The Victorian Lady’s Domestic Threat: The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent Female Adversary in Contemporary Art



The Victorian woman of religious faith and commitment was challenged by both real and fictional ‘adversaries’ in life, literature and art, among them the formidable foes of the aesthetic female and the decadent modern or New Woman during the last quarter of the century. In the realm of art, all three simultaneously coexisted, although it was the Victorian lady who triumphed in typology, popularity and sheer numbers. The apex of this ideal female was the ‘modern Madonna’, who reigned supreme in the iconology of Victorian womanhood in narrative or genre paintings such as Charles West Cope’s ‘Prayer Time’ (Fig. 1) of c.1860, also a portrait of the artist’s wife and daughter Florence. Cope chooses as his subject — and interestingly casts his own spouse as — the perfect wife, shown here as the ‘guardian of the hearth’ in a microcosm of domesticity and socially endorsed femininity. Isolated in a handsome room, she and her surroundings personify the Victorian home, the primary seat of power where female spirituality and moral superiority both resided.1 The art on the wall, the furnishings, the flowers on the mantel and the bourgeois decor are all aesthetically pleasing and attractive, without any extremes of fashion. Similarly, the inhabitants’ dresses and accessories are likewise tastefully appointed, conventional rather than bohemian.


Moral Superiority Male Companion Feminist Belief Yellow Book Prayer Time 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    For more analysis of the model Victorian lady and wife in paintings, see S. Casteras, Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1987), pp. 50–60.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    As quoted in W. Hamilton, The Aesthetic Movement in England (London: Reeves and Turner, 1882), p. 25.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    On the oddities of aesthetic language, see A. Adburgham, A Punch History of Manners and Modes (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1961), pp. 124–5.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    V. Lee, Miss Brown (London: Routledge & Co., 1884), Book IV, chapter 6, p. 19.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    An interesting chapter on autoeroticism entitled ‘The Collapsing Woman: Solitary Vice and Restful Tumescence’ is found in B. Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 64–82Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    For further discussion of critical reaction to the eroticism of this painting, see S. Casteras, ‘Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle at the Palace of the Aesthetes’, in S. Casteras and C. Denney, eds, The Grosvenor Gallery: A Palace of Art in Victorian England (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 84–5.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    On the subject of the emancipated female, see e.g. J. Beckett and D. Cherry, eds, The Edwardian Era (London: Phaidon Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  8. L. Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Images of the Suffrage Campaign 1907–1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  9. C. Rover, The ‘Punch’ Book of Women’s Rights (South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1967).Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    On this subject see, e.g. B.J. Elliot, ‘Covent Garden Follies: Beardsley’s Masquerader Images of Poseurs and Voyeurs’, Oxford Art Journal, 9 (1986), 38–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 16.
    E. Linton, The Girl of the Period and Other Social Essays (London: Richard Bentley, 1883), pp. 2–9Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    This opinion is offered, e.g., by a contemporary such as Mrs Humphry Ward, Manners for Women (London: James Bowden, 1897), pp. 4–5Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    A good source on this subject is A. Gengarelly, Images of Women in the Mauve Decades: Edward Penfield and his Contemporaries (Williamstown, Mass: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1985)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations