English, Department of


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A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: English. Under the Supervision of Professor Robert D. Stock. Lincoln, Nebraska: December, 2008. Copyright (c) 2008 Sylvie Shires.


Modern audiences have come to believe that the nineteenth-century woman was oppressed by a patriarchal society and that until women obtained the vote, they had no voice, and could exert no influence to improve either their lot or that of others. While many scholarly secondary sources, as well as popular culture, strongly support this view, this research challenges it, and posits that this generally accepted interpretation echoes stereotypes that became strong with the second wave of feminism, in the 1960s, but is not representative of nineteenth-century middle-class women in the Anglo-Saxon world.

This research examines the British middle-class woman of the nineteenth century as she defined herself or as her male contemporaries saw her through works of fiction and non-fiction and through various areas where women were particularly active, within the home and without.

The nineteenth century is considered here in its extended length: approximately from the dawn of the French Revolution to the sunset of Victorianism, immediately following the Great War.

Drawing examples from history as well as from fiction, this study focuses on examining primary sources, whether biographies or essays, as well as short stories, novels, and occasionally poems, with women as authors or central characters. Furthermore, artwork, so abundant and so valued through the period, is used here to provide a more exhaustive understanding of nineteenth-century men and women and to see with their own eyes how they perceived life, their aspirations, and themselves rather than to rely on the image projected by contemporary scholars and echoed by the media.

The British middleclass woman of the nineteenth century emerges from this study as multi-talented, educated, purposeful, extremely feminine, and widely influential upon her society, even without the vote.

The span of the period studied further reveals that despite technological differences, the ideals and motivations of women, and men, remained much the same and were significantly infused with the strength of their Christian beliefs.