Victorian Obsession: Purity (of Women)
Hello! The blog tour makes two stops today, so I wrote a double-header of an essay. The Victorian Obsession of the day is Purity, and I’ll be talking here about Pure Women and over at Steph Su Reads about Pure Food.
The conventional Victorian ideal of femininity is the meek, tender, virtuous lady: an obedient daughter, devoted wife, and loving mother whose happiness consists of serving her family – and especially her husband. She’s nicknamed the Angel in the House, after a (very long, incredibly dull) poem by Coventry Patmore, which is called, logically enough, The Angel in the House. The poem goes on forever, so I’ll summarize it for you: the Angel is powerful because she’s so endlessly, relentlessly good that people are inspired to behave well just by looking at her.
As you can imagine, this is a handy kind of ideal. If you’re MALE. It basically absolves men of a huge amount of responsibility: if a woman doesn’t achieve this level of sainthood, it’s her failure. If her family misbehaves, it’s still her failure, because if she were a true Angel in the House, the people around her would be inspired to do right.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the philosopher John Ruskin, lecturing on the education of women: “There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it; not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered. Men, by their nature, are prone to fight; they will fight for any cause, or for none. It is for you to choose their cause for them, and to forbid them when there is no cause. There is no suffering, no injustice, no misery in the earth, but the guilt of it lies with you (from Sesame and Lilies). Ruskin gives with one hand and takes away with the other. He claims that girls need good educations, because their role in life is to keep boys from doing wrong.
I hear you asking, why are you talking about this? Aren’t we lucky to have moved beyond this drivel? Of course we are. But Patmore and Ruskin give us only part of the picture, and that’s what I find interesting. Their obsession with women’s virtue is almost hysterical, and I think that can only be the case because what they propose is so far from real life – and they know it. It’s an obsession in the most intense sense of the word: something they insist upon, unhealthily, even in the face of reality.
We don’t know how many good little Victorian girls aspired to be Angels in their Houses. But others didn’t. They couldn’t afford to. Didn’t want to. Thought it ridiculous or hateful or unfair or plain futile.
Part of the reason I write about a women’s detective agency in Victorian London – far- fetched as the concept may be – is to create an alternative to being the Angel in the House. Because purity is a dangerous and vexing kind of virtue. Spotlessness is all but impossible (one tiny fleck of dust and it’s ruined). For some Victorians, this was its appeal – and the heart of their obsession.
Thank you Y.S. Lee for stopping by today!