What is a Woman? Victorian Constructions of Femininity

  • Jeannette King


While both these quotations emphasise the difference between women and men, they appear to offer contrasting views of women, the first conveying a far more flattering view of women in general than the second. And yet the first, from the Swiss pastor John Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, is much closer in attitude to the second, taken from Tennyson’s Arthurian epic, Idylls of the King, than at first appears. Lavater’s essays on the science of physiognomy, of judging character by appearance, first appeared in 1789, but remained, according to Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth, the most influential text in its field throughout the nineteenth century. The ninth edition was published in 1855, only a year before Tennyson wrote ‘Merlin and Vivien’. The essay ‘Male and Female’ includes ‘A Word on the Physiognomical Relation of the Sexes’, which describes male and female appearance in a series of binary oppositions of the kind which Hélène Cixous sees as characteristic of Western thought about the sexes.3 Many of these opposed physiological attributes lend themselves to interpretation in moral terms, generally implying female weakness, as in the opening lines, ‘Man is the most firm - woman the most flexible.


Nineteenth Century Sexual Desire Female Body Gender Ideology Female Reproductive System 
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  1. 1.
    John Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy, trans. II. I Iolcroft (1789), quoted in Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts 1830–1890, ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 8–18 (p. 15). This anthology, to which I am greatly indebted, provides an invaluable source of primary texts on Victorian psychology and related disciplines.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘Merlin and Vivien’, Idylls of the King, lines 812–13, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (Longmans, 1969), p. 1616. ‘Merlin and Vivien’ was written in 1856, and published as ‘Vivien’ in 1859.Google Scholar
  3. 14.
    Eileen Janes Yeo, ‘Some Paradoxes of Empowerment’, in Radical Femininity: Womens Self-Representation in the Public Sphere, ed. Eileen Janes Yeo (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 1–24 (p. 1).Google Scholar
  4. 23.
    R. Barnes, ‘An Address on Obstetric Medicine, and Its Position in Medical Education’, Obstetrical Journal of Great Britain and Ireland (1875–6), quoted in Moscucci, p. 37.Google Scholar
  5. 25.
    See Thomas Laqueur, ‘Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology’, in The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 1–41.Google Scholar
  6. 26.
    In J. Craig’s A New Universal Etymological, Technological, and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language: Embracing All the Terms Used in Art, Science and Literature, quoted in Moscucci, p. 7.Google Scholar
  7. 27.
    William Pepper, ‘The Change of Life in Women’, quoted in Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, ‘Puberty to Menopause: The Cycle of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century America’, in Clios Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, ed. Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 23–37 (p. 24).Google Scholar
  8. 30.
    Julia Kristeva has argued that the separation of maternity and sexuality has always been central to both Judaism and Christianity. See ‘The War between the Sexes’, and ‘The Virgin of the Word’, About Chinese Women (Marion Boyars, 1986), pp. 17–33.Google Scholar
  9. 65.
    David Glover and Cora Kaplan, Genders (Routledge, 2000), p. 23.Google Scholar

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© Jeannette King 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeannette King
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of AberdeenUK

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