Victorian Age is associated today with conservative England, its Christian values, and strict adherence to customs. However, it was a time of rapid industrial development and significant social movements. Industrial Revolution created a huge demand for labor force in cities. At the same time, it accumulated an unprecedented variety of exotic foreign goods and entertainments in cities. There were much more educational opportunities for both men and women, though the traditional roles of genders still left fewer chances for women to develop a career. It was too early to speak of equal civil rights, but increasingly popular feminist movements marked great changes in public consciousness.
Victorian authors had mixed reactions to these changes: some of them were rather optimistic about promises of the new age while others associated it with greater troubles. Charles Dickens was one of the skeptics. In his Hard Times, the author depicts the conflict between the time-tested traditional ideals of femininity and demands and promises of the new culture. Christina Rosetti skillfully captured the conventional Victorian ideal of a woman in her poem Goblin Market (1859). It pictures the expanding international market as a dangerous temptation for naïve and fragile young girls. Laura and Lizzie are two fair maidens who live in harmony with nature (“Neat like bees, as sweet and busy”) and are quite content with fruits of their labor (Rosetti, 1865, p. 11). Their peaceful life is threatened by goblins selling sweet exotic fruits. Once tasted, this flavor becomes the only thing one can desire, and a maiden can think of nothing else in her life but of another try.
Dickens’ novel has the same message wrapped in a more realistic narrative: the upcoming progress will fall heavy on Victorian women regardless of their willingness to take part in it. Four main female characters (Rachael, Louisa Gradgrind, Mrs. Gradgrind, and Sissy Jupe) are trying to find their place in this new world. Rachael is one of those women who was “still clinging to the customary role of Victorian ladies as reliable caretakers and emotional anchors for the men in their lives” (Gray, 2016). She possesses all those qualities that constitute Victorian ideal. Rachael is compassionate, gentle, and supportive. Even her appearance is in harmony with her character: “[…] a quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate, irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by the perfect order of shining black hair” (Dickens, 1854, Ch. XIII). Being in love with Stephen Blackpool for many years, she is doomed to a lonely life because of his unhappy marriage to another woman.
By drawing a contrast between Rachel and Stephen’s despicable wife, Dickens shows the profound injustice of the legal principle of immutability of marriages. Such a law that binds two people forever regardless of their willingness and ability to live together is cruel not only to women but for the whole society. Stephen tries to explain to Mr. Bounderby that “[…] supposed unpossibility o’ ever getting unchained from one another, at any price, on any terms, brings blood upon this land, and brings many common married fok to battle, murder, and sudden death” (Dickens, 1854, Ch. XI). However, Mr. Bounderby is relentless: there is no legal (or moral) justification for a divorce unless to pay “a mint of money.” Despite the apparent hypocrisy of marriage laws, a large part of society still believes in their moral force.
Education is another object of Dickens’ criticism in Hard Times. But it is not the lack or inequality of education what is criticized but principles and ideas that are claimed to be virtuous. Skepticism, adherence to facts, extolled science and progress – these values stand in inevitable contradiction with traditional Victorian worldview. Women might be less prepared for the changes, but they can also be a warning against getting too far. In Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of facts serves as a grotesque parody of changing values.
On the one hand, there is the obsolete legislation that deprives people of their basic freedoms (prohibition of divorce is only one example). On the other hand, there is a strict educational system that leaves no place for fantasy and feeling. A woman educated by this system (such as Louisa Gradgrind) is condemned to an unhappy life without knowledge of simple, humane virtues of love and freedom. Dickens’ social criticism exposes artificial and unrealistic values of the new age, but he does not favor cementation of old values as well. In the world of rapid economic and social changes, he calls for preservation of something timeless and ultimately just.
Nowadays, idealized values of naturalness, tenderness, and femininity, as they are shown in Dickens’ prose, might seem too old-fashioned. Rossetti’s fear of free market and its “goblins” seems ridiculous. The order of society is much less rigid than it was in Victorian England: men and women are no longer perceived as two completely separate kinds of people with their own “naturally prescribed” roles. Our laws are not directed towards the preservation of some order but towards giving equal rights and responsibilities to all members of society. Fortunately, the drama of forced marriage was left in the past at least in most world’s countries. Happily, there is no need to live according to some “unwritten laws” created by local societies, because we have enough information about this world to create our own moral code. This makes me feel optimistic about building a successful career by doing the things that I like most.