The Life and Options of 19th Century Women

By Aubrey Reynolds (appearing as Jane Bennet in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

The social anthropology in eighteenth century England was intricate and in flux. It presents a clash between two social elements namely, class and gender. Additionally, the social caste comprised mainly of the upper or aristocratic class, middle class, and lower class. There were many things that influenced the way women behaved in society.

1. Common assumptions about women:

Most doctors of the period believed that “true” women felt little or no sexual desire, and that only abnormal or “pathological” women felt strong sexual desire.

“Proof” of these points came from Dr. William Acton who wrote in the 1860s that the “majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. . . . No nervous or feeble young man need, therefore, be deterred from marriage by an exaggerated notion of the duties required from him. . . .The married woman has no wish to be treated on the footing of a mistress.” Proof that those ideas did not hold true for all women was found in the research of a Scottish physician who found, in the 1890s, following a survey of over 190 women that 152 admitted that they did have sexual desires and 134 reported having had orgasms. The physician sent out 500 surveys and got only 190 back, perhaps showing the influence of the ideal on a woman’s behavior.

2. Fashion:

Fashion evolves to complement this view of sexuality and control. Women began to wear long skirts with layers of petticoats and then crinolines, which made it both difficult for woman to dress and undress by herself and time consuming.

fashion     fashion2     fashion3

As corsets develop, the woman’s breathing becomes much more difficult. Fainting as a reaction to excitement or an “improper” situation is acceptable and frequent, as it denotes that a woman is truly a lady.

fashion4                fashion5

Proper employment:

Lower-class women could be servants, domestic help, factory workers, prostitutes, etc. Middle- and upper-class women could help, in some cases, with a family business, but generally, the economy and the society dictated that women should work in the home, taking care of home and hearth. They could be educated and could study, as long as it did not interfere with their housework. Any serious or passionate study of any subject was seen as harmful to the family, unless that serious and passionate study dealt with a social or religious issue, or to the woman, herself. Physicians believed that if a woman became too scholarly, her uterus would become dysfunctional, possibly leading to madness.


Women were not allowed to attend the institutionalized rungs on the educational ladder: “public” schools such as Eton (which Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park attends), and the universities (Oxford and Cambridge). The (somewhat dubious) prime symbol of academic knowledge, and more-or-less exclusively masculine educational attainments, was the Classical languages Greek and Latin, to which a great deal of time was devoted in “genteel” boys’ education, but which few women studied. Jane Austen never refers to Classical literature, except in a joking way in some of the Juvenilia (in one of her letters to Mr. Clarke, Jane Austen cites her ignorance of the Classical languages as one of the factors which would prevent her from writing a novel on a subject suggested by Mr. Clarke).

Since women did not usually have careers as such, and were not “citizens” in the sense of being directly involved in politics, there was little generally-perceived need for such higher education for them, and most writers on the subject of “female education” preferred that women receive a practical (and religious) training for their domestic rôle — thus Byron once spouted off the remark that women should “read neither poetry nor politics — nothing but books of piety and cookery” (leavened with the conventional “accomplishments” of “music — drawing — dancing”). See the account of Mrs. Goddard’s school in Emma for the frequent relative lack of attention to academics in the female education of the time (the London “seminary” attended by the Bingley sisters would have been much more elegant, but not necessarily much more academically rigorous).

For women of the “genteel” classes the goal of non-domestic education was thus often the acquisition of “accomplishments”, such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern (i.e. non-Classical) languages (generally French and Italian). Though it was not usually stated with such open cynicism, the purpose of such accomplishments was often only to attract a husband; so that these skills then tended to be neglected after marriage (Lady Middleton in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility “had celebrated her marriage by giving up music, although by her mother’s account she had played extremely well, and by her own was very fond of it”, while Mrs. Elton in Emma fears that her musical skills will deteriorate as have those of several married women she knows). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet displays her relatively detached attitude towards the more trivial aspects of this conventional game by adopting a somewhat careless attitude towards her “accomplishment” of playing the piano, and not practicing it diligently.

Aubrey’s Thoughts:

It’s hard to get down to the nitty-gritty in all this. In everything I’ve read, it really does seem that the women want to marry and aspire to find security and comfort through marriage. There is little else to suggest otherwise. It makes sense, though, since women couldn’t really reasonably live on their own anyway. The only way to begin a life of her own, was for a young lady to marry into it.


Radek, Kimberly M. “Women in the Nineteenth Century.” Women in the Nineteenth Century. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.

“Jane Austen’s World.” Jane Austens World. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <;.

“Pride and Prejudice — Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, Etc.” Jane Austen:. The Republic of Pemberley, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

This entry was posted in Courtship and Marriage, Money Matters, Social Customs of Regency England, Women in Regency England and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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