Don't Know Dickens

Charles Dickens, that is.

Motherhood in Victorian England


I only wish I had been better brought up, and was likely to make him a better wife… –Caddy, Bleak House


In Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, we see many different representations of Victorian women. From the wealthy Mrs. Dedlock to the impoverished Jenny, women survive and suffer in a time and place that exposes them to harsh living conditions, poor sanitation, patriarchal laws, and limited health care. But how true are the lives of Dickens’ women to history? We know that many of the mothers in his novels are flawed characters, yet Natalie McKnight argues, “the modern, self-conscious mother originated in Victorian England amidst a proliferation of mother-oriented publications…under a fecund queen whose public example established high standards for women” (2). The seriously flawed women in Dickens obviously fall short of the ideals of the time.

Perhaps Dickens’ issues with women and mothers in his life affected how he portrayed them in his work. His unhappy childhood and later marriage and separation from his wife may have tainted his representations of Victorian women, for both his Victorian readers as well as current readers.

Does he embrace the Victorian ideals or does he work out his personal issues through his representations of women? Or does he capture the reality? To understand the complex women in his novels, one must first understand the role of mothers in Victorian England.

The Victorian Ideal

Motherhood was essential to Victorian womanhood. Queen Victoria, a mother of nine, “came to represent a kind of femininity which was centered on family, motherhood and respectability…the very model of marital stability and domestic virtue” (Abrams). Interestingly, “For the queen, sex and labor were the heaviest crosses of women’s martyrdom” (McKnight 15), which she revealed privately in letters to her daughters. Queen Victoria was hardly the only example, though she was probably the most important one.

If the queen herself were not exemplary enough, Victorian society could also turn to periodicals, novels, guidebooks, and magazines for more information about what a good woman should be. According to Nicola Thompson, “By 1852, the literacy rate in England stood at over 60 per cent, and the reading public desired entertainment and instruction” (2), which means that printed information was influential, particularly as the middle class sought education (3). Women’s journals such as The Lady’s Magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, and many others “tended to perpetuate the Victorian ideal of domestic femininity” (Thompson 123). Women were constantly being reminded that their jobs were at home, and their focus should be on their husbands and children.

For example, in an 1865 article in All the Year Round, Andrew Halliday’s  “Mothers,” readers are encouraged to praise women and uphold the ideals of womanhood. He describes maternal love in religious terms: “It is altogether above reason; it is a holy passion, in which all others are absorbed and lost. It is a sacred flame on the altar of the heart, which is never quenched.” Such strong and passionate wording like “holy passion” and “sacred flame” must have affected his readers–and reminded women that through children they find satisfaction and their calling. The last passage, however, stands out as Halliday highlights why his readers should value women:

When we reflect upon what mothers have to
endure, we may allow that novelists are right in
making the culminating point of happiness the
marriage of their heroines. After that their
trouble begins. Man, in his self-importance,
has applied the proverb to himself;  but it should
be, “When a woman marries her trouble begins.”
It is she who feels the needles and pins of life.
Man it is, rather, who sharpens their points.
Woman’s is a subjective life from first to last.
No man knows what a woman suffers in bearing
and bringing up a family of children. Only
Heaven knows—Heaven which has endowed
her with that wondrous love which redeems her
existence from being an intolerable slavery.

That Halliday links the physical act of bearing children to “intolerable slavery” reveals what motherhood is like for many women–fortunately, she is saved since the God-given love for her children elevates physical slavery to spiritual calling. This passage also suggests that men and fathers do not suffer as women do because the responsibility for childbearing and rearing lies with the mother. Because Halliday does not call for change, “one gets the impression that these men want to compensate women for their miseries by giving them anything but praise” (McKnight 12). There is no doubt that the lives of women became increasingly difficult as the become mothers.

If Victorian women needed even more guidance, they could turn to guidebooks such as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management or other instructional publications (Abrams). The Cassells’ Household Guide, which was published around 1880, offers mothers advice on the rearing and management of children, conditions of a good nursery, and appropriate foods for infants and children. While there is some good information that seems well-intentioned, most of the numerous responsibilities are directed at mothers and nurses. Unsurprising as this is, it does confirm that women and mothers are expected to provide high standards of care for children with little support from men or society. For instance, the “Moral Influence-Obedience” section claims, “A mother, as the being nearest and dearest to the almost unconscious infant should act not only as the appointed guardian of its bodily welfare, but should also extend her care and effect to the proper development and culture of its mind.” Later, the “Moral Influence: Love and Fear” section states, “The affection which a mother feels for her offspring, being one of the strongest instincts of our nature, is sometimes supposed to need no culture.” Affection is natural and biological, an inborn quality of women elevated to cultural imperative. Occasionally, the guidebook has recommendations for parents, but not for fathers; in fact, the word “mother” is mentioned fifty times in the “Rearing and Management of Children,” and “father” is used one time in the context of crying babies at night. Getting children to sleep and fostering good sleep habits, by the way, are also the jobs of the mother or nurse.

Even women’s clothing “began to mirror women’s function,” according to Lynn Abrams’ “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain:”

In the 19th century women’s fashions became more sexual–the hips, buttocks and breasts were exaggerated with crinolines, hoopskirts and corsets which nipped in the waist and thrust out the breasts. The female body was dressed to emphasise a woman’s separation from the world of work. by wearing dresses that resembled their interior furnishings, women became walking symbols of their social function–wife, mother, domestic manager.

In short, women received the message from society, the queen, printed materials, and fashion trends that women should be home with children. The “ideal” Victorian woman embraced her domesticity. This cannot simply be dismissed as “part of the time” without considering the affect such messages had on women and how it influenced their lives.

The Victorian Reality

The ideal is repeated ad nauseam, but what about the reality? While some women must have lived up to Victorian standards of womanhood and motherhood, others could not. First, not all women were married; in fact, one in three women were doomed to spinsterhood because of the male to female ratio (Burnett). What happened to these women? They went to work: “The Census of 1851, the first to attempt to count occupations in any detail, gave a total of 2.8 million women and girls over the age of ten in employment out of a female population of 10.1 million, forming a proportion of 30.2 per cent of the whole labour force (Burnett). While many went to work as domestic servants, seamstresses, framework knitters, or other jobs (Burnett), some women turned to prostitution or lived as mistresses.

Many married women also had to find work to supplement their husband’s earnings, and they were part of the working class despite also having their responsibilities at home. Working class women “would typically have five living children from eight or more pregnancies, as so many children died before the age of five” (Wojtczak). These women also had to balance work with their domestic life, which was complicated by the fact that “birth control literature was illegal and the average working class wife was either pregnant or breast feeding from wedding day to menopause” (Wojtczak). Left only very few alternatives, women became enslaved to their wombs, their homes, and their jobs.

Women’s lack of economic status even affected upper class women (Calder 16-17), and “most if them passed straight from childhood to the responsibilities of matronhood without the change of testing their strength as young women, except in the marriage market” (Calder 20). They were vulnerable and constantly in the control of their father or husband. Fortunately, these women had servants to assist with the domestic duties; however, they still faced challenges of repeated pregnancies and dependence on husbands.

The bar set for women was high, and the goal they were to devote their lives to was singular: the “message that motherhood was a woman’s highest achievement, albeit within marriage, never weakened through the course of the century…it was in this period that motherhood was idealised as the zenith of a woman’s emotional and spiritual fulfillment” (Abrams). However, by the end of the nineteenth century women wanted “more choice and more control” (Calder 162), and even in Dickens one can see that the “normal” way wasn’t the only way. While Mrs. Dedlock did not make the choice to give up her baby–the decision was made for her without her consent–this difficult moment in Bleak House betrays a painful reality: rich women did have some options when faced with pregnancy, since they could possibly afford a child being whisked away. Other, less fortunate women turned to infanticide: “Throughout the nineteenth century many new-born babies were found abandoned, usually strangled or smothered” (Woitczak). Abortion was also common, perhaps as numerous as “between one in seven and one in three of all pregnancies” (Calder 161). The sad truth was the women could not always live up to the ideals regarding motherhood because motherhood was a physical, emotional, and financial burden.


Given the ideals and the reality of motherhood in Victorian England, maybe Dickens’ females characters were not treated unfairly. When Caddy in Bleak House claims “I’m disgraceful” (Dickens 44) because she does not know how to dance and sing and her mother’s house is a wreck, she and the reader understand what Mrs. Jellyby, Caddy’s mother does not: the job of a Victorian women is to keep the home and children.

Lucy Darnay’s devotion in Tale of Two Cities to her imprisoned husband, for whose cause she’d even risk her own child, exploits the double duty of women–complete dedication to the husband, complete dedication to the child. She, like Esther in Bleak House, might not only meet the goals of Victorian women, but they also might find happiness in their domesticity. Lady Boffin’s desire to take in orphans does not seem as shallow; as she ascends into the upper class, she takes on the need to meet the ideals of society, much like her husband.

Works Cited (Texts)

Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” BBC History, 2001. Web. 28 March 2012.

Burnett, John. “Victorian Working Women: Sweated Labor.” Victorian Web, 2002. Web. 28 March 2012. <>

Calder, Jenni. Women and Marriage in Victorian England. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Norton, 1977. Print

Halliday, Andrew. “Mothers.”All the Year Round. 9 September 1865: 157-159. Online <http://>.

McKnight, Natalie J. Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print

Thompson, Nicola D. Reviewing Sex: Gender and the Reception of Victorian Novels. New York : UP, 1996. Print.

Wohl, Anthony. “Women and Victorian Public Health: Difficulties in Childbirth.” Victorian Web. Web. 28 March 2012. <http://>

Wojtczak, Helena. “Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Victorian Web, 2000. Web. 28 March 2012. <>







One thought on “Motherhood in Victorian England

  1. This is beautifully done. I’m so glad you tackled motherhood–it was essential to concepts of Victorian women (when isn’t it? but still), and it’s not always something we talk explicitly about–not always clearly the SUBJECT of texts, but it’s always there. And when women characters don’t get it right, they are “disgraced” in some way.

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