Empire, Industry and Femininity: Female Sexuality in the Victorian Novels 'North and South' by Elizabeth Gaskell and 'She' by H. Rider Haggard
In the Victorian era, men and women were thought to inhabit ‘separate spheres’. Scholars have argued that the rigidity of these spheres and the promised conclusion of a normative, heterosexual marriage prompted Victorian writers to experiment with the boundaries of sexuality within their novels. This paper focuses on how and why the ideology of nineteenth-century female sexuality functions in two prominent Victorian novels: H. Rider Haggard’s She and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Haggard's antagonist, Ayesha, and Gaskell's protagonist, Margaret, both use their femininity to traverse the Victorian binaries of the private (domestic) and the public (work) ‘separate spheres’. This paper explores female sexuality in relation to two other social structures that dominated nineteenth-century British society: industry and empire. Firstly, I examine the extent to which these female characters blur the lines of the private and public spheres. Secondly, I analyse the relationships that Ayesha and Margaret share with their male counterparts. Ultimately, it is the Victorian obsession with maintaining order that prescribes certain sexualities as useful and tameable (such as Margaret’s), while in turn castigating sexualities that do not preserve this prescription as damaging and untameable (such as Ayesha’s). I situate the Victorian maintenance of such rigid ideals in queer, post-colonial, and socio-economic discourses, providing deep background and literary pretext to contemporary conversations about gender and sexuality norms.