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  • Christy Hyman

“The Stakes Were High”

In the new social order of society, women will be individually independent of men for support. From the beginning it will be known that they are not to be educated as sexual slaves for men merely. In place of this, it will be well understood that no man owes them anything and that all their intercourse will be governed by a maxim of equivalents in love.[1]

I begin this exploration with a quote from feminist reformer Victoria Woodhull- this particular expression captures the exasperation Woodhull herself felt in being beholden to a man for financial security within marriage. In assessing Woodhull’s version of male/female roles within her utopian vision we can juxtapose this idea with the realities of women during the late nineteenth century. This piece highlights the macrolevel currents of society that created the need for the strict Victorian social order of the nineteenth century. It then closes with the experience of fictional character Lily Bart, from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth as her example exemplifies the high stakes of not finding a suitable husband in Victorian high society.

The unparalleled change that marked the nineteenth century arrived in a variety of forms.

Technological advancements via transportation and communication outlets, and a newly diversified market economy altered the ways in which people related to one another and to their environments. In this age of cataclysmic change, the need for order in uncontrolled societal chaos could not have been more evident. The economic growth and industrialization of the nineteenth century was bolstered by a value on unrestricted individualism, a free market economy and limited government interference, thus the nineteenth century in spite of its innovative character was characterized by discourses which sought and succeeded in producing order out of chaos. A strict Victorian moral code predicated on a Judeo-Christian ethos was deployed onto nineteenth century citizenry through various discourses allocating the attendant societal roles each person would fill. These imposed roles served to order individuals according to each person’s function within Victorian society. The public sphere or marketplace would serve as the site of appraisal, approval, or condemnation. It was through discourses, which included literature, social reform and the ever increasing marketplace that the Victorian moral code controlled a turbulent, multiethnic, urbanized industrial society in the nineteenth century.

In identifying the roles deployed onto nineteenth century citizenry, it becomes clear that the premise of sex roles fell into a heteronormative binary. Today’s contemporary understanding of the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation is a development of evolved thinking that did not exist in the conservative nineteenth century. Sexual “otherness” was relegated to margins of psychiatry where deviation from a heteronormative sex type was seen as an illness; as such men and women of the nineteenth century were measured by their ability to conform to Victorian behavioral modes specific to gender.

Gender distinctions during the nineteenth century were influenced by class, and as such defining masculinity is correlative with economic access and wealth. Fundamentally, however, one finds the roles of masculinity rooted in physical prowess, sexual virility, and authoritarian power within the domestic sphere of the home. Coupled with Victorian codes of manners men would find their behaviors checked by those rules. Historian John Kasson gives a clear picture of a Victorian “gentleman” on the street:

"The polite gentleman stepped onto the street as if onto a public stage, with gloves

and hat on and all minor adjustments completed. A gentleman so far avoided turning “a public thoroughfare into a private dressing room” that he did not have his boots polished on the street. He was impeccably clean and neat, his collars and cuffs “faultlessly white, and the clothes well brushed.”[2]

Taking Kasson’s description of the gentleman on the street within the public sphere with the fundamental expectations of Victorian manhood it can be seen that men performed masculinity in the marketplace by appearance and “gentlemanly” postures. In the private realm manhood was measured by providing, protecting, and leading the family. The domestic sphere was a refuge from the sometimes mean world of capitalism. In their home, men could be the “masters” of their destiny while at work he adhered to the rigors of wage earning. Whether professional or industrial the work men did was seen as an extension of identity. If he worked as an artisan, he should aspire to be the best at his skill; if a clerk, he should be steady in his learning of the trade in hopes of promotion. This serves as a direct function of maintaining order in that a man who is fulfilled with his working environment and station in life is a man who will contribute favorably to society.

For women in the nineteenth century the expectations of gender roles were far more strict. As women they did not enjoy the same civil rights as men and this vulnerability undergirded much of the way women behaved before being placed into their “natural stations” as wives and mothers. Though women did not enjoy “tangible” access to full citizenship such as voting rights and running for office, they were depended upon to produce the next generation of worthy citizens. As Linda Kerber has written, “the Republican Mother’s life was dedicated to the service of civic virtue: she educated her sons for it, she condemned and corrected her husband’s lapses from it.”[3] “Republican Motherhood preserved traditional gender roles at the same time that it carved out a new, political role for women.[4] Though the ideals present in republican motherhood took hold in the early republic period in the United States, this role stood as a significant one. Republican mothers transmitted the customs, habits, morals, and manners that made up the generation that would originate in the nineteenth century.[5]

As exemplars of virtue it becomes obvious that the code of Victorian manners governing women’s behavior would be numerous. On the streets, in particular, women had to “avoid eye contact with all but her acquaintances (which was either other women or a male family member) avoid demonstrative postures, and dress in neutral colors that did not appear ostentatious or attention seeking.

Whether in cities or in small towns, behavior was checked and appraised by onlookers within the marketplace- the Victorian code of manners were stringent and a lapse of manner could become the root of salacious rumor. In Victorian society, rumors could ruin reputations and end any potential marriage prospects. Here it can be seen how women’s behavior prior to marriage was important for her survival. Since her welfare depended on the earning power of a potential husband her behavior had to adhere favorably to male expectations of what was deemed ladylike and proper. Women of the nineteenth century had to conform to expectations of society at large and those held by potential suitors. Such checks on the personal behavior helped reduce wanton behavior and produced a semblance of order in society.

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth provides a great example of the precarious nature of the single woman living during the late nineteenth century. Though the novel was published in 1905, the characters are dwelling in the time and space of Victorian mores. Lily Bart, a beautiful woman of upper middle class society in New York is on the hunt for a husband, as she has become a financial burden on her rich friends. At the age of twenty-nine she is seeing that her time is running out and she has set her sights on Percy Gryce, who although unassuming and dull is still quite a catch financially:

“Mrs. Trenor sat up with an explanation. “Lily!---Percy? Do you mean to say you’ve actually done it?”

Miss Bart smiled. “I only mean to say that Mr. Gryce and I are getting to be very good friends.”

“H’m—I see.” Mrs. Trenor fixed a rapt eye upon her.

“You know they say he has eight thousand a year--- and spends nothing, except on some rubbishly old books. And his mother has heart disease and will leave him a lot more. Oh Lily, do go slowly,” her friend adjured her.

Miss Bart continued to smile without annoyance.”[6]

Mrs. Trenor’s admonition to “go slowly” to Lily is a subtle warning not to appear brazen or worse desperate. Victorian modes of conduct provided that men were the hunters of women and although Lily was beautiful that would not erase the behavioral postures she was expected to adhere to. The novel suggests early on that there was an indiscretion in Lily’s past that has already reduced her reputation somewhat. It is only through Lily’s family name, social set, and beauty that allows her one last chance to land a wealthy man that she feels attracted to. As Lily mused about the possibilities of life as a married, respectable woman she thought to herself that “certainly [her marriage to Percy Gryce] would lift a heavy load from her mind, and her money troubles would be relieved…she would arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate…”[7]Here Lily’s troubles are made known to the reader and her sense of urgency is apparent.

A woman beset with expensive tastes and creditors was forced into performing the role of the coy ingenue. Though Lily had extravagant tastes, her heart is pure and ultimately she does not win over Percy Gryce; a series of ensuing events place Lily in a position to strike an enemy that thwarted her plans to wed Gryce, yet Lily does not take revenge. Faced with the choice of marrying another man who she is not attracted to and whom her set considers objectionable because he is “nouveau riche,” versus Lawrence Selden, whom she loves (but he is not rich), she opts to commit suicide.

[1] Victoria C. Woodhull Denounces “The Scare Crows of Sexual Slavery.” (c. 1873), in MPHAS, page 246.

[2] John F. Kasson, Rudeness & civility: manners in nineteenth-century urban America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999). 118

[3] Rosemarie Zagarri, "Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother," American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): , doi:10.2307/2713040. 192

[4] Ibid, 192

[5] Ibid, 195

[6] Edith Wharton, The house of mirth (New York: Penguin, 1993).46-47.

[7] Ibid 49-51.

#ChristyHyman #nineteenthcentury #gender #capitalism

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