Before I went to grad school, I had some hazy, romanticized notions about the Victorian era, involving exquisite dresses, delicate teacups, elegant balls, and touches of the hand that were charged with meaning. (I also thought that Jane Austen was a Victorian novelist, not realizing that she died in 1817, a full twenty years before Victoria took the throne.)
Once I began researching for my PhD dissertation in the field of Victorian literature and culture, I discovered a sobering truth: it was very difficult for a Victorian woman to direct her own life or to take action of any kind in the public sphere. It seemed so paradoxical! How could a woman, Victoria, reign as queen for over six decades (1837-1901), exerting her influence across six continents and millions of people, yet the average middle-class married woman could not keep her wages, divorce a violent husband, defend herself in court, inherit money or land, or pursue a profession without her husband’s permission?
The good news was that in the 1870s, a group of laws were passed in response to a growing awareness of the perniciousness of these inequalities. The most significant for women was the Married Women’s Property Act (1870). For the first time, a working-class woman could keep the wages she earned instead of handing them over to her husband, and she could inherit money. (It was a start.) Another important piece of legislation was the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878, which provided legal protection for abused wives. A beaten wife could apply for a separation order from a local magistrate, who also had the discretion to award custody of children to the mother and command the husband to pay a weekly sum for maintenance. However, a woman's rights to safety under this law were forfeited if she could be proven to have been unfaithful. (Again, small steps.)
My dissertation and, later, my three mysteries reflect the very real socio-economic and political barriers most women faced. However, in my research of the era, I also found stories of some exceptional women — people Malcolm Gladwell might call "outliers" — who, against all odds, succeeded professionally in the fields of art, music, and literature. These women didn’t necessarily break down the barriers, but they strategically sidled around them, by either finding an unusual opportunity in the public sphere, concealing their gender, limiting their endeavors to “feminine” sub-genres in their craft, or presenting conservative versions of Victorian femininity in their work, so as not to appear too subversive.
There were several 19th-century women musicians who achieved success in Europe. One was Clara Schumann, German composer and pianist. Unfortunately, although she wrote her first Piano Concerto at 14, she lost confidence by her mid-30s. She reflected: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea … a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” (I found this heartbreaking.) Still, her distinguished career spanned 61 years.
Another prodigy was Charles Dickens’s sister Fanny, who studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London under one of Beethoven’s students. However, with her family in debt, Fanny had to quit because she could no longer afford tuition. She became the immediate inspiration for my heroine in A Dangerous Duet. To earn tuition for the Academy, Nell plays piano at the Octavian music hall, based on Wilton’s, established in 1859 in Whitechapel.
While women musicians were admitted to the Royal Academy from the early 1800s, until the 1870s, no serious art school in England would admit women because anatomical drawing classes would require them to look at nude sculptures and bodies (gasp!). Fortunately, the forward-thinking philanthropist Felix Slade funded the Slade School of Art in London in 1871. From the beginning, he insisted that women enter on the same footing as men, eligible for the same classes and scholarships.
Another student, Kate Greenaway created exquisite illustrations for children’s books — an endeavor on the “feminine” side of art, as it could be considered naturally “maternal.” These two women helped me create my heroine in A Trace of Deceit, Annabel Rowe, who attends the Slade in 1875.
As for Victorian novels, many were penned by women who concealed their gender. There was some precedent for these writers, for they could draw upon the tradition of women of letters including Frances Burney (satirist and novelist, 1752-1840), Maria Edgeworth (novelist, 1768-1849), Ann Radcliffe (Gothic novelist, 1764-1823), and Jane Austen (novelist, 1775-1817). Still, many Victorian women felt the need to conceal their gender. George Eliot wrote seven novels, including the brilliant Middlemarch (1872); she was born Mary Ann Evans. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, who wrote Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey respectively in 1847, published under the ambiguous names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.