publication date: 2007
pages (not including notes and index): 262
Between Women theorizes that our notions about Victorian England women are incomplete. According to Sharon Marcus, the author, our current perceptions of women of that era are two-fold: either women were subservient beings who lived for their husbands or they were repressed creatures whose natural tendencies were exposed in secret lesbian relationships. As explained by Marcus, the reality was much more complex, because Victorian women were allowed, and even encouraged, to forge deep friendships with other women, to objectify women through fashion, and to live with another woman in same-sex relationships. I found Between Women to be on an interesting topic, but I would have been better-served by reading a short synopsis or a long article on the subject. When I selected this book, I got in over my head with reading 264 pages of analysis of Victorian writings.
The book is separated into three parts. Part One, titled “Elastic Ideals: Female Friendship,” introduces Marcus’s idea that “Victorian society, in which marriage between men and women was a supreme value, did not suppress bonds between women but actively promoted them.” In Part One, Marcus explored the deep friendships women would forge at that time. Her discussion is very thorough. She introduces diaries and letters from dozens of women. Some of the excerpts can seem erotic or even sexual. As one example, when Caroline Clive met her sister-in-law Caroline Norton, she wrote in correspondence that Norton was a “perfect beauty, eyes with long eye-lashes on both lids, the lower touching her cheek, a mouth that opens in a way like ideal mouths . . . lovely skin and shape, a flowing, glowing silk gown and cashmere shawl edged with gold.” Although this might sound intense to modern readers, Marcus concluded that Victorian ideas about female friendship allowed for longing and adoration between friends. In Part One, Marcus also explored female friendship in novels of the time, including David Copperfield and Villette. Part One was intriguing because it dispelled my impressions of Victorian women and their ability to express themselves.
Part Two was titled “Mobile Objects: Female Desire.” In Part Two, Marcus concluded that fashion images scrutinized by women and dolls that were played with by girls allowed women to experience things otherwise unknown to them. As explained by Marcus: images of fashion in magazines “were popular because women who wanted to turn themselves into spectacles of femininity took pleasure in looking at images that reduced women to lovely bodies filling out beautiful clothing.” In this section, Marcus included 20 fashion images from Victorian England, which made for a very fun chapter. Additionally, dolls allowed girls to act with aggression or dominance. In the last chapter of Part Two, Marcus spent a great deal of time critically reading Great Expectations. This was my favorite part of the book. Marcus’s discussion of Great Expectations was engaging and convincing.
The third and final part of the book was titled “Plastic Institutions: Female Marriage.” In Part Three, Marcus discussed female marriage. First, she contrasted female marriage with male-female marriage of the time because female marriage was necessarily based on contract and was dissoluble. Next, she asserted that female marriage was familiar to middle-class Victorians. Third, she concluded that the Victorian experience with contractual and dissoluble same-sex marriage led to marriage reform for all women, including expanded property and divorce rights.
As mentioned above, I found the topic interesting. However, the book could be dry and dense. Also, as someone who is not a literature or history expert, there were several terms and references that I didn’t understand. I’m glad a read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you already have an interest in the topic.
3/6: more good than bad
P.S. Here is a lively interview with the author: The Hooded Utilitarian
Also, here are some other reviews of Between Women: