The Charitable Heroine of Victorian Lit: Author Portrayals Then and Now

February 23, 2015

My two favorite Victorian era murder mystery franchises, Anne Perry’s William Monk series and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, both have sturdy namesakes: their protagonists are determined, headstrong, rough around the edges, and just daring enough to pull off seemingly impossible maneuvers when push comes to shove. However, while waiting for new books, I often find myself musing more about the aristocratic heroines of these novels than the leading men themselves. Perry's Hester Latterly and Harris's Hero Jarvis are positioned to be equally as strong-willed and brash as their male counterparts, and although each character marries (I won't tell you to whom!), they rarely rely on men-- a characteristic that is well cemented early-on in each series. As a result, each heroine has contentious relationships with societal expectations. Today, I am focusing on their feminist positioning within the Victorian virtue of charity, because there is a significant difference between their approaches and those of the heroines in literature actually written during the Victorian era.

 

For Victorians charity was a common focus because social sympathy and "middling" were at the heart of the collective consciousness. Charity actually offered women of the burgeoning middle class an opportunity to hobnob with the elite. However, it was primarily social protocol for the aristocracy to perform charitable acts, and so it was often the subject of derision in literature of the time. I can't help but think of Austen's Romantic portrayals of the charitable heroine in Emma (1815). Because charity was very much a public performance, even then, Emma's attempts are ultimately waylaid by her very realistic aristocratic snobbery. However, Dickens has tackled the subject from the Victorian perspective in nearly everything he's written, and he arguably provides some of the best satire of such charity while simultaneously making an argument for the genuine article. I often have discussions with my British Literature students about the "true charity" of Esther Summerson in Bleak House (1853) versus the failing attempts of other female characters like Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle-- both of whom effectively abandon their own children for the sake of their charitable causes. But, during those conversations, I always find myself questioning if Esther even serves as a good example... After all, she is the embodiment of a cliché-- the passive ideal of femininity-- and therefore her charity still fits within the normative societal mold.

 

With that said, Perry and Harris offer us a new perspective-- one in-where the heroines believe that charity goes far beyond regular visitations to the poor, religious conversion and/ or generic acts of philanthropy. Hester and Hero are tragically realistic, accountable to everyone around them (not just those for whom they care), and they each uphold a moral fortitude decidedly separate from that of society; they also happily throw themselves into the proverbial trenches of a much baser lifestyle. Although Hester is of gentle birth, she serves as a nurse in the Crimean war under Florence Nightingale. Therefore, she can be written as someone who has seen the very worst of men on and off the battle field, she easily finds that women are capable of the same heinous crimes as men, and through her nursing she regularly deals with then unspeakable realities like abortion and child sodomy. Hero disregards her station as well, in favor of the "real." She spends substantial time researching the plights of those in the darkest depths of the underworld in the very places most men would avoid altogether. But, she does so in order to write articles that may affect social change among her peers. Like Hester, she does not cringe at the unsavory, she simply acknowledges it as life. 

 

Did/ could such women exist in the real world? Of course! They may have been few and far between, but with time, we have been given a chance to rewrite the charitable heroine of the Victorian as someone who cares not for societal norms. The Hesters and the Heros properly represent the real-life Nightingales. And, I think that these mystery writers have both provided much needed depth to the female do-gooders of Victorian London through their works.

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