The Image Of Unaccepted Women In Victorian Novels

In the Victorian novels, such as in the Victorian society, the norms based on the differentiation between sexes promoted a type of behaviour that had to be followed by women. The negative behaviour of women was judged by the law, based on the idealized concept of the perfect woman. The society's culture dictated the way in which a woman should behave and this is why a woman who did not belong to the ideal construction was stigmatized and considered an outcast. The lost woman was seen as a moral threat, a contagious disease. The types of decayed women were presented in novels in the shape of characters written by authors such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or Ellen Wood.

The undutiful women

The term of undutiful women in the Victorian society was attributed to prostitutes, unmarried women who had sexual relations, adulterers and to victims of seduction. In 1858, a remarkable artist of the Victorian period presented through paintings the trilogy of decayed women: Misfortune, Prayer and Despair.
The first painting illustrated a wife who was cheating on her husband, the second represented the children of a fallen woman who were praying for their mother's redemption and the third painting showed an undutiful woman who was staring with empty eyes at a river.
The Victorian culture presented this type of woman as a being who lacked in modesty and honour. Even though society considered these women lost, they were in fact victims of masculine dominance.
Even though they were stigmatized and considered a contamination of morality, the image of the decayed women appeared in different novels as characters such as Nancy in 'Oliver Twist' or Lady Isabel in 'East Lynne'. Even though these characters brought together the qualities of ideal women, their weaknesses exiled them from the British society through their deaths.
Each character reminded previously comes from different social classes but all three of them are exiled because of their sexual weakness. It is worth mentioning that authors such as Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy have been in a way or another more compassionate with their characters than Ellen Wood who was a tough critic of her character.
Charles Dickens empathized with his character Nancy from the novel Oliver Twist and although she is a prostitute, the author tries to motivate the character's weakness reminding of the abusive life she have had. Nancy is a woman who comes from an inferior social class and she is portrayed as an ingrate woman, a thief who decided to live among thieves. In Oliver Twist the author describes the scene of the Victorian society without using romantic elements. Dickens wants to offer to his readers a clear and unstained image of the sordid life of each criminal element in London. Even if Dickens admitted that his novel presents characters that can shock the audience, thorough creating an ingrate feminine character that derived from an inferior class completed a safe strategy. This strategy did not offend anybody from an upper class because the universal opinion was that a woman raised in a tainted environment was different from a woman raised in a healthy environment which promoted the idea of morality through austerity.
Nancy's placement in an inferior world had as a goal the description of an ignored and forgotten world and the highlight of gender stereotypes. Nancy was describes as a cute human being but in no way angelic. The unanimous thinking promoted the idea of stigmatization of women who fell in the sexual sin. For Victorians, there was no difference between mistake and selling your body. The essence of Dickens` criticism towards the Victorian society relied on the fact that the feminine character was not guilty of this decay. She was only a 5 years old orphan when she arrived in the thieves nest. Moreover, we can say that Nancy had no opportunity to develop as a moral person because she was damaged before she could understand the essence of this word.
She fell in the sin of prostitution and theft not because she was an immoral person but because she did not know other alternatives. Nancy represents the profile of 19th century prostitute in London. Her biggest fear was not to be abandoned, this inner feeling being better depicted in the following quotation: 'When such as me, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that parents, home, and friends filled once, or that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us'? (Oliver Twist p. 338)
For this character, Fagin and Sikes replace the idea of parents, siblings and husband. Even though they abused her and took advantage of her, Nancy preferred this life over the loneliness from the streets in London. Even though Charles Dickens empathizes with the feminine character, he does not stop from portraying her as an ingenious thief with a disgraceful lifestyle. Nancy's portrayal as a woman who enjoys drinking represents another mark of immorality. Victorians sustained that women who like alcohol were the less desired and they inspired repulsion. Nancy's qualities have been highlighted with the arrival of Oliver in the nest. Nancy was seen as a protective person because she did not want that little child to be part of that degenerate life. Furthermore, Nancy is considered a complex character unlike other characters such as Fagin or Sikes who are presented as draconic and dangerous characters, or characters as Oliver or Rose Maylie who are seen as pure beings with clean thoughts. Through these portrayals, Dickens wants to highlight the fact that a woman cannot exist on an extreme or another.
Even though she was a prostitute and a thief Nancy absorbed the capacity of self sacrifice which represented surely a feminine virtue accepted by the Victorian society. Dickens does not assign to his character a passionate sexuality but powerful emotions. We can say that Dickens assigns her feelings of passion when she is trying to protect Oliver Twist from Fagin's anger and control.
Even though the character was presented in an immoral light at the beginning of the novel, to the end of it Nancy is associated with notions of domesticity and evolves from the stigma of the women who sells her body to the woman who redeems her sins 'Falling upon his knees, [Oliver] prayed Heaven to spare him [...] if any aid were to be raised up for a poor outcast boy, who had never known the love of friends or kindred, it might come to him now, when desolate and deserted, he stood alone in the midst of wickedness and guilt. He had concluded his prayer, but still remained with his head buried in his hands, when a rustling noise aroused him [...] Oliver raised the candle above his head, and looked towards the door. It was Nancy. (Oliver Twist p.164-165)

Nancy does not appear in the novel in a weakened physical form until the moment she saves Oliver Twist. Through her sacrifice, she manages to wash away her sins and this redemption comes with a weakness of her body: "[Nancy was] so pale and reduced with watching and privation that there would have been considerable difficulty in recognizing her as the same Nancy who has already figured in this tale [...]" (Oliver Twist p. 318).
Even though Nancy had the chance to get away from this hard life when Mr. Brownlow offered her asylum, she could not be convinced to accept the proposal because she considered that she will be forever trapped in her old life. As far as the Christian ideology is concerned, we can say that Nancy's sacrifice brings her sanctity. Moreover, Dickens agrees with the fact that a lost woman should die. Although she is stigmatized, Nancy reflects the noblest virtues from all the characters in the novel: Nancy refuses Rose Maylie's money in exchange of a piece of information about Oliver and in spite of all threats she wants to help him. Unfortunately, the purity of the soul does not represent a clearance of the body so it is mandatory to suffer the conventional end of the ingrate woman. Through her death, the body contaminated by the sexual sin is purified.

Unlike Nancy, who was part of an inferior social class, Lady Isabel, Ellen's Wood character from East Lynne came from an aristocratic environment. Her upbringing in a superior class made her weaknesses seem more interesting.
Taking into consideration that a woman from the inferior world was submitted to a collective thinking that sustained her liability to a criminal and immoral life, a woman born and raised in an upper class should never expose herself to acts of defamation. People blamed the environment in which criminal activity was born and also poverty, that was why there were no excuses that could absolve the women from high classed who became the victim of sexual debility. Lady Isabel does not portray the image of a criminal but her crime even though is not blamed by the law is blamed by people. Lady Isabel is isolated and cast away by the British society through her death.
Her sexual weakness has in fact a starting point: daughter of Lord Mount Severn she remains without mother at the age of 12 and she is struck by the quick death of her father. After her parents` death, Archibald Carlyle, a successful lawyer desires to marry her but Lady Isabel is in love with her cousin Francis Levison. Finally, she decides to marry Archibald because she is aware that her distant cousin is false and lacking in kindness.
Nancy, the character of Charles Dickens` character evolves from the image of a prostitute to the image of an angel but Lady Isabel who was initially portrayed as an ideal angel falls into the dangers of sins from which she cannot escape and redeem herself.
Her beauty is presented as dreamlike and she is not seen as a human being. Lady Isabel assemblies all the qualities of an ideal women but she has no role in the society, being a creature without power and right to decide for herself. Her frustrations grow throughout the novel and turn her into the image of a lost woman who leaves her husband as well as her children. If she managed to overpass her frustrations and to produce a change in her life, she would not arrive in the situation in which she had to separate from her family and home.
Because of her acts the feminine character is perceived by society as a irrational, immature and unstable woman. In fact, Lady Isabel is just a victim of her father's tyranny as well as her husband's and Miss Carlyle's. Her father's biggest mistake, Lord Mount Severn was that he did not offer her daughter a financial safety, leaving her without inheritance in the moment he died. Lady Isabel's total dependence of Mr. Carlyle is due to her father's negligence, this being the factor which suppressed her emotional independence.
The reason that constitutes her departure is due to her jealousy, this situation becoming an opportunity for Levison to convince her to leave with him. Even though Carlyle is considered a symbol of the good and faithful man, he is responsible for the irrational deeds conducted by her wife. Because Mr. Carlyle considered that Lady Isabel was just an innocent creature, an angel of the house, he stopped subconsciously any conversation with her wife, leaving her to believe in a possible infidelity.
By placing Lady Isabel in France, the British society shoes that misbehaviour is not tolerated. Lady Isabel is treated as an ingrate woman, the moral sin of the Victorian woman who loses herself in the sexual weakness being inexcusable. Before feeling on her own skin the punishment attributed to the lost woman, the feminine character regrets her mistakes: "Never had she experienced a moment's calm, or peace, or happiness, since that fatal night of quitting her home [...] The very hour of her departure she awoke to what she had done: the guilt [...] a never-dying anguish, took possession of her soul forever" (East Lynne p.334).
In the Victorian epoch, matrimony represented an economical necessity and because of that it became a prison for women. Furthermore, it was considered that a woman would be better off dead than to breach her marital vows.
The punishment that the author gave to his character reflects her moral deformity. The madness and frustration push Lady Isabel to leave her home but in the end the guilt is the one who kills her: '"My own sin I have surely expiated: I cannot expiate the shame I entailed upon you and upon our children.'" (East Lynne, p.682) .
Even though she wants to be forgiven by God, she does not expect to be forgiven by society. The rules of society condemns her for the immoral deeds, furthermore Lady Isabel wants God to forgive the deeds that men do not.

The image of mad women

Not only undutiful women were repudiated from the British society, even mad women were considered a threat to the well being of the country. In certain cases, a woman who had a mental disease received more compassion than a fallen one.
In the moment when Victorians understood the science of psychology, the diagnosis for madness evolved from admitting the odd behaviour to a sustained explanation of criminal deportments. O woman who breached the laws of society and took part in criminal acts could have been trialed as insane.
In the first part of the century, doctors believed that insanity can be treated solely through the use of will. The strong character of a person was seen as an assurance in front of mental diseases. The society no longer split women in good women and evil ones because their crimes could have been associated with diseases of the mind which were attached to their spirit or heredity.
The idea of craziness appeared in the Victorian epoch because of the notion which sustained that women were inferior to men regarding strength, so they became a model of mental instability.
A woman's behavioral changes were associated to madness, this illness becoming an explanation accepted in unanimity. If a woman was caught stealing, she was considered a kleptomaniac, not just a simple thief. If a woman was guilty of killing another person, the one that could be found guilty for her actions was her emotional instability, being easier to admit a woman is weak rather than evil. Because of these decisions taken to a social level, the woman became a victim of her own biology.
In 1832-1901 many women were found not guilty by law because of insanity. Unlike men, 87% from the women who pleaded as mad have been exonerated. This fact has as purpose the prominence of the differentiation of responsibility standards which differ based on gender.
Mad women are central characters in novels such as 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte, 'Lady Audley's secret', written by Mary Elisabeth Braddon or 'Man and Wife' by Wilke Collins.
Unlike the criminal behaviour which was accentuated in the inferior classes, the behaviour of a mad woman could have been present in the middle or high classes without offending anybody. Naming a deranged behaviour a mental illness represents the Victorians' wish to believe that a woman is good in her essence but psychologically speaking, she could be weak.
The best known representation of madness in the Victorian novels is through Charlotte Bronte's Bertha Mason. Bertha is known as mad before she became an arsonist in order to offer her an excuse for the damage she had done.
In 'Lady Audley's secret', as well as in 'Man and Wife', the central characters- Aufley and Hester Dethridge are diagnosed with mental illnesses, their undoing not being a result of biologic factors. Both characters were aware of their evil acts. Even though we can say that both characters are just victims of society, they are not victims of their personal heredity.
Bertha Mason, the feminine character from the novel 'Jane Eyre', is a precise representation of the mad woman who is a danger to the people who surrounds her and to herself. Her crime- arson is in fact a symbol of passion, of the fire that burnt inside her. Bertha is portrayed as a dangerous being, not because she is a criminal, but because she suffered from a mental disease.
Bertha is describes throughout the novel as an exotic human being who emanated passion and lack of civilization- in a way or another she portrays the image of the woman who is not accepted in a moral society, being a possible danger for the maintenance of Victorian society's respectability.
The passionate personality of the feminine character frightens Rochester. The mad woman is in fact a symbol of the lack of civilization and barbarism. It is not too hard to imagine that her first crime was to burn Rochester's bed. It is fair to believe that this insanity is a factor of heredity or is it a consequence of the barbarism present in her soul? Furthermore, can we say that madness pushed her to commit criminal acted or the awareness of the fact she is imprisoned as a savage animal?
It is impossible to find an answer to these questions because Bertha's past is unknown. By trying to incarcerate his wife, Rochester denies her human rights. This confinement makes Bertha lose her humanity, ceasing to exist as a human being. Probably, that is why Bertha is not portrayed as a woman; she is presented in the shape of a beast who does not talk a demon who expects her pray. Throughout the author creates an image of vampirism- the life conditions of this character causing a transformation, a metamorphosis from the human state to the animal state. The moment when Bertha burns Rochester's bed is a nocturnal moment and at night, she dies in the flames provoked by her. Bertha's crimes are associated with fire and darkness and represent a difference between Bertha and Jane. The tension between Jane (a rational woman) and Bertha (the symbol of passion), relights the continuous discussion over the feminine and isolated ideal. Furthermore, we can say that Jane's liberty to marry Rochester is offered by Bertha's death. It is also ironic the fact that Jane's quest to become independent might end once she gets married. It is worth mentioning that in the moment Jane accepted to wed Rochester, she had the chance to be a independent and powerful women. The fire incited by Bertha leaves Rochester blind and disable and in this ways the places of spouses in a marriages change. Their freedom to marry comes with the perishing of Bertha from this world, the lightened fire having a redeeming purpose, being an opportunity to cleanse the place of her madness.

'Lady Audley`s secret', the novel written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon has as main team the obsession for dangerous passion and sexual craziness. The title of the novel makes us think of Lady Audley's hidden secret. Contrary to the first assumptions, the well guarded secret of the feminine character is not her hidden identity, bigamy or her attempts to kill her ex husband; Lady Audley's secret is her mother's mental illness and the constant fear she will develop in time this horrible disease.
In reality, madness is just an excuse for the deliberate murder and a way through which the feminine character can erase the stain she put on her family's name.
Lady Audley does not represent the typology of the mad woman; in fact she is constrained by the unwritten laws which dictate the way a traditional woman should behave. Unlike Bertha, she doesn't have the attributes of an uncivilized woman and in fact she is an image of the feminine ideal: "The innocence and candour of an infant beamed in Lady Audley's fair face, and shone out of her large and liquid blue eyes. The rosy lips, the delicate nose, the profusion of fair ringlets, all contributed to preserve to her beauty the character of extreme youth and freshness" (Lady Audley's Secret p.52).
The irony of this presentation is the fact that Lady Audley is the personification of a demon. Her actions highlights show that malice can exist and grow under the shadows of beauty. Her double personality is well rendered in the portrayal of her beauty which relies on the contradiction of self: 'No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait [...] for my lady, in [the] portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of colour, as if out of a raging furnace.' (LAS 70-1)
Unlike the character of Tess D'Uberville, who is a victim of circumstances, Lady Audley knows how to use circumstances in her favour. On the path to her personal success, she manages to guarantee for herself a well defined social position and a financial comfort, by using any means necessary: "T knew how far poverty can affect a life, and I looked forward with a sick terror to a life so affected. At last the rich suitor [George Talboys...] came'" (LAS 351).
Before discerning her dualist character, the feminine character is portrayed as a lost woman. Even though she doesn't suffer from a mental disease, her actions denote an emotional instability which in the end guides her to a path of self-destruction. The reason for which she is left in a mental diseases clinic is that of cleansing the society of the perverseness spread by her: '"The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood [...] I will tell you what she is, Mr. Audley. She is dangerous!'" (LAS 379).
The reason for which the mad woman's crimes are put under the stigma of a mental handicap shows the weakness of the aristocratic society; society doesn't want to accept the same of the woman's evil acts and prefers to consider her a victim of her own mind. Her actions- leaving her child in order to commit a bigamous matrimony, trying to kill George Tallboys in order to keep her past a secret and trying to kill Robert Audley so that he wouldn't be a threat for her well being, show that her decisions were rational and followed a logic line in her attempt to keep her position in society.

Unlike Lady Audley, Hester Dethdridge, the feminine character of the novel 'Man and Wife' is a symbol of the traditional wife who cannot escape from an abusive marriage. Hester is thrown in a madhouse as a punishment for her sins even though she is not insane. The only way she could escape a unhappy marriage was by killing her husband Joel Dethdridge.
Contrary to the collective opinion, insanity is not the reason for which Hester chooses to become a murderer. The unwritten laws of the Victorian society place women in matrimonies which do not allow them to have a personal life. The murder of his husband represents in fact the only she could regain control over her life.
Through marriage, Hester loses her family and friends' support, even the support of the state that had the duty to protect her: "My relations all turned their backs on me. Not one of them was present at my marriage; [...] saying that they had done with me from that time forth" (MW 583).
The rationality and calm that surrounds her in the moment she plans her husband's death denotes the lack of madness. Hester uses her only weapon she has, even though she is aware that this escape is in fact a livelong prison.
Even though she doesn't care about society's reply to her deed, she wants to be forgiven by God because she realizes that her criminal acts deserve to be punished.
The author uses in the novel the symbol of fire which is used as well in 'Jane Eyre'. This resemblance has as purpose the vivid description of Hester as a mad woman who cannot assume her actions. Although Hester is not sent to a physical death as Lady Audley, she is isolated by society and locked for forever in a madhouse. By locking her in a severe environment, the author eliminates the contamination of a respectable society by a mad woman.

Source: Essay UK -

Not what you're looking for?


About this resource

This English Language essay was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.


No ratings yet!

  • Order a custom essay
  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

Word count:

This page has approximately words.



If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

Essay UK, The Image Of Unaccepted Women In Victorian Novels. Available from: <> [24-03-18].

More information:

If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal:

Essay and dissertation help