Figure 1: "Debutants waiting to be presented"
How many times have you said “no” to something in the last day, couple of days or a week? How many of these were on trivial things, over things such as ‘have you started your coursework or blog? or ‘would you like some of these sweets?’ A fair few times I bet. How many of these choices have impacted your life to a greater extent?
Say, If you were to have someone propose to you who you’ve known a grand total of two meetings, would you accept? No judgements would come from many if you said no to that.
Put yourself in the shoes of your 14 year old self again, the days when you would say ‘no’ if your parents wanted you to come off the internet because of school early in the morning. Often with you saying why (or rather shouting ‘WHY’) and with a sharp reply of ‘BECAUSE I SAID SO’. Now think about going into secondary school and having a guy/girl you’re not even friends with, come up to you after being in your class for 2 weeks, asking to marry you. Not many would say yes. I know these are different times, and call for different expectations of marriage, but these were the conditions of some heroines in novels and indeed the reality for young children (in particular girls) of the Victorian Period (1837-1901). This was possibly due to low life expectancy and the need for security in later life. It certainly was not socially expectable for these women to refuse the marriages they were given. If so, they faced questions and were ostracised by people in society for thinking too much of themselves and their marriages. How would parents reason for their decision at your husband or wife? Because THEY said so.
The inequality in marriages are arguably still present in situations/cultures today. In the Victorian Period, however, a bride, had, for example, according to Helena Wojtczak, all her property owned absolutely by her husband, and he could dispose of this how he pleased. She did not even get it back when he died, another example is that married mothers had no rights and even the children belonged to the husband and father. Even in the event of the marriage breaking down she could not apply for a divorce, only he could based on adultery or ‘unreasonable behaviour’. Arguably, a young bride was open to more manipulation by her husband. This takes me on to the age of marriages during the period. I was shocked to discover that, according to Michelle Hoppe, until 1823, the legal age in England for marriage was 21 years for BOTH males and females. After 1823, a male could marry as young as 14 years without parental consent, and a girl at 12 years. Most girls, however, married between the ages of 18 and 23 years, especially in the upper classes.
Taking this idea of young people, in particular young women, gaining marriage proposals, Anna Jackson with Charles Ferrall, in their book and subsequent study, Juvenile Literature and British Society, 1850-1950: The Age of Adolescence, argue that ‘the Victorians could be credited with "inventing" adolescence.’ This adolescence, I would interpret as being a kind of time where morals would be instilled on their minds through lessons being learnt and experiences (this is similar to the nature of Bildungsroman novels). This ‘idealised adolescence the Victorians invented are so radically unlike our concept of adolescence as to be unrecognisable’ say Jackson and Ferrall.
They also suggest that in fiction of the period where there are female protagonists, ‘the marriage proposal is important in awakening the girl from a childhood innocence to an awareness of her adult sexuality, but, structurally, it has to be turned down in order for the novel to open up the space of adolescence as a space of self-determination, idealism and possibility.’ The heroines of the novels in question end up going on journeys, literal and figuratively as they grow up in the space between the two marriage proposals typically at the start and end of the books.
This idea of ‘awakening the girl from a childhood innocence to an awareness of her adult sexuality’ could thus be explored in many instances and eras, from the fairytale stories we are read when we are young girls, where the young girls go through hardships and culminate in gaining marriage to a Prince Charming for example, but also the novels of the Victorian Period where the girls gain independence and reflection on the love they want.
Figure 2: Farmer Oak clumsily proposing to Bathsheba
Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, has its heroine Bathsheba Everdeen as being fiercely independent in the novel, who then gains her Uncle’s farm and goes to run it alone (even this is described as ‘a novel one, and the novelty had not yet begun to wear off p352’). Before she goes to do this she is offered Farmer Oak’s hand in marriage. She declines his hand and states that she ‘shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if i could be one without having a husband. (p84)’ This is quite revolutionary for the period, and arguably foolish it appears to Oak and probably readers of the time, with half thinking her stupid, and half probably admiring her independence.
Oak, upon leaving Bathsheba at one point in the novel asks her if she respects him, realising that mentioning ‘love’ to a fiercely independent Bathsheba would not go well, has this coy reply from Bathsheba, with her stating that:
‘It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. (954)’.
This, in itself could be seen no doubt be seen as protofeminist, and Hardy is showing the discrepancy between an abstract idea of love being seen as more feminine, but with only the masculine words used to describe it, with women not being seen as able to do so. Would you be expected these days to only speak about love through what your father or brother’s expressions?
Figure 3: St.John proposing to Jane Eyre (1997)
Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre is similar in its use of protofeministic values concerning marriage and choice, to an extent. Ignoring for now her failed marriage to Rochester, Jane is found on the Moors by St.John and his sisters. Taken back to their cottage, she makes a new identity for herself, which SHE importantly chooses, but in the end, she is subjected to an unwanted marriage proposal. She turns down St.John’s proposal, because she believes him to be cold and she is obviously still in love with Edward. His proposal lacks any kind of passionate displays, instead, he calls upon the reason that:
’God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife… [With it being] not personal, but mental endowments they have given you… [and] not for love. A missionary’s wife you must—shall be. You shall be mine. I claim you— not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service. (917)’.
Would you accept a proposal lacking in passion and romance, and would you be willing to be ‘claimed’- or would this put you off like it did Jane?
Afterall, possibly because of this she states that… She will ‘give [her] heart to God… You [St.John] do not want it.’ (926).
In these novels, it becomes apparent that there is a trend with the young women being offered marriage for very little love, and this is enough to make them decline. Love, through these bildungsroman novels, and arguably novels more catered toward the female readership, during the Victorian Period for instance, stick a high regard to this notion of love being enough for women in marriage and the authors suggesting that they should settle for no less to become a grown up woman.
Is this the case today, does love conquer all as suggested? Whereas a novel ends in marriage, a relationship in reality does not. There is no ‘… I married him’ as in Jane Eyre and that is where concerns end. Is a woman, after a said ‘marriage of equals’ really equal?
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Public Domain, Jan 2011. Ibooks. Ebook.
Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd. Public Domain, Jan 1874. Ibooks. Ebook.
Ferrall, Charles. Jackson, Anna. Juvenile Literature and British Society, 1850-1950: The Age of Adolescence (Children's Literature and Culture) Routledge. 29 Oct 2009.
St. Andrew’s University. “Women and the Law in Victorian England”. Web. 18 March 2016
Wojtczac, Helena. “British Women's Emancipation since the Renaissance”. 2009. Web. 18 March 2016
Hoppe. J. Michelle. “Courting the Victorian Woman”. 1998. Web. 18 March 2016.
Images and Videos Cited:
Figure 1. Fleming, R.S. ”Debutants waiting to be presented”. Online Image. “Coming Out” During the Early Victorian Era; about debutants”. 9 May 2012. 18 March 2016. Web.
Figure 2. FoxSearchlight. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: “Lamb”. Youtube, 22 April 2015. Web. March 2016.
Figure 3. ITV Classics. St. John Asks Jane To Marry Him - Jane Eyre. Youtube, 12 July 2015. Web. 18 March 2016.