Theodora Goss: 4 Misconceptions About Victorian Women

Today, Fantasy Literature welcomes Theodora Goss, who stopped by Fantasy Literature to talk about her research and writing process for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a late-Victorian-era murder mystery starring some familiar faces from classic works of fiction — and which posed all sorts of interesting problems regarding the accurate portrayal of both men and women of that time period.

And we’ve got one copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter to give away to a lucky commenter!

When I was in law school, to get through classes that felt as though they were systematically destroying my soul, I sewed a dress based on a pattern from the 1830s, cartridge pleats and all. It was surprisingly comfortable: the sleeves, in particular, were set into the bodice in such a way that I could raise and lower my arms easily. It was as easy to move in as my modern clothes, although it did change the way I moved: I stood up straighter and walked with more hip movement, to set the very full skirt swishing. It was an ordinary dress that a governess might have worn, but I was so proud of the work that went into it! As I suppose that governess would have been, making it in the 1830s from the same pattern.

Making and wearing this dress taught me some important lessons about the mistakes we make when we think about women from past eras, when their social roles may have differed from ours. The most important of these mistakes is assuming that they were somehow fundamentally different from us, that they did not have similar aspirations, beliefs, and conflicts. When I put on that dress, I put it on my own modern body, which was unlike an early nineteenth-century body in important ways. As a child, I had received vaccinations that would protect me from disease, eaten adequate amounts of vitamins and protein, and lived in an environment kept clean with soap, detergents, and antibiotics. I had always exercised and never worn a corset. I was larger and healthier than my hypothetical governess from the 1830s. But we were also fundamentally the same: female bodies shaped by genes and hormones, subject to disease and time. When we think about women from previous eras, it’s important to remember our commonality so we don’t fall into the trap of believing social stereotypes.

Here are four mistakes that I find people make when thinking about women from the Victorian era (1837-1901) in particular:

1. They conflate the entire era. They talk about how “Victorian” women were supposed to dress or behave, but the ideal woman of the 1830s was different from her counterpart in the 1850s, 1870s, and 1890s. Conflating them is like talking about the ideal “modern” woman of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s as somehow the same. Granted, women’s roles changed very quickly in the 20th century, particularly because of technological innovation (including hormonal birth control). But change happened in every other century as well. To a young woman of the 1890s, her own grandmother, and maybe even her mother, would have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. Think of this as vertical conflation of distinct temporal periods.

2. They conflate social classes. This is horizontal conflation of distinct social strata within a temporal period. I teach a class on the last nineteenth century (often referred to as the fin-de-siècle). At the beginning of the semester, my students tend to write sentences like “During the Victorian era, women stayed at home and did not work. They were expected to clean the house, cook the food, and raise the children.” What they’re describing is actually the ideal 1950s housewife, who could fulfill all these roles (which obviously involve quite a lot of work, just not outside the home). She could do so with the help of numerous labor-saving devices. But in the nineteenth century, this sentence could describe up to four different women: the mistress of the house whose work was largely managerial, a maid of some sort (parlormaid, chambermaid, tweeny), a cook, and a nursemaid or governess. All but one of these women would be working outside their own homes, for a salary.The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

3. They forget that social roles are ideologically created and change over time. The idea that women belonged in the domestic sphere while men belonged outside it, in the larger world of the public sphere, was articulated by John Ruskin in his essay “Of Queen’s Gardens” (1865). Later in the century, when New Women writers like Sarah Grand argued that women should move into the public sphere, they argued specifically against Ruskin’s attempt to naturalize that division. But Ruskin’s idea of the “separate spheres” reflects the specific conditions of his time, when mechanization was creating factory jobs. Earlier in the century, both men and women worked inside the home at craft-based industries such as weaving, or on farms that demanded outdoor labor from the entire family. Even when he wrote his essay, Ruskin’s conception did not reflect the real lives of young women who were often chosen for factory work because of their agility and small hands.

4. They take the social presentation of a society at face value. Think of the fashion plate in a Victorian clothing catalog: she does not look like a real woman, any more than a photoshopped model in Vogue looks like you or me (or even that model when she wakes up in the morning). Victorian women did not resemble the social ideal described in conduct books any more than they looked like fashion plates. Why do you think they were told to be ladylike? Maybe the same reason we are expected to fit a professional mold: because it’s a social ideal preached to imperfect women. They were supposed to be ladies who could plan an elaborate dinner party; we are supposed to be executives in training who can successfully ask for a raise. Like most ideals, these apply primarily to upper-class women. Beneath that social class is a world of lower-class women to whom these standards do not apply. In England in the 1890s, more than a million women worked as domestic servants. Women worked in shops, factories, and mines. They worked on farms, as they had always done. And many were what we might call sex workers — in other words, prostitutes. We don’t hear as much about lower-class women because they did not write their own stories. They generally do not appear in novels by Henry James or Edith Wharton. Thomas Hardy scandalized Victorian society by writing about them honestly and with compassion.

So how do we understand women from past eras, and most importantly for me as writer, how do we write about them in a way that is realistic? First, we have to get past our own simplistic assumptions. My novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is set in the imaginary 1890s. To get a good sense of how women thought and acted back then, I did a lot of research. What I found was an era filled with contradictions. Sarah Grand introduced the idea of the anti-Ruskinian New Woman, while the novelist Ouida named her in an essay, “The New Woman,” that ironically argued against female participation in the public sphere. Women were going to college, taking typing courses, and riding bicycles. Falling birthrates indicate that upper-class households were using birth control. Many women were still servants and factory workers, but public education was more available than it had ever been. Prostitution and venereal disease remained important social problems. The women of the 1890s lived in a world both different from and very much like ours, when women’s roles were in flux and technology was changing the nature of work, including women’s work.

Reading just three texts will give you a good idea of the era. The first is Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management (published in 1861 but continually revised and reprinted), which shows just how much went into running a household. Maintaining the domestic sphere involved a lot of work. The second is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), which reveals not only how women’s voices could be suppressed, but also how women such as Gilman herself fought back by reclaiming their stories. Finally, try Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), one of the books by Thomas Hardy that caused so much scandal. Then look at photographs of women working in factories, walking down the streets of London, even posed for society portraits. You will see how real they are, how much they are like us.

In my book, I added a layer of complexity: my female characters are monsters, created by the likes of Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau. So in addition to studying ordinary English women, I also studied women who worked in circuses or sideshows: bearded ladies, muscular Strong Women, and professional “freaks.” They were part of Victorian society as well, and their lives can tell us a great deal about how women were seen, as well as how they actually lived, in England at the time. They can help us break down what seems like a unitary narrative that didn’t actually exist, but that we have created through movie versions of Henry James and Edith Wharton novels.

Even if you’re not writing a novel, studying women in different eras is interesting and worthwhile. Most of written history is about great men and the important things they did, but if you look through the lens of any group left out of the history books, you learn what the official narratives don’t tell you: how complicated people are, how different their ordinary lives can be from the ideology of a particular time period, how they have continually negotiated the difficult boundary between who they are and who they’re told to be. How they have both lived within and moved beyond the limits and restrictions placed on them, which is of course what we do as well, in our own time. Hopefully, I’ve captured a little of that with my girl monsters, who are both different from and very much like the ordinary women of their era, speaking in their own distinctive voices.

Thank you very much, Ms. Goss! Readers, please comment below to enter the giveaway for one finished copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. U.S.-based mailing addresses only, please.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  1. I got this from NetGalley and loved it and reviewed it. I would have bought it by now if I wasn’t broke. Story of my life.

  2. Great interview. Thank you.
    I must admit I don’t read many fiction with Victorian setting. So it was interesting to read about it in this interview.
    The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter looks very promising. It has some excellent reviews on Amazon too. So I’d love to get a chance to read it.

  3. E. J. Jones /

    Neat article! I liked the part about what Victorian women looked like and how they weren’t all perfect S-shapes. I never thought about what an ancient art Photoshopping must be, in spirit if not fact.

  4. Von Berry /

    I love reading books with strong women characters. This books sounds great. Love the interview.

  5. mary henaghen /

    My 16 year old LOVES books set in the Victorian era, and has gotten me hooked!! I can’t wait for her to get back from camp to share this with her…….although, she is more on top of these things, so she probably knows. Ill share anyway!!! ?

  6. John Smith /

    That Ruskin dude: For someone so modern, he was archaic!

  7. Wonderful interview. I have a Thomas Hardy reading gap and have added Tess of the d’Urbervilles to my to-read list along with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. Girl monsters, FTW!

  8. This book looks so wonderful. Please enter me in the giveaway!

  9. Angela /

    Can’t wait to read!

  10. April /

    I already have this on my to read list but I am very glad to read about some of the research behind it. Thank you!

  11. Sethia /

    Good interview, I love it when authors do their research.

  12. I love this interview. I know that when I am writing a story, I put a lot of research into it. Knowing that this much research has gone into a novel, makes me want to pick it up even more. I love reading books on the Victorian era.

  13. Tia Sprengel /

    I finished this book last month and it was so fun – perfect summer read!

  14. Galen Strickland, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  15. This was absolutely fascinating! I find history the most interesting when it involves the lives of every day people.

  16. Amanda Partridge /

    Thank you for your insightful analysis!

    As a law student, making a dress from a pattern sounds like a wonderful use of time.

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