Three Victorian Women Who Were No Fragile Damsels In Distress

In 2016, I was struck with a ghost story idea loosely based on incidents from my teenage years. As is common in my writing, however, the seeming focus of the story was a web weaved over the true meaning behind the tale. I knew from the very start that I wanted to write about female strength and the women’s struggle and was excited to watch it peek out from beneath a tangle of grief, revenge and the paranormal.

As I created my female characters, I committed to showcasing a spectrum of strength. Like many other women, I’m sure, I was tired of seeing the hyper-masculine brand of female strength: essentially a tough-guy act with a pretty face, zero-percent body fat and a history of trauma.

In a later post, I’ll share some of my characters with you and perhaps you’ll see a bit of yourself in their strengths and weaknesses. In the interim, here are three real Victorian women who compel us to rethink the shuffling of women into neat little roles of housewives or shrews.

These women were rulers and paramours, mathematicians and mothers, writers and wives. And most importantly, they did it at a time when women were regarded as little more than decorative items with the occasional functional purpose of managing a household and birthing sons.

Mary Shelley

Photo Credit: Richard Rothwell

I grew up hearing about Frankenstein and seeing the often green, clumsy, stitched-together monster in many cartoons and kids’ movies. It wasn’t until I was sixteen or seventeen years old, however, that I happened upon the book in my college library and decided to give it a read. I wasn’t especially impressed, but I could see why it had left such an indelible mark in the arts and history alike.

While watching The Frankenstein Chronicles as an adult, I found myself wanting to learn more about the author behind this eerie tale. So, I read a lot about this Mary Shelley, who is said to have kept company with one of my own characters, Lady Charlotte Moreau. Of all the things I read, nothing stands out as much as her love affair with another woman’s husband.

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and was the daughter of the feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her father was also a philosopher but focused more heavily on politics. His liberal ideas attracted the following of the poet, Percy Shelley.

The two began their affair in 1814 after Percy threatened to kill himself if she didn’t return his most ardent affections. They later ran off to continental Europe, returning when Mary fell pregnant. They married in 1816 after Percy’s wife killed herself.

To be fair, it sounds worse than it really is. Percy and his wife had separated and she committed suicide after believing she had been spurned by her new paramour. Like husband like wife?

Understand, I am by no means condoning either Percy or Mary Shelley’s actions. Even so, I am surprised that any woman of note in Victorian England could be so brazen.

Ada Lovelace

Photo Credit: Alfred Edward Chalon – Science & Society Picture Library

Another historical name that came up while watching The Frankenstein Chronicles was Ada Lovelace. At first, I wondered why her name sounded so familiar. Then, I remembered she was touted as the first computer programmer in my high school IT classes. What I did not know was that she was a countess and a willful one at that.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Percy Shelley’s fellow poet friend, Lord Byron. He left her mother, Anne Isabella, within a month of Ada’s birth. He passed away when Ada was only eight years old, but her mother remained bitter about the parting and blamed madness for his licentiousness.

In an effort to keep Ada on the straight and narrow, she steered her clear of poetry and the arts and provided her with an education in mathematics. In 1835, Ada married William King, who then became the 1st Earl of Lovelace in 1838, making his wife a Countess. She gave birth to two sons and a daughter, namely Byron, Anne Isabella, and Ralph Gordon.

Ada’s close company with educated and talented men spurred many rumours of extramarital affairs. Her circle of friends and acquaintances included Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Charles Wheatstone. What is it with Ada and men named Charles??

Queen Victoria

Photo Credit: Alexander Bassano – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287, p. 153.

Royalty is almost always equated with an ostentatious lifestyle. However, nobility and wealth were not synonymous in Victorian times. There were many noblemen and noblewomen living in run-down castles with hardly a penny to their name.

While Victoria was certainly not dirt poor, she was nonetheless born to a Duchess with hardly a penny to her name and a Duke up to his neck in debt. After he passed away, mother and daughter continued to live in the Kensington Palace. In The Victorian Era: A Very Short History Tristan Clark describes the palace as…

…a palace only in name. The building was neglected, the décor shabby and the food plain. Victoria did not have her own room, having to bunk with her mother.

Victoria did, however, have her own tutor and was educated with her future occupation in mind, though she did not know she was in line to be queen until a history class at ten or eleven years old. It is said that this was the pivotal moment in her life when she decided she would do all in her power to be a good queen.

She kept well on this alleged promise to herself. Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch until 2016 when she was surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II. Under her influence, Britain—the world’s largest empire—grew to be a political and economic stronghold.

During her reign, she married Prince Consort Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to end her mother’s negative influence on her life. The couple nonetheless loved each other, so much so that when he died, the queen suffered from severe grief and disappeared from public life for a time. Together, they had nine children. She was a mother, a wife, and an empress.

No list of strong women from the Victorian era could be complete without the woman who gave the era its name. And, while there are many other women worthy of note, these are the three who receive an honourable mention in The Moreau WitchesThrough them, I was able to breathe life into my matriarchs, not as stock characters, but as people who perhaps once lived in another time and another dimension—or so I hope.

The Moreau Witches is scheduled for publishing on Halloween, October 31st 2018, in celebration of its two-year anniversary. Official pre-ordering is not yet available, but all of these purchases come with a complimentary eBook to be delivered at the time of publishing. Thank you to EVERYONE who has supported my online store, so far. You may underestimate the contribution of one T-shirt, knapsack (book bag) or dog tag, but as we say in Jamaica, “one, one cocoa; full basket”! 

UPDATE: The novel is published. Get it on Amazon here!

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22 thoughts on “Three Victorian Women Who Were No Fragile Damsels In Distress

    1. Agreed! I was first introduced to smartphones via the BlackBerry with the hard keyboards so it took a long time for me to adjust to on-screen typing. In truth, I’m not sure I have!

  1. One of the things I enjoyed in the manuscript was the inclusion of these women. I knew of them from my Women’s Studies courses in the 1970’s, both those I took and those I taught. It’s sad that they have to keep being introduced to people instead of staying in the collective awareness.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed that! I wish I could have included them more, but I would have to really do more thorough research before taking that step. I feel like we owe it to their memory to portray them correctly. A lot of people complained that Shelley wasn’t accurately portrayed in The Frankenstein Chronicles and I’m inclined to agree.

  2. Fascinatingly written accounts of these not-shy-and-retiring ladies! I have the greatest admiration for women who made a name for themselves despite the limitations they harboured under, and even when overshadowed by a more famous partner. Elizabeth Barratt Browning, Clara Shuman, Cecile Chaminade and Amy Ehrhardt immediately spring to mind.

    1. I forgot about Elizabeth! Thanks for bringing her back to memory! Charlotte and Emily Bronte are two others, but they were not in London at the time of the novel, so I couldn’t toss them in.

      I, too, respect strong women who stand their ground. I respect them even more when it was eons ago when women’s rights were virtually nonexistent.

  3. Even so, I am surprised that any woman of note in Victorian England could be so brazen.

    That’s the image, but you are likely to find many people – men and women – who break that stereotype. The only thing that surprises me is that many more people are not aware of the Victorian trailblazers and mavericks that made society what it was. Mary Shelley was not high society, but she married one of the Romantic poets (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and had long and enduring friendships with many more. These were people who didn’t care who they annoyed or how much they upset the established order.

    But Mary Shelley was an incredible person by any standard and by any era, but to think that this 19 year old girl was so well travelled and managed to write a book of such timelessness and quality as Frankenstein makes it even more remarkable considering the age in which she lived.

    1. But anyway, in all that rambling, I’ve read Frankenstein four times and each time I’ve discovered something new. The only classic I’ve read more times than that is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

    2. Shelley was certainly no noblewoman, but she was born to two well known intellectuals: her politically liberal father and her feminist mother. That is what made her a woman of note.

      There is plenty of scandal to be had in Victorian era England. Where there are strict rules, there are plenty ready to break them. However, they usually do so quietly. There was nothing quiet or subtle or Mary and Percy’s romantic affair, nor those of the friends they kept, including Lord Byron and his mistress(es).

      I’m still not a huge fan of her book, but she wrote a memorable bit of history all the same, in fiction and otherwise.

  4. Strong women indeed. Some Victorian values still prevail today the UK and I think Queen Victoria’s influence will reach out far into the future. I was fortunate enough to own and live in a Victorian house for 5 years: solid as they come, and still very sought after today.
    I yet have to read Frankenstein and should put it on top of my list. I’ve always loved women who refused to be pigeonholed and followed their own hearts and their brains. It is thanks to them that women worldwide acquired our freedom and independence that we take for granted today.

    1. Oh definitely! There is no better cure for injustice than actions. It is far too easy to just throw out a few convenient words.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Victorian era home. I suppose my family owned one years ago in Jamaica, but it was looted and set on fire when my mother was a child.

      I personally think there are much better Victorian era books than Frankenstein, but maybe it’s worth reading again now that I’m an adult and have a better grasp on the hidden meanings in novels. I’ve read that it’s actually feminist and agnostic literature, cleverly concealed in a horror story. I didn’t pick up on that at 16/17.

      1. I love Victorian Literature too, but it must have been very scary times for the poor. Dickens was a great advocate for them and I respect him enormously for it. Thomas Hardy is another of my favourite writers, but can be very tragic too. I lived in Dorset, southern England, and his novels were always based around there.

      2. Dickens lived through poverty himself, so that really impacted how personal the struggles of the poor was for him, even after he became wealthy. There was definitely a huge disparity between the haves and have nots from back then, but I wonder if that’s so very different now. I suppose with the growth of the middle class, the answer is yes, but there is still a big difference between the wealthy and the poor.

      3. I hadn’t finished writing that comment! 😠 I meant those who struggle and people don’t starve or are sent to work houses, etc. We have made progress.

      4. I hate when WordPress does that to me, sending off my messages before I’m done. 🤣

      5. Actually, they did have similar programmes back then. The church and the wealthy set up a lot of programmes for the poor, but the conditions were not the best. Poverty itself was a problem, but I think even worse than that was how many people were leaving the countryside for a city that didn’t have the resources to sustain them.

      6. Haha, true! But I don’t think poverty like this was rampant then, either. People made better use of natural resources. These days, homeless people have iPhones and people in debt drive luxury vehicles. It’s a weird mix.

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