The Social Worker, the Consumer, and the Prostitute: Escape from Domestic Ideology in the Victorian and Neo-Victorian Novel

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Leatrice Potter


I have found that Victorian domestic ideology, as defined by literary scholar Catherine Hall, is often subverted by female characters within novels from the Victorian era. Specifically, I have examined feminine mobility as exemplified by Margaret Hale, of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and the female consumers of Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise. These fictional women and the ways in which they interact with their urban surroundings appear to be at odds with Sugar, the protagonist of Michel Faber’s 2002 Neo-Victorian novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. I have categorized these female characters into three archetypes: the social worker, the consumer, and the prostitute: each contains a way in which the woman can penetrate the public sphere. This work consults critical dialogues in the areas of gender and class in the Victorian era, as well as scholarly work investigating the implications of adaptation in the era of postmodernism in order to explore the consequences of gendered space in each novel. Through this examination, I develop the argument that while the women in these Victorian and neo- Victorian novels appear solely to prove the porosity of the barrier between public and private, I hold that they actually sustain a vital ideal of the bourgeoisie: constant aspirations toward upward mobility. With this argument, I hope to broaden the original historical discussion with a perspective founded in the intersections between class and gender.

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