Accidental Victorian, Unexpected Feminist.

When considering postgraduate study I looked at the Victorian Studies MA offered by my University, but felt that the Literature and Spirituality course would be broader and more interesting. Then for my first module I wrote essays on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and resurrection in Victorian poetry.

If I’d taken the time to think back to my degree, I would have remembered that I have a tendency to drift toward the Victorians, whether focussing on the Brontës in “The Novel”, or actively choosing to study “Women Behaving Badly in 19th Century Fiction” (well, wouldn’t you?). There is something very attractive about the Victorians – the energy, the invention, the pace of change, the curious juxtaposition of moral certainty and religious doubt – that keeps me coming back to them.

If you believe F.R.Leavis, the 19th Century was the era of the greatest and best novels, but his list only includes one woman – George Eliot (perhaps Currer, Ellis or Acton Bell might have made it if they hadn’t come clean?). I choose to disagree with him. While Middlemarch is my favourite Victorian novel, my interest lies fairly firmly in what, and how, and why, Victorian women chose to write; from Gaskell with her social concerns, to Braddon’s financially dictated pot-boilers, to Eliot’s starchy moral projects, I’m hooked.

It’s not unsurprising that I would be interested in women writers (I’m a woman, I write), but what surprised me, as I began to explore the historical and cultural factors surrounding these women, is that I might actually be a feminist.

Like many who grew up in the 1990s, I find ‘feminist’ to be a troubling word, the picture it suggests is one of a man-hating woman, who disapproves of femininity, and wants to segregate the sexes (the escapees from the womans prison in Nights at the Circus come to mind). I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with the word – a range of articles dealing with this very topic in a recent issue of Elle UK were grouped together under ‘womanhood’. How much of this is a result of how the media portrayed prominent feminists of the 70s and 80s is hard for me to say because, as we’ve established, I’m quite firmly stuck in the 19th Century.

When I began to investigate the range of campaigns undertaken by Victorian feminists, not just for suffrage, but for equal rights to education, to employment (without all their earnings being claimed by their husband), to control over their own bodies, I realised that I take these things, rights I now have, for granted. But also, that I care very much about these issues.

I’ve mentioned before that I was once asked the point of studying literature; for me, it’s finding the historical and cultural threads that give context to my life, that challenge me to examine my thought-processes, and question my biasses. I’m still not comfortable with the word ‘feminist’, but I’m enjoying the challenge it poses.

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