The Strong Women in the Attic

The Strong Women in the Attic


The Not-So-Secret Punishments of Independent Women in Great Expectations and Middlemarch

It can border on intellectually dishonest to accuse Victorian novelists of being specifically misogynist, as opposed to acknowledging the social realities of the time and wider cultural forces that normalized the standards, practices, and ideas the novels depict. In fact, these novels were often the few places where someone could really listen to a woman—her opinions, desires, ambitions, etc.—outside of the domestic realm. And yet, for most of our favorite female characters, the best we can hope for them is that they find a happy marriage to someone they actually love and are attracted to, someone who will treat them kindly. While it isn’t inherently sexist to be in love with a man, or to get married and have children, many nineteenth century novels make clear what happens to the strong women who try to circumvent these traditional practices to find a different kind of happiness. These independent women rarely find that happiness, and this contains an implication (upheld by what we know of the Victorian context of these books) that in fact, a woman may not reasonably find happiness outside of marriage and her assumed purpose in domesticity.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, otherwise ultra-feminine Rosamond suffers a miscarriage after an accident sustained horseback riding with Lydgate’s family, which Lydgate had instructed her not to do. The narrator describes his reaction: “Lydgate’s anger rose: he was prepared to be indulgent towards feminine weakness, but not towards feminine dictation.”1 This scene demonstrates the expectation that a wife should submit to the directions and opinions of her husband, because he is her caretaker and therefore knows better. The role is almost parental, ironic because the actual practice of child-rearing would fall under the expertise of women, who were largely in charge of the domestic realm.

In fact, the predominant issue between Rosamond and Lydgate is not her defiance of her husband’s wishes, but the fact that she was defiant in secret, implying she values her own judgement above his. For a woman to do things in secret (in this time and cultural context) was a revolutionary act. Rosamond is subversive in straying from the word and instruction of her husband—specifically when she does things Lydgate has expressly forbidden, like writing to his uncle for a loan. In fact, this is a truly offensive act that can threaten the foundation of a marriage, as Lydgate says, “It will be impossible to endure life with you, if you will always be acting secretly—acting in opposition to me and hiding your actions.”2 Godwin, Lydgate’s uncle, even accuses Lydgate of being the one who ordered his wife to write the letter reaching out to him, because that seems more reasonable than the idea that Rosamond would have secretly taken that task upon herself. Furthermore, he would “never choose to write to a woman on matters of business” which is a whole other way in which a woman was routinely marginalized from conversations—even those involving their own lives, homes, and finances. “3” In other words, somehow, it isn’t her business.

Though Lydgate may seem cruel and unforgiving, there is another aspect of his authoritative relationship style, which extends his role of caretaker and encourages weakness in Rosamond: her literal moments of weakness. Throughout their courtship and marriage, the moments in which we see Lydgate connect most strongly with Rosamond, instead of criticizing or berating her, are the moments where she is at her weakest and most vulnerable—marked often by a stream of her tears. These are the moments of the couple’s most palpable romance, and one could argue that Rosamond securing Lydgate’s attention and love is a kind of reward for her surrender to her natural role as a fragile thing that needs to be taken care of.

In the other novels, weakness is created and treated differently, and yet the moral implication for the women is the same. In Great Expectations, the first strong, independent woman we are introduced to is Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, who wields a great deal of authority over her physical space as well as her husband and brother. She can cast them out of the house when she needs to clean, she can yell at them, she even physically assaults them with a device called The Tickler.

Even still, Mrs. Joe is still only named via her husband, which may be one “punishment,” and she’s excluded from the hopeful spirits of her brother, Pip, and husband, Joe, when they begin to experience changes in luck. She never gets invited to Miss Havisham’s, nor does she really benefit from Pip’s newfound opportunity to be a gentleman. While Pip begins to foresee a future of social mobility, his sister gets attacked in her own home by Orlick. After this attack, she loses most of her cognitive function, leaving her weak and powerless, and eventually, Mrs. Joedies. One could interpret this as punishment as well, and her slow process of dying was perhaps a slow surrender to her authority over her home (the physical space in which she dies). Later, Joe remarries Biddy, who is sweet, demure, and submissive, and they find passionate love and happiness in their life together. The message? Perhaps we’re better off being weak-willed Biddy than forceful Mrs. Joe, according to Charles Dickens.

How does one define strength and independence? Personally, I think those characteristics can take many different forms. I would call Mrs. Joe strong, and I would also call Molly, Mr. Jaggers’s housekeeper, strong, although when we see her, she is entirely submissive, being a “wild beast tamed.”4 On their way to dinner at Jaggers’ home, Wemmick cautions Pip to keep an eye on Molly, referring to her as “it,” and notes that once Pip sees the beast that Jaggers has tamed, and to what degree, his “opinion of Mr. Jaggers’s powers” won’t be lowered.

Molly is described as gruesome-looking several times, as strong women in Victorian novels are often relegated to being either extremely beautiful or absolutely grotesque. For Molly, this is because of her wrists, which Jaggers forces her to show his guests at his dinner party, even though she begs him not to. He says (of her wrists): “There’s power here. Very few men have the power of wrist that this woman has. It’s remarkable what mere force of grip there is in these hands. I have had occasion to notice many hands; but I never saw stronger in that respect, man’s or woman’s, than these.”5 The fact that she may be holding all this power in her own self and body, and yet it’s clearly (and literally) being controlled, defined, and kept by a man, speaks to a larger contextual notion of men and women in society: A strong man will always be stronger than a strong woman. He lets her go saying “you have been admired, and can go,” implying that her passive role in her own body’s demonstration is all that’s expected from her, as a woman.6

We also know that Molly is in this position (of something akin to indentured servitude) because of a crime she tried to commit (and was still accused of even though she did not carry it out): killing her baby daughter and husband. It’s interesting to note, however, that Pip recognizes something familiar in observing Molly, specifically with her hands, that leads him to theorize (correctly) that Molly is Estella’s true mother. Estella is arguably the strongest woman in all of Great Expectations, so it’s interesting not only that she may have genetically inherited a kind of strength that defies the rules, morals, and expectations of the times but also that there would be a link between their hands, because Molly’s strength is represented by her wrists. One must then ask, Where is Estella’s strength?

I would argue Estella demonstrates the most independence of all the women in the novel because her strength (physically represented by her exceptional beauty, in some ways) allows her inordinate power and influence around the institution of marriage and her encounters with suitors. We’re told (by Herbert) that Estella was specifically raised to wreak havoc on men,which she succeeds in by simply having no emotion or romantic feeling for any of them. We see this as being Estella’s greatest strength, because it’s those emotions and romantic feelings that proved to be Miss Havisham’s greatest weakness. Miss Havisham fell in love with the wrong man and put his interests above her own, giving him her money and power. But what she doesn’t know is that her wealth and power are what make her a target for a devious man (who is explicitly described as not a gentleman). When friends like Matthew Pocket attempt to intervene, Miss Havisham instead demonstrates her strength against them, by removing them from her life and continuing to put her trust in her deceitful lover. As a “punishment,” the day of their wedding, the man stood her up.This betrayal stunts her life completely, which we see physically represented by the decaying wedding dress she continues to wear, the rotting wedding feast, the stopped clocks, her inability to leave her home, and more. All of these exist as artifacts of her heartbreak, self-contained elements of a cautionary tale, preserved actively in perpetuity by Miss Havisham to show that she has not let go of this pain, thus explaining her subsequent actions.

Miss Havisham adopted Estella as a baby through Jaggers, and raised her not to be just like her but rather with a few emotional tweaks—as if saving Estella from the same lived pain would retroactively cure her own heartbreak. Even still, though we see Miss Havisham being hard and strict with certain characters, and inciting drama for entertainment (such as with Pip’s feelings for Estella), it’s still clear that she’s vulnerable as well. Her craving for love and closeness is seen clearly in her fight with Estella wherein she begs for Estella to be warm and love her, and Estella retorts saying that wasn’t how she was raised. Unfortunately for Miss Havisham, it seems that her demonstrating independence and strength as a caretaker of Estella will also result in a punishment: She will miss out on love and affection. In an attempt to create and sustain the strength of Estella, she truly highlights her own weakness and made it impossible to obtain that which she sought for so long: love.

And yet, even Estella is not immune from a fate involving punishment. Though her cold and detached attitude about men protects her from emotional harm and heartbreak, it also enabled her to choose a husband who ends up being abusive. When Pip learns from Jaggers that Estella is officially married, Jaggers introduces the fact that there will now be a power struggle, wherein Estella and her new husband, Drummle, will draw on their respective (and separate) strengths to shape the dynamic of their marriage. In other words, Estella has the mental strength and can manipulate and control him; however, Drummle has the physical strength to force her into submission. Jaggers says that both people in a marriage cannot have that strength and power and therefore one must win. His view is confirmed at the end of the novel, when we learn Estella was beaten by Drummle, who became known for his cruelty, and later dies in a horse-related accident. The self-derived nature of his death suggests how cemented Estella was in this marriage, and that her escape could only have been incidental, passive, or bestowed upon her. All of the independence in direction and choice we’d seen her demonstrate as a younger girl, could no longer apply as an woman, mother, and wife. By the time Pip sees Estella again, she’s older, softened by sadness, and remorseful for not accepting Pip’s love back when it was available. In other words, her suffering has opened her heart, and she’s become another kind of cautionary tale, reinforcing the importance of authentic romance in a marriage, instead of self-protection and self-preservation. Experience has taught her that as a weak, fragile woman you can still pick a man who will take care of you, as opposed to abusing you.

In fact, many character arcs for the women of Victorian novels hinge on the principle that a woman too occupied by self-interest will surely suffer, particularly when her independence allows her to indulge in those self-serving impulses. In fact, one strong woman whom we don’t see suffer a terrible fate, is Dorothea in Middlemarch, and it’s because she’s able to self-subscribe to the morals and duties of both womanhood and her role as wife to Casaubon. During the course of her marriage, Dorothea grows more and more dissatisfied with her life with Casaubon, yet never deviates from what is expected of her, not because her husband is so forceful and expectant, but because she believes that is what’s correct. In fact, as she begins to grow more and more fond of Will Ladislaw, she specifically avoids him as her husband grows irritated by him.She instead carries on with her wifely responsibilities, supporting Casaubon in his work and research. As a result, Dorothea is admired by virtually every character in Middlemarch, and most men she comes into contact with are enamored with her. This may be purely coincidental, but it may also be an endorsement of Dorothea’s character as a wife as an example that all women should follow. In fact, by the end of the novel, even Rosamond agrees—after a speech by Dorothea herself, urging Rosamond to understand that the role of a wife is to love and support her husband to the utmost of her ability.

A strong, independent woman can mean many things in any time period, and in Victorian novels, those characteristics for women are even more ambiguous. However, in Middlemarch and Great Expectations alike  we see the way a woman’s life is dictated by countless unsaid rules and expectations, including that of making your husband’s life “easier” whether that means blind support, obedience, trust, or just affection. “Weakness” can be defined in equally varied ways, but often, weakness as an inherent trait is rewarded because it aligns with the idea that the man and/or husband is there to lead, direct, and take care of his emotional, erratic woman and/or wife. However, it seems the more control a woman tries to have over her own life, or perhaps even her husband, the more she opens herself up to punishment—in order to preserve the patriarchal power structures at play, whether that woman’s efforts are obvious, implicit, or secret.

  1. George Eliot, Middlemarch (Penguin Classics, 1200.
  2. Eliot, Middlemarch, 1227.
  3. Eliot, Middlemarch, 1227.
  4. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Penguin Classics, 2010), 357.
  5. Dickens, Great Expectations, 204.
  6. Dickens, Great Expectations, 204.
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