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Embattled Young Victorian Women

There is something so fragile about young Victorian women. Partially, this was because they could not really own property: If they were married, their husbands had full control. According to Bartleby.Com:

The property rights of women during most of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their marital status. Once women married, their property rights were governed by English common law, which required that the property women took into a marriage, or acquired subsequently, be legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands’ consent. Marital separation, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the women economically destitute, as the law offered them no rights to marital property.

I have just finished reading J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864), a brooding mystery about a young English heiress named Maud Ruthyn who is hemmed in by the incompetence of her guardians and the villainy of people trusted by their guardians who strive to take advantage of her.

Looking back on English novels of the Victorian era, I find many novels on this theme. Think of Jane Eyre, Bleak House, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Agney Grey. It made me realize that it took a long time for society to protect the rights of women. Even today, many existing societies fail in this regard.

In those novels, the only prospect young women could look forward to other than marriage with a loving and rich husband is a dead-end job as a governess, seamstress, laundress, or some other poorly paying “-ess.”

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