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18 September 2014
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Women and Urban Life in Victorian Britain

By Lynda Nead
Rape of the glances

Image showing women's fashions of the 1850s
Fashions of the 1850s 
This public debate did not stop at the pages of The Times, but spread to the middle-class periodical press. In February 1862, the Saturday Review carried its own response to the controversy, which it called the 'Rape of the Glances'.

The article begins by blaming the incident on the ubiquity of prostitution on the streets of London, and, particularly, in smart streets such as Regent Street. Paterfamilias from the Provinces, however, was apparently not aware of the street's reputation when he sent his daughter out shopping in the vicinity. 'Unacquainted with the moral geography of the West-End, they innocently trip down the tabooed side of Regent-street. The natural consequence follows...'.

'... more than one curious and furtive glance was sent after the bold adventurer...'

The article then speculates on whether the girls encouraged the stranger's gaze, whether '...more than one curious and furtive glance was sent after the bold adventurer'. But, after all, the article points out, the offence is only that of stealing a look. There was, it claims, no verbal or physical abuse.

The article upbraids Paterfamilias for his naivety. Perhaps he comes from a country: 'where nobody looks at anybody' and is shocked, therefore, at 'the ocular freedom of the London streets'. The modern city is evoked as a world of constant exchange of looks and meaningful glances and all pedestrians are caught up in this network of gazes. Perhaps, then, the stranger's glance at Paterfamilias's daughter was not illicit or stolen, but exchanged freely and knowingly.

The debate that took form in the correspondence to The Times and in the periodicals suggests that there were many different ways in which respectable women could inhabit the streets of the city, and that respectability itself embraced a wide range of attitudes to dress and behaviour. It clearly reveals the everyday presence of women of all classes amongst the city crowds, and it also offers a new and different picture of Victorian urban life. Rather than seduction and prostitution, it suggests flirtation, and misunderstanding, and interaction between strangers. Was Paterfamilias's daughter harassed by a strange man? Or did she respond to his advances? Or did she seek and initiate a flirtatious encounter?

These are all intriguing questions. But the very fact that we know they are relevant to the experience of ordinary Victorian women, means we also recognise that their role was considerably more than that of sheltered and domesticated guardians of the nation's morals.

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: 2004-11-04

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