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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Ideology of the Separate Spheres by Naddya Tavara

           The ideology of separate spheres in the Victorian Era is prominently shown throughout society. This ideology claims that men and women are meant to participate in different spheres of society and that these circles are seen as natural in society because of the different ways in which genders are seen and treated in society. This concept has generated a notion of gender discrimination that has created a concept of gender inequality within societies. The ghost stories that I will be touching upon are: At Chrighton Abbey by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Truth the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth by Rhoda Broughton, and The Oakleigh Ghost by Annie Armitt. The authors try to use their writing skills in showing the major issue that people had in the Victorian Era is this gender inequality seen throughout the concept of separate spheres. In the Victorian Era, this gender inequality was a major issue that people believed was a natural way of living; which is reflected in their ghost stories. This was also reflected in various events and characters that demonstrated that the ideology of spheres was shown in these societies and added to the underlying issues as well. Each of the three ghost stories has a strong female presence and characters that resemble how the separate spheres are shown and demonstrated in society. To illustrate this, we will analyze the various events that the authors created in the ghost stories to show how these societal issues pertained in this era. Additionally, I will be comparing and contrasting the stories by showing how these experiences overlap with each other. Lastly, I will be speaking on how stories similar to these create a stereotype that contributes to the ideology of the separate spheres like how women are seen as unreliable, gentle, and fragile human beings. To support the findings, several peer-reviewed sources will be utilized to prove that the Victorian Era had an underlying issue that was ignored by society. Furthering this, it will also showcase how authors during this time tried to show how these issues needed to be changed by using their profession and making it a topic to write a ghost story about.

           In the Victorian Era, there were separate roles for different genders.  Men were meant to be put out in public and women were meant to be hidden in their homes taking care of children. To society, women being at home was seen as safe and would prevent anything dangerous from happening to them. What was ironic about this is that in the Victorian Era various ghost stories were written that took place directly in homes. Authors were known to use this to show the underlying issues the Victorian Society had and how it generated a sense of a hierarchy on the bases of gender. Unfortunately, this was seen as a social norm to Victorian society that still has lingerings today. In the Victorian Era, men and women would each have different responsibilities. For example, men are supposed to be out in the public eye while also bringing food and income to their families. Women on the other hand were believed to be better off staying at home doing housework and looking after children. In the article titled Changing the Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Women Movement by Susan Cruea, it is stated that,

“While a "public man" was "one who act[ed] in and for the universal good," a "public woman" "was seen as the dregs of society, vile, unclean [T]o be a public woman—in any of several senses of the term—was to risk the accusation of sexual impropriety" (Matthews 4). A woman outside the home without a respectable male escort risked ruining her reputation irreparably, for she would immediately be suspected of participating in something immoral or socially marginal.”(Creau, 194).

This regulation of a separate sphere creates a social norm that is generated by the oppression of women that are deemed to be placed in a home where she is hidden by society.

​​​​​​​           The ghost story, The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth, written by Rhonda Broughton, specifically touches upon this ironic situation and encounters that ghosts have with women. The story has a female character, She has a friend named Bessy with who she exchanges messages and letters. In these, they have a conversation as to whether or not there is a ghost in the house that Cecilia lives in. This illustrates how the author shows the irony that hits at a societal norm in the Victorian Era, that a woman is scared of being at home. However, this also generates a sense of women being viewed as fragile humans that are in need of help and protection. When a woman doesn’t follow the societies’ norm, she is labeled as mentally unstable or not ready to be in the public’s eye.

​​​​​​​           Social norms have impacted women’s lives to the extent that women often find it normal to doubt themselves when they see a ghost or something that is “odd “in society. They develop self-doubt in what they are witnessing. For example, when Cecilia and Bessy speak of the ghost she saw, Bessy converses with her friend to make her decision as to whether or not she believes there is a ghost. Women in the Victorian Era are seen to not be able to make their own decisions and as a result; they get other people to make it for them. This creates the stereotype that they are unreliable people to society. Bessy didn’t trust herself and her own judgment on if the ghost was real or not and she turned to someone else that convinced her to believe that the ghost was fake. The author uses this strategic method to tackle the issue of how huge the impact of separate spheres really is in this society. Through the stories told in this novel, we begin to understand that the issue has grown so much that women begin to doubt themselves since they feel as though they may have a lack of better judgment. In turn, this means they do not have their own judgment on anything without having to turn to a man for their opinion on matters.. As discussed, this generates a sense of unreliability to women’s opinions; especially when it comes to things that can jeopardize the social norms already established by men. For example, claiming that you have encountered a supernatural being is not a norm of any kind. In fact, when women spoke up about their social concerns surrounding being approached by a ghost or other supernatural phenomena, they were simply labeled as insane and mentally fragile. Even if it is not a supernatural being that women were speaking about they were seen to be out of place in society. This went as far as regular social concerns being bluntly ignored since they came from the mouth of a female body. This is demonstrated in Rhonda Broughton’s ghost story by Cecilia’s maid Sarah when she quotes the following:

 “The girl was standing by the bed, leaning forward a little with her hands clenched in each other, rigid, every nerve tense; her eyes, wide open, staring out of her head, and a look of unutterable stony horror in them; her cheeks and mouth not pale, but livid as those of one that died a while ago in mortal pain.”  (Broughton,1868).

This is the scene when Cecilia encounters her ghost and ends up being unconscious on the floor. Originally, it was assumed that her nerves got to her and she was labeled as insane to society because of the experience that she encountered with the ghost. Since she was alone in the encounter, nobody would be able to witness what she saw. Therefore, she has no source and would be labeled as an unreliable and insane human being during the Victorian Era.

​​​​​​​           After this encounter, Cecilia tries to speak to Bessy about this, however, Bessy gives into the stereotype that women are prone to insanity. She tells Cecilia to see if her family has a commonality of being insane. She associates Sarah’s distress to her showing that she is mentally ill and advises her to see if it is a hereditary reason as to why she may be insane. Sarah’s encounter with a ghost leads Bessy to assume that she is insane and that is likely the reason why Cecila is better hiding away from society. In a contemporary source titled, Causation, Course, and Treatment of Reflex Insanity in Women, by Horatio Robinson, the author attempts to explain how women become classified as insane within society. In the following quote, we begin to see Robinson reiterate this: ” In some forms of insanity there also exists an unnatural sensibility, or irritability of the mind and nervous system, and, in a certain proportion of cases, violent mental impressions have originally induced the disease .” (Robinson, Page 65)

​​​​​​​           This science-based paper helps us understand what categorizes women as insane in society and that is that some form of unnatural sensibility. For example, an encounter with a ghost or behavior that does not align with societies’ norms can trigger the nervous system in someone and in turn force them to do something wrong. That is what happened in Broughton’s ghost story. Sarah is labeled as insane and unreliable because she is seen and engaged in something that was unnatural in society. Due to her being a woman that is seen as a fragile innocent soul she is seen as unreliable and insane because she encountered something that everyone believes to not exist.

​​​​​​​           After Sarah’s observance was declared invalid, they sent out a Man to validate the ghost to determine if it was true or not. In the ideology of separate spheres, men are known to be more reliable sources than women because they encounter the public sphere more than women do. In the article titled, Victorian Ideals: The influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relations, written by Felicia Appell, it becomes more evident that men were viewed in a much greater light than women during the Victorian era. This is seen when the author quotes:

 “Innocence was what he demanded from the girls of his class, and they must not only be innocent but also give the outward impression of being innocent.  White muslin, typical of virginal purity, clothes many a heroine, with delicate shades of blue and pink next in popularity.  The stamp of masculine approval was placed upon ignorance of the world, meekness, lack of opinions, general helplessness and weakness; in short, recognition of female inferiority to the male” (Appell, 2012).

 This shows how women’s opinions on situations didn’t really matter much as they were behind their husbands in everything because they were seen as fragile humans. Additionally,  they needed their husband’s opinion on everything they decided on and to see if they were in their right mind.

 ​​​​​​​           In the article, Changing Ideals of Womanhood during the Ninetieth-Century Women Movement, by Susan Cruea, it is stated that,  “A True Woman's role within this ideology was to “serve as "Queen" over her household, which was supposed to reflect her husband's wealth and success, and to prepare her children to continue the husband's legacy of success.” (Creau, 2005) This reminds us that whatever a man says or thinks women must be agreeing because of the concept that women are at a lower level than men in societal hierarchies. When they brought a man to validate the ghost encounter, the man ended up seeing the ghost and he fainted in shock and died. In the end, Rhonda Broughton gives us a taste of how that event was an example of gender inequality when she informs us that “This is a true story”. This reassures the audience that the ghost that Sarah saw ended up being real, however, it took a male to share the same vision to validate whether or not this was in fact true. This suggests that the opinion or voice of a female is not viewed as reliable in society in comparison to men that contribute to the ideology of the separate spheres in society. Similarly,  in the ghost story The Oakleigh Ghost, the dad assumed that Nelly was mentally ill when she was talking about her encounters with a ghost. This extended to the point that he took her to see a psychiatrist and the doctor told him that it was because of her separation from Randolph that gives out an emotional weakness to women in society. This led people to think that women are to be treated as if they are walking on eggshells because at any point we can break and be seen as insane.

​​​​​​​           The event of the loss of Ralph was a huge impact on the story because it is what decided the outcome and truth of if there really was a ghost. Throughout these three ghost stories, male characters were little spoken of but they ended up making a huge impact at the end. In Annie Armitt’s story titled, The Oakleigh Ghost, Randolph was spoken about but he was in the shadows and not directly spoken of, but he sets out the reason as to why Nelly was hearing things at night. Also in the story, Nelly is seen to be insane and delusional due to her emotional separation from Randolph. They assume that due to her emotional heartbreak she is hearing things that are not real. Annie shows us the ideology of separate spheres in this way by incorporating emotional distress and insanity to women. Women were seen as emotionally unstable which leads them to seem like unreliable sources.

​​​​​​​           Congruently, Rhonda Broughton also shows the ability of women to address important issues in society. She does this by focusing the whole dialogue on two women speaking and not a woman or a man. In the paper titled, Gender Ideology and Separate Spheres in the 19th Century, author Jan Marsh speaks largely on the role of each gender. Specifically, he quotes:

“The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation, and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest... But the woman's power is for the rule, not for battle - and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision... She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise -wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side.' (Marsh, 2013).

This shows the irony that the author uses to address the concern of separate spheres that women are gentle humans that need guidance and need to be hidden from the public. At this time,  the political monarch was Queen Victoria and she decided on the country's doings that sent men to fight in the war. Queen Victoria made important decisions herself and did not turn to other people to make them for her; especially a man. In Broughton’s story, however, Bessy turned to her friends to decide on her own judgment. This is an underlying issue that the author attempts to pull out to let society see that women can also actively have a say in what is going on in society and of an important social concern.

​​​​​​​           There were events in the ghost stories that showed the oppression that came with the concept of the separate sphere. In the ghost story, At Chrighton Abbey, Mary Elizabeth Braddon speaks about a girl named Sarah who experiences the loss of a loved one and was left alone which leads to her being isolated from everything and depressed. She was living in a Victorian society where women were seen as needing to have a man with them. She was walking isolated in the cold by herself with society looking at her when she went to the Abbey to look for shelter.  She was alone with no children or man to accompany her and she was like a ghostly figure in society as if she didn’t exist because of her status in the social sphere. 

​​​​​​​           The ideology of social spheres impacts the lives of the ones that live in Victorian society. It creates stereotypes that are seen in the ghost stories listed above. The authors try to tackle and portray these social issues in their stories by showing how the roles of women differed from men. As well, the stereotypes that were created such as women are prone to being insane and men being more reliable when it comes to ensuring things are of societies’ norms. When stories like these come out in society people begin to ponder on how the Victorian society was separated on the bases of gender roles and that created oppression for both genders who did not meet the norms of society.

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