The Victorian “New Woman”
I would like to start off this piece with a quick little definition of just what exactly were the characteristics of the new Victorian woman. I went off the course reading list a bit and found a very helpful article that acutely summed up everything I wanted to know of the radical behavioural and cultural changes surrounding the role of women that took place during the Victorian era and into the Edwardian period. According to Grieg Buzwell, the author of “Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle,” the Victorian woman witnessed several dramatic changes to her role as society became influenced by new radical ideas. Women were becoming better educated and new theoretical approaches to art, science and politics gave women an opportunity to break out of their traditional roles such as housewife and child bearer. Employment opportunities for women were improving and there was a “new air of sexual freedom” as the Victorian woman was more freely allowed to address the pursuing of newer pleasures and sensations (Buzwell ). The author references writers such as George Moore and Thomas Hardy, exemplifying them for their controversial works during this time; dealing head on with explicit sexual themes and motifs. Buzzwell argues that the emphasis placed on new sensations inevitably undermined the traditional view of both the feminine and the masculine roles (Buzwell). This change in behaviour was identified by, and to an extent further publicized across several different mediums such as letters, plays and literature. Quite often in these works of fiction, the New Woman was portrayed as a “sexual predator or as an oversensitive intellectual unable to accept her nature as a sexual being,” (Buzwell) At this time both men and women explored more homoerotic pleasures and not surprisingly this sparked a fierce discourse on the matter of homosexual relationships and its impact on society as a whole. Novelists like Mary Augusta Ward argued that this change in attitudes was a threat to the status quo of marriage and motherhood. Meanwhile Authors such as Sarah Grand used her novels to explore themes and consequences of women who did not pursue intellectual freedom and addressed the double standards of Victorian marriages, “which insisted on impeccable sexual virtue on the part of the wife but not on that of the husband”(Buzwell). Although only a percentage of women partook in these eccentric sexual relations, women as a whole were becoming more associated with masculinity and decadence. It is precisely this combination of sexuality and masculinity in Thomas Hardy’s texts which exemplify the new characterization of Victorian women.
In the text Tess of the D’ Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Tess embodies the rejection of the ideal Victorian woman and instead is portrayed as a more literal figure who struggles against a volatile and unyielding world. At the time of publication, the Victorians placed a high value on the virtuous qualities of women such as self-restraint, a lacking sexual appetite, intellectual timidity, and an overall submissive disposition. However the women of Hardy’s works forego the traditional stereotypes and are presented as imperfect and fallen yet still sympathetic heroines. Hardy illustrates that Tess must deal with the inequities faced by women of the period including the harsh consequences surrounding sex. The two most notable scenes are when Tess is raped by Alec and subsequently bears the child out wedlock (Hardy 72). The problems and difficulties faced by Tess cause the audience to become increasingly sympathetic and receptive of her character. She is weak, and fearful, and vulnerable to the forces around her, and which ultimately isolate her from society and lead to her untimely demise. For Hardy, Tess is an effective representation of real life womanhood; she is an intelligent and individualistic woman who is exposed to the most disgraceful of all crimes, yet is still recognised by reader as being “ true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report” on the basis of her moral integration (Hardy 153).
Buzwell, Greg. “Daughters of Decadebce: the New Woman in the Victorian Fin De Siècle” http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/daughters-of-decadence-the-new-woman-in-the-victorian-fin-de-siecle
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 3rd ed. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. Print.