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Inventing the Victorians

There’s an idea behind this book which I sympathise with, and that’s the way people too often accept myths about history for truth. The present uses the past to reflect its own ideologies and sensibilities: myths have their uses. Sweet suggests that the purpose of widely-accepted notions such as ‘the Victorians were dreadful prudes’ is “to satisfy our sense of ourselves as liberated Moderns”.

There are other motives for devising historical myths, of course, such as the use of certain interpretations of history to uphold a particular political system or ideology. In the same way, how we view history is affected by stereotypes that linger in the present. However, if we are to base our opinions on the rock of what we know rather than the quicksand of what we think we know, it’s important to separate myth from reality. So I’m all for challenging historical myths and the stereotypes that often underpin them.

It’s disappointing, then, to discover that the author draws the line at challenging some stereotypes. An elderly, largely female church congregation consists of “sprightly old ladies” with “snow-white perms”. Nor is he averse to trotting out myths he clearly didn’t think worth challenging, for example that murder victim Mary Ann Nichols was a prostitute. As Hallie Rubenhold has pointed out in The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, there is no evidence for this assumption, which has been foisted on Mary Ann Nichols and three other murder victims. “Quite simply,” Rubenhold writes, “there is no evidence that any of these four women self-identified as prostitutes or that anyone among their community regarded them as part of the sex trade.”

Sometimes all it takes to suggest a certain way of looking at history and the people of the past is a careful selection of words. Women, says Sweet, “may have had to wait until 1928 to secure the right to vote in British elections, but…”

Run that by me again. Women “may have had to wait”? Women did not wait. They campaigned long and hard for the right to vote. They marched, they lobbied, they debated, they challenged the legal system, they wrote books and pamphlets, they held meetings large and small, they walked to London from every corner of the land in a nationally coordinated pilgrimage, they worked in political parties, they held mass rallies in Hyde Park, and a minority of them, mimicking male suffrage campaigners and revolutionary groups, even resorted to violence. In no sense could it be said that women waited for the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. 

Women walked to London...Suffrage Pilgrims in Liverpool, 1913

Nevertheless, having drawn on the stereotype of female passivity, Sweet then tells us that Victorian women were making “unparalleled advances, socially and politically”. Legislation such as the Matrimonial Causes Act or the Married Women’s Property Acts had improved their lot. What isn’t mentioned is that, like the franchise, women campaigned for these reforms too.

In making these statements, he is rehearsing (without acknowledging the fact) an argument beloved of anti-suffragists such as the novelist Mary Humphry Ward (1851–1920) to prove that women did not need the vote. Why would they, when all-male Parliaments were doing such a good job of looking out for their interests? But, as suffrage campaigners pointed out, this was not the same thing as women defining and looking out for their own interests. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies remarked, “The unrepresented are always liable to be given what they do not need rather than what they do need…However benevolent men may be…they cannot know what women want and what suits the necessities of women’s lives as well as women know these things themselves.” 

"The unrepresented are always liable to be given what they do not need..." Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of NUWSS

The point of Sweet’s comments is to challenge the stereotype that women’s lives were as restricted as some feminist historians such as Kate Millet suggests in her study of the separate spheres ideology. This theory posited that women belonged in the private, domestic sphere and men in the public. Sweet argues that in reality the separate spheres ideology’s “impact upon women’s lives was far from total”. Many women worked outside the home, and many men did more in it than is often realised.

I am in total agreement with challenging the image of women of the past as downtrodden doormats without an ounce of spirit or strength. Given the obstacles women had to overcome to become doctors, get into university, bring their pay and working conditions closer in line with men’s (though full equality has not been achieved even now), or, yes, get the vote, it’s obvious that they weren’t as feeble or as powerless as patriarchy painted them.

But I don’t think you can challenge one myth by presenting another: the myth of benevolent patriarchy. Political reform and social change did not come about because women sat and waited. Victorian women’s lives were indeed, as Sweet says, more “complex and productive than the widely circulated stereotype suggests”. One of the elements that gave it that complexity was the need to renegotiate their political and social status. Nor was this so simple a matter as obtaining a few ameliorative changes in the law. The removal of some legal barriers to women’s freedom and rights does not change the fact that barriers still existed, and they existed for the benefit of the legislators and the people those legislators represented.

Medical pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), the first British woman to qualify as a surgeon

There is also a difference between changes in legislation and changes in practice. The Married Women’s Property Acts were undoubtedly an improvement in women’s economic status, but the ideology behind them – that women should not or could not control property – lingered for a long time. As late as the 1970s women could not obtain a mortgage without a male guarantor, and until the 1980s a married woman’s income had to be included on her husband’s tax return. This bears out Sweet’s contention that in many things, Victorian society and ours are not so far apart. One of the areas of continuity can be found in attitudes towards women’s sexuality: from Mary Ann Nichols to Monica Lewinsky.

In 1999, Sweet tried to engineer a “little stunt” for a newspaper article involving Lewinsky, who had had an affair with former American president, Bill Clinton. Sweet offered her a cheque at a book signing, saying it was to help cover her legal costs, because he wanted to see if she would cash it. “Would she be too proud to take money from a complete stranger? Or would she thank me on bended knee?” Lewinsky did not cash the cheque, and Sweet imagines her thinking: “Nice try, but no cigar”. This is – nudge-nudge – a reference to Lewinsky’s testimony that Clinton had put a cigar in her vagina.

What, precisely, was this supposed to prove? That if a woman’s had sex with one man then she’s fair game for any amount of humiliation or insult from others? That if a woman’s known to have engaged in sexual activity with one man then it’s possible to imagine she’ll do the same with another just because he offers her money? I don’t suppose that Sweet really thought she might thank him “on bended knee”. But I wonder how this “little stunt” would have worked if he had offered the cheque to Clinton to cover his legal costs?

Sweet admits that the whole episode was all about “foraging for copy”. But lest the reader should get the idea that newspaper men are all unscrupulous scandal-mongers taking advantage of women’s sexuality to sell newspapers, he wants to change the narrative. He hangs this on an account of how the Victorians pioneered the use of sex to sell newspapers, with exposés that wavered between “pornography and moral indignation”. This involves a detailed discussion of the “stunt” that journalist William Stead (1849–1912) pulled in the 1880s in the interests of exposing child prostitution. (Stead ‘purchased’ an under age girl to prove how easy it was.)

Sweet brings the story up to date with the tale of Lewinsky cancelling an interview days before it was due to air on Australian TV in spite of being offered an “enormous fee” by Rupert Murdoch. He concludes that women hounded by the press because of their ‘scandalous’ sex lives are not as “passive” as reporters think. So there’s one stereotype well and truly debunked. Or has it simply been replaced with something else – the “manipulative bitch” or “fake victim” stereotypes perhaps?

As Sweet suggests, there is a lot more to the Victorians than many people think. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book does the subject justice. It skims the surface of its subject matter, with its treatment hovering between Victorian-style sensationalism and considered analysis of the evidence. It is packed full of fascinating if sometimes prurient tales, and it makes some interesting points. I was, for example, particularly interested in the account of how male identity was constructed using conduct books that functioned in the same way as those which set out to construct femininity. However, the debate stops there and little or nothing is said about other, arguably more influential factors such as religion, medicine, or the use of violence against women in creating and enforcing gender roles. Above all, the iconoclasm is too selective for my taste. It seems some historical myths and the stereotypes that enforce them are just too good to throw away.


Find out more:-

Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (Faber & Faber, 2001) 

Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Transworld, 2019)

 For my previous blogs on Mary Humphry Ward see:-

No Votes for Women100 – Mrs Mary Humphry Ward 

Spotlight on…MrsHumphry Ward (1851–1920)

For more on William Stead and his expose of child prostitution see the W T Stead ResourceSite (includes text of the newspaper articles) 


Picture Credits

Suffrage Pilgrims in Liverpool, 1913 - Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Millicent Garrett Fawcett - Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - LSE Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions 


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