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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain

By Lynn Abrams
The ideal woman

Image of Victorian husband and wife
Victorian husband and wife 
Apart from the queen - who was the ideal Victorian woman? She may have resembled Mrs Frances Goodby, the wife of the Reverend J Goodby of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, of whom it was said at her death that she carried out her duties as mistress of a small family with 'piety, patience, frugality and industry'. Moreover,
'... her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God ... carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respectability ...' (The General Baptist Repository and Missionary Observer, 1840).

Mrs Goodby exemplified the good and virtuous woman whose life revolved around the domestic sphere of the home and family. She was pious, respectable and busy - no life of leisure for her. Her diligence and evident constant devotion to her husband, as well as to her God, identifies Frances Goodby as an example to other women. She accepted her place in the sexual hierarchy. Her role was that of helpmeet and domestic manager.

'... domesticity was trumpeted as a female domain.'

By the time that the industrial era was well advanced in Britain, the ideology that assigned the private sphere to the woman and the public sphere of business, commerce and politics to the man had been widely dispersed. In popular advice literature and domestic novels, as well as in the advertisement columns of magazines and newspapers, domesticity was trumpeted as a female domain.

The increasing physical separation of the home and the workplace, for many amongst the professional and commercial classes, meant that these women lost touch with production, and came to fashion an identity solely within the domestic sphere. It was through their duties within the home that women were offered a moral duty, towards their families, especially their husbands, and towards society as a whole.

However, as the example of Frances Goodby shows, the ideal woman at this time was not the weak, passive creature of romantic fiction. Rather she was a busy, able and upright figure who drew strength from her moral superiority and whose virtue was manifested in the service of others.

Thus the notion of separate spheres - as lived in the industrial period - was not a blind adherence to a set of imposed values. Rather it was a way of living and working based on evangelical beliefs about the importance of the family, the constancy of marriage and woman's innate moral goodness.

Published: 2001-08-09

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