The Prison of Womanhood: the Microcosm of Women

The Prison of Womanhood: the Microcosm of Women

A Chapter by Ru Banerjee

A literary research paper


The Prison of Womanhood: the Microcosm of Women in Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family


In the mid-Victorian fiction by women, the complex cultural and literary roles in which women are portrayed, we see the first manifestations of the shift in social attitudes regarding the patriarchal male supremacy. This was the period in which women writers including Charlotte Mary Yonge, Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood, among others, started to stray from the theory of the “angel in the house” in the representation of the woman characters in their fiction. Such representations of women in fictional work by women writers, which came as an aftermath of the historical changes of the mid-Victorian period, had also motivated discussions regarding what some critics referred to as the “woman question”. In this period, woman writers started to introduce the concept of emancipation of women to redefine gender roles. This has also been a literary phase marked by a dichotomy between women’s familial roles and the ‘new woman’ ideology characterized by women’s autonomy and empowerment. Again, while in this period, women writers like Yonge and Braddon explore the very nature of women’s subjectivity in their novels, they end their novels with the image of femininity embraced by women that is absolutely centered on domesticity and subordination. The heroines in these works of fiction, fiery and revolutionary, are all subject to punishment and suffering, which makes them surrender to the patriarchal ideology of women in the end. Looking into the characterization of these women protagonists and the way they are coerced into accepting their archetypal societal roles of the “domestic angel”, feminist critics including Kim Wheatley have tried to analyze the competing visions of the woman’s exalted domestic life and those of the emancipated woman detached from the stereotypical image of domesticity. Commenting on the nature of subordination of the heroine, Wheatley in Death and Domestication in Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family observes:

“…The Clever Woman of the Family manipulates disparate novelistic conventions to make the point that a woman’s cleverness requires both masculine and divine guidance.” (Wheatley 1).

In my paper, I will attempt to show how Rachel Curtis, the heroine in Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family is rendered a product of the dichotomy between the domestic ideology and the newfound ideology of autonomy and power in Mid-Victorian women. In my argument, I will also illustrate how the other women in the novel she bonds with ultimately makes her process of surrendering to the domestic ideology appear easy and inevitable. Critics like Wheatley, while questioning the manipulative narrative of the novel, analyzes how heroines like Rachel have to surrender to their subjugated role. However, while analyzing this process of subjugation, it is also important to note the social milieu of Rachel that Yonge, the woman writer creates within the narrative of the novel. Yonge, on one hand creates autonomy for Rachel, while on the other hand, challenges and destroys the autonomy. Rachel, the woman protagonist of the novel introduces herself as the symbol of the ‘new woman’, liberated from the domestic ideology. However, the people she is surrounded with, and the community she belongs to is actually unable to accept her emancipation and autonomy, as she is ultimately chained into the same domestic ideology she had tried hard to evade. While the gradual surrendering of Rachel to the patriarchal norms has already been discussed by critics as a symbol of imperial hegemony, in my paper I will attempt to show how this concept of hegemony in Yonge’s novel actually reflects the woman’s own microcosm that determines the societal roles of women in a patriarchal society.

           If we look into the narrative of The Clever Woman of the Family, we see that the author places the heroine Rachel within her social microcosm, the staid sea-side town of Avonmouth where she is surrounded by her fussy mother Mrs. Curtis, her traditional sister Grace, her even more docile widowed cousin Fanny and her insolent boys, the male characters including the Keith brothers (one of whom she marries in the end), the sinister Mr. Mauleverer and also Bessie, the flamboyant sister of the Keith brothers and Ermine, the submissive counterpart to Rachel who is finally projected in the novel as the “true clever woman of the family”. While Rachel is initially projected as the unconventional, insubordinate heroine who challenges the archetypal feminine identity by defying patriarchal norms, all these characters who form her social milieu serve to re-educate her about the position of women in society. At the same time, all these characters cumulatively serve as catalysts through which she experiences agony and humiliation, which in a way, proves to be beneficial for her in the end of the novel.

Janice Fiamengo in her article “Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family” published in Victorian Review (1999), points out:

“The unconventional heroine Rachel Curtis, is a zealous social reformer and women’s rights advocate whose long process of re-education through humiliation is represented as a triumph of her true nature; marriage and motherhood decisively cure her insubordination” (Fiamengo 1).

Fiamengo’s argument here centers on the ultimate oppression of the heroine who tries to find her individual voice in society through defiance, and how the social culture of Yonge’s times forced her to tone down the female voice in the end as a submissive one. In her article, Fiamengo cites the arguments made about the characterization of Rachel Curtis by feminist critics including Kim Wheatley and Terry Lovell who illustrate how Yonge started out with defying the traditional definitions of the female, while she ultimately succumbs to the acceptable forms of feminine activities, including the patriarchal culture of marriage, domestic identity and motherhood. In her argument, Fiamengo basically points towards the domestic ideology as an overarching philosophy in the novel that manipulates the central woman character and the choices she is driven to, in her life. However, in both Fiamengo’s and Wheatley’s criticism, we do not find concrete answers to questions regarding the complexities of responses to gender in the novel. First of all, while their arguments regarding the manipulative ending of the novel focus on the process of toning down the heroine’s defiance and subversion of the patriarchal values, they do not clearly define how that reflects the dichotomy in the woman writer’s mind regarding the societal role of the heroine on one hand and her subjectivity on the other hand. These feminist critics have demonstrated how the familial role of the heroine is stressed upon by cleverly twisting the narrative, while suggesting that the woman protagonist Rachel, in the end, is left with very little voice and individuality as she accepts her feminine identity within a lateral family structure. However, their argument does not sufficiently explain the gradual shift of the women from the monolithic family structure where women played the lead role, to the traditional heterosexual family structure governed by gender stereotypes. An analysis of this would reflect the dichotomy in Yonge’s mind regarding the nature of gender relations and the role of woman in the mid-Victorian society.

               Critics including Gavin Budge in his Charlotte Mary Yong: Religion, Feminism and the Victorian Novel have commented on the importance of understanding the cultural implications of Yonge’s work with close connections to the Tractarian movement and Anglo-Catholicism. (Budge 11). While speaking of the Tractarian aesthetics in relation to Yonge’s fiction, Budge analyzes the domestic ideology and the Tractarian psychology of religion. If we analyze the narrative of The Clever Woman of the Family, we will see the dichotomy in Yonge’s mind regarding the philosophy of Tractarianism and the domestic ideology.  On one hand, Rachel Curtis stands as a representation of Yonge’s Tractarianism, as she chooses nursing and philanthropy as career, and also seeks to establish bonds of Anglican sisterhood with other woman characters in the novel including Grace, her own sister, Fanny, her widowed cousin and also in the end, with Ermine, the crippled governess. On the other hand, these bonds of sisterhood in Rachel’s life serve as catalysts that eventually make Rachel realize the importance of surrendering to a patriarchal family structure governed by the domestic ideology.

Rachel and Grace, seen in the beginning of Yonge’s novel as “maiden sisters of Avonmouth, husband and wife to one another, as maiden sisters always are” (Yonge 4), are depicted as dyads in the process of establishing this Anglican sisterhood, attempting to challenge the gender stereotypes by mocking the matrimonial vows of marriage.

“Then thus let me crown, our bridal,” quoth Grace, placing on her sister’s head the wreath of white roses.

“Treacherous child!” cried Rachel, putting up her hand and tossing her head, but her sister held her still.

“You know brides always take liberties. Please, dear, let it stay till the mother has been in, and pray don’t talk, before her of being so very old.” (Yonge 4)

Here, Rachel and Grace are seen to embrace an alternate image of femininity which, in its own way, challenges the heterosexual norms. Their tiny moment of role playing in the absence of their mother is functional within a monolithic family structure of women. When Fanny, their widowed cousin arrives in their family with her boys, Rachel is firm in her belief that being the intellectual lead in the Curtis household, she has the ability to manage the family being its head, in the same way as a male head of a heterosexual family.

“My age�"five and twenty,” returned Rachel. “Well I shall go and ask about the house. Remember, mother, this influx is to bring no trouble or care on you; Fanny Temple is my

charge from henceforth. My mission has come to seek me,” she added as she quitted the room, in eager excitement of affection, emotion, and importance…” (Yonge 7)

Rachel, aged twenty five at this point and still a spinster, at this point thinks of the task of looking after Fanny and educating her young children as a mission of philanthropy which she believes she can accomplish with her intellect and sincerity. She is introduced in the novel as a pedantic social reformer who is desperate in seeking an outlet for her energies and intelligence, and also who has immense confidence and faith in her judgment of the community she encounters.  However, if we look into the narrative that follows, we will realize that it is not only Fanny’s insolent boys who are unwilling to take Rachel’s lessons and in the process, belittle her, but also their mother Fanny who challenges Rachel’s ideas of education and self-reliance. It should be noted here that the domestic ideology of “separate spheres”, which brings about the much wanted qualities of femininity in Rachel, starts playing its part with the arrival of Fanny Temple and then intensifies with Rachel’s encounters with the other characters of the novel.

All the sisterly bonds that she forms with the other woman characters apparently bestow her with a false sense of her autonomy, which at first intensify her defiance of the gender stereotype, but in the process, make her surrender to the gender stereotype.

                    In the novel, while the first part focuses on the monolithic family structures of the three families, the Curtis family, the Keith family and the Williams family, the second part revolves around how the characters integrate into the heterosexual lateral family structure. This gradual shift in the family structure is shown as a parallel to Rachel’s gradual fall from her illustrious intellectuality to the humble acceptance of her limitations, and the sisterly bonds of Rachel with the other women characters are instrumental in causing this gradual shift.

                  If we look into the plot structure of the novel, it is apparently the male characters whose association with Rachel makes her question her intellectual superiority and ultimately denounce her autonomy. In the first part, she is seen to have snubbed or suspected every one of these characters. While the confrontation between Rachel and Fanny’s boys come as one of the first challenges to her powers, her discomfiture is compounded by her ill-founded suspicion of Fanny’s friend and advisor Colonel Keith, who happened to be the formerly aide de camp to Fanny’s deceased husband General Temple. As for his brother Alexander Keith, whom Rachel eventually marries, she had been suspicious of him and despised him as a “carpet knight”. Strangely, among all these male characters, she admires and trusts the sinister Mr. Mauleverer whom she meets by chance through Bessie, the sister of the Keith brothers, while the consequences of this meeting proves to be disastrous for Rachel. While these men can be shown as a cumulative image of Victorian hegemony in the novel, it is the female bonds Rachel forms which actually fuel this hegemony, and confirm the structure of power endorsed by a patriarchal society. In the Curtis household, Rachel is surrounded by her timid mother Mrs. Curtis who would love to see her in marital bliss, by her sensible, conventional sister Grace who reacts at Rachel’s subversive comments with despair and alarm. For example, in the first scene of the novel, when Grace takes part in role playing with a wreath along with Rachel, she refers to Rachel as a “treacherous child” and is also alarmed when Rachel comments: “I have done with white muslin…it is an affectation of girlish simplicity not becoming at our age (Yonge 5)”. While describing the characterization of Grace and Rachel, Yonge makes it clear that while Rachel stands for her own agency and freedom, the apparent traits of masculinity, Grace complements Rachel in representing the archetypal feminine identity, which Rachel ultimately acquires, faced with the situations in her life.

“Rachel had had the palm of cleverness conceded to her ever since she could recollect, when she read better at three years old than her sister at five, and ever after, through the days of education, had enjoyed, and excelled in, the studies that were a toil to Grace. Subsequently, while Grace had contented herself with the ordinary course of unambitious feminine life, Rachel had thrown herself into the process of self-education with all her natural energy, and carried on her favourite studies by every means within her reach, until she considerably surpassed in acquirements and reflection all the persons with whom she came in frequent contact (Yonge 9)”.

While Fanny starts living in the Curtis household, Rachel initially holds the impression that her sisterly bond with Fanny will serve to extend the monolithic Curtis family under her own able guidance. However, it is this bond which first shakes Rachel’s unwarranted confidence in her own judgment and challenges her intellectual superiority. The gentle little Fanny, who at sixteen, had become the wife of the sixty year-old Sir Stephen Temple, stands as the feminine ideal of the “angel in the house” as she still seems to be under the spell of her deceased husband. With a newborn baby girl in her arms and half a dozen boys in different sizes, who she remarks, “never tire her”, Fanny upholds the spirit of extreme tolerance that characterized motherhood in the Victorian era. Upon her arrival, when Rachel proposes the idea of homeschooling for her boys and extends her helping hand in educating them, she replies:

“Oh, yes, thank you, but it is doleful merely to help them to linger out the remnant of a life consumed upon these cobwebs of vanity. It is the fountainhead that must be reached�"the root of the system (Yonge 17).”

Fanny here is depicted as a “perfect slave”, as Grace speaks of her, while she continues to fuel the insolence of her sons, one of whom haughtily comments to Rachel:

“The Major is military secretary, and always settles our headquarters, and no one interferes with him”, shouted Conrade. (Yonge 18)”.

          Fanny very soon opposes Rachel in her ideas regarding the profession of a governess who she remarks, are to be pitied, while she also is suspicious that the newfound profession of the medical women is an “infinite boom” to the society (Yonge 22). Fanny also vehemently opposes Rachel’s idea of punishing Conrade for a serious offence caused and when Rachel remarks that punishing the boy would force him into confession, Rachel retorts and pleads Rachel to stay out of this. “If anything is to be done to my boys, I’ll do it myself: they haven’t got any one but me. Oh, I wish the Major would come! (Yonge 39)”. Fanny is extremely reliant on her boys and her deceased husband and never uses her individuality and sense of judgment in the choices of her life. Together, she and her sons continue to pose threat to Rachel’s convictions regarding education and self-reliance, and Rachel faces her first disaster in taking charge of somebody’s life.

            Throughout the course of the narrative, Rachel also befriends Bessie, the charming, disingenuous sister of the Keith brothers, and forms a sisterly bond with her, only to meet the sinister Mr. Mauleverer through Bessie’s acquaintance. Upon knowing Rachel’s philanthropic interests regarding the local lacemakers, Mr. Maulverer instigates her to establish a school to improve the lot of the child lacemakers of the town. While this action of Rachel has disastrous consequences in the lacemakers’ tragic death, it provides the second blow to Rachel’s false sense of power and autonomy. Rachel’s sisterly bond with Bessie strengthens the feminine identity in Rachel in a couple of ways. It is through this bond that she realizes her failure in performing charity as an individualistic endeavor, as her masculine traits of autonomy starts to wear off for the first time. Secondly, it is through sharing a sisterly bond with Bessie that Rachel gradually surrenders to a marital life with one of her brothers, Alexander Keith. Bessie here can be identified as one of the catalysts who coerces Rachel to accept the institution of marriage as a reward, whereas in reality, marriage for Rachel becomes a tool, a social force that eventually makes her surrender to surveillance and suppression. Towards the second half of the novel, the accidental death of Bessie after childbirth, while traveling in a hoop is the last manipulative twist in the narrative that leaves Rachel further questioning a woman’s own agency and freedom.

                The female bond between Bessie and Rachel in the novel can be illustrated along with the bond that exists between the Governess sisters, Ermine and Allison Williams and also the bond that Rachel eventually shares with Ermine, the crippled governess of the Williams family. Rachel is initially projected as having very little faith and empathy for any of the William sisters as an able governess, as she mocks them both by calling them “certain pets of Mr. Touchett” and also “a regular eruption of the Touchettomania (Yonge 22)”. However, through the turn of circumstances, Yonge makes Rachel form an unusual bond with the crippled Ermine Williams, who also embraces the archetypal feminine identity. Ermine happens to be one of the women influences in Rachel’s life who makes her feel how Alexander, Rachel’s husband had used irony to restrain her philanthropic pursuits. While Rachel’s suffering, humiliation and ultimate redemption becomes inevitable in the novel, the crippled Ermine is proved yet another catalyst who shows Rachel that forming a permanent heterosexual bond with a man had been inevitable in Rachel’s life. “It will make you much more really useful and effective as ever you could have been alone”, Ermine says to Rachel about her union with Alexander Keith (Yonge 372).

               Ermine, later referred to in the novel as the “true clever woman in the family”, is one of the several women Rachel forms a bond with, only to learn the importance of hegemony through self-surrendering. Ermine, along with other women that Rachel encounters, actually stand as the nurturers of what Elaine Showalter refers to in A Literature of Their Own as the “long period of imitation of the dominant structures of tradition”.  These female bonds act as agents that let Rachel feel the dichotomy between ‘obedience and resistance’, as obedience wins in the end.

Closely analyzing all these female bonds in the novel, we can see that they cumulatively reveal the absurdities and dangers of Rachel’s assumptions regarding the ‘clever woman’. Being in connection with them, Rachel gradually gives in to the idea that she is actually a misfit in a community driven by heteronormative, patriarchal norms.  While Rachel initially derives the feeling of an emotional and intellectual fulfillment by forming these female bonds, she is unknowingly coerced into self-regulation through surveillance and punishment by being in close association with all these women.

In the final analysis, Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family remains a novel about the women’s own microcosm that determines the societal role of a woman in spite of her emancipation, free will and the dichotomy between the avatar of the “new woman” that she wants to embrace and that of the “domestic angel” that she has to embrace in her life.






                                                                 Works Cited


Grand, Sara. The New Aspect of the Woman Question. Martha H. Petterson (ed.). Rutgers State University. 2008. Print.

Fiamengo, Janice. “Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family”. Victorian Review 25.2 (2000). Print.

Lee Elizabeth. “Feminist Theory�"An Overview”. The Victorian Web. Brown University. 1997. Web.

Wheatley, Kim. “Death and Domestication in Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family”. JSTOR. 1996. Web.

Showalter, Elaine. A literature of their own: British women novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.    

Yonge, Charlotte M. The Clever Woman of the Family. Macmillan, 1882. Print.


© 2013 Ru Banerjee

Author's Note

Ru Banerjee
A paper exploring the women's own world in a Victorian novel

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Oh, Ru, you are an exceptional writer! You were able to lay forth the intricacies of the characters and themes of the novel and give us a vital glimpse and an era and a master's work .Truly appreciate your work... always. I find a deeper understanding through your exposition.

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Ru Banerjee
Ru Banerjee

Omaha, NE

Not a phenomenal woman, rather an ordinary love with the mountains, the azure skies, sandy beaches with gushing waves, with the cup of my morning coffee, and with my husband! Not in that orde.. more..