Laura Morgan Green. Educating Women: Cultural Conflict and Victorian Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. xiii + 153 pp. $42.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8214-1403-3.
Reviewed by Pat Starkey (School of History, University of Liverpool, UK)
Published on H-Women (March, 2003)
The inadequacy of English girls' education in England became increasingly evident during the 1840s, exposing the failure of traditional moral and domestic training, most particularly in its inability to equip increasing numbers of single, self-supporting middle-class women for any sort of satisfying work which would enable them to earn a reasonable living. The customary occupation of such women, that of being governesses, was destined to make them fail in the dual task of earning a living while maintaining their "appropriate role as reproducers of the domestic ideal": their inadequate education made them ill-fitted to teach others and it also left them ill-fitted to earn their living in any other way (p. 11).
Pressure to bring about change and to expand educational opportunities for women, particularly within higher education, occupied the thoughts and energies of many middle-class women and not a few middle-class men in England during the second half of the nineteenth century, and resulted in the gradual but inexorable entry of women into the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge as well as into many of the new universities founded during the period. Laura Morgan Green's thought-provoking book explores both the ideas which informed this movement and some of the responses it evoked as they are expressed in representations of women's lives in the nineteenth-century domestic novel. By so doing, she demonstrates that this was not necessarily perceived as an unmitigated good, even by women. Moreover, a lack of enthusiasm about the solution to this dilemma proposed by pioneers like Emily Davies--the entry of women into higher education on the same terms as men--can be detected in some of the novels she has chosen.
Morgan Green's first chapter examines the rhetoric of the movement for the higher education of women and the ways in which traditional teaching about women's role was negotiated and subverted in the writings of activists like Emily Davies, Josephine Butler, and Barbara Bodichon, as they both resisted and reclaimed the traditional female role within domestic ideology. For example, practising Anglicans like Davies and Butler found it necessary to give lip service to traditional Pauline teaching about the subjection of women while also appearing to undermine it. As Morgan Green shows, Davies frequently spoke with a forked tongue, using an apparently orthodox vocabulary to express ideas of potentially radical import. Davies was not alone, of course. Butler's ambivalence, demonstrated in her active membership of the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women and her willing acceptance of a public role, is also expressed in her biography of Catharine of Siena whom she applauds for accepting personal guidance from God which allowed her to contravene Paul's injunctions. Nor was this just an English phenomenon. In Sweden, Sophie Leijonhufvud rebutted theological arguments against giving women the opportunity to pursue their education, while claiming an adherence to traditional Christian doctrine and arguing that this posed no danger to true femininity.
This tension between the domestic ideal and those aspirations aroused as a consequence of greater educational opportunity--the latter not necessarily the intention of the founders of institutions like Bedford College and Queens' College in the 1840s--and the importance of what she calls the marriage plot within the domestic novel, provide the dominant themes explored in Morgan Green's chosen texts. In Chapter Two, she examines how this is played out in Jane Eyre. In a carefully argued exposition, she demonstrates the way in which Charlotte Bronte transformed Jane's situation as a self-supporting middle-class woman from one of a confession of failure to a condition of possibility, but claims that this was achieved only by the transformation of the eponymous heroine from Rochester's employee and Adele's governess to Rochester's wife and Adele's mother, thus fulfilling alternative strategies for feminine ambition--career and marriage--without fundamentally altering their competing narratives (p. 27). As Morgan Green argues, Bronte continues to hold to domesticity as the highest ideal.
Chapter Three considers the case of Anna Harriette Leonowens and the purportedly autobiographical accounts of her life as a governess in Siam, contained in her memoir The English Governess at the Siamese Court and her book The Romance of the Harem. Morgan Green demonstrates the varied threads that are woven throughout Leonowens's narrative. These are dominated by a self-making which necessitates a re-writing, if not a denial, of her own early experience within a context of nineteenth-century colonial notions of difference and inferiority, informed and reinforced by religious considerations and the different and competing mores of Christianity and Buddhism. The failure of the marriage plot, so central to many novelistic representations of Victorian women but so inappropriate in her case, is transformed into the successful, if less than honest, portrayal of herself as a woman who resisted the temptation to acquire a sort of status by becoming a royal concubine and who remained true to her mission as a teacher of Western ideals of freedom to an Eastern despot and the sexually abused women of his court. In the process of re-inventing herself, she also uses the underlying notions of western superiority to re-invent the person of the king and the experience of many Siamese women. For example, she carefully ignores the King of Siam's erudition and the fact that many women in Siam enjoyed educational opportunities and the possibility of reaching positions of high status and responsibility that were denied to their sisters in England.
George Eliot began to write Middlemarch at about the same time as Emily Davies welcomed the first students to her college in Hitchin. Her novel is set forty years earlier, before the Reform Bill of 1832, and is used to express Eliot's unease about institutionalised knowledge systems and her conviction that they tended to degenerate into mediocrity while neglecting the moral development that she believed to lie at the heart of the educational project. Although Eliot is held to have been reticent about Emily Davies's plans that her new female college should emulate Cambridge's male colleges, Morgan Green sees in Middlemarch's mockery of the Oxbridge tradition and its particular system of classical learning, as personified by Casaubon, a legible account of what Eliot believed to its most undesirable characteristics. As Morgan Green notes, Eliot was not alone in her belief that new institutions ought to be free from the vices of the old; other educational reformers, too, were dismayed at the path that Davies took. But to have allowed Girton to develop its own curriculum would seriously have undermined Davies' ambitions that her students should prove themselves able to compete on equal terms with male undergraduates within an institutional framework that protected the students against the demands of families and family concerns. Anything less would, to her mind, have given way to domestic ideological aspirations. Those women valorised by Eliot, however, like Dorothea in Middlemarch, and like Eliot herself, were more than content to remain outside educational institutions.
In Chapter Five, Morgan Green considers the conflict between the Victorian understanding of masculine and feminine intellect as essentially opposed mental forces and the modern understanding that sees intellect as androgynous. She explores the work of Thomas Hardy, whom she credits with being at least partly responsible for the changes that had taken place in the representation of sex and gender since Eliot's death in 1880, and in a carefully worked argument explores the intersections between gender, class and intellectual ambition. The tensions between the entry of women into higher education and even the professions, together with their pursuit of entry into political influence through suffrage, and what Morgan Green characterises as the protoscientific theorising of women, exemplified by Herbert Spencer and the Darwinian evolutionary theorists, led to the more explicitly embodied and sexualised discourses of women which receive expression in Hardy's work. For example, in Jude the Obscure, Hardy puts into Jude's mind the notion that women, with their emotional, financial and sexual demands, are one explanation for his failure. And in A Pair of Blue Eyes, it is women's intellectual ambition that leaves them prey to male sexuality. Elfride Swancourt provides a good example; her admiration for Henry Knight and the literary world she assumes him to inhabit, exposes her to sexual scandal. Hardy's novels also demonstrate the extent to which the realization of male and female intellectual ambition always had a social dimension. For example, Elfride's father forbids her relationship with Stephen Smith, not because he was intellectually her inferior but because of the gap in their social status. This reflects some of Hardy's personal history for, like Leonowens, he is chary about revealing too much detail relating to his early, relatively humble, origins, but fulsome in accounts of his later social and intellectual successes.
Laura Morgan Green's excellent book is both enjoyable and stimulating. It is written in an accessible style, and will be greatly appreciated by students of both literature and history.
. Josephine Butler, Catharine of Siena: A Biography (London, 1878), p. 72.
. Inger Hammer, "From Fredrika Bremer to Ellen Key: Calling, Gender and the Emancipation Debate in Sweden, c. 1830-1900," in Gender and Vocation: Women, Religion and Social Change in the Nordic Countries, 1830-1900 ed. P. Markkola (Helsinki, 2000), pp. 47-48.
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Pat Starkey. Review of Green, Laura Morgan, Educating Women: Cultural Conflict and Victorian Literature.
H-Women, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.