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Dangerous Women in the 19th-Century English Literature Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2021


19th-century England was characterized by a conservative approach to gender. Today, this period is well-known for an ideological divide in the view on manhood and womanhood, suggesting that men should be active in the public sphere, whereas women inherently belong to the private, domestic sphere. These ideas became translated into Victorians’ strict expectations of what females and males ought to do and which activities they must avoid. Moreover, they also found their reflection in 19th-century literature.

While some Victorian authors regarded gender dualisms as a norm and praised them, others realized the restrictive nature of gender stereotypes and, thus, questioned and criticized these dualisms in their own creative ways. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon are two examples of works that are built on such a critical approach. The main method that Eliot and Braddon utilized to explore the boundaries of womanhood in their novels is character representation. Even though Maggie Tulliver and Lady Audley have very different stories and qualities, both of them defy Victorian traditions and, therefore, can be seen as dangerous women. By analyzing the characters of Maggie Tulliver and Lady Audley and identifying similarities and differences between them, the present paper will aim to explain what it meant to be a dangerous woman in the 19th century. Besides that, the social context in which the novels were created will be examined as well to elucidate why the image of a dangerous woman in literature mattered in the first place.

Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss

Since the very childhood, Maggie has looked and behaved unlike other girls and women described by George Eliot in her novel. For instance, while fair skin and tidy, feminine looks were considered to be beautiful in the 19th century, Maggie had brown skin, which made her look like “a mulatter” (Eliot 10). Moreover, she did not like conventional fashion and even said to one of the gypsies who was admiring her bonnet and frock, “I don’t want to wear a bonnet … I’d rather wear a red handkerchief, like yours” (Eliot 117). However, the character’s appearance and rejection of conventional views on beauty can be regarded merely as outward manifestations of that what indeed differed her from others. The main qualities that made her look dangerous were intelligence and natural curiosity.

From an early age, Maggie craved to learn and explore things and the world independently rather than blindly comply with norms. As a result, she frequently disobeyed Mrs. Tulliver who persistently and unsuccessfully tried to make her daughter interested in girly activities, for example, patchwork. Since Maggie considered such things “foolish” and rarely felt shy to express her opinion about that, her mother thought she was rather naughty than smart (Eliot 12). On the other hand, Mr. Tulliver understood that Maggie was very intelligent and could probably be the smartest member of the family.

The father’s concerns regarding his daughter’s acumen make it clear why female intelligence was not welcomed in the Victorian era and why smart women were viewed as dangerous. For example, he said that Maggie was “twice as ’cute as Tom. Too ’cute for a woman, I’m afraid … It’s no mischief much while she’s a little un, but an over-‘cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep—she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that” (Eliot 10). This particular statement indicates that intelligence served no purpose for a 19th-century woman since females were not expected to do anything outside of the house and actively participate in public and political life. Neither were they expected to attend schools and even be paid for their work. One of the main objectives for any girl was to find a husband and successfully get married in order to fulfill the traditionally feminine roles of a wife and a mother. It is valid to say that acumen could, in fact, create barriers towards the attainment of these goals since men were primarily looking for ladylike, obedient women.

Another significant statement by Mr. Tulliver is about Maggie’s interest in reading. He said to Mr. Riley:

She understands what one’s talking about so as never was. And you should hear her read, – straight off as if she knew it all beforehand. And always at her book! But it’s bad – it’s bad … a woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble … she’ll read the books and understand ‘em, better nor half the folks as are grown up (Eliot 18)

It is clear from what Mr. Tulliver said about Maggie that he appreciated his daughter and her talents but was truly worried about her future. His words imply that when a woman understood things better than men, it could harm her since she did not fit in the ideal view of a Victorian woman as timid and submissive. The inability to get married was merely one of the potential undesired outcomes of female intelligence. Women who had a deep knowledge of the word and who openly expressed their opinions were regarded as dangerous also because they made people around them question the value and validity of traditional gender roles. At the same time, it is possible to say that the vast majority of people living in the Victorian era were against any changes in their ideology. Thus, independent, working, and intelligent women frequently were publicly reproached, ridiculed, and criticized.

While as a child, Maggie was usually forgiven for her misbehavior, the situation changed as she grew older and became a young woman. Her desire to be independent could not be fulfilled due to unfavorable life circumstances and overpowering social pressures. Besides making her unhappy, Maggie’s search for independence and unlawful, romantic relations with Stephen Guest, in particular, became the reason why other people turned hostile towards her. Among those people was her brother, Tom, who said to Maggie when she returned home after running away with Stephen: “You have disgraced us all. You have disgraced my father’s name. You have been a curse to your best friends” (Eliot 434). This situation demonstrates that unrepressed female sexuality posed a major threat to Victorian values as well. In a society that substantially relied on religious principles, all romantic relationships outside of the institute of marriage were viewed as sinful and immoral. Thus, even those connections that were the products of pure love but were short-term and not legalized were shamed by Victorians. Noteworthily, women usually suffered due to this notion much more than men and had to bear the stigma of a fallen woman till the end of their days.

It is possible to presume that non-compliant women were regarded as dangerous because, serving as a negative example, their behaviors brought disorder into the well-established, patriarchal way of life. The very idea about female independence could put the status of those in privileged positions at risk. For this reason, women like Maggie Tulliver were punished by society and fell victim to the idea that, after following their own passions at least once, a woman had no right to a dignified and honorable life. This assumption may explain why, in Eliot’s novel, Maggie received her brother’s forgiveness only when facing death.

Lucy Graham in Lady Audley’s Secret

Similar to Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Lucy Graham, also known as Lady Audley and Helen Talboys, challenged the moral position of Victorian women in Braddon’s novel. Nevertheless, the threat to social values and men posed by Eliot’s character was merely linked to the ideological, cultural dimension and, therefore, can be defined as indirect, intangible. At the same time, Braddon’s Lady Audley also posed a direct danger to the lives of male characters portrayed in the novel. Still, Lady Audley’s actions and experiences have significant symbolic meaning that can be related to the social context of the 19th century.

Like in the case of Eliot’s Maggie, intelligence was one of Lucy Graham’s key qualities that define her as a dangerous woman. Before becoming Lucy Graham or Lady Audley, the character changed her identity and undertook massive efforts to hide it from others. Miss Tonks, with whom the character worked together prior to getting married to Mr. Audley, stated: “Miss Graham told me nothing [about her past]; she was too clever for that. She knows how to keep her own secrets, in spite of her innocent ways and her curly hair” (Braddon 425). Lucy looked like a perfect Victorian woman, with good manners and an appealing appearance, making everybody think that she was “the sweetest girl that ever lived” (Braddon 14). Nevertheless, she had an intellect that surpassed the abilities of an average, domesticated British woman. To fake her death as Helen Talboys, change her identity, and leave the past behind, she had to employ advanced strategic thinking skills. Moreover, it seems that she became a wife of a wealthy man not just by luck but as a result of a strategic approach as well because it was poverty that she tried to run away from in the first place.

The reasons that turned Helen Talboys into a deceptive villainess deserve special mentioning. As a 19th-century woman, she was entirely dependent on the male members of her family. However, her first husband, George Talboys, left Helen and their child in order to “seek his fortune” (Braddon 630). As a result, Helen felt like “a slave allied to beggary and obscurity,” pitied by everyone around (Braddon 630). Like females who committed to sin and became permanently associated with the notion of a fallen woman imposed on them by others, Helen became trapped in a seemingly inescapable position of an abandoned woman. Clearly, she had no opportunities to handle her miserable situation and maintain a proper quality of life by relying only on low-paid work that women were allowed to do at that time. In addition, her chances to get married again were extremely small because her history as a married woman who was left by her husband had already tainted her image. Therefore, the only way to improve her life was through radical measures. She had to change her identity entirely in order to wipe out an unfortunate mark of the past.

In her representation of Helen as a dangerous woman, Braddon referred to the concept of female insanity. When telling truth about herself to Mr. Audley and his nephew, Robert, Lady Audley called herself insane and claimed that everything she did to hide her past was due to mental distress. It is valid to presume that one can get an idea to fake own death only when mentally unstable and/or in a situation of complete hopelessness and despair. However, the very circumstances in which Helen found herself after her first husband left were indeed hopeless ad psychologically disturbing. Moreover, they were a result of strict limitations imposed on women by Victorian society.

Helen’s case clearly shows that social limitations and pressures were not only psychological but also physical in nature as she had no chance to change her social status and find adequate means for sustenance without a man by her side. Overall, the character’s alleged insanity, which began with “fits of violence and despair” after George set off to Australia, emphasizes the whole seriousness and severely restrictive nature of a woman’s position in 19th-century Britain (Braddon 630). It demonstrates that she could not become happy and live a normal life without going against social norms. However, there was no other way to do so but to resort to illegal means and/or go insane.

The portrayal of any character as an insane person is definitely a convenient way to explain their deviant behavior. However, such an approach would probably be too simple and readers may still have some doubts regarding Helen’s madness. From a certain perspective, it is possible to equate the decisions and actions that the character undertook to extraordinary courage. A statement about Helen that Dr. Mosgrave made in the conversation with Robert serves as an excellent example of this alternative view on the reasons behind her behavior:

There is no evidence of madness in anything she has done. She ran away from her home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left in the hope of finding a better one. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness there. When she found herself in a desperate position, she did not grow desperate. She employed intelligent means, and she carried out a conspiracy that required coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that (Braddon 672).

Dr. Mosgrave’s opinion is in line with the initial assumption about Helen’s intelligence and manlike strategic approach to life. She refused to suffer a miserable life of an abandoned woman and single mother and wait for her husband to return. Instead of submitting to her fate shaped by unfavorable external circumstances, she deliberately and actively started to arrange her life in the way that she wanted. Thus, Helen had some masculine qualities and skills that women in 19th-century Britain were not expected to have and utilize in practice.

Summing up the analysis, it is appropriate to note that Helen can be regarded as a dangerous woman not simply because she attempted to kill her previous husband and others who interfered with her life as Lady Audley. These actions may be viewed as merely outward manifestations of the characteristics that made her dangerous, namely, a strong will and a well-developed acumen. It is also valid to say that she was labeled mad not only because she engaged in criminal and illegal activities while trying to build her happiness but also because her behavior went astray from the gender role that she was supposed to perform. In this way, insanity and confinement in an asylum became an ultimate punishment for Helen who refused to be a humble Victorian woman and chose to pursue personal interests by all possible means and at all costs.

Significance of the Image of a Dangerous Woman

Maggie Tulliver and Lady Audley represent two different forms of dangerous female behavior. As the character analysis revealed, these two women share such features as intelligence and aspiration to pursue personal interests. In the case of Maggie, these interests included education and independence, while Lady Audley sought prosperity and an opportunity to live a good life. Regardless of their slight differences, the two characters probably had the same significance for the writers who created them. As women who worked and attempted to be more active in the public domain through their writing, George Eliot and Mary Elizabeth Braddon must have known the value of personal ambitions and their significance for self-growth. Moreover, learning from their own experiences, Eliot and Braddon must have been aware of all the struggles that smart and independent women with personal opinions and a desire to contribute to society faced on the daily basis throughout the 19th century.

It is possible to say that Victorian female writers like Eliot and Braddon were among the first people who commenced realizing women’s unfavorable position and the discriminatory social order in which they lived. In their novels, these authors managed to record the major social anxieties and concerns regarding the changing views on women, values, and ways of life. Neither Eliot nor Braddon attacked the Victorian ideology in their works directly. However, an apparent and substantial hint of criticism regarding female dependence on males can be found in both The Mill on the Floss and Lady Audley’s Secret. The authors seem to be against the miserable situation in which single and independent women could not live happily and without humiliation. Therefore, Eliot and Braddon can be rightfully called the voices of New Womanhood.


Every woman who went against social norms and Victorian values was seen as dangerous because, by her example, she demonstrated that the 19th-century ideas about women’s nature were far from the truth. As the analysis of Maggie Tulliver and Lady Audley demonstrated, intelligence and desire to fulfill personal interests and objectives were among the core attributes of dangerous women. Clearly, the society in which they lived did not provide such females as Maggie and Helen with enough opportunities to express their innate qualities to the fullest and attain everything they aspired for. However, the true value of their tragic experiences was in challenging the existing ideological dichotomy and contributing to the reconstruction of obsolete views on womanhood.

Works Cited

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. The Floating Press, 2009.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Wordsworth Classics, 1999.

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