Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction

Date of publication
Hogarth Press
None. Author's foreword acknowledges Miss Helen Parry of the Hogarth Press
Published reviews
‘A Reading List’. The Listener, vol. 17, no. 439, 9 June 1937, p. 1162; ‘Looking Back On Manners A Century Ago’. Aberdeen Press and Journal, 3 June 1937, p. 3; Murray, D. L. ‘The Worst of Victorianism’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1844, 5 June 1937, p. 424; ‘Victorians In Fiction’. The Times, no. 47717, 22 June 1937, p. 11.
An overview of the representations of men and women in Victorian novels, compiling extensive quotations from nineteenth-century writers with a linking text by Delafield. In the Introduction, focusing on Charlotte Yonge, she suggests that these novels are valuable not for their moral assertions but for the record of daily life that they offer; in particular, she highlights the way they expose normalised patriarchal authority, the way in which seniority was valued, advice taken and decisions thought through - and made on behalf of, not by, any young people. Victorian attitudes seem old-fashioned to 1930s readers, Delafield argues, but so will 1930s family life seem dated and even ridiculous to future generations; she uses the radio (“wireless”) as a symbol of modern home life. Modern personal relations are less emotional and becoming more honest, although this is a painful development, particularly between parents and children. Parents (at least from Delafield’s own class) see a great deal more of their children than they used to as there are no longer nurseries and school-rooms for children to spend most of their time in. Delafield notes that psychologists are equally critical of Victorian parental infallibility and twentieth-century close contact between parents and children, but suggests that home might in fact be a more positive place for those who inhabit it - even wives and mothers, who are no longer trapped in it. Cinema is also noted as an influence on family life, allowing both necessary escape from the home and presenting an idealised vision of family life. Delafield welcomes the franker discussions about money and sex that now form part of family life and suggests that children understand their parents better through understanding their financial struggles. The introduction ends with an assertion that neither the positive nor the negative aspects of Victorian family life can come back: “what we may have lost in leisure and dignity, we may have gained in freedom and efficiency” (p19). The book is then divided into seven themed chapters. I. Papa and Mama: discusses parental authority and filial obedience - and occasional disobedience and its consequences, particularly in terms of child discipline. Authors quoted include Yonge, Hon. Mrs. Greene, Mrs. Sherwood, and M. B. (Lady Marcia Bamfylde). II. “Only the Governess”: suggests that not all governesses were as unhappy as Agnes Grey. Quotations indicate the broad range of subjects a governess was expected to teach, and the liminal position of governesses - not quite a servant, not quite a lady - in the Victorian home. The strict and intellectually demanding governess is identified, as is the indulgent ill-disciplined one and the French one, a type of her own; difficult and sometimes snobbish pupils are also discussed. Authors quoted included Yonge, Eliza Meteyard, Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Elizabeth M. Sewell, Rhoda Broughton, Elizabeth Wetherell (pseudonym of Susan Warner), Juliana Horatia Ewing. III. Declarations of Feeling: overview of proposals of marriage, which could be very long and were often repeated before an acceptance was secured. Delafield notes the parental shock and fury which could follow even the most circumlocutory declaration of love; young women were also often shocked by them - and if not shocked, it was often an indicator that their romantic lives would not run smoothly. Proposals might come via other family members, principally fathers but also at least one aunt; acceptance in these cases seems to have been a matter of expectation rather than choice. Some unfortunate suitors are so oblique in their proposals that the young woman concerned has not realised a proposal was being made; other intended brides made forthright rejections. Authors quoted include Yonge, Elizabeth Wetherell, Christabel R. Coleridge, and Louisa May Alcott. IV. Enjoying Ill-Health: Delafield distinguishes between descriptions of named, specific illnesses, and of invalidism, where no diagnosis was ever made - but invalids were too often also mothers for this to be a coincidence. Hysteria, childbirth, accidents and trauma all leave women with the status of invalid, confined to a bed or a couch. Many of Yonge’s young women are afflicted by painful headaches after any kind of trauma or stress; guilty secrets also manifest as physical illness as well as nervous disorders. Brain-fever often lies in wait for wilful young women. Death is described in excruciating length and detail. Authors quoted include Yonge, Grace Aguilar, Wetherell, M. B., Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Catherine Sinclair, Mrs. Sherwood, Frederick W. Farrar, Harriet Martineau. V. All is Vanity. Delafield discusses the treatment of clothes and the association of women’s interest in clothes with vanity; luxurious, expensive clothes are often linked with immoral extravagance. The quotations show how shoppers tried to save money, while dressmakers and milliners encouraged them to spend a little more. Clothes are also an important form of social communication and help (or hinder) the wearer as she tries to integrate into social groups. Delafield also chooses quotes that indicate a premature form of sexual display being forced on young girls accustomed to dress modestly, usually by a more worldly grown-up cousin; even adult women struggle to achieve the right degree of modesty for their age and station in life. Respectability in dress is the aim, but it is very difficult to achieve; clothes must be good but not luxurious, suitable but not immodest or overly drab, and appropriate to the company and the occasion, the age and the class of the wearer. Young men are not immune to the lures of fashion and vanity. The awkwardness of the crinoline, which is liable to knock things over, is noted, as is the extensive discussion of furs and suitable nightwear. Women might dress unconventionally (or in an individual style) but they can expect to have it commented on. Authors quoted inclued Wetherell, Mrs. Sherwood, Yonge, E. Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Lang, Rhoda Broughton, Hon. Mrs. Greene. VI. “Is this a party of pleasure?” covers excursions, games and pastimes which generally emphasise the moral that it is better to stay at home than to gad about. Mixed sports like croquet are morally suspect and may lead to flirtation. Imaginative play was also discouraged. Dances could be acceptable, and dancing was a necessary skill, to be learned from a teacher. Charades and acting also had a tang of impropriety about them, especially if Shakespeare was involved. Clothes for activities needed to be appropriate; games could be used as opportunities for moral improvement but were sometimes simply fun; but writers also used them to introduce drama by way of accidents during rougher games. Delafield notes the only child and her solitary games, contrasted with the large families of Yonge’s novels, and the tendency of children’s imaginative games to focus on death and violence; she is quite favourable towards vigourous, active games and children who are playful rather than priggish. Similarly, she endorses outdoor activities in the few places where they appear, even to the extent of camping. She discusses the tendency of moral heroines to renounce their pleasures. Authors quoted include Maria Edgeworth, Yonge, E. Perring, Mrs. Sherwood, Annie Keary, Elizabeth Lang, Susan Coolidge, E. Stuart Phelps, Wetherell and F. Anstey. VII. The Fair Sex. On the representation of women, and the expectation that they acknowledge male superiority. Women needed male attention but should not ostentatiously seek it or show they enjoyed it; wives must submit to the authority of their husbands, even bad ones. Married women can expect the interference of their relations in their married lives. Delafield notes the tyrannical Victorian patriarch as a feature of fiction and his unpleasant impact on wives and daughters. Women who try to remove themselves from the constraints of male ‘protection’ rarely end well, but there are some positive representations of women throwing off propriety and engaging in feminist discussion - although any feminist points are often shut down by male characters. Propriety, Delafield suggests, moves with the times, noting that in Yonge’s early novels waltzing is indecorous, but perfectly acceptable in her later works. Authors quoted include Yonge, Elizabeth M. Sewell, Rhoda Broughton, Helen B. Mathers, Wetherell.