Wednesday 10 July 2013

Measuring up Victorian Heroines

Mrs Winstanley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Vixen (1879) is a very foolish woman. She gives up her independence as a wealthy widow to wed a cruel and controlling adventurer and fails to protect her only daughter (Violet, the vixen of the title) from his machinations. She cares only for company and ostentatious display, racking up large debts with dressmakers and milliners, and is viewed as childlike and frivolous by all who surround her.

One of Mrs Winstanley’s greatest griefs is her daughter’s size. She and her likeminded friends agree that ‘[Violet’s] figure is quite splendid; but she's on such a very large scale’ and is so fit to be painted ‘as Autumn, or Plenty, or Ceres, or something of that kind, carrying a cornucopia. But in a drawing-room she looks so very massive’. When you finally read what Violet’s measurements are however, you may be surprised.

Braddon writes: ‘Lest it should be supposed…that Vixen was a giantess, it may be as well to state that her height was five feet six, her waist twenty-two inches at most’.

With the average woman’s waistline in the UK now coming in at 34 inches, how are we to read this information? Braddon certainly doesn’t think Violet is a giantess – does this mean the figure of 22 inches is a gross exaggeration, part of the satire she directs at women like Mrs Winstanley? Yet Vixen is one of Braddon’s most true-to-life novels, filled with realistic domestic details. And it is not the only period novel to be populated by women with 18 inch waists like Violet’s rival for the love of Roderick, Lady Mabel, the picture of ‘ethereal loveliness’.

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

The most famously thin heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone with the Wind (published 1936, but set in the nineteenth century) gets down to 17 inches with the help of some corsetry, yet this is described as unusual –‘the smallest in three counties’ – especially when combined with ‘breasts well matured for her sixteen years’. 

While the internet seems obsessed with these incredible Victorian waistlines however, some academic investigation suggests that they belong entirely in fiction. A survey of a thousand Victorian dresses at the Museum of Costume in Bath found the smallest to be 21.5 inches – a size which could be achieved by a modern UK size 6 or 8 woman with the help of a heavy duty corset.

A miniscule waist is just one of the long list of attributes and virtues possessed by the idealised nineteenth-century heroine and Braddon’s description of Violet could be read as ironic commentary on other writers’ lack of realism, similar to George Eliot’s complaints in ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, where she describes the stereotypical female protagonist: ‘Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues’.

One last point to consider is that being sylphlike is not the only standard of beauty. In Charlotte Bronte’s novels, for instance, skinniness is the attribute of the plain and overlooked woman, while beauties are fleshy. Jane Eyre contrasts the ‘harsh lines’ of her face and figure with ‘harmonious lineaments’ and ‘dazzling and round arm’ of Blanche Ingram, Lucy Snowe in Villette mocks the apparently unrealistically large object of male fantasy in the ‘Cleopatra’ portrait whose ‘commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone’.

Braddon mocks the unnaturalness of sylphlike beauty, Bronte the implausibility of voluptuous femme fatales, but, while the exact measurements may seem unfamiliar, both are commenting on the difficulties of conforming to standardised versions of beauty in a way which seems alarmingly and recognisably modern.

Charlotte Bronte

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Have you read a nineteenth-century novel which includes a heroine’s measurements? Let me know in the comment section below or on Twitter, by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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