Victorian Sexuality: George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid"
Women in the Victorian era must have suffered enormously under the massive double standards and the shameful image of a woman who wanted to be on her own. It is clear from examining the literature of the period how much discrimination was placed on women in the era. George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid" show the intense sexual and gender discrimination that women in the Victorian era had to endure and the extreme consequences that were reserved for them upon breaking such strict traditions on sexuality and love relationships; however, George Bernard Shaw does allow for a greater sense of freedom for his female characters as his work was written much later at the tail end of the Victorian era, as long as they avoid the contact of men altogether and live an autonomous life unwed and out of love.
Both George Bernard Shaw's play and Thomas Hardy's poem show the extreme prejudice that women had to endure while living within Victorian society. There was a huge double standard, which allowed the men to enjoy a relative amount in freedom in their sexual choices and conquests. Yet, this freedom was not allowed to transcend to the women of the era. Instead, they had to live extreme double standards, where they had very few options and almost no freedom in their sexuality or how they could choose to live with mates and romantic lovers. Notice that the language of Hardy's poem does not tend to blame the rich man who took Amelia as a mistress. Rather, it is Amelia who is blamed and shamed, while the man remains able to conduct his sexual transgressions without any scandal or shame from the society.
This is also echoed in Shaw's play. Vivie's father, who is actually a reverend, was allowed to have an affair with Mrs. Warren without being completely destroyed within the society. Mrs. Warren kept the affair a secret, even from her own daughter. This allowed Reverend Samuel Gardner, who was married at the time, to enjoy the sexual conquest of his affair without the messy scandal or the harm to his reputation that would have occurred if he was a woman. Frank Gardner even flirts with both Vive and Mrs. Warren, showing how it is perfectly acceptable under Victorian standards to allow men to wander, while the women have to remain chaste and pure in order to stay relevant and acceptable under the society's standards. All in all, the idea of Victorian relationships and love becomes a joke within Shaw's play. He writes "When I was your age, young men and women were afraid of each other: there was no good fellowship. Nothing real, only gallantry copied out of novels, and as vulgar and affected as could be. Maidenly reserve! Gentlemanly chivalry! Always saying no when you meant yes! Simple purgatory for shy and sincere souls" (Shaw Act I). The extreme double standards made love almost impossible in the context of the Victorian era. Women had to settle for either what was socially acceptable, or s shameful life that may have given them more personal freedom.
Moreover, the two works show that there is still a heavy stigma associated with women who break the Victorian molds of sexuality. Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid" was written in 1866, at the very height of the Victorian era. Amelia gave up her own live and respect within the Victorian society in order to become a rich man's mistress. She became the mistress of a rich man, which allowed here a more fashionable wardrobe and a more comfortable life than her impoverished nature before; yet, this comes with a heavy price. In Hardy's play, Amelia's old friend states "O'Meila, my dear, this does everything crown! / Who could have supposed I should meet you in town? / And whence such fair garments, such prosperity?" (Hardy Lines 1-3). Her friend is astonished with the fancy clothes Amelia wears. Yet, Amelia directly responds, showing how she had to ruin herself in order to get such wealth and prosperity. Amelia retorts, "O didn't you know, I'd been ruined" (Hardy Line 4). Before her choice to become a mistress to a rich man, Amelia was living in abject poverty. She had no other way to move up the socio economic ladder, as shown by her friend who made the choice to properly marry under society's rules and regulations. Now, Amelia had money but shame, while her friend has pride but poverty.
George Bernard Shaw echoes the idea of how detrimental it can be for women to break with Victorian traditions about love and sexuality. For example, in his work Mrs. Warren's Profession, Mrs. Warren was also devastated in many ways because of her extreme dissent from the typical traditions of Victorian female sexuality.
Mrs. Warren has to conceal her true identity in order to function properly within Victorian society, without gathering suspicion or inciting some sort of massive scandal. Although she has never married, she adopts the title of Mrs. To hide that fact. Her being married, even at some distant point in her past, would legitimize her character within Victorian society at the time and allow her to do business and act autonomously without being a scandal. Additionally, Mrs. Shaw was only allowed her autonomous role in society through exploiting women's sexuality. The research suggests that "Mrs. Warren (and Shaw) argue that society gives women little choice but to either slave to their death or choose less socially acceptable ways of earning a living" (Shaw Festival 4). She runs a high-end brothel, which in many ways makes the practice less scandalous than having her watch over a band of street walkers. Still, she shows it was either a life running prostitution or a life slaving away in some impoverished factory; "None of our girls were ever treated as I was treated in the scullery of that temperance place, or at the Waterloo bar, or at home. Would you have had me stay and become a worn-out old drudge before I was forty" (Shaw Act II). The only way for her to advance was through exploiting female sexuality, just as Amelia had done in Hardy's poem. This shows the extreme limitations placed on women in the Victorian era. They had to either marry well or exploit their sexuality to find the same sort of success men in the generation could. Thus, "for a daughter to find out that her whole way of life and education was made possible because the only way her mother could earn a living was through prostitution" was an enormously difficult concept for Vivie, and Shaw's audiences, to bear (Shaw Festival 4). This further connects her to the character of Amelia in Thomas Hardy's play "The Ruined Maid." Mrs. Warren's transgressions even affect her daughter. When Vivie falls in love with Frank, his father "tells Mrs. Warren that he will not allow his son to marry Vive, because of Mrs. Warren's shameful past" (Shaw Festival 4). However, that is clearly not the case. The truth is that Reverend Samuel is actually Vivie's father, making her and Frank half-siblings. Yet, he does not acknowledge this, and instead turns to blaming Mrs. Shaw's transgressions as the reason he will not allow Frank to marry her daughter.
Yet, at the same time, Shaw provides an escape for women, even despite the intense Victorian standards and expectations of their sexual purity which limited their romantic options and life choices. Shaw allows two of his characters to break free, although there are some clear stipulations that allow them to enjoy an autonomous life without having to bend to the will of a man. The play was written much later than Hardy's play. In 1902, there was a growing movement that began to allow women much more freedom, instead of reserving their capabilities being tied to the men they were romantically involved with. In George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, Mrs. Warren is the first character who breaks the mold and lives a financially successful life running a brothel. According to the research, "Mrs. Warren's Profession places the protagonist's decision to become a prostitute in the context of the appalling conditions for working class women in Victorian England" (Shaw Festival 11).
Despite Vivie's disgust, it was the only way the Mrs. Warren could provide a better life for her daughter. Money from prostitution was what paid for Vivie's education and allowed her to escape the slavery and degradation of women in traditional Victorian society. Vivie eventually accepts her mother's choices, and calls her "Stronger than all England" (Shaw Act II). Yet this is not for long. It seems that even though it may have been acceptable for Mrs. Warren to have conducted herself in such a way when she was in dire straights, Vivie sees it as a disgrace for her to have continued with the profession…