Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: V is for Vulnerable Victorian Virginity

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) is one of the most famous nineteenth-century novels to deal with a ‘fallen woman’, who loses her virginity before marriage and bears an illegitimate child. And sympathetic as the novel is to Ruth, a dressmaker’s apprentice who is only 15 at the time of her seduction, and designed as it is to highlight the ill treatment of women like her, the novel is instructive when it comes to understanding Victorian constructions of (female) virginity and explanations as to what can make it ‘vulnerable’.

There are many ways in which Ruth is presented as the archetypal virgin, whose seduction is, if not inevitable, far from surprising and maybe even a ‘natural’ result of her characteristics and the attendant circumstances of her situation:

1. The virgin is youthful, but physically developed
Like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, Gaskell’s Ruth has a dangerous (and apparently dangerously attractive!) mixture of extreme youth, with its corresponding naivety, and a sexually mature body. She first meets Henry Bellingham, who seduces her, through attending the Shire Ball as a sort of in situ lady’s maid, an office for which her employer picks her specifically because her ‘waving outline of figure’ will be ‘a credit to the [dressmaker’s] house’. Yet to Ruth her selection is ‘inexplicable’- a sure sign of her unworldliness. Ruth’s youth is such that, even when she is pregnant and abandoned, the servant Sally describes her as a ‘chit’ who cannot possibly be a widow and the narrator tells us, when her child is nearing year old, Ruth still looks so young that ‘she hardly seemed she could be the mother of the noble babe’. While emphasising Ruth’s age cements her victim status it is a crucial component of what attracts people to her – whether the caddish Bellingham (who, at 23, enjoys that he is her senior) or the kind clergyman Mr Benson who takes her in.

2. The virgin is beautiful
It almost goes without saying that Gaskell’s heroine will be beautiful and – importantly – artlessly and simply so. Ruth comes to Bellingham’s attention not only because of her good looks but because in them she contrasts with the ‘flippant, bright and artificial girl’ who is his dance partner at the ball. Ruth’s beauty is set off by its naturalness, as well as its childishness. When Bellingham begins to pursue her, we are told ‘He did not know why he was so fascinated by her. She was very beautiful, but he had seen others equally beautiful, and with many more agaceries calculated to set off the effect of their charms. There was, perhaps, something bewitching in the union of grace and loveliness of womanhood with the naiveté, simplicity, and innocence of an intelligent child’. Beauty is important (note how Gaskell does not say Bellingham has seen anyone more beautiful!) but it is not enough in itself to typify the idealised virginal figure of the Victorian period. 

Portrait of a Girld, John Everett Millais
3. The virgin is prized for her purity of thought, as well as body
Linked to these ideas of childishness and artless beauty is the virgin’s ignorance when it comes to all things sexual. It isn’t just that the virgin hasn’t had sex – we are led to believe she has never even thought of it. Gaskell is at pains to make this explicit for us: ‘She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice respecting the subject of a woman’s life…Ruth was innocent and snow-pure. She had heard of falling in love, but did not know the signs and the symptoms thereof’. Gaskell’s use of the phrase ‘falling in love’ here isn’t just nineteenth-century delicacy – the phrases mirrors Ruth’s few thoughts on the matter which have been emotional, not sexual – and her argument is almost contradictory. On the one hand Ruth’s ignorance is abnormal – the consequence of being orphaned young – but on the other it is entirely natural. The virgin is untouched by any polluting conversation or by any stirrings of desire from within. 

4. The virgin is linked to nature (for good and bad)
The naturalness of the virgin state – but also the fact that this state makes her a prime ‘target’ for men and ‘ready’ for reproduction – is also indicated through the pleasure fictional Victorian virgins are of shown to derive from their natural surroundings. Ruth’s claustrophobic urban quarters may be the inhospitable home from which she is tempted away by Bellington’s advances, but things only come to a crisis as a result of long country walks. And Ruth, as she appears when framed by nature, is all the more attractive in this environment: ‘She wound in and out in natural, graceful, wavy lines between the luxuriant and overgrown shrubs, which were fragrant with a leafy smell of spring growth; she went on, careless of watchful eyes, indeed unconscious, for the time, of their existence.’ The wavy lines of the country garden recall the ‘waving outline’ of Ruth’s own curvaceous figure and the almost overwhelming fecundity of nature also suggests her sexual readiness, even if her mind is ‘for the time’ unaware of this. In this way she again prefigures Tess – Hardy’s ‘pure woman’ – watched by Alex and Angel in fertile natural environments. 

5. The virgin is free from familial ties (and protection)
Ruth’s orphaned state (alluded to in point three) doesn’t just mark her out as ignorant of men’s desires – conversely it also labels her even more directly as a potential sexual partner. Without a home to leave, she is primed to create another family and show other people affection – both emotionally and economically. She has already done this platonically with her fellow apprentice Jenny, but, with Jenny ill and Bellingham pursuing her we are told ‘Jenny’s place in Ruth’s heart was filled up’. Ruth’s fertility and natural affection could have be beneficial to her, if only Henry Bellingham was a man willing to offer her a true (legitimate and marital) home.

When it comes to apportioning blame for Ruth’s ‘fall’, the fact that Ruth is such an embodiment of desirable virginity is not the only factor in her downfall. Many are blamed for her failure to adhere to strict Victorian codes of morality, including her seducer, class and economic factors, the unkindness of other women (particularly Mrs Mason and Miss Duncombe), her guardian and, of course, Ruth herself.

Gaskell was criticised for giving Ruth too many mitigating factors to excuse her behaviour (i.e. failing to confront Ruth’s own sexuality), but importantly she does not let her off the hook. Although it is rescinded later, and given under duress, there is a moment at which Ruth gives her consent: ‘Low, and soft, with much hesitation, came the “Yes”; the fatal word of which she so little imagined the infinite consequences.’ Many factors may make a young Victorian woman vulnerable – but the responsibility for protecting her virginity is ultimately her own.

What should ‘W’ be in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And you can check out further posts on Elizabeth Gaskell here.

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