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The Victorian Home and the Invalid Woman Academic Essay

November 30, 2012

Hello bloggers! I wrote the following essay for my London and Paris in the Nineteenth Century class (aka Natalie researches for future novels) and I thought it might actually be a) interesting and b) coherent enough to share with the outside world. For those of you who follow Charlotte’s blog, she’s been writing a lot about essays at the moment, so this post ties in with that theme. Anyway, enjoy! If you have any questions, leave ’em in the comments!

The Victorian Home and the Invalid Woman

Even for people unfamiliar with the time period, the Victorian woman is popularly thought as the demure, sensitive female. She resides in a locked domestic space and suppresses any desire beyond it. This image is played out in Victorian literature and especially for literature concerning an invalid Victorian woman. The invalid is weighed down not only by society, but also her bodily weakness, or what others see as her bodily weakness. As in other ages, the father was in charge of the woman until he passed her onto the husband: under illness, the father’s grip on the daughter could be a stranglehold, the fact that she’s a woman and sick used to further confine and restrain her. This phenomenon can be most seen in Virginia Woolf’s Flush: a Biography, an unconventional biography of invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett’s dog, who witnesses the courtship and married life of Mr. Browning and Miss Barrett. When Miss Barrett enters the novel, she is more or less confined to the back bedroom of the house. It is significant that she’s confined to the bedroom specifically, as opposed to a nursery or drawing room. As the novel progresses, the reader sees Miss Barrett almost become one with her bedroom, merging into the walls as another decorative object until Mr. Browning brings her back to personhood. If the reader extrapolates this notion, the invalid Victorian woman can be likened to the Victorian bedroom, and the reader can trace who gained what from such a situation.

The significance of Miss Barrett’s confinement in a back bedroom connects to the bedroom’s traditional function in the Victorian home. In Judith Flanders’s Inside the Victorian Home, the bedroom contrasts sharply with reception rooms, which were considered the main parts of the home. Used for sleeping, sex, sickness, and childbirth, the bedroom was the domestic household’s most private space. Though on occasion it served as a sitting room, it was primarily a space for only family members and the supposedly invisible servants. Besides this public and private divide, the bedroom was “expected to segregate servants and employers, adults from children, boys from girls, older children from babies” (Flanders, 37). It also separated the healthy from the ill. Victorians thought illness was indecent and this made the bedroom the perfect place to secret the sick away, separate them from the healthy members of society. In Flush, this segregation is extreme. Except for the occasional trip to Oxford Street or Regent’s Park, Miss Barrett and Flush spend years hidden away in the room. Like inhabitants on a desert island, they “lived alone together in a cushioned and fire-lit cave” (Woolf, 33-34). Even light from the window is blocked, either by heavy curtains or blooming ivy vines. Because of her illness, Miss Barrett does not even visit other parts of the house: her siblings and father come visit her, but it is rarely the other way around. Most of this is because of her illness: the usual unmarried Victorian woman exits the house for societal occasions, but Miss Barrett’s sickness prevents her from doing so. She is segregated from the rest of the world just as the bedroom is segregated from the rest of the house. Any breaking of this separation is a notable, exhausting occasion: Miss Barrett has visitors twice a week, but at the end she is always “mercifully […] alone again” and “too tired to eat” (Woolf, 42). This is literally about the bedroom being used as a sitting room, something that violates its ideal and drains its important separating function, which the reader sees mimicked in Miss Barrett’s own fatigue.

This separation from society and the rest of the house has drastic consequences. The female becomes more an object in the house as opposed to an autonomous person; something a third party can interact with more than the usual ornamental plant, but still an object nonetheless. The sickness is also perpetuated: anybody locked in a bedroom without access to light, air, and exercise would fall ill, from lack of stimulation if nothing else. Normally, a Victorian woman was allowed out in society at a suitable age so she could attract a husband and, when married, manage his household. In this sense, she was a household object all the while, transferred from the male father to the male husband through marriage. With the invalid, however, the outside was too wearisome and they were considered too weak to run a household. Since the bedroom was the place for the ill, they simply remained there, becoming a solely bedroom object. Virginia Woolf’s Elizabeth Barrett illustrates this phenomenon. The bedroom is itself full of “huge objects in commotion” and Flush does not think anyone is in the room with him until Miss Barrett speaks, and even then she is still “something on the sofa” for a further forty-eight words (Woolf, 22). Her presence blends into the room, a single curl in the tangle of objects cluttered into the space. The bedroom is her space, a domain for the ill, and in this imagery it’s difficult to decipher where the bedroom ends and she begins.

Being an object in the bedroom, however, has its benefits and these benefits explain why the behavior persisted. As children “the marital relationship was the primary one,” and boys and girls alike were confined to the nursery when the husband returned home, which is a similar situation to that experienced by the ill Miss Barrett (Flanders, 72). Obedience through corporeal punishment, though waning, was still in force. Miss Barrett’s father, Mr. Barrett, is a terrifying figure to Flush, coming to pray over his daughter and make sure “his command had been obeyed” regarding her eating habits, all of which reflects his menacing control over her (Woolf, 43). In this sense, the male authority benefited from a sick woman. The female was kept in the home under direct control, and there was no danger she would go out and shame the family with scandalous activity, such as illicit sexual relations. It was a reassuring idea at least. Mr. Barrett believed it and seemed to think her completely incapable of incurring such scandal, perhaps that even marriage was out of the question entirely. It would explain why a younger man, Mr. Browning, is allowed in her presence unescorted. This benefited Miss Barrett greatly in actuality, since she and Mr. Browning were allowed to bond, fall in love, and eventually escape undisturbed. Being ill eliminated the thought that Miss Barrett had any sexuality or desire, and if she did, it was supposedly under stringent control, hidden away in the back bedroom of the house. Though her social circle was limited to visitors, she ended up marrying for love and desire, which is vastly different from the typical non-disabled Victorian female who married for societal and economic gain. At least in Miss Barrett’s case, the thought that illness eliminated the threat of female sexuality was illusionary; in fact, a strike against male authority.

Another hidden benefit of this situation was it gave Miss Barrett time to learn and write. The societal discourse on females’ education centered on “girls were only to respond to others, not to have thoughts of their own”–again like an interact-able object (Flanders, 96). They learned music, science, mathematics, art, history, and language as much as was necessary to attract marriage prospects and converse intelligently with the average man.  In addition, Flanders writes: “for girls who knew their place, social life imposed requirements that [women] could not fulfill while undergoing full-time education”–lunches, tea parties, balls, dinners and resting from all the excitement took up most of the time (Flanders, 91). Instead of putting energies here, Miss Barrett completed her education herself. The bedroom has academic objects in it: busts of thinkers such as Homer and Chaucer and a stuffed bookcase. Most importantly, she has time to write: “there she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick” (Woolf, 36). Relatively undisturbed for years, it was arguably one of her most prolific writing periods. It was one of the greatest advantages of being ill: thought limited in physical space, her mind was free and unlimited, and her heart was allowed to find and bind itself to its desire without anybody’s restraining eye. Because she married for love, her husband was not domineering nor attempted to extinguish her passions. Quite the contrary, she continued to write for the rest of her life, Mr. Browning serving as inspiration.

Taking these benefits into consideration, perhaps the bedroom is not such a bad place after all. Though objectified to the point of being an inter-actable piece of furniture, it gave the invalid a subversive interior freedom. If her beloved visited, they were undisturbed. If she wanted to enrich and stretch her mind, social pursuits did not prevent her from doing so. Oddly, being ill could make the woman powerful, grant her more choice in how she lived her life. Being a bedroom object was an odd sort of paradox, but, in Miss Barrett’s case, the invalid’s life was the better for it.

Works Cited

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

Woolf, Virgina. Flush: a Biography. San Diego: Harcourt Bruce Company, 1983. Print.

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