- Family, Love, and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen by M. Jeanne Peterson, and: Hard Lessons: The Lives and Education of Working-Class Women in Nineteenth-Century England by June Purvis (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 16, Number 1, Summer 1990
- pp. 99-103
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews99 sincerity not difficult to doubt. In Hard Cash (1864), he caricatured Conolly mercilessly in the figure of Dr. Wycherley, a mad-doctor whose vision is entirely distorted by "green spectacles": lenses permanently tinted the lucrative colour of the medical certificates he is all too eager to keep signing. Even under the rubric of humane, philanthropic reform, abuses could and did, of course, exist; to shield one's eyes against that ugly fact and pretend otherwise is unconscionable. As a contribution to the cultural history of insanity, then, Victorian Lunatics represents an extremely conservative revision, or even reaction, to the radical anti-psychiatry critiques of the 1960s and seventies. And as such it only charts the mood swing, witnessed by all lately, of the larger political pendulum. Once again, welcome to the nineties, folks. CS. WlESENTHAL University ofAlberta M. Jeanne Peterson. Family, Love, and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. xii + 241. $39.95 US (cloth); $14.95 US (paper). June Purvis. Hard Lessons: The Lives and Education of Working-Class Women in Nineteenth-Century England. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. ? + 308. $45.00 US (cloth). These studies are fruits ofthe growing recognition in women's studies that "patriarchy" is not monolithic, uniform, or ahistorical, and that the experiences of women vary according to such factors as their class, race, and historical context. Both authors are specifically responding to a need for more thorough and class-specific histories of Victorian women. Despite our knowledge of exceptional women of the period, Peterson argues, "we still have much to learn about the ordinary, obscure gentlewomen who lived in the Victorian age. We have already begun to suspect that they were no angels" (ix). Her study of the education and work as well as the emotional, physical, and family relationships of "one circle ofupper-middle-class women" seeks to correct "our distorted picture of Victorian gentlewomen" (ix, x). The impugned image, as readers will have gathered, is that of the Angel in the House, which Peterson 100Victorian Review associates with the "polemics" of political reformers such as Florence Nightingale and John Stuart Mill, whose descriptions of female experiences "have been taken as objective accounts of women's plight in the nineteenth century." "We have," we are told, "mistaken Victorian rhetoric for reality." Peterson's goal is no less than "a re-vision, a new view" of Victorian gentlewomen (x). Peterson's study of more than one hundred women spans the period from 1799 to 1914 and includes the wives and daughters of tradesmen, bankers, physicians, scientists, clergymen, and scholars. Using these women, she relegates "the myth of the demure Victorian gentlewoman to the ash-heap" and claims that "ladies were eager participants, not observers on the sidelines, in the life and achievements of the Victorian age" (33). The basic argument of Family, Love, and Work is that, in the lives of these women, class mattered more than gender. Thus, Peterson contends that despite the lack of structured education, far from being superficially educated for the marriage-market, these women "differed very little from the leisured gentlemen who pursued a liberal education in philosophy or biology with no need to make a profession or career of such interests" (57). She argues that instead of being confined to the "private sphere" and unpaid work, Victorian gentlewomen were active and useful, and sometimes paid, in such public spheres as charity, education, writing, translating, painting, and illustrating, and even such apparently inaccessible fields as entomology, photography, physics, and the administration of charities. Her final chapter, "'Working Together for a Common End,'" stresses the active role, as counsellor and participant, that many women played in their husbands' professions, and argues that upper-middle-class marriages were partnerships and that careers were shared enterprises. As an attempt to revise our image of the Victorian gentlewoman, Peterson's study is unsuccessful. This is partly a result of her methodology. Although ostensibly debunking a misguided view of Victorian women, Peterson provides few specific examples of the perspective she attacks. Instead, she provides a wealth of information selected from diaries, letters, and memoirs in the apparent belief that such sources provide "objective" knowledge of the "reality...