While I thoroughly enjoyed all the papers I heard at the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s fifth annual conference last Wednesday and Thursday, one I found particularly interesting was Cheryl Deedman’s analysis of ‘The importance of virtue and the protection of the female body’. Addressing the conference theme of ‘bodies’, she examined the peculiar balance between the passivity and activity required of the working-class female body in penny romantic fiction.
The price of these romantic dramas in instalments makes it very clear that they were aimed at working-class readers, many of them newly literate. It is equally clear, however, that they do not accurately reflect the reality of life for an ‘unprotected’ working-class girl in the mid-Victorian period. First and foremost, the heroines of these narratives display a level of passivity simply impossible for someone who is working to survive. Secondly, the moral of each of these stories appears to be that one’s virtue is more valuable than one’s life. During a period when many working-class couples simply could not afford to marry, the values these stories endorse seem slightly out of touch – indeed, it is very clear that these are middle-class values, which simply did not apply to working-class reality.
Interestingly, Deedman’s talk followed a paper by Anne-Marie Beller on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which pointed out that most popular fiction aimed a working class which was both newly literate and able to afford the cheap penny numbers was, in fact, written by middle-class authors. In a middle-class ideology which still felt that young women should be passive, not being required to work (ideally, as W.R. Greg stated, they should be ‘completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others’ – Why Are Women Redundant, 1869:5), the only thing they were expected to exercise active control over was their own body – a body reduced to the single defining characteristic of chastity. And, with the stereotype of uneducated people such as women, young people and working-class people being exceedingly vulnerable to the nefarious influence of novels and stories, this emphasis on middle-class instruction of the newly literate working class according to their own values could be seen as an extension of middle-class philanthropic work for the betterment of the poor – always on middle-class terms, of course.
It would be interesting to examine this emphasis on working women’s chastity in the context of other social debates which emerged during the period designated by Deedman, 1839-1889. Within the context of my dissertation research, I immediately thought of the neo-Malthusian debates which came to a head with Bradlaugh and Besant’s publication of the 1832 pamphlet Fruits of Philosophy, or: The private companion of young married couples. As S. Chandrasekhar points out in A Dirty, Filthy Book, a historicisation of the Besant/Bradlaugh trial,
‘During this period [1870s, 1880s] the social reformers went about preaching that couples had no right to have children unless they could adequately support them. This action countered to some extent the evangelical doctrine that “it is God who sends children, and He will in due course provide for them”.’ (1981: 47)
Besant’s advocacy of birth control for the working class directly opposed the suggestion put forward by many middle-class commentators concerned about overpopulation – which, particularly among the urban poor, was leading to serious overcrowding and loss of quality of life – that working-class couples should simply delay their marriage and abstain from sexual relations up to that time. This plays into Deedman’s observation that there is no hint of sexual or romantic desire as felt by the virtuous working-class heroines of the penny fiction she analysed. Until she whispers a compliant ‘yes’ to the hero’s proposal, there is no suggestion that the heroine is attracted to him at all. Similarly, those women who do fall pregnant and serve as a dire warning in the text are presented as failures and must die. Within this context, no blame is put on the men who impregnate them: according to the common notion at the time that men could not help their sexual urges (an argument often cited to justify the ‘inevitability’ of prostitution), the responsibility is placed solely on the woman to safeguard her virtue, for which she will be rewarded through marriage.
However, practical advocates of birth control realised that delayed marriage was not a viable solution, and blaming the mother for the birth of children and driving unmarried mothers into suicide or dangerous illegal abortions through false morality would not bring about material change. The subtitle of Fruits of Philosophy, as early as 1832, made clear that it saw the bearing and rearing of children as the responsibility of the ‘young married couple’, not of the woman only – despite the fact that most of the advice it gave pertained to the female body. During her trial, Annie Besant responded to the Solicitor-General’s suggestion that access to birth control might encourage women to be unchaste with the statement that ‘It was a calumny upon Englishwomen to suggest they kept chaste only by fear of maternity’. To be sure, she goes on to say that ‘women who entertained such an idea – sex outside marriage – were already depraved and not to be corrupted by this book’ (Anne Taylor, Annie Besant: A biography, 1992: 115) – but her point remains: the arguments given for the defence of virtue, in the fiction examined by Deedman as elsewhere, simultaneously imposed a middle-class morality and embraced derogatory stereotypes of precisely the young working women they attempted to elevate morally.
A further hypocrisy comes to light when we consider that the information on birth control which Besant and others were making available to the working class – precisely the people judged by the middle class for having too many children – was already available to middle-class women and had been instrumental in the enrichment of the middle class generally and the emancipation of its women. Thus, the moral instruction contained within romantic fiction produced for working-class consumption reinforced dominant discourses of oppression on moral grounds. Central to these seemingly innocent pieces of escapist fiction, then, as Deedman states, is the issue of ‘control over women’s bodies’.