Commentary on “Curse Not!” and “A Sweet Revenge”

Introduction to our Editions of “Curse Not!” and “A Sweet Revenge

Anne Blombach, Nele Leitolf and Alina Pohlmann

For our edition we wanted to explore the ambiguity of popular recognition The British Workwoman received amongst the female readership by the reference to two separate stories; firstly, A Sweet Revenge, printed in Issue No. 234 on page 42, and secondly Curse not, printed in Issue No. 236 on page 59. Our project was constructed to the academic benefit of students in Higher Education, who wish to develop an insight into the Victorian reader and their motivation.

Compared to other periodicals published on BLT19, The British Workwoman, even though operated by an establishment of men, employs its target to provide a periodical for a British-metropolitan market gap: the working-class women, which other magazines, such as The British Workman, which launched a few years earlier in 1855, inefficiently represent.

Its illustrations portray modest women in domestic settings, in the household or in nature, and sometimes in the company of children, communicating that woman’s “work” is to make valuable contributions to society, dedicating their lives to motherhood, and aspiring to virtuous standards, whilst men were providing an income, and enjoyed themselves in the social sphere.

Realism became the dominant literary mode in the nineteenth century, featuring a reflection of the banality of everyday life instead of romanticised presentation; a prevalent style in The British Workwoman. Due to the lower prices of serial publications, working-class readers were the main consumer of long-running novels and literary magazines, and even increased due to Forster’s Education Act of 1870, that allowed more children from a working class background, as well as girls, to be schooled, contributing to the market. Much like the works of Charles Dickens, which were published in serial issues, realist stories deal with the hardships of the working class, whereas female authors such as Emily Brontë explore religious hypocrisy, the subject of social class and morality as, for example, in her Gothic novel Wuthering Heights. However, where realist and gothic literature provide indications of social criticism, The British Workwoman merely endorses social norms.

A Sweet Revenge exemplifies the ideologies of The British Workwoman that are propagated across the issues, advocating the representation of Victorian womanhood within the domestic sphere, and portraying women as compliant to the patriarchal and moral organism of society. It follows the narrative of an orphan called Clara, who throughout indulges in conflicting thoughts on vengeance and forgiveness, while struggling to support herself until she is married. In the end, choosing virtue above malevolence, she is rewarded with financial stability. In the commentary we question why the depiction of vulnerability, dependency, and morality in women was widely idealised and pursued, even though the rise of The New Woman brought controversy to an argumentatively oppressive ethos.

Curse Not however, utilises an opposing approach to the significance of moral, replacing the reward for goodness with punishment of profanity, as it follows the example of an sinful mother, who rejects God, and is cursed with a one-armed child. By directly addressing mothers to teach their children to love God, it promotes the righteous qualities of responsible parenting, singularly expected from women. This relates to the acknowledgment of Lord Shaftesbury, British Conservative politician and social reformer who publicly supported The British Workwoman, that “it is bad enough if you corrupt the man, but if you corrupt the woman, you poison the waters of life at the very fountain.”, indicating that the magazine anticipates the nationally communicated stance on impacting working-class women to raise decent men.

Particularly in the Commentary we are evaluating the reputation of The British Workwoman from a contemporary feminist perspective that blurs the image of the ideal by analysing the objective of the stories in regards to Victorian society. While observing the gender inequality, we also question how the role of female servants and urbanisation in response to economic growth affect the popularity of the magazine, and why targeting working-class women was successful.

Our Annotations allude, on one hand, to the representation of religion, female morality, and duties of a woman as a wife, a mother, and a member of the community and the church, whilst also noting the use of language, and the socio-historical context needed to comprehend the outwardly ordinary narratives on a level that allow to profoundly engage with the material; setting up ideas to be examined in the Commentary.

In our Creative Response we revise the principles embodied within A Sweet Revenge, and modify the narrative to fit the model of progression. Whilst we remain in 19th Century Britain, we alternatively set the story in London, and challenged the character of Mary to develop independently from her poor background and her husband by contrasting her beliefs with the serendipitous meeting of prominent feminist figures of the time, such as Amy Levi and Ada Levenson, when previously having interacted with the ideologies of The British Workwoman itself. This way, we are able to contrast the opposing ideas, and demonstrate how a woman might individually react to the enlightenment of her manifested beliefs, whilst furthermore exploring our question of why women were drawn to the safety of the patriarchy.

Why was The British Workwoman so popular amongst female readers?

There are several recurring themes found in the stories published in The British Workwoman: “A Sweet Revenge” is about female Christian virtue and morality, while “Curse not!” is about societal expectations of childcare and the “cult of true womanhood”. Both texts vigorously reproduce gender norms of Victorian Britain, and promote female domesticity in accordance with a patriarchal societal structure. From a modern feminist perspective, this poses an obvious question: Why did women read this magazine? It goes without saying that our modern feminist perception of equality is incomparable to Victorian gender stereotypes. However, the nineteenth century also bore texts like Wilde’s Salomé and Ada Leverson’s “Suggestion”, which explore feminist preoccupation, such as gender norms, homosexuality and female agency. In comparison, at least from a modern perspective, The British Workwoman seems backwards, oppressive and mundane. And yet, the magazine was widely read within and beyond the borders of Britain for half a decade. In furtherance of this project, we cannot help but ask ourselves: Why was The British Workwoman so popular amongst women?

Firstly, it is important to assess the conditions working-class women were living under in Victorian Britain. The rise of industrial capitalism attracted women to new employment possibilities across a growing range of sectors. The 1861 occupation Census gives us special insight into the rising level of women’s participation in the labour force, and furthermore, points to the target audience of The British Workwoman. The magazineaccepted that waged labour was a necessity for many women to sustain themselves (like Clara in A Sweet Revenge) or their family. Nevertheless, the magazine propagated the opinion that a woman’s work should be confined to domestic spaces, either through work in their own home, like dress mending or basket making, or as a domestic servant. In contrast to the information found in the 1861 occupation consensus, The British Workwoman re-enforced the “ideology of two spheres”, an inherently patriarchal notion of public and private spheres. The ideology characterises the public sphere of governance, politics, the law and higher education as male, while confining women to the private, domestic sphere. This gendered patriarchal ideal of the “holy household” was reproduced not only in The British Workwoman, but across all aspects of life: politics, arts, employment. With it, the magazine participated in the prevailing discourse on gender in Victorian Britain, promoting a divide between public and private, and a subordinate position of women within it.

From a modern feminist perspective, this notion is highly oppressive. It excludes women from public life, higher education and agency that is not confined to domestic spaces. From a Victorian male perspective, there was reason behind restricting women to domestic spaces: women, especially in their role as mothers or as prospective mothers, were regarded as morally infallible. Clara in A Sweet Revenge poses a good example for the idealised morality of women: Instead of giving way to her thoughts of vengeance over Stephen Sexton, she maintains the moral high ground, and her circumstances become all the better for it. Women’s apparently flawless Christian virtue made them ethical guides for men and children, which is why childcare, naturally, was women’s work. As life givers and cares for the next generation of honourable Christians and maintainers of a domestic haven for the hard-working husband, women were regarded as the foundation of a well functioning society which socialises its members as obedient, religious citizens. The British Workwoman took it so far as to portray this supposed vital influence of women as the reason they need not vote: “it will, perhaps, never be known to what extent laws have been made and nations ruled by women. Is there an election where she has not taken part in her influence despite not having the vote?”

For modern feminists, this perception of women poses several problems. While women were supposedly morally superior to men, they were regarded as intellectually and physically inferior, which resulted in the idea that men needed to protect women. If an assumed need for protection results in the exclusion of women from public life and an absence of female agency, like it did in Victorian Britain, it ultimately serves to oppress women, leaving them at the mercy of the opposite sex. Assuming an intellectual inferiority in women is evidently misogynistic in itself.

Not all working class-women accepted “the ideology of two spheres” as the status quo. Perhaps empowered by New Women fiction and the rise of decadent literature, early feminists were challenging Victorian gender and societal norms. While conservative mediums, like The British Workwoman, championed domestic women as a paragon of virtue, New Women fiction and decadent literature posed an existential threat to the inherently patriarchal structure of Victorian Britain. Most reforming feminists of the time accepted marriage, which was at the centre of Victorian British gender norms, as an institution, but demanded it be made more equal. In fact, little of marriage law had been changed since feudal times. Married women had no legal existence, all money earned by a married woman automatically became her husband’s property. Additionally, the father had custody over all children, except limited power over infants from 1839 onwards. Although marriage was (and is, for some) an extremely repressive, deeply patriarchal institution, a woman’s worth was measured by her desirability as a wife and mother, always conforming to Victorian gender norms. As scholar Carolin Michaelis puts it: “Women were judged only by what they are as women.” Anyone who dared to not conform to Victorian ideals, like the swearing and drinking women in Curse not!, became not only a social outcast, but was punished by God.

After this reflection of female Victorian life, few reasons remain as to why women would consume The British Workwoman. What seems reasonable, is to assume that Victorian women did not feel oppressed by the magazine’s content, or not as oppressed as we would deem fitting. Yet, it would be naive to think that The British Workwoman was read by all types of employed women, as that would perceive working-class women as a homogenous mass. Then, who were the actual readers of The British Workwoman? Which group of employed women made the magazine so popular and how did they benefit from reading it?

It seems plausible to think that the type of employed woman that read The British Workwoman saw herself somewhat reflected in its content. With this in mind, the magazine seems specifically aimed at domestic servants and women whose waged labour was done in a domestic setting. None of the striking illustrations on the front of the magazine pictured women working in factories; fiction and non-fiction exclusively featured domestic servants and working mothers. Women who chose alternative routes of employment, such as the factory workers in “Curse not!“, became “unsexed”, and were brutally punished by God for their failure to conform to popular Victorian gender norms. It is possible that domestic servants and women working at home relished accounts such as this one. To them, the magazine afforded a strong sentiment of superiority over non-domestic, more independent women, as they upheld a dutiful Christian society. A condition of dependence, to them, might have seemed like a conscientious sacrifice for the greater good of their family and ultimately, for the greater good of all members of society. This sense of superiority over women who were employed outside of domestic circles is firmly promoted in The British Workwoman and is a plausible explanation for the magazine’s attractiveness. In fact, a third of working women in the 1860s were domestic servants; as this form of employment had become increasingly prominent over the previous decades. If the British Workwoman made itself attractive to such a large portion of working-class women, it would sufficiently account for the magazine’s popularity.

The demand for domestic servants in bourgeois households was consistently increasing due to urbanisation. In addition, the need for female farm-workers in some regions declined, making domestic service a common route for young women seeking employment. Working as a domestic servant in the expanding cities across Britain held numerous advantages, such as the prospect of personal advancement or of a wealthy husband. With food and a bed provided, young women often had a chance to save their wages. Urban employers generally favoured women from rural backgrounds as domestic servants. Their supposed innocence, health and vigor made them appealing as opposed to young women from urban backgrounds, who were thought to be corrupted and immoral. In addition, the work as a domestic servant preserved the familial context of employment. From a dependency on her parents, the young woman would become a domestic servant dependent on her employers. Furthermore, her work within another family’s home would prepare a woman to become a dutiful wife and mother when she progressed into the next depency: the one on her husband. The role of the domestic servant strongly reproduced Victorian gender norms and the expectations of working class women to be caring and domestic, sacrificing themselves to men. The British Workwoman propagated these gender norms and encouraged them in its editions as a source of support, counsel and guidance for domestic servants.

Clara, the protagonist of A Sweet Revenge, is a prime example of the kind of worker that The British Workwoman endorsed. Selflessly attending to her dying father, she is left penniless through no fault of her own, but eventually overcomes her struggles by acting upon her inherently female moral virtue. She does not succumb to her negative, aggressive feelings towards Stephen Sexton, who has caused her father to lose Clara’s inheritance. Instead, she attends to him in a time of need and is financially reimbursed by Sexton, settling her troubles. The message is clear: If you uphold your Christian morals and serve the right men, you will be rewarded. Indeed, some of Clara’s struggles are likely to be authentic to many working class-women. The British Workwoman recommended the care of elderly and disadvantaged members of the community as the duty of any virtuous woman. Hence, Clara’s task of nursing Sexton back to health, would have resonated with its readership. After her father’s death, Clara goes into domestic service. Domestic servants, as we have seen, were specifically targeted in The British Workwoman, and supposedly, many could identify with the struggles Clara encounters at the hands of her cruel employers. The magazine addresses these issues in other editions, where it advises domestic servants to show resilience and rely on God. Further, the magazine showed empathy to servants who were homesick and acknowledges the struggles many of them faced: “Servants in this capacity have a need for a large share of patience and self-denial…They are compelled to lead a very secluded life; their work is multifarious and laborious, there is not always that consideration on the part of the employer which there should be, and the best are often disheartened…” The British Workwoman thereby offered a degree of sympathy and recognition to domestic servants, which they were unlikely to receive anywhere else. Alone and often unable to contact their families, at the mercy of their employers and subordinating themselves continually, the magazine likely offered invaluable support.

In conclusion, although The British Workwoman reproduced a patriarchal ideal of womanhood, we can hypothesise it was popular for number of reasons. Firstly, many working-class women did not have the same perceptions about gender equality that we have today, which made them unlikely to perceive the magazine in the same oppressive terms that we perceive it in today. Secondly, The British Workwoman seemed to have offered vital content to domestic servants and women employed at home, which was unique to the magazine. Through acknowledging and advising on common obstacles that domestic servants faced, The British Workwoman became a unique source of being understood, even appreciated for these women. Without a doubt, The British Workwoman remains a patriarchal medium through reproducing Victorian gender norms. Yet, the magazine was likely an important supplier of empathy and guidance for working-class women, which accounts for its popularity.