Development and Consent in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction
Pfordresher, John C.
Being both a child and a female placed one at a complicated intersection in the nineteenth century. Conceptions of childhood altered drastically during the period, in large part due to labor laws and education reforms that presented publicly the problems of how society cared for children. For girls, there were additional regulations in the form of age of consent laws. These especially set a dangerous precedent in regulating girls out of the ability to make decisions and act independently. The construction of girlhood in the Victorian period began to revolve around the sexuality and sexualization of young women. Journalist W.T. Stead furthered this in his “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” by lobbying for an increase in the age of consent by characterizing young women as unable to make informed, responsible decisions for themselves. While the goal of raising the age was admirable and necessary, Stead’s rhetoric contributed to a problem women faced of being unable to attain independence from their fathers or husbands in a patriarchal society.I consider Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss, to analyze girlhood as a period of development in literature. The bildungsroman genre of boys’ development does not seem to apply in the same way to girls, and in light of this I consider how the female protagonists of these novels are stunted and stifled, unable to grow into women. They are unable to act or to consent, and suffer tragedies in life and tragically early deaths as a result of the systemic undermining of women’s agency.
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