The Victorian Era in English history was a period of rapid change. One would be hard-pressed to find an aspect of English life in the 19th century that wasn’t subject to some turmoil. Industrialization was transforming the citizens into a working class population and as a result, it was creating new urban societies centered on the factories. Great Britain enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity at home and thus was extending its global reach in an era of New Imperialism. Even in the home, the long held beliefs were coming into conflict.
During the Victorian Era, the concept of how a “proper” man and woman were to behave came under fire and there were men and women on both sides willing to argue for their beliefs. Though the traditional Victorian Era attitude is long since gone and devalued, it can be very enlightening to see the ways in which these attitudes surfaced themselves in the literature of the time. Sarah Stickney Ellis wrote The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits from the viewpoint that women should self-abnegate their own beliefs and become fully interested in the man. And to illustrate this point, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” will be closely looked at along with the essay to make some critical points.
In “Sonnet 43,” Browning wrote a deeply committed poem describing her love for her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning. Here, she writes in a Petrarchan sonnet, traditionally about an unattainable love following the styles of Francesco Petrarca. This may be partly true in Browning’s case; at the time she wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese, Browning was in courtship with Robert and the love had not yet been consummated into marriage. But nevertheless, the sonnet serves as an excellent depiction of the expectations for a woman in the Victorian Era and yet skews them at the same time.
Ellis begins her passage, entitled “The Influence of Women,” by making a bold suggestion that women aren’t more powerful than men, but rather they’re less likely to succumb to the pressure of monetary temptations that men are subjected to, and as a result, they can provide men with a real subjective aid to help the man’s judgment (Ellis 1525). What Ellis is referring to is that women can make it their duty to save men from being rejected into Heaven and set them back onto the proper path of righteousness. She writes that women possess a “secret influence” that functioned like a “second conscience” for men, for when he is troubled:
“He has thought of the humble monitress who sat alone, guarding the fireside comforts of his distant home; and the remembrance of her character clothed in moral beauty, has scattered the clouds before his mental vision, and sent him back to that beloved home, a wiser and better man.” (1525-1526)
It is this image that is the key to that Victorian model of a woman in the home, being the fixed moral center for a man. Being able to be the lighthouse that guides the man back to the proper path of...