Domestic Ideology and the Theory of Separate Spheres, Parts I & II
Sarah Stickney Ellis, from The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (656-658)
Sarah Stickney Ellis was a firm believer in women's education and started a girls' school in the 1840s (656). Ellis wrote The Women of England as "a manual of inspirational advice" (654). Under the section "Disinterested Kindness," she comments on the power that men are granted from birth. They automatically receive more privileges than women, and men striving for more power and success are, according to Ellis, "misleading their steps" towards a more desirable future for gender equality (656). She repeatedly uses "wordly" to describe man's yearning for "aggrandizement" and "pride," showing how all men, whether consciously or not, are subject to leading the household and providing for the family. Addressing the women of England collectively, Ellis states that they are more instructed than any other country, making English women more valuable to society since they are not as constricted to the home as other countries without these privileges. I don't necessarily agree with this due to this being limited to only children in middle- and upper-class families, whose families didn't need children to fill the role of a servant. Her attitude towards education for women is not inclusive to all races and socioeconomic classes. In addition, Ellis promotes domesticity. To maintain the high ideals set in England, girls don't need education regarding science or math because those subject areas are better suited for men. It still sounds like her support for women's education is very limited in scope. She then notes that there is greater effort placed in teaching a girl Latin than there is for teaching her to be "disinterestedly kind" (658). In her mind, why should women spend time trying to learn Latin when they could easily care for the family without great effort made? Ellis ends this section by sharing her hope for young women to begin and end her day contemplating what she can do to make her family happy (658). Overall, this section assumes that men are born with pride and selfishness, and that women should not strive to attain the same qualities. Women should follow suit with their predecessors and stick to their traditional gender roles. While Ellis believed in the idea that women should receive an education, she thought it should be limited to English ideals for womanhood, which negatively impacts the strides she made for women, or rather English women only.
Coventry Patmore, from "The Angel in the House" (659-660)
Coventry Patmore dedicated this poem to his wife, whom he had believed was the perfect woman who maintained the highest ideals a woman could attain. This is reflected in the religious and romantic language used in the poem. While this flowery language may seem romantic, Patmore reveals the pedestals middle-class women are placed on during the Victorian Era. In the first stanza, Patmore references the Roman goddess Juno, who presides "over the married life of women" (659). He describes nature in such a capacity that he believes women are as perfect as nature created by God. He writes the song-like poem as "a worthy hymn in woman's praise" (15), comparing his wife to an angel who lives in his home who can compare to no other living creature. He calls her "the best half of creation's best," a significant title to place upon women. This emphasizes certain expectations that Victorian women at this time had to uphold to maintain angelic virtues. Patmore seems to capture only the emotional sense of Victorian women, downplaying women's value by stating "its heart to feel, its eye to see, / the crown and complex of the rest" (30-31). He recognizes that his wife has a heart to experience emotions and eyes to rest upon him and only him, but he never once mentions her brain or hints at her mental capacity to improve herself. She is no more than her heart and emotions. He recognizes her as "Maid and Wife," using capital letters to give significance to her role in the home (38). The last two lines describe the theory of separate spheres, reading "the nuptial contrasts are the poles / on which the heavenly spheres revolve" (63-64). Patmore recognizes a necessary balance between the husband and wife, and man and woman. Woman and wife are supposed to be pure, gentle, and beautiful, while man and husband are supposed to be noble, supportive, and powerful. This poem resonates an attitude held towards women in the household. Patmore's viewpoint is limited to his experiences as a man, even admitting his "thoughts lie cramp'd in narrow scope," but he dares not to challenge gender roles at this time to restrain from destroying the perfect balance of the separated gender spheres. I used a creative Thanos meme to connect the desire to maintain this balance. While Patmore didn't have access to an infinity gauntlet, Victorian men were weary to stray from gender norms and wanted women and wives to stay in their place. To upset this balance would mean disrupting home culture and the ideals of domesticity. At least feminists after the Victorian era didn't need to snap their fingers to wipe out half of humanity to eventually gain more freedom from ideologies of true womanhood.
John Ruskin, from "Of Queen's Gardens" (660-662)
This essay is a straightforward depiction of domestic ideology and separate spheres that existed in the Victorian era. Ruskin begins his essay clearly stating each gender's purpose. The man is supposed to be exposed to the dangers of the outside world, while the woman is to remain protected from these dangers, as well as temptations towards these dangers, and stay in the home. Similar to Patmore, Ruskin's choices in capitalizing "Praise," "Peace," "Household Gods," and "Home" relate to how he wants female readers to interpret his text. This raises awareness towards what women should consider important in their household. What's more frightening of a concept is that the home, Ruskin argues, is "always round [the wife]" (661). No matter where the woman goes, even when she leaves the home, she must resist temptation to stray from her role as a wife. The woman's duties require her to be an angel of the house, similar to Patmore's idealization of his wife. Ruskin's ideas, which were widely regarded when these essays were published, contribute to the responsibilities husbands and wives have in the Victorian world.
Florence Nightingale, from Cassandra (672-676)
Florence Nightingale's Cassandra is prefaced with the fact that it was written while she had contemplated suicide in her unsatisfying life. This gave me a profound lens with which to read this piece. The excerpt begins with the fact that men are angered by women complaining about their place in the world. For women to complain about not being able to have a voice and a meaningful place in society is trivial in comparison to what men are capable of doing in the Victorian era. One of the quotations that best captures the role that domesticity plays in the lives of Victorian women is the following statement: "If she has a knife and fork in her hands for three hours of the day, she cannot have a pencil or brush" (673). Nightingale shows that women spend far too much time in the home (kitchen in this instance) as opposed to exploring talents in their free time (like art). Nightingale notices that women have trained themselves to look in the mirror and recognize that they are not as valuable as men. Their time, a valuable commodity, should not be spent using intellectual thought, but rather improving home life. She sadly comments that a woman using her time to advance herself is selfish, yet she almost comically admits that the perfect union between husband and wife does not exist. Men and women during this era would probably agree with Nightingale, which is troubling to know given that these ideals for women were praised regardless. Overall, these excerpts show how truly unbalanced the spheres that Ruskin and Patmore promote truly are. Through Nightingale's female perspective, the Victorian woman can truly be understood and recognized, and from her accord, it appears that one sphere is more privileged than the other. This excerpt ultimately shows that she has a great empathy for women's satisfaction and purpose in life, whereas Patmore and Ruskin have opposing viewpoints in this matter.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (170)
The YouTube video below showcases Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" as a music composition I performed in advanced choir during high school. As a sophomore in high school, we analyzed the text as a love poem, but analyzing it now as a junior in college, I observe many sexual themes. The first stanza describes a calm evening where flowers are sleeping and the wind has stilled. The fireflies illuminate the dusk, and the semi-colon that separates this from the phrase, "waken thou with me" suggests that there is a subtle, sexual passion that awakens in man when nature goes to sleep at night. The text we performed replaced peacock with dove, which correlates to the color of white representing purity. The woman is represented through the elements of nature, like the petals, the fish, and the peacock/dove. A peacock is normally vibrant with many colors, but Tennyson describes it with a different color to further emphasize the angelic characteristics of the woman he's fallen in love with. Even at night when the workday is complete, women must remain enclosed in their Victorian virtues. Comparing her to a ghost may imply that the woman he lusts over is actually quite dead inside from an unsatisfying home life, yet Tennyson overlooks this and finds beauty in her still. The footnotes describe the Greek princess Danaë used in the next stanza. Tennyson describes the brilliance of the stars in the sky, and how the sky's exposure should match the vulnerability of the woman at night. The sky is open and limitless, and Tennyson wants this lover to feel the same way towards him, that her love for him should be this great. Her heart should be as open as the night sky, as should be with all Victorian women. The next stanza compares the woman's thoughts of the lover to a meteor in the sky. At this point in the song, the volume is forte and there is great expression. This fiery glow can relate to passion involved with intercourse. This only remains a thought, however, because sexual intercourse was not supposed to be discussed in public. Tennyson masks this in order to uphold his reputation in Victorian society. What a sly man. In the last stanza, the song diminishes to the quiet and calm volume as the first stanza. He describes his lover as a lily who closes her off from the rest of the world, everything above the lake water, only to belong to the man before her. Now that the worries of the world are closed for the day, the only matter the woman should attain to is the man. In the last two lines, he asks his lover to fold her bosom, or naked chest, into his to be forever separated from the outside world. He asks her to "be lost in me," which one can be interpreted as a progressed stage in intercourse. Analyzing this poem after so many years since performing it, I wonder if it is an appropriate text to be performing in a high school setting. Alas, it all comes down to perspective, and from a focused analytic lens, the sexual themes are apparent underneath the nature-like imagery, which is ultimately why Tennyson got away with publishing a promiscuous poem.
In response to the study questions provided from the Prezi slides over “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” the natural imagery is representative of the Victorian view of female sexuality in that is must be pure and it must be kept sacred between the man and husband. Her heart and her passions towards her husband must be kept open alive, as compared to the stars and the meteor. The natural imagery itself is also representing sexuality without explicitly talking about it. This relates to how sexuality was not permissible to be discussed openly through Victorian virtues. In response to whether the poem is about female desire or male domination, I would favor the latter due to the protectiveness the man shares over the women throughout the poem. At night when she is no longer tied to any outside commitments, she belongs fully to him and must be attentive to him, beautiful to him, open to him, pursuing all thoughts to him, and be lost in him, as suggested by the last lines of each stanza. Since this poem is told in the perspective of a man favoring his lover, I don’t think Tennyson is capable of capturing the essence of what female sexuality is like without being a female himself.