Le donne nell'età vittoriana

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Data:02.07.2007
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Women were expected to conform to an artificial notion of “feminine delicacy” which excluded exercise except for gentle walking, obliged them to wear tightly laced corsets which in any case made exercise impossible, and often limited their education to refined “accomplishment” like singing, drawing and embroidery.
Angelic Figures the idealisation of women was evident in the worship of the mother and the young girl, often compared in Victorian literature to angels. "I have been in heaven! I have stood in the smile, and lain in the arms of one of God's angels. I was the happy child of a gentle and loving mother", says the hero of William Smith's Thorndale. Young girls were also thought to be like angels, not only physically, but morally too. Dickens presented his pathetic girl heroines as saintly figures, and his readers worshipped them ecstatically: when Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curosity Shop was dying, Dickens received thousand of letters begging him to save her.
Many Victorians believed that the difference between men and women were determined by nature. “If they were born animals as men are, instead of angels as women are” then we could forgive immorality in a woman as easily as in a man, argued one late Victorian journalist. The novelist Thackeray wrote that “women are pure, but not men”. Women were thought to be more innocent and generous than men: naturally more disposed to sacrifice. William Gladstone, Prime Minister four times in the late 19th century, believed that giving women the vote would endanger “their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature”. Often, young girls were not allowed even to read the newspapers, for fear of the evil effect of contact with the real word. In a previous age, women had simply seemed inferior to men; now they were said to be equal but different: less active and less intelligent, it is true, but also superior in morality, in taste, and in strength of feeling.
The Victorians derived from these beliefs a double standard: one rule of conduct for men, and another, more severe one for women. This was most evident in married life. On her marriage, a woman’s property passed automatically into her husband’s hands. In the middle of the century, no married woman in Britain owned any property at all. If a woman tried to escape from a violent husband, he could kidnap and imprison her with the support of the law. If she succeeded in leaving home, her children remained in the custody of her husband. Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce was practically impossible. This act, however, was not impartial: a husband could divorce his wife if she committed adultery, but the woman who wanted a divorce had to prove her husband guilty not only of adultery, but also of incest, bigamy, bestiality, cruelty or desertion. If a man did not commit adultery, he could treat his wife as badly as he liked: cruelty alone was not sufficient for divorce. Not to marry might be worse, however. For the rich, there was the ridicule that was always reserved for spinsters, but for the poor there was only hard and humiliating employment, and in many cases destitution. For many women, the only chance of survival lay in prostitution.
Though respectable women pretended not to know of their existence, the huge number of prostitutes in Victorian Britain astonished foreign visitors. The Frenchman Hyppolyte Taine commented on the “abject, miserable poverty” of the prostitutes he was in the streets. “it seemed as I were watching a march past of dead women” he wrote. Prostitutes were treated with extraordinary contempt. The most common euphemism were “outcasts” or “fallen women” but many newspapers refereed to them as “lepers”. The hatred that prostitution inspired derived from the double standard: if women were naturally pure, the “fallen” or “impure” women must be unnatural. Rather than consider the environmental causes of prostitution, it was assumed that prostitutes were perverted, lustful creatures, who deserved the misery of their life.
These unrealistic attitudes were not simply the product of male egotism and female hypocrisy, however. The recently urbanised middle classes were desperately unsure of their social position, and in consequence obsessed with respectability. Religious doubt, and the anxiety caused by rapid progress and change, led the Victorians to attach a high value to traditional symbols of goodness and innocence. The sanctification of mother, child, and home was an attempt to create a secular religion in the place of the old one, and to find a place of innocence and peace, a refuge of certainty amid growing conviction of man’s innate depravity. “home is the one perfectly pure earthly instinct which we have” wrote the historian Froude in 1849. The idealisation of innocent girls was a refuge from anxiety and religious doubt. Two poets of the end of the century, James Thomson and Ernest Dowson, both fell in love with 14-yers-old girls, and found in their passions the only convincing reply to the materialistic arguments that tormented them.
The end of the century saw a reaction against these ideas. This is the period of the “new woman”, the campaign for women’s rights, for votes and education for women, for rational dress and equal standards in sexual matters. Idealistic or emancipated experiments by believers in free love became common. Much of the literature of the 80s and 90s focuses on the “woman problem” and marriage laws, thought almost all of these novels end with the death of the free-loving heroine, as if the writers recognised that free love needed an apology.

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  1. Ireland

    Descrizione del termine double standard. Università di messina.