Female Intimacy in Victorian Literature

Female Intimacy in Victorian Literature


Narratives with a heavy focus on romance, despite their frequent characterization as being shallow or cliché, have always had patriarchal weight behind them. The imagined, often unrealistic, companionships between female and male characters these narratives create have helped promote a privileging of heterosexual relationships—a belief that women are meant to be with men, that they will feel most fulfilled with male partners. The Victorian era of literature is no stranger to this preoccupation, and some of the most famous novels of the time center impossible, hard won, love stories. 

In the Victorian era, though, unwed women had unfettered access to each other in a way that their male suitors did not; their bonds were not beholden to standards of courtship. Relationships between women occupied an almost contradictory space, being both free and constrained. Female relationships were not meant to be privileged, (heterosexual marriage would always be the goal), yet they were the only relationships unwed women were encouraged to have. This complication is present in Victorian literature, and embedded within its popular heterosexual narratives, are often smaller tales of female-centric love.

Though the plots of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Adam Bede by George Eliot, focus largely on heterosexual romance, both books afford relationships between unwed female characters a recognition absent from their heterosexual courtships: Mary Barton and Margaret Jennings have an emotional and domestic intimacy that Mary does not allow her male love interests; Dinah Morris, unlike Hetty Sorrel’s male love interests, knows that Hetty’s true feelings and narrative fate do not coincide with her beautiful appearance. Neither relationship, though, exists outside of the patriarchy, and both Mary and Margaret, and Dinah and Hetty, must reckon with its imposition. 

Upon first meeting Margaret, Mary recognizes a “strangeness” within Margaret that intrigues her. Gaskell writes: “Margaret, so quiet, so common place, until her singing powers were called forth; so silent from home, so cheerful and agreeable at home…”1 Mary knows that Margaret’s public appearance does not coincide with her private vocal power. She describes Margaret through contrast; Margaret appears to be “quiet” because of her visage, but is assertive and loud when “calling forth” the voice inside of her. By delineating the disparity between how Margaret acts at home, privately, and away from home, publicly, Mary shows that she has access to two different spheres of understanding. Mary sees Margaret’s contradictions, and in this gaze, recognizes Margaret in full. Unlike the largely public relationships of courtship, Mary chooses to cultivate a friendship with Margaret based on both private and public knowledge she has of her. 

After Mary chooses to enter Margaret’s life, earlier “consenting” to forming a deeper attachment to Margaret by meeting her grandfather, they quickly fold into each other’s lives in an almost incomprehensible way.2 The narrator states: “I do not know what points of resemblance (or dissimilitude, for the one joins people as often as the other) attracted the two girls to each other.”3 The omniscient narrator of Mary Barton, a figure meant to know everything about the novel’s characters, does not have access to the emotional core of Mary and Margaret’s relationship. They do not know why Mary and Margaret are drawn to one another, because their relationship does not serve a utilitarian function—they are not friends because it is convenient for the narrative, or because the social novel needs a romantic arc to soften its readers’ sympathies. Mary and Margaret’s friendship has a quality of muted, impenetrable intimacy that the narrator cannot explain, but must bear witness to.

This intimacy manifests itself through Mary and Margaret’s domestic familiarity. Both characters have constant access to the other’s home, with Margaret often coming over to Mary’s to do her nightly work. At one point, Margaret even falls asleep in Mary’s living room, waiting for Mary to come home.4This indicates that Margaret most likely has a key to Mary’s home, showing that there is little privacy between the girls—few physical or emotional boundaries, an ambiguous separation between households. This intimacy is further established through their quick moving domestic routine: “By this time Mary had broken up the raking coal, and lighted her candle; and Margaret settled herself to her work on one side of the table.”5 They both have designated roles in Mary’s home—Mary prepares the living room, tends to the fire, dusts the room, while Margaret makes herself comfortable. They exist separately, but together, spending time in the same physical space because it offers them comfort and makes labor easier. 

It is in this living room that Mary and Margaret are most unified. The intimacy this domestic space cultivates allows Margaret to share the secret of her blindness with Mary, offering a part of herself no other character has been privy to. It is also where Margaret shares the news that her career as a singer might soon take off, telling Mary: “‘I’ll not forget to give thee a lift…when that comes about…if thou’rt a good girl, but mayhappen I may make thee my lady’s maid!’” 6 At this point in the narrative, Mary has been driven by an ambition to advance out of the working class through marriage—Margaret offers her an alternative future through their relationship. A future of advancement outside the obligations of heterosexual marriage. A future that Mary is made emotional by, as she says to Margaret, after wiping a tear, “‘So let us go and dream on it,’” including Margaret in the manifestation of her innermost desire.7

Though this future does not come to pass, and though Mary eventually marries her working class love interest Jem Wilson, the difference between the intimacy of Mary and Margaret’s friendship, and the repulsion that characterizes Mary and Jem’s courtship, is stark. Whereas listening to Margaret’s singing voice “comforts” Mary, Jem’s voice, “instantly produce[s] a revulsion in her mood.”8 Mary delights in seeing Margaret in her home, “kissing her,” but when interacting with Jem in his kitchen, “expresses…a dread of him, that he thought was almost repugnance.”9 In the previously cited scene, Jem is in the process of expressing his feelings of love towards Mary, but it is an intimate moment that Mary wants to be “released” from, as if Jem is imprisoning her. Mary wants to be physically and emotionally close to Margaret, and in comparison, is literally disgusted by Jem’s proximity, always wanting to draw away from his touch, his voice, his expectations of her. 

Mary and Margaret’s close relationship, though, does not exist outside of the conditions of patriarchy. Gaskell writes: “Mary told many of her feelings in a way she had never done before to any one. Most of her foibles also were made known to Margaret, but not all. There was one…weakness still concealed from every one. It concerned a lover.”10 Though Mary’s relationship with Margaret is unique in the text, though she expresses herself to Margaret in an unprecedented way, there is always a specter that separates them. She can share most of her bad qualities with Margaret, but when it comes to her secret lover and the threat of impropriety, Mary generalizes Margaret to the group of “every one.” The narrator might not be able to penetrate the intimacy of their friendship, but the threat of patriarchy and male presence still looms between Mary and Margaret. 

For most of Adam Bede, Dinah and Hetty, unlike Mary and Margaret, do not have an emotionally close relationship. This lack of closeness does not necessitate a lack of recognition, though. While thinking about Hetty, Dinah describes her as, “that sweet young thing, with life and all its trials before her—the solemn daily duties of the wife and mother—and her mind so unprepared for them all, bent merely on…selfish pleasures.”11 Dinah sees past the beauty that normally defines Hetty, the beauty that makes her so desirable to suitors as a potential wife and mother. Instead, she recognizes how wholly unprepared Hetty is as a young girl to fulfill the serious duties of an adult woman. Dinah does not make this judgment based off Hetty’s appearance, but rather, considers Hetty’s mind and internal motivations. Unlike the male characters in Adam Bede, Dinah accepts Hetty without molding her image to fit into a selfish, false perception—she does not think of Hetty in heterosexual, functional terms, as a beautiful potential wife, rather, she recognizes Hetty as a contradictory person in full.

Like Mary with Margaret, Dinah is drawn to Hetty because of her contrast: “[T]his blank in Hetty’s nature, instead of exciting Dinah’s dislike, only touched her with a deeper pity.”12 Dinah wants to be close to Hetty not in spite of, but because of, Hetty’s lack. Of course, this is partially a religious impulse—Dinah, as a devout Methodist, wants to be able to save a sinner’s soul, which is why emotional intimacy is absent. Still, Dinah’s radical acceptance of Hetty’s selfish, immoral nature (said with love) creates a sort of narrative intimacy between Dinah and Hetty; the reader knows Dinah is right about Hetty, that the novel’s male characters are deluding themselves, and Dinah knows that she is right about Hetty, becoming a source of foreshadowing for Hetty’s eventual tragic fate.

Early in Adam Bede, before the extent of Hetty and Arthur Donnithorne’s illicit courtship is revealed, when thinking about Hetty, Dinah’s “…imagination…created a thorny thicket of…sorrow, in which she saw the poor thing…looking with tears for rescue and finding none.”13 This is direct foreshadowing for Hetty’s storyline in the later chapter, “The Journey in Despair.” The description, “thorny thickets,” has a physical quality that evokes imagery of the dense forest Hetty eventually struggles through. The use of the word “rescue” primes the reader for Hetty’s desperate yearning for a savior through Dinah, and the finality of “finding none” foretells Hetty’s realization that her pregnancy has left her socially isolated. Dinah is the only character in Adam Bede’s narrative who sees Hetty’s future outside of the moral, patriarchal reality that assumes Hetty’s beauty will lead her to marriage. She is the only character who attempts to create a selfless relationship with Hetty outside of that patriarchal system, telling her: “…if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always…love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris…”14 She offers Hetty support and sympathy unconnected to familial or marital duties, unconditional love that need not be established through Hetty’s labor as a dairy worker or domestic labor as a wife. 

Hetty does not reciprocate Dinah’s attempts at intimacy or recognition, partially because her vanity makes it difficult for her to do so, but also because Adam Bede positions Dinah and Hetty as opposites. The narrator even goes so far as to exclaim: “What a strange contrast the two figures [make]!”15 The text defines these characters against each other and does not allow for a friendship to form, because doing so would undermine its structure. Dinah can only fit the figure of the pious angel of the narrative if Hetty is the sinful devil, and this is a fact Hetty is incessantly reminded of. 

Every time Hetty has a moral failing, she is immediately juxtaposed against Dinah. For example, after Totty, a child, hits Hetty for attempting to pick her up, proving Hetty’s lack of maternal instincts, Mrs. Poyser mentions how Totty is always happy to be held by Dinah. As Dinah succeeds in holding Totty, “Hetty turned away without any sign of ill humour, and, taking her hat from the table, stood waiting with an air of indifference.”16 Though Hetty does not express her annoyance, Eliot complicates her public disinterest through use of ambiguous terms like “without any sign of,” and “air of indifference.” It is as though Hetty is pretending, putting on airs so that even the reader cannot see her true feelings—the simmering resentment that steadily builds every time she is negatively compared to the perfect figure of Dinah. 

This resentment fully realizes itself when Adam Bede implies that Hetty would look more attractive in Dinah’s plain clothing, inadvertently negating Hetty’s belief in the one quality she feels she exceeds Dinah in—her beauty. Eliot writes about Hetty’s retaliation: “The little minx had found a black gown of her aunt’s, and pinned it…to look like Dinah’s…and had tied on one of Dinah’s high-crowned borderless net caps.”17 In response to Hetty’s actions, the men in the room laugh. Hetty is making fun of Dinah by perpetrating the comparison she is always subject to, showing Dinah’s lack. Hetty does this by assuming Dinah’s identity in the closest way, and in the process, demonstrates how female intimacy can be cultivated through resentment. In a moment of extreme separation, Hetty inadvertently creates an intimacy with Dinah, being almost one with her by sharing her clothes. 

Though the structures of Mary Barton and Adam Bede necessitate that their female protagonists marry their male love interests, the patriarchal pressures of the novels can’t impact the bonds between Mary and Margaret, and Dinah and Hetty. All four women work within the bounds of heterosexual romance to form their own relationships, creating subversive narratives of female intimacy that function outside of plot; theirs is not a constructed togetherness, rather, something that exists within unresolved tension. Mary and Margaret, and Dinah and Hetty, are close not in spite of, but because of, their contrasts. They are not intimate because of marriage, but because female characters recognize a full humanity in each other often disallowed by conventional romance. Mary can love Margaret, and at the same time, unabashedly lie to her; Hetty can resent Dinah, and at the same time, fully embody her. This female intimacy borne from conflict is truer to life than perfectly manufactured, hyper fictional, Victorian romance, and as a result, compels attention despite its lack of focus. 

  1. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (Penguin, 2003), 42.
  2. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 38.
  3. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 43.
  4. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 43.
  5. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 45.
  6. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 95.
  7. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 96.
  8. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 79, 99.
  9. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 79, 141.
  10. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 43.
  11. Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Penguin, 2008), 172.
  12. Eliot, Adam Bede, 172.
  13. Eliot, Adam Bede, 173.
  14. Eliot, Adam Bede, 174.
  15. Eliot, Adam Bede, 174.
  16. Eliot, Adam Bede, 161.
  17. Eliot, Adam Bede, 247.
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