Ruskin And Dickens: The Nature And Role Of Women

2688 words - 11 pages

Amidst the controversy related to `the woman question' in the Victorian age, many writers still agreed that women and men were essentially different and ought to complement each other, not compete for equality. This `separate spheres' ideology, derived from Puritan conceptions of marriage and family, was especially popular in mid-19th century, and put an emphasis on home as the only haven from the harsh industrialised world (Oxford Companion to Dickens, 2000:188).

"Of Queen's Gardens" by John Ruskin is the elaborate statement of this ideology, supported by examples from world literature. The domestic ideal as presented by Ruskin is in various ways portrayed and discussed by Dickens in ...view middle of the document...

Women, after all, had a different physical and emotional nature than men, and their function in life was to complement men, to balance them, being precious exactly by being different.

All these views were based on different conceptions on the nature of women, whether women were inferior, equal, or simply different. The nature of woman as discussed by Victorians would apply not only to the institution of marriage, but also to the role of woman as a mother, a daughter, a sister and a member of society, to the way she should be educated, and her status in relation to men. The most popular works of the age dealing with the subject were "On Queen's Gardens" (1865) by Ruskin, and a sentimental poem by Coventry Patmore, "The Angel in the House", both noted for quite an idealised portrayal of women and praise of "household gods", or domesticity. Many believed in the "supposed intellectual inferiority of women" (Norton, 2000:1719). Tennyson stated in his Loxley Hall that "Woman is the lesser man", which I believe many automatically assumed to be true.

It was important for anyone wishing to discuss the role of women first to establish what their nature was. Ruskin's lecture "On Queen's Gardens", which is a part of a larger work called Sesame and Lilies, is a study in the nature and role of women, in how one ought to define their womanhood and how exactly is a woman to complement a man. Then he goes on further to discuss the general influence women may (and should) have on the society, and even accuses them of not having made this influence on contemporaries in rather strong expressions.

Ruskin begins by defining "the relations of the womanly to the manly nature" and rejecting the polarised notions he assumes to be wrong. He deems it impossible to speak of individual rights and mission of woman, because they cannot possibly be separated from those of man. He also rejects the idea that "woman is only the shadow and attendant image of her lord, owing him a thoughtless and servile obedience...- as if he could be effectively helped by a shadow, or worthily by a slave!"

Many Victorians would agree, no matter what their position, that "woman's role was to be accepted as divinely willed" (Norton, 2000:1719). Ruskin reminds his audience that woman was initially created as a helper for man, as stated in Genesis 2:18. Wouldn't it be only proper and godly to allow her to be a suitable helper if that was what she was designed to be? Her every quality and every aim should be then developed according to her divine call and God-created nature. Ruskin finds his evidence to challenge the contemporary assumptions in the best works of literature. There, nothing is said of male superiority and command as well as those calls for liberation that have nothing to do with woman's role as a helper. He finds that women have a guiding function in works of Shakespeare and Walter Scott: "It is the woman who watches over, teaches, and guides the youth; it is never the...

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