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Female Sexuality in the Victorian Novel

Ilia Hionidou-Mooney

English Literature


Year of study:



In the Victorian era, men and women were thought to inhabit two inflexible and ‘separate spheres.’ While most Victorian novels end in marriage due to the rigid gender differences enforced in the nineteenth century, scholars have argued that Victorian authors used the safety of their fictitious works to experiment with the boundaries of sexuality, and traverse gender ideals. My research focuses on how female sexuality operates in two prominent Victorian novels: H. Rider Haggard's 'She' and Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South.' I ask why Gaskell’s female protagonist is ‘tameable’, while Haggard’s is not? Ultimately, the Victorian obsession with maintaining order determines the fate of these protagonists. Gaskell’s depiction of female sexuality is considered useful to the Victorian social order, and so her protagonist is deemed ‘tameable.’ Meanwhile, Haggard’s protagonist is punished, as her sexuality does not conform to Victorian gender ideals and is therefore ‘untameable’. I use a number of literary theories as frameworks for my analysis of these Victorian novels, while also asking questions that resemble the contentions that we have about femininity and sexuality today: what are the structures at play that define the ‘correct’ way to be feminine? Who do these structures serve? And what consequences are there for those who try to break from the mould? The Victorian era both shaped and defined modern ideas about sexuality and gender; in understanding how Victorian literature depicts female protagonists, we can better comprehend how our own culture perpetuates rigid ideas about female sexuality.


As a fourth-year student in English Literature, I have come to appreciate how fiction is a tool that reflects and shapes societies of both the past and the present. My interest in Victorian fiction - and its subfield of sexuality and gender - stems from the undergraduate course taught by Professor Dustin Friedman during my Junior Year Abroad studying at American University, in Washington, D.C. The contents of this course allowed me to understand the extent to which Victorian conceptions of sexuality categorisation are perpetuated to this day. The material I read and discussed in Professor Friedman’s course Literature and Culture in Victorian Society was pivotal not only to my fundamental understanding of modern society, but also to the fruition of my final year dissertation, which focussed on similar themes; namely, the representation of female same-sex desire in the 1889 poetry collection Long Ago by Michael Field (pen-name for co-authors and lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper). Such teaching and analyses have strongly informed my desire to pursue a multidisciplinary master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality, in the hope that I can expand on the research I have conducted at the undergraduate level.

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