Catalyst for change

The industrial revolution provides a change in class and home structure that makes society re-evaluate masculinity and femininity- male and female roles. People start migrated away from country and farming to cities and factory work. This change eventually created a middle class. Naturally this change lends to other change in the home, particularly male and female roles.    

What is a 'fallen woman'?

            A fallen woman is a Victorian woman with sexual experience. In almost every situation, a fallen woman has a "sexual trespass that produced her fall" (Auerbach 30). Fallen woman are popularly prostitutes, which were very common during the Victorian era. The fallen women is the opposite of the ideal women. However, the husbands of ideal women will still turn to fallen women for sexual experiences. Ideal women are regarded as innocent and angelic and society teaches that they need to be kept that way and often that excludes them from any sexual experiences, even after marriage. Although the majority of prostitutes' clients are "bachelors postponing marriage... middle-class youths... soldiers and sailors...and so on" (Tosh, "Historians with Masculinity", 182). Men also turned to homosexuality but although the "'gay life' was very remained firmly out of sight" (Tosh, "Historians with Masculinity", 182). Due to sexual promiscuity through prostitutes STDs spread through society. In 1864 the first Contagious Diseases Act was enacted. This law held women responsible for the spread of STDs; therefore, doctors could legally examine any woman, or mechanically rape her, upon suspicion.  

What is a 'new woman'?

            The Victorian new woman has multiple identities. She is a "feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwrite, a woman poet" (Ledger 1). This feminine character was just rising in the Victorian Era- it becomes much more popular and developed after the Victorian era. She is often just a woman wanting to become independent of men and willing to step outside conventions of the ideal woman. Lady Audley in Lady Audley's Secret by Braddon encompasses elements of a new woman. Lady Audley is abandoned by her husband--he goes off to make a fortune in Australia, but we do not know if he will return. So Lady Audley takes matters into her own hands and decides to leave her child with her father and make a new life for herself. She changes her name and becomes a governess. She then advances through society using her beauty and masked intellect, eventually marrying a rich old widower. However, her first husband returns and discovers her so she pushes him down a well. Lady Audley is an ideal woman up front, but is willing to step outside those limitations to use her intellect and strive to make a better life for herself and become independent of her first husband and child--these are attributes of a new woman. (Braddon).

The Lady of Shalott

            "The Lady of Shalott" by Tennyson shows us an ideal woman trying to break away from conventions. The Lady of Shalott stays inside the house and is very innocent and delicate. In a painting rendition by John Waterhouse, she is with her knitting work in front of her while looking through the mirror, a very domestic activity. So she fits this ideal domestic and feminine role. However, she decides that she is "half sick of shadows" and breaks away from the confinement of the house and feminine role (Tennyson 71). In consequence of breaking away from this tradition a curse comes upon her and she dies before she ever gets to Camelot. Through "The Lady of Shalott" we see the tension of the limiting feminine ideal in society and women trying to break away from that ideal.     

Femininity: 'Ideal woman'

            Traditionally femininity equated a picture of a "fragile heroine, pure and innocent, more attached to virginity than to life" (Basch XV). In the Victorian era, there emerged three different types of women: the ideal woman, the new woman, and the fallen woman. Traditional femininity is representative of the ideal Victorian woman. The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore became a defining poem for the ideal woman. An ideal woman pleases men and to please "is a woman's pleasure," she is also "too gentle even to force," and when the man does something wrong she is expected to give pardon before he asks and then weep as if "the sin was hers" when he asks for the pardon (Patmore 2, 9, 16). The home was supposed to be feminine, a place for "nurture and love" (Tosh, "A Man's Place", 47). 

One affects the other

            Sloan points out that the "fantasy of ideal femininity...also entails a very problematic fantasy of ideal masculinity, a fantasy which would have generated at least as much ideological tension for Victorian men as it did for Victorian women" (53). Therefore, as the roles of masculinity are being re-defined, the roles of femininity are being re-evaluated also. They do not act independently of one another.

Ulysses: two roles of masculinity

            In “Ulysses” by Tennyson we examine two different male roles through the father and the son. The father's role is an adventurer, explorer and fighter. This is a common role for Victorian men because they were charged with the responsibility to explore colonies and claim land for the glory of the empire. The father craves "to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ of all the western starts, until [he] die[s]" (Tennyson 60-61). Socially this is an accepted male duty and role. This role is contrasted with the role of the son. The son's role in "Ulysses" is to stay at home and rule the land. There is a lot of tension about the son's duty because it could be interpreted as a feminine role. The son must "through soft degrees/ subdue [the people] to the useful and the good" (Tennyson 37-38). Men are traditionally supposed to be hard, not fulfilling the "offices of tenderness" (Tennyson 41). It is also a very domestic and feminine role to stay at home and take care of things while the father, or man, goes off to gather glory and riches. However, socially ruling is an acceptable role for a man. Queen Victoria claimed that in order to be a good women--to be "feminine and amiable and domestic"--women were "not fitted to reign" (Victorian Era LII). Therefore, she let her husband, Albert, rule the country for the short time he was alive. She was very submissive to his will and opinion and more took upon herself the domestic mother role (Victorian Era LII). Therefore, this tension built in "Ulysses" starts to expand our view of the male roles that are socially acceptable.   

All men the same?

               So do all Victorian ‘men’ meet Kipling’s requirements? We examine soldiers in war, a traditional masculine role, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson. The soldiers exemplify honor, duty, and a loyalty to their country and superiors as they ride into war. They are obedient and courageous, never doubting, even though they are “the six hundred” “charging an army” (Tennyson 26, 30). There is a sense of impending doom upon the soldiers as they ride “into the valley of death” (Tennyson, 16). The poem gives a sense of doubt as the poem moves onward. “Some one had blundered” sending them to war and “all the world wondered” (Tennyson 12, 31). This doubt backhandedly challenges the honor and praise given to the six hundred because it suggests that someone should have challenged this charge. This is regarded as one of Tennyson's "political poems" and represents his desire for change in the British system (Sypher 102). The poem suggests the need for change to minimize mistakes like the call that led the six hundred to their deaths. The praise and honor given to the soldiers combined with the sense that someone with a higher ranking had blundered suggests that the change needs to be with the higher authorities--someone needs to check their decisions. However, the one who made the call that lead the six hundred facing an army does not fit Kipling's requirements of a 'man'. The man behind that call trusted himself while "all the world wondered", when he should have made "allowance for their doubting" (Tennyson 31) (Kipling 4). Kipling's requirements for a Victorian man are ideal, but they are not realistic. So what are the common characteristics of a Victorian male?    


Society was based on a patriarchal system in the Victorian Era. Even though women were expected to be in the home and supervise all the servants the household authority "was a pyramidal structure with the father at the top (Tosh, "A Man's Place", 25). Female ideals were taken from the upper class, and masculine ideals were also reflected with that standard. Among the traditional masculine roles are: gentleman, prophet, priest, and soldier (Adams). But what is a gentleman? During this era, society allows men to qualify for the title 'gentleman' rather than just inheriting it from birth; however, because of this masculinity and gentility are expected to be the same thing—to be a proper man you should be a gentleman. John Tosh defines masculinity, or gentility, as both a psychic and social identity. Masculinity is a psychic identity because the “subjectivity of every male” as masculinity “takes shape in infancy and childhood” (Tosh, "Historians with Masculinity", 198). It is a social identity because masculinity is “inseparable from peer recognition” and also “depends on performance in the social sphere” (Tosh, "Historians with Masculinity", 198). This blurs the lines even more in defining a gentleman through proper masculinity. "If" by Rudyard Kipling defines characteristics of masculinity so that boys can grow up to be men. However, “If” sets up a characteristic and then limits that characteristic in a way that logically seems contradictory. For example, “trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too” (Kipling, 3-4). So when everyone doubts you, trust yourself and do not yield. But when everyone doubts you, listen to their opinion and yield. Easy enough, right? The characteristics are very ideal Christian values as they stride toward perfection. However, the poem ends with, then “…you’ll be a man, may son!” (Kipling 32). This almost leaves a sense of desperation because you cannot be a man until you master all of the characteristics in the poem. You are so glad that you have the key to becoming a man and then you realize that it is unattainable. Crushing limitations weigh down upon masculinity as society expects perfection from men. 


In about 1780, Britain begins what is now known as the industrial revolution (Mathias, 14-16). Later, Queen Victoria takes the throne in 1837 marking a rough beginning for the Victorian Era (Royal Household). Therefore, Britain's industrial revolution was well underway when the Victorian Era began. The industrial revolution promoted a great migration of people from the country and farming to cities and factory work. A middle class emerged in British society as the industrial revolution continued to boom. This migration and class change opened up the re-evaluation and complexity of masculinity and femininity.

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