In her latest article, Georgie Broad reflects on the life of women in Victorian Britain. She does so by contrasting the lives of rich and poor – and then showing just what these two very different groups had in common.
Few eras in history can evoke such ideas of contrast between the lives of different people as that of the Victorian era of 1837-1901 in Britain. The reign of Queen Victoria brought with it an age of prosperity and national pride in Britain, and is often considered one of the most important and influential times in the country’s history.
As easy as it is to romanticize this period, especially given the push toward arts, a more gentile and sentimentalized way of life, and the stirrings of a more liberal type of politics, we must also remember the vast divides in lifestyle, and gender and class equality. This can be seen in the rigid class division of the time. Four main classes existed: the nobility and gentry at the top of the ladder, trailed by the middle class (often these two are combined to cover the “upper class” in general), and then the “upper” working class, swiftly followed by the poorest of the poor, the “lower” working class (again, these latter two are often combined to form the “lower class” as a whole).
The best way to not only explain and investigate class differences, but to highlight just how vast the problems of inequality and division were at the time, is to consider rich and poor in turn. There was the rich lady, who led the nostalgically stylized view of Victorian life – all bustles, petticoats and jewels, and conversely there was the somewhat less rosy existence of the poor woman; a life of chimney sweeping, workhouses, and prostitution.
PART I: THE RICH
Victorian England was a man’s world. More specifically, it was a rich, upper-class, man’s world, and even better if you had land, a large house, a title, and a doting wife. Women of this class enjoyed a life full of all the things money could buy; travel, fine clothes, good food and of course, servants and staff to do chores for them.
Their allotted goal in life was to marry, have children and raise them in an appropriate and respectful manner. This in itself was seen to be sufficient fulfillment for an upper class woman and the role of devoted wife and mother was highly idealized in Victorian Britain. The perfect role model for the domesticity expected of upper, and especially middle class women, was that of Victoria herself, who doted upon her husband and children, and after Albert’s death remained loyal, modest and demure – engrossing herself in her regal affairs.
Unlike their lower class counterparts, upper class Victorian women more often than not had staff to help with the running of their home and the raising of their children, leaving them with plenty of time to enjoy the finer things in life. Dancing and grand social parties were commonplace in the lives of wealthy Victorian women, and offered them a chance to mingle with other women of similar backgrounds and to show off their fineries. However, in doing so, the ladies had to remember to adhere to certain unspoken rules of etiquette, lest they come across as vulgar and gain an unsavory reputation among the other members of the elite. The rules ranged from what kind of jewelry to wear, to where and with whom they were allowed to walk.
Aside from the work (or lack thereof) that upper class Victorian women did, the most interesting and noticeable way to distinguish between rich and poor women was clothing. The images we have today of Victorian women, clad in fine fabrics, grand dresses, bonnets and petticoats, are the clothes of the upper classes. They would be expensive, exotic and made to impress – but also came imbued with many subtle reminders of the upper class woman’s place. It was at this time in the 19th century that women’s clothes in the upper echelons of society came to be more sexualized. Women’s clothing accentuated and exaggerated the hips, breasts and derriere not only to make the wearer seem more attractive, but to separate these wealthy ladies from the world of work. Obviously, it would be beyond impractical to be in a workhouse or cleaning in a heavy and corseted dress, and so in wearing such clothes, the rich were making a subtle but definitive statement: no manual labor for us. Instead, the garments were designed beautifully so that women may resemble and compliment the décor of their lavish home, where they could look after their family and entertain, minus the strains and stresses of working and getting messy.
PART II: THE POOR
So, although the upper class life seemed pretty settled, they weren’t as secure as they may have appeared, as many of the middle class women risked slipping into the “upper” sector of the lower class through the death of a father or husband. As was and is often the case in noble families, inheritance would go to the eldest male child or next-of-kin, so many women were often left by the wayside, without money or a home. These women would be employed in jobs that required skills, often ones that had been acquired during their time in the upper and middle classes, such as teachers and governesses. Some even worked in shops or as bookkeepers. They had a comfortable life, not being exactly poor, with steady jobs and no manual labor involved; however it was a far cry from their previous lives of leisure, and an even further cry from the lives of the lowest class of Victorian women; those of the “lower” working class.
t was the “lower” working class that we generally associate with the “other end of the spectrum” that we contrast with the lavish lifestyle of the ladies of leisure. Their food was tasteless and consisted of anything that they could afford, their clothes were vastly different from the luxurious outfits of the upper class women – consisting of rag and cheap cloth, and their homes would be cold, dank and dark. These women were usually single, and relied only upon themselves for support, often working among men of the same class in workhouses. Life in the workhouses was arduous and dangerous, but as long as the women were pronounced as “able bodied” they had to work, not only because of the legal requirement to do so, but to scrape together any money they could.
Another trade which lower class women could turn their hand to was that of domestic service. Although it was not as physically draining as factory work, it had its own difficulties. Catering for the demanding upper class ladies all day and cleaning up after their families seven days a week, for at least twelve hours a day, was in itself a monumental task, especially when if anything were to go wrong in the family it would be the servants who were to get the blame.
One of the less grim work options for women of this class was to turn to prostitution. Prostitution in Victorian Britain was a prevalent and often well earning business, with streets and streets dedicated to its work. Many girls turned to prostitution, viewing it as a means to an end - a way to build up capital so that they may invest in a business or live a more comfortable life. However, many of these young women had their lives cut tragically short by untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which of course they passed on to a great many of their customers who could also fall victim to the more fatal side of the trade.
NOT SO DIFFERENT
Although women in the upper and lower classes had many differences, they also had some similarities. Women in the Victorian era were very much seen as second best to men, as a trophy, a wife and a mother, and were expected to be content with this role in society. It was toward the end of the Victorian era that the women’s suffrage movement began in the United Kingdom. Women of every class came together to stand against the injustice and inequality of the voting system and to lobby for their right to vote.
So despite the vast differences between the women in this era, their similarities encouraged a change that shaped the history of Britain. Between the idealized view of Victorian life demonstrated by upper class women and the less desirable lifestyle of poorer women, we can learn a lot about the society of Victorian Britain, and begin to sense the stirrings of one of the most important and dramatic social changes in history.
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