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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Private View: Victorian Letters as Source Material

By Lynda Nead
Alone in the city

'Punch' cartoon, depicting a Victorian woman travelling alone on a train
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Train travel increased women's opportunities for independence 
The letters document key life events, such as Roper's engagement and first pregnancy, but they also record a multitude of incidental experiences, of journeys, meetings and conversations, which constitute the everyday in any historical period. Roper did not move widely around the city - her experience was defined by a limited number of routes, for a specific range of purposes.

In relating these journeys in her letters, however, she generates a different story of Victorian society from the one of confined womanhood that we so often hear about, and a new way of understanding women and the city in this period. In a postscript to a letter dated 4 January, 1856, Amelia revealed to her friend:

'When I had gone to the station on Tuesday, the train had gone so I walked to town. I had not gone far when a gentleman in a four-wheel chaise offered me a ride but I was like you bashful and said no. If you had been [there] I should [have] said yes.'

'It speaks of embarrassment, apprehension, and possibility.'

This apparently throwaway anecdote tells us so much. It shows a young woman who travels alone into the city and who takes decisions about her journey. It also describes an encounter with a male stranger. There is an exchange, a refusal and a momentary reflection on the alternative outcomes. It speaks of embarrassment, apprehension, and possibility.

Anyone who lives in or visits cities today is familiar with the need to negotiate social space and to read the identities of passing strangers from their dress and appearance. This was also the world of the Victorian city. Women of all kinds were part of this complex social environment, with its changing class and gender relations. The unpublished letters of Amelia Roper offer the historian unprecedented access to the everyday experience of this world.

About the author

Professor Lynda Nead teaches history of art at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Victorian Women, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality and Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth Century London.


Published: 2004-11-05

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