jobs. Mrs. Bretton first lived on the money willed to her by her late husband, then she was supported by her son. Her students wish only to get married, her fellow teacher Miss St. Pierre schemes to win M. Paul’s affections away from Lucy. Even the paintings in the museum try to keep the independent minded Lucy believing that she was put on earth to serve as wife, mother and widow.

Lucy was not without professional ambition, a fact that was recognized by M. Paul. She repeatedly talked about opening her own school and she used Madame Beck as a guide. Beck started, according to Lucy, from a position no different than Lucy’s, a poor teacher. But through  hard work and frugality she was able to save enough money to open her own school, as well as raise her children without the help of their father. Lucy knows that if she emulates Beck by practicing “self-denial and economy” she will also be able to open her own school (Bronte 400). Lucy wants to do more with her life than work and she denies the selfishness of the act of doing something for herself by planning to use her work to earn the “right to look higher” then “labour and live for others” (Bronte 401). She realizes that the option of doing both is not quite attainable and sees that the option has been limited for others, seeing a “huge mass of her fellow creatures (men and women) in no better circumstances” (Bronte 401).

In matter of love more choices and options appear to be available to David than to either Lucy or Jane. David falls in love several times in his young life. Emily, Dora, Agnes, Rosa Dartle, Miss Larkins are all girls and women that David loves for some period of time. Interestingly, with the exception of Miss Larkins all the women that David loves are essentially women who do not get to go out and meet people and have a wide selection of men to choose for as husbands. They are as without options as David is with them. Emily rarely leaves the boat and falls in love with her cousin, who she lives with. Dora meets David only because she is the daughter of David’s boss. Agnes, the woman who David regards highly enough to call her his hero, does nothing more than care for her father. Rosa is caretaker to Mrs. Steerforth. Only Miss Larkins has many suitors, and those are a product more of her being a wealthy man’s daughter than her own accomplishments.

As a man who is free to move around, to live on his own, to meet new people outside of his circle, David is exposed to more and new people than did Jane or Lucy. Although he seems to fall in love with every women that he meets, he does get to meet several women before realizing that Agnes is the one whom he truly loves. He can compare his feelings and emotions for all the different women, which is something only a person who options cans do. Of course, he does not date them or even know them all at the same time, so he is not able to do a pro/con comparison of all the women he loves then make a decision as to which one would be the best for him. But, by having had relationships with each women he is able to tell that his love of and for Agnes is stronger and deeper than what he had for the others.

Lucy and Jane, on the other hand, were settled, confined may be a better word, in their tight little worlds and had only the options of choosing husbands from the very limited number of men they had come in contact with. Now, I say choosing like there is a husband store where Lucy and Jane can go shopping and pick out the best one. But, unlike with David, Jane had only one possible suitor, Rochester, and Lucy had only two, Graham and M. Paul. It could be true that true love is true love and that Jane truly does Rochester because she loved him and Lucy did really love Graham and M. Paul because she did. And that they did I won’t dispute. The point is is that how can Jane know that there isn’t another man out there whom she may love better?

The question of options for potential husbands relates to the overall question of options that Lucy and Jane have. Their professional prospects are severely limited, as women they will be taking care of kids or a man in some capacity. Either as governess, like Jane, or as teacher, like Lucy, as a wife and mother and even as a widow, like Miss Bretton, who still cares for the adult Graham like he is still a child. If not one of those then they will probably be spinsters with no options for either a career or a husband. Jane and Lucy will therefore be in the position of marrying the man nearest in proximity to them, Rochester and M. Paul, or not marrying at all.

Jane’s near decision to marry St. John reflected that lack of options in romance for women. She did not love him and did not want to marry him yet she still offered to “accompany him as his sister” on his mission to India (Bronte 354). Jane did not want to leave England nor did she want to marry St. John, but she would have sacrificed herself for his cause because if she stayed in England it would have been to do nothing but live off of her inheritance with her cousins.

Victorian times for tough for both men and women and provided little opportunity for achievement or advancement save for a fortunate occurrance. David depended on the generosity of Aunt Betsey to get his start in the businees world and it took the death of his first wife Dora to finally push him into the arms of the woman he truly loved. Jane worked very hard at Lowood and at Thornfield but was in no better position than she started. And if it were not for her hearing  the voice of Rochester cry “‘Jane! Jane! Jane’” on the wind she would have given in and married St. John simply because, for all her idolization of him and is work, she had nothing better to do (Bronte 357).  Lucy had the ambition and the lofty goals necessary to provide herself with options but without M. Paul’s help she could not have opened a school.

All three of them had options to a certain degree. David, by being born a man, had more than Jane and Lucy. He could have and did have a wife and a career. Jane became a wife and a mother with no thoughts of working and Lucy had a career, her school, and not a husband (assuming that one’s take on the end has M. Paul dying in a shipwreck). All three received financial help from relatives, but only David, the man, was able to take the options available to him and achieve all of the things he wanted in his life.

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