Reproduction of the Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests. All text is © British Library Board and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, except where otherwise stated.
From marriage and sexuality to education and rights, Professor Kathryn Hughes looks at attitudes towards gender in 19th-century Britain.
During the Victorian period men and women’s roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history. The two sexes now inhabited what Victorians thought of as ‘separate spheres’, only coming together at breakfast and again at dinner. The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men. John Ruskin’s lecture ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ is a prime example of the Victorian distinction between women’s passive nature and men’s active role within the public sphere, 1865. Sarah Stickney Ellis’s popular conduct book, The Daughters of England, stating that women must ‘be content to be inferior to men’, estimated 1845. The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore promotes a domestic-centred ideal of women and femininity, 1858. Women did, though, require a new kind of education to prepare them for this role of ‘Angel in the House’. As Miss Bingley emphasizes, it was important for a well-educated girl to soften her erudition with a graceful and feminine manner. At the same time, a young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband. The New Swell’s Night Guide, a guide to finding and approaching actresses and prostitutes, estimated 1840. In her review – which also covered William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – Lady Eastlake took a strong dislike to the sexual ambition of Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp, both of whom end up marrying into the households by which they are employed.
Table showing William Acton’s estimated figures of brothels and prostitutes in London, May 1857.

Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Lifewriting and Convenor of the MA in Lifewriting at the University of East Anglia. Where to GopherLanglade County Genealogy&Historical Information.This website is dedicated to all genealogy researchers and historians keeping the memories of theirancesters's hardships and accomplishments known to the present generation and not forgotten history.
It is prohibited by law to use any information on this website to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or for any other purposes subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 USC 1681 et seq. In earlier centuries it had been usual for women to work alongside husbands and brothers in the family business.
Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Rather than attracting a husband through their domestic abilities, middle-class girls were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’.
No-one wanted to be called a ‘blue-stocking’, the name given to women who had devoted themselves too enthusiastically to intellectual pursuits. Drawing and embroidery were part of a conventional female education in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They were not even allowed to speak to men unless there was a married woman present as a chaperone. The figure of the governess was unsettling, especially in literature, because it drew attention to the fact that not all Victorian women were as sexless as Dr Acton had suggested. She serviced the needs of the men of the house, not just before marriage but sometimes during it too. Since 1945 he was thought to be one of the six men in the second flag raising of the day over Iwo Jima's Mt. Living ‘over the shop’ made it easy for women to help out by serving customers or keeping accounts while also attending to their domestic duties. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life. Blue-stockings were considered unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to usurp men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction.

Not only did this reinforce the ‘natural’ hierarchy between the sexes, but it also made sound financial sense. Just like the men she slept with, but unlike their wives, the prostitute was a worker in the economic market place, exchanging services for cash. As the 19th century progressed men increasingly commuted to their place of work – the factory, shop or office.
The fact that women had such great influence at home was used as an argument against giving them the vote. Some doctors reported that too much study actually had a damaging effect on the ovaries, turning attractive young women into dried-up prunes. One doctor, William Acton, famously declared that ‘The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’. A young man needed to be able to show that he earned enough money to support a wife and any future children before the girl’s father would give his permission. Doctors such as Acton were extremely worried by the ‘problem’ the prostitute presented, in particular the way she spread sexual disease amongst the male population.
Some unfortunate couples were obliged to endure an engagement lasting decades before they could afford to marry. Young Florence Nightingale longed to be able to do something useful in the world, but was expected to stay with her mother and sister, helping supervise the servants.
She suffered from hysterical outbursts as a teenager, and could not bear to eat with the rest of the family.
Elizabeth Barrett, meanwhile, used illness as an excuse to retreat to a room at the top of her father’s house and write poetry.

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