The nineteenth century had the most radical and revolutionary ideas in history. The status of women during this time being one of those ideas. This time period has been named the Victorian Era, and was influential on British society. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, “Mary Barton,” was designed to portray the cultural customs and ideas of Britain. One of Gaskell’s motives was to bring awareness to the life and trials of a Victorian woman. A scholar writes that “for women the situation is complicated by the fact that not only their work, but their bodies have a cash value”.
A woman from the Victorian Era has to focus on the marriage market, finding work, and not becoming a prostitute. This essay will reveal what women in nineteen century Britain go through, and their personal struggles of trying to find a job and a husband while keeping the values society upholds them to by using the characters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s, “Mary Barton” and how they endure these ideas. Describing a Victorian woman is based on society’s religious values.
An article about models of Christian activity stated, “The word is taken to represent the full flowering of ideology, of genderized virtue, of the consolidation of the middle class with its revised gender expectations, of women being regarded as more moral and more religious than men”. Being Victorian was a system of ideas that was formed based on social norms. Women were held to a higher standard than men. The women were forced to portray a false sense of “domestic” and “feminine” characteristics.
Women are viewed to be in the home away from public view so that they are the support system for their husband. Men were allowed to get away with actions that would be considered religious, while women were expected to be perfect. During this time period, home was the focal point of being an honorable woman. Women entering into these marriages had the sole purpose of serving their husband in any way possible. Marriage and motherhood became a pursuit to a better life. It takes Mary Barton most of the novel to realize that the pursuit of marriage is not all that she perceived it to be.
While on trial Mary confesses, “and this poor young Mr. Carson fell in with me, and told me he loved me; and I was foolish enough to think he meant marriage:…and so I used to fancy I could like to be a lady, and rich, and never know want any more”. The women of this time are often fooled by men of stature because these men know they are vulnerable. Mary was shallow and oblivious to the consequences that would come to haunt her. Mary was trying to make a better life for herself and disregarded her true feelings and the feelings of others. Women are no longer caring people.
They are now seen as commodities. Love was not an issue when bonds were made. It was simply a partnership that women soon regretted. A scholar writes, “Middle-class women play the marriage market; working-class women can take a risk—they may land a husband, as Mrs. Carson did, they may end up a cheap bargain, as Mary nearly does, or as spoiled goods, like Esther . The women of this time were lead to believe that marriage was the only option. The middle-class women were most likely born into wealth and given to a husband their father chose.
The working-class women had to find a job to help out their family while fantasizing about romance that could remove them from their poverty-stricken lifestyle. Mrs. Carson is one of the fortunate characters that marry out of poverty. Mary was close to becoming a “cheap bargain,” but learned from her mistake before it was too late. Along with the focus of marriage is another pressing issue of females working. It was customary for Victorian women not to work and, for the women that did work, only certain jobs were available. The Victorian expression “woman’s work for woman” was commonly used in British society.
Most women probably worked in the domestic field, as maids, nannies, nursemaids, or governesses. Obviously, some were more educated and well-off financially from inheritance or marriage, and they had access to tutors as children. Those women could become teachers, clerks, or secretaries. Many young girls had to go to work to help their aging parents. An article disclosed that “Many low-skilled workers found it difficult to provide adequately for their old age…Those who were able continued to work , albeit at reduced pay, past the age of 65 or even 70, and many received assistance, typically in kind, from their children.
Mary Barton and her father, John Barton, are a great representation of children assisting their family. John was getting of age, and it was hard for him to find work. He was forced to go out and find Mary a job. This is not as easy as it sounds because he was very particular about the type work he wanted Mary to do. Factory work was not considered as woman’s job. Most husbands and fathers only approved of certain types of jobs. It was said that “factory work corrupts women” (Nord 568). Factory work was frowned upon by John Barton. He wanted a better situation for his daughter Mary.
After John searched for a job for Mary, he realizes that if he would have allowed her to come along, her beauty would have secured her a job. This is another reason why nineteen century women were shallow. Patsy Stoneman states, “The working-class ‘female ethic’ is endangered not only by the ‘male morality’ of adversarial justice, but also by the middle-class concept of ornamental femininity” (Stoneman 548). Work was hard to find because women were not supposed to be superior to men. Women could not find a husband if they were not the subservient lady that they were expected to be.
“Male morality” was not the only obstacle. Women spent most of their time trying to look a certain way to get a husband (548). Some women thought it was beneath them to work. An article stated, “The exhaustive study of gender differentials undertaken by the Royal Commission on Equal Pay (1946) concluded that these factors explained much of the gender gap. It recognized that they, in turn, were to be explained in terms of social norms” (Thane 16). This article was about women’s labor history review. They came to the conclusion that there was no set reason why women were treated differently than men.
Society was so used to the idea of women not working that it essentially became an unspoken rule. This made it hard for the women that needed to work and was the reason women had to resort to other forms of work. As a result of wanting to live the lavish lifestyle that women saw, they made use of their good looks in ways other than finding a husband. Mary is close to becoming a fallen woman because she was fooled by the life she thought her Aunt Esther was living. It has been said that, “Mary’s temptation to turn from the responsibilities of her family and friends is almost completely economic and social in nature.
Young and motherless, Mary treasures the attentions of Harry Carson, but his appeal to her stems from her poverty and misery”. Driven by her hunger to live a higher quality life, Mary is close to being useless in the eyes of society. The women of this time are so concerned with securing an improved lifestyle that it is easy for them to succumb to the men offering what they think is a way out. Mary disregards Jem as a possible interest because she does not see how he can help her. After refusing Jem’s proposal of marriage, she realized that she did not care for Harry and that Harry never intended on marrying her.
If people around town would have been aware of her flirting with Harry without them being married, she would have been considered a “cheap bargain. ” It is said by writers, “Prostitution, in fact, was a major source of employment for women who lacked the kinds of employment opportunities available to men of their same class”. The character Esther is a prime example of being put in this difficult situation. Early in the story, Esther, runs off with a soldier and becomes pregnant with his child. The soldier leaves her and the child soon after dies forcing her to take drastic measures to earn a living.
Prostitutes or “fallen women” were frowned upon even if their circumstances did not permit them do anything else. Most of these women did not plan for this to continue on forever, but their options were limited. The writer, Bullough, says, “The major problems were that women who had any known connection with prostitution were usually unable to get servant jobs”. Basically the prostitutes were stuck in their situation no matter what happened. Victorian women did not have many options when it came to living life in nineteen century Britain.
Gaskell’s novel depicts a women transitioning between these different phases of Victorian life. Women were forced into these degrading categories and the ideas that “women are changed from useful, caring people into commodities incapable of doing anyone ‘a good turn’. Woman had to get married, land a respectable job, or become a prostitute. The women of the nineteenth century were backed into corners and forced to make decisions on need and not on personal feelings. If you were fortunate enough to be born into wealth, your father married you off to the highest bidder.
If not, then a life full of poverty and hard decisions were ahead of you. Marriage was no longer about love and romance, but basically a form of employment. Jobs were few and most women were not willing to work. Women were trained that their looks were all that mattered, so they felt that they would use that gift instead of labor. If everything else failed and society thought you were no good, then you were forced into a life of prostitution. This novel reveals that to be a woman of the nineteenth century could be a very difficult and demeaning style of living.
Women were thought of as commodities or like children. On many occasions they were told what to do, how to think, and what to say. Vanity was instilled in women at a very early age. Some women learned to use the power of their beauty and body to try to advance their status in society. In some cases this worked well, but in many instances these women sold their souls to the devil for what appeared to be heaven on earth. Many things have changed in society today as far as women in their quest for marriage and a career. However, women today still face some of these same obstacles as women of the Victorian era.