Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Gender and Sexuality in the Victorian era

When one thinks of women living in the Victorian Era, they may cast a sympathetic view believing that women were entirely oppressed and would not dare step outside these socially constructed boundaries of how a woman ought to behave or act. The traditionally held belief of Victorian women is that they were were solely used as an instrument to raise children with a strict notion of morality and to do menial house chores while their husbands were hard at work providing for their family as the stereotypical breadwinner.  However, this notion of fixed gender stereotypes was not always true as exhibited by the V & A article on ‘Gender and sexuality in Victorian England’.
The Victorian period saw the beginnings of a shift in social philosophy regarding legal and customary gender relations. This shift was marked by a move away from the patriarchal pattern of male supremacy/female dependency”

One way in which women defied the socially constructed norms for women was through prostitution. Although any attempt to defy these norms would lead to harsh criticism by society with women who do so being labelled ‘fallen women’. Henry Mayhew interviewed prostitutes and uncovered the notion of the 'happy prostitute whom he described as
"[...]the thoroughly hardened, clever infidel, who knows how to command men and use them for her own purposes; who is in the best set both of men and women."
The 'happy prostitute' encapsulates this "move away from the patriarchal pattern of male supremacy/ female dependency". The man becomes dependent on the prostitute to fulfil his desires and therefore this leads to female supremacy in relation to the happy prostitute. However this concept of female sexual prowess would have been highly frowned upon during the Victorian era, mainly due to the fact these women would have been defiant of the widely held belief at the time that you must only sexually please your husband. Prostitutes were often referred to as 'fallen women', a woman has her lost her innocence. Artists such as Redgrave captured these images of 'the Fallen Woman'. Redgrave's 'The Outcast' portrays the traditional victorian family setting- however shows a mother, on her knees outstretching her arms in a plea of desperation for her illegitimate child to not be killed.
The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, RA, 1851. Oil on canvas
  (Here a stern patriarch evicts his daughter and her illegitimate baby into a literal cold, for snow falls    beyond the threshold)
   Dante Gabriel Rosetti- 'Found' 1865-1869
    (dealing with the issue of urban prostitution)
In feminism being pushed for so heavily today, it is clear that women are being treated unfairly at the hands of social injustice. However, we live in a society where women are boldly making progressive steps to ensure equality between men and women to root out these social injustices.
These progressive steps may be seen in light of just how far women have come since the Victorian era in regards to the changing of law and legislature. Whilst some of the legislature passed marked pivotal moments in the shaping of female empowerment, it also displayed the social injustices women faced in the early Victorian era up to that point. For example, it was only in 1857 that women were permitted to divorce husbands who were cruel to them and only in 1870 that women were allowed to keep money that they had earned

Malheiro supports this stereotypical notion of women in the Victorian era claiming,
“The image most of us have of the Victorian woman is home loving and devoted to family […] she is sympathetic, unselfish and sacrifices herself daily[…] It is her job to take care of the children and run the household maintaining it as a tranquil refuge for when her husband comes home from work. Her innocence and purity are her virtues.”
 Surprisingly, in 1870, Queen Victoria herself stated, “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations”. For a woman of such elevated power, these words presented a damning view for women who wished to fight back against social injustices.  However, Queen Victoria herself was creating socially constructed ideals for how women were to be during the Victorian era. 

However, women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula defy these traditional Victorian roles. Lucy Westrana explores female promiscuity whereas Mina Harker embodies the notion of the ‘new woman’.  Lucy increasingly challenges the gender idyll of the the stereotypical female becoming increasingly sexualized and ‘voluptuous’.

Craft comments,
“Dracula presents a […] hyperbolic, instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender-roles” 
Modern-day adaptation of Mina Harker-Dracula 3D 2012
Stoker uses the character of Mina to compare and contrast her with Lucy in order to show the dramatic difference between the two. Throughout the text, Mina remains an idyllic depiction of the traditional Victorian female, however, she at times defies these Victorian idylls Van Helsing describes her as “One of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and women that there is a heaven we can enter”. Van Helsing's depicts Mina as both pure and angelic. Stoker constructed the character of Mina Harker around his own mother, Charlotte a feminist who Stoker incorporated to represent steps being taken towards the ‘New Woman’ in the fin di siècle. Mina explores this notion of the 'new woman' stating the 'new woman' will introduce the "idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But [...] the New woman won't condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself". Here, as the V&A article states, the Victorian era marked a transition from traditional societal norms and there was a shift in social philosophy. Through Mina providing an insightful glimpse into the progression of woman as independent beings, she paints a picture of the new woman doing her utmost to undermine the traditional gender relations prevalent in victorian society of male supremacy/female dependancy. Whilst Mina may look like a dutiful, doting wife on the surface... the perfect example of traditional victorian values, her progressive stance on gender equality goes against all these traditional victorian values.

Lucy however explores the notion of female promiscuity, defying the traditional belief that women ought to get married and boasts, “Just fancy. THREE proposals in one day!”. Furthermore, Dracula heightens Lucy’s voluptuous nature after her contamination. Davidson suggests that Dracula,
 “links the validation of vampirism to a repudiation of Victorian gender norms”.
This rejecting of Victorian values is identifiable through Lucys increased sexual nature after she is contaminated. Through Dracula puncturing Lucy’s neck, he has performed the sexual act of penetration and arguably, this act take’s Lucy’s virginity. In regards to the social conventions at the time, this would deem Lucy a ‘fallen woman’.This vampiric Lucy in particular threatens the traditional Victorian female. A strict social convention for victorian women would have been to marry, have children and raise the children up with the highest moral standards. . However Lucy’s vampyrism leads her to murdering and victimising these children, ‘the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast... gave a sharp cry and lay there moaning’. Such imagery depicts Lucy in a negative light removing all maternal nature from her and deeming her as acting totally against how Victorian women were to be. In the child giving a ‘sharp cry’ and Lucy ‘growling over it as a dog growls over a bone’ we begin to view Lucy as something animalistic incapable of repressing carnal desires. Through these actions, Lucy greatly undermines and challenges the gender idyll of Victorian women at the time.
Joanna Hickman playing Lucy Westrana
In modern day adaptation of 'Dracula

Both Mina and Lucy are incredibly symbolic figures in conveying that it wasn't as black and white as all women being dutiful and doting wives to their husband during the Victorian era. Whilst only being a fictional character, Mina symbolised the new woman pushing the boundaries placed by the male dominated society of the Victorian era. The notion of the 'new-woman' assisted in paving the way for the late nineteenth century feminist ideal that inspired women of later generations to break the boundaries between male and female gender relations. Lucy defied the norms of the socially constructed female by exploring her own sexual identity (also evident in Henry Mayhew's notion of the 'happy prostitute') and enjoying the thrill of having three men want her. Her sexual encounter with Dracula strays far from what would have been expected of Victorian women at time. Whilst many believe that the boundaries between men and women were rigid to the degree that women were constantly oppressed in Victorian society, there were women who attempted to defy these boundaries.

Works cited

Bram Stoker, Dracula, New York Grossset & Dunlap publishers, 1897

V&A article on Gender and Sexuality in Victorian England-http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/gender-health-medicine-and-sexuality-in-victorian-england/

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor. London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, Stationer's Hall Court. 1862

B.Malheri http://logicmgmt.com/1876/overview/victorian_woman/victorian_woman.htm

Fred Botting, Dale Townshend, Gothic: Nineteenth-century Gothic: at home with the vampire, Taylor and Francis, 1 January 2004, 264

Bram Stoker's Dracula: Sucking Through the Century, 1897-1997, Carol Margaret Davison, Paul Simpson- Housley, 136

Images used

The Outcast, Richard Redgrave, 1851- http://www.racollection.org.uk/ixbin/indexplus?record=ART72

Dante Gabriel Rosetti 'Found' 1865-1869-  http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/

Mina Harker- http://galleryhip.com/argentos-dracula.html

Lucy Westrana- http://joannahickman.com/page3.htm

1 comment:

  1. That quote of Henry Mayhew's interview is a bit disturbing... the idea of female supremacy in prostitution is really interesting, especially emerging in Victorian England, not exactly the best place to be proud as a prostitute.