Signet Essay Contest 2011
Picture the stereotypical Victorian-era lady. Perhaps she daintily holds a parasol in one hand. Her face is pale, and she dons just the right amount of maquillage. Her etiquette is impeccable: she is the consummate practitioner of politesse, and she always defers to men. While this woman, so vivid in the mind’s eye, certainly is represented in The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, she most certainly is not the only example of the Victorian woman. In fact, The Moonstone makes it quite clear that femininity is not a monolith; by portraying numerous different women, Collins shows that, even during this supposed era of conformity, much leeway existed—womankind encompassed a wide variety of behavior, fashion, and ability during the nineteenth century.
Epitomizing this fact, Lady Verinder, the imperious, strong-willed head of the Verinder household, both embodies and defies Victorian values and expectations. She held great sway over her husband during his lifetime, taking on an administrative role and managing the “out-of-door work” and “farms” (realms that traditionally fell under the jurisdiction of men). (12) As Mr. Bruff remarks, reflecting the traditional viewpoint of women, she is “capable of properly administering a trust,” something which, in his experience of women, “not one in a thousand of them is competent to do.” (263) Reversing traditional gender roles of the time, her uxorious husband submitted to her wishes: as Betteredge phrases it, Lady Verinder was the “somebody” who Sir John “wanted…to manage him.” (12) This vigor is evident elsewhere. When Colonel Herncastle arrives at the Verinder estate, the Lady angrily refuses to see him; this manifestation of her “dash…of the family temper” is quite at odds with the societal norm of the quiet woman. (33) Moreover, though women were thought of as fragile, Betteredge describes Lady Verinder as decisive and “a woman of high courage”—an assessment that Sergeant Cuff seconds, calling her a “wonderful woman” with great “self-control” and “one of the cleverest women in England.” (82, 133, 170) Her fortitude and mettle are clear: although she has what Betteredge calls a highly uncharacteristic “attack of the megrims” prior to her interview with Sergeant Cuff, she quickly rallies, sharply informing him that she “can’t and won’t permit [her servants] to be insulted…a second time” by having their clothes searched. (106, 107) Moreover, her regal assertiveness is clear when she claims the right to go to Frizinghall to tell her daughter the news of Rosanna’s death, refuses an umbrella, and, in a deeply symbolic move, “take[s] the reins” of the pony-chaise “herself.” (170)
Lady Verinder’s spirited, independent-minded daughter, Rachel, similarly flouts convention. As Betteredge puts it, she is “self-willed”: “she ha[s] ideas of her own” and “judge[s] for herself, as few women of twice her age judge in general.” This is evidenced by the fact that she spurns Godfrey Ablewhite’s overtures and breaks off her engagement, regardless of his status in society’s eyes as an “eminent philanthropic character.” (64) It is further evidenced when she demands that Godfrey provide her with answers, forthrightly identifying his obfuscation as a consequence of “liv[ing] a great deal too much in the society of women.” (203) Rachel’s independence of thought extends to her clothing, one of the most important indicators of class and rank in Victorian society—according to Betteredge, she is “stiff-necked enough to set the fashions themselves at defiance, if the fashions [don't] suit her views.” (54) However, these unique attributes notwithstanding, Rachel is undoubtedly a product of her society’s mores. Conforming to societal perceptions that muliebrity corresponded to childishness, she has an element of the ingénue: when she receives the Diamond, she babbles playfully, and after she receives the news that the Diamond has been lost, she becomes mercurial, “in rage one moment, in tears the next.” (87) Women’s emotionality was also a key aspect of the Victorian view of women; women were to be indulged their sentimental excesses because of their gender. Dovetailing perfectly with this expectation for women, Rachel is commonly overwrought or emotional. Indeed, in Sergeant Cuff’s estimation, she is “hot and impetuous in temper.” (169)
Although Rachel’s behavior is in many ways consonant with traditional Victorian expectations, the ‘Bouncers,’ as Betteredge terms them, exemplify expectations for young women’s behavior. They behave coquettishly and hyperbolically, giggling and screaming and exclaiming unreservedly, in line with the stereotype that women were less reserved.
Not only do the Bouncers fit this expectation, but so does Rosanna Spearman, the Verinders’ servant, showing that conformity to the day’s norms transcended social status. After falling in love with Franklin, she becomes lachrymose and sentimental, crying, laughing, and neglecting to eat. She obliquely flirts with him, and when her attentions are not reciprocated, she is reduced to a shadow of her former self. Ultimately, her tragic demise stems from her maudlin nature. In addition, while one would expect it from a woman of a higher station, Rosanna’s otherwise dignified and composed air and habits are perfectly aligned with an ideal lady’s conduct.
Numerous less prominent characters also illuminate femininity’s myriad facets during the Victorian age. For instance, Miss Clack epitomizes the active Christian social reformers of the day who participated in such associations as the “Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society.” (225) Mrs. Merridew represents the prim, proper matron who stands “in mortal fear of the opinion of the world.” (398) On the other hand, Limping Lucy and Penelope, with their unabashed opinions and brash defiance of authority figures, proudly defy societal standards of conduct.
Though a marvelous detective story, The Moonstone is more than a mere tale of suspense—it is a powerful social commentary. Depicting women in all of their variegated glory—opinionated, imperious, deferential, and lovelorn—Collins demonstrates that women, just like men, do not fit easily into boxes. Even in this day and age, it is a message well worth remembering.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.
For information on the 2010-2011 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.