Bachelor Girls and Working Women: Women and Independence in Oliphant, Levy, Allen and Gissing



At the end of Wells’s The Wheels of Chance, Hoopdriver returns to his place behind the counter, and Jessie Milton returns to her hutch – the hutch of conventional Victorian womanhood. Like Hoopdriver, Jessie tries to escape the constraints imposed by her social position by entering the sphere of Romance. In doing so, however, she simply switches one set of defining conventions for another, and risks becoming an outcast in the process. As her unlikely knight errant, Hoopdriver can rescue her from seduction and social ruin, but he can do no more than return her unscathed to her former position as a marriageable middle-class girl. The typical Victorian fictional heroine follows a pattern not unlike Jessie’s, exiting the Romance only to enter the domestic sphere: she is ‘courted’ and then marries. In all cases, her identity and her fate are defined and controlled by men – by fathers, husbands, or seducers. Moreover, like Dick Sparrow and other lower-middle-class anti-heroes from the comic sketches in midcentury periodicals, Victorian heroines must always return in the end to the domestic hearth, although few of them are permitted to venture very far from its security in the first place. In order to break free of restricting conventions, Victorian heroines, like their real life counterparts, had to do more than resist and complain – they had to work, and ‘work as they had not done yet.’ Victorian heroines and Victorian women had to exit the domestic sphere and enter the public sphere – they had to find liberation in lowermiddle-class, white-collar work.


Single Woman Working Woman Lower Middle Class Woman Writer Domestic Sphere 
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© Arlene Young 1999

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