Victorians: The Importance of Boys

I have a nineteenth century screen in my sitting-room. It comprises four hinged panels: one side has a scarlet background, and the other has a black one. It was a popular pastime for ladies to buy cut-out and varnished pictures to paste onto the screen, or perhaps into a scrap book, and create their own customized art-work.

The Spanish lovers

And the young lady who once owned my screen – for I’m sure it was a young lady – obviously had a romantic soul – witness the above picture of the Spanish lovers. The lovers are standing scandalously close, for a start. One of the young man’s hands is holding hers and the other is around her waist!  Furthermore, there is a fallen apple, or possibly a rose, on the stair by the señorita’s feet? If it is an apple, has the lady – Eve-like – offered her lover that symbol of forbidden love? And surely it’s significant that the apple – or rose – has dropped to the ground.

The picture is obviously set in Spain (the setting for the disreputable Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan which demonstrates in scandalous detail just how badly Don Juan behaves). Fortunately, Spain is a foreign country where such goings-on are only to be expected – which is what the young lady will tell Mama if she catches sight of and, remarks upon it.

My screen – dating it by costume – dates to the 1870-80s, and it crossed my mind that the young lady has chosen pictures which unwittingly demonstrates how rigid gender roles were at this date. The whole screen emphasizes the importance of boys; girls are there only in an admiring role. I found myself wondering if this reflected her own life.

The new suit

The picture above shows a small boy standing on his mother’s dressing-table, holding her hand. One foot is negligently crossed over the other and he is looking, with some complacency it must be said, at his reflection. He wears a sailor suit with long trousers, known as a Man-of-War suit, and his hair is cut short.

According to the Cunningtons’ Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century, Small boys between 3 and 6 years of age might wear tunics with white frilled drawers showing beneath them.’ And a number of fond mamas refused to cut their baby son’s hair – the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning among them. Her poor son, Pen, was forced to keep his hair long until his mother’s death, when he was twelve.

The boy in the picture has, fortunately, been spared this and he obviously feels the importance of his new status: a sailor suit with long trousers (and the ‘Man-of-War’ suit is a suitably manly name) and his baby curls have been shorn. His sister stands by the dressing table looking wistfully up at him. There will be no sailor costume for her.

It’s a boy!

This picture depicts a nurse showing the new baby – obviously a boy – to his five sisters. There is no need for a caption; the importance of the occasion is obvious. This is the baby that matters – now Papa will be happy. The girls, all dressed much the same in similar colours, are merely decorative adjuncts. Their very costumes make them look cloned; there is no variation in either colour or design, only in size. They are just ‘the girls’.

Home from School

My next picture shows the return of the elder brother from boarding school. He has a fresh open face and he is smiling to see his sisters and younger brother again. His school trunk on the floor plainly shows that he is home for the holidays. The younger brother in his sailor suit looks up wistfully. Again, his adoring sisters crowd round.

I am struck by the fact that the boys in the pictures on the screen are going somewhere; they are moving on – symbolized by the sailor suit and the school trunk. The girls have no useful role to play, apart from that of marriage and bringing future boys into the world. They don’t go to boarding school; they will have a governess at home.

Latin lover serenading his lady behind her grille  

According to my screen, girls could aspire to very little, except finding the love of a wealthy man. There are a number of cartouches decorating the borders showing Latin lovers with the man serenading his lady. Tellingly, one lady is behind a grille – and her lover is reaching inside the bars to kiss her hand or, perhaps, to pass her a note.

What worries me is that the man, if he so wishes, is perfectly free to have several ladies to serenade that evening. By contrast, his lady has to place an awful lot of trust in a man she scarcely knows – and that’s a dangerous position to be in.

Apart from showing the importance of boys, the other major theme of my screen is romantic love. There is nothing on the screen to show that the young lady who decorated it disagreed with this as the be all and end all of a girl’s existence. I longed to find a picture of a woman waving a Vote for Women banner, or any indication that the young lady had any educational aspirations for herself. (Cambridge University had opened Girton College, the first college for women, in 1869 – a proper education was not unheard of for girls.)

Love-lorn lady posting a love-letter

There are no pictures of girls being proactive, apart from a lovelorn girl posting a letter into a hole in a tree.

The more I looked at the screen, the more I feared that the young lady who owned it had bought into the prevailing view that girls were to be, as the poet Coventry Patmore put it,  Angels in the House, delicate creatures whose husbands would protect them from the rough outside world.

The Sleigh Ride

The picture of the sleigh ride, for example, shows three young Cavaliers in 17th century costume (and they are certainly not Roundheads!) pulling a sleigh carrying a pretty little girl carrying a little dog. On the front of the sleigh, a carved cupid is about to shoot an arrow at one of the boys. The inference is obvious – shades of Lydia Bennet tenderly flirting with six young officers at once. You can see where my young lady’s fantasies are going.

I just hope her personal story had a happier ending than Lydia’s with Wickham. But I confess I fear for her.

Elizabeth Hawksley



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6 thoughts on “Victorians: The Importance of Boys”

  1. This is so interesting. Social history by looking at the inferences around the edges. It is possible, of course, that one couldn’t buy more liberated scraps anywhere so the vendors were themselves pushing this view of the world. It would be lovely to think that the decorations were a smokescreen (pun only slightly intended) while your young lady plotted her escape. If she were my character, that is definitely how I would write her!

    1. You are right, Jan. Of course the young lady could only buy what was available. All the same, the Women’s Suffrage movement was producing posters on Women’s Rights, so she could have hi-jacked one and cut it up. I think, if she were my heroine, I’d allow her to buy into the ‘Angel in the House’ thing for a while – but get a nasty shock when the man she thinks she loves turns out to be a two-timing cheat. And then, her Great Aunt Peggy, who supports a number of ‘advanced’ causes, comes to stay – and her views are very different…

  2. I love this. My Edwardian series is very much set round the family, where the girl has a governess and the boys come home for the holidays. And I agree with Jan – that’s how I would write her, too!

    1. Thank you for joining the conversation, Lesley. I can see that the Edwardian Age’s view of how the female sex should be was pretty much a continuation of Victorian thinking. It would take a World War to begin to set a different agenda.

  3. As Jan says, an interesting social commentary. It’s telling that the Victorian view of women was far more restrictive than that of the 18th century. They were still chattels, but you can see from contemporary writings that women held strong views for themselves and did not wholly rely on this namby-pamby notion that women were frail little creatures that needed a man to look after them.

    I think the literature of the times reflect as much, in that an 18th century hero was virtuous and highly ethical, unlike the bad boy that became so popular in the 19th century. Which seems to me to indicate that women’s secret desire was for a man as unlike the real life equivalent as was possible. Perhaps Byron started the trend?

    1. Thank you for this, Elizabeth. It’s a complicated point. I think there are always ‘bad boy’ heroes as well as virtuous ones. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is definitely a bad boy (at least for a while), and Charlotte Bronte’s Mr Rochester (1847), nearly a century later, certainly doesn’t behave ethically either.

      The real young lady who decorated my screen is only one teenage girl who bought into John Ruskin’s view of girls as pure and in need of a strong man to look after them. There are some annoying examples of such heroines in fiction, like Dickens’ Dora Copperfield. But there are also examples of strong-minded heroines, like Mrs Oliphant’s ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ (a book I recommend highly). W. M. Thackeray was certainly quite capable of creating women like the well-named Rebecca Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ who went for exactly what she wanted, and simply didn’t care if that meant trampling over anyone who got in her way. Thackeray makes it clear that, even the noble hero, William Dobbin, eventually recognizes that the wet Amelia Sedley – Vanity Fair’s supposed heroine – is, in reality, an absolute pain.

      I think you are right about women liking to fantasize about a bad Byronic-type hero. Most of us recognize that, in real life, they would be disastrous as husbands – perhaps the only way Jane Eyre could cope with Rochester was to have him half-blind and maimed and dependent upon her. Otherwise, he’d be quite unbearable.

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