The Redundant Woman
Thackeray’s portrayal of Jane Osborne in Vanity Fair is very troubling to the reader of the twentieth century. Grown to be a woman who is stuck under her tyrannical father’s roof, her life appears to be very confining and menial. Her sister snubs her, her nephew mocks her behind her back, her father mocks her to her face, and her main role in life seems to be as her father’s housekeeper. However, Thackeray’s portrayal would have had a very different effect on the Victorian reader. While all of these things which affronted us would have been equally awful to them, Thackeray uses another key phrase which has lost its effect on our modern minds: "that unfortunate and now middle-aged young lady" (448). Jane Osborne’s future has progressed from being uncertain, waiting somewhat impatiently for a suitor’s attentions, to a dreadful certainty; she is quickly becoming what the Victorians referred to as a “redundant woman.”
A Victorian woman was bred up with the honored ideals of someday being “wives, daughters, and guardians of the home” (Parkinson). A model young woman was designed as a bargaining tool; her person, characteristics, skills, and, for those who were fortunate, dowry were key chips to be laid in a game of houses which defined the noblest aspirations of Victorian society. The very “spheres of influence” written about by so many authors of the time, both male and female, dictated that “what the woman is to be within her fates, as the centre of order, the balm of distress, and the mirror of beauty: that she is also to be without her fates, where order is more difficult, distress more imminent, loveliness more rare” (Ruskin). However, being bred for marriage produces a number of problems; hundreds of women in England were simply not asked for in marriage; thousands more chose not to be exposed (or their fathers chose for them) to the ravages of an abusive husband, or sacrificial terms; furthermore, many women were widowed, or estranged, and refused to let themselves love (in a world where such things happen…) again (Greg). Michael Anderson has estimated from a sample of the 1851 census that some 1.8 million adult women, 8.9...