The (Georgian) Ideal Woman

An Ideal Woman?

An Ideal Woman?

Another gem from “Side-Lights on the Georgian Period”, by George Paston (Emily Morse Symonds), published by Methuen in 1902.

This time the author is explaining the ideal type of woman in the eighteenth century. I read some of this aloud to my wife and daughter and was treated to howls of derision and cries of “You wish!”[1]

Here is the passage:

THE feminine ideal of the Georgian period may best be defined as an interesting compound of moral perfection and intellectual deficiency. A study of the allusions to this complex personality in the literature of her own day, teaches us that she was required to be before all things a “womanly woman” meek, timid, trustful, clinging, yielding, unselfish, helpless and dependent, robust in neither body nor mind, but rather “fine by defect and amiably weak.” In the striking phrase of a modern admirer, she had not yet forgotten the adornment of her feebleness, nor laid aside the poetry of languor and the seductive debility that invested her with the allurement of a convalescent flower.[2]

But the ideal woman, in spite of her convalescent floweriness, was expected to be a thoroughly practical domestic sort of person, “not learned save in gracious household ways,” yet abounding in good sense and judgment, those darling qualities of the eighteenth century. The most flattering epitaph that could have been inscribed upon her tombstone was the touching tribute, “She was born a woman, and died a house-keeper.” The ideal woman was also, needless to say, a model wife and mother. She always married if she had the opportunity, because there was practically no other career open to her; but even if there had been’ she would have considered a loveless marriage infinitely more respectable than the pursuit of a congenial profession. She cherished no foolish sentimental ideas about waiting for her affinity, but when an eligible suitor presented himself, she felt that it was her duty to love him, or at any rate to marry him. Her married life might be unhappy, but that was of trifling consequence, since her chief occupation, outside her household duties, lay in the practice of patience and the performance of self-sacrifice. “The soul of the true woman,” we have been assured by myriads of masculine idealists, ancient and modern, “finds its supreme satisfaction in self-sacrifice.”

The fact is incontrovertible, since the woman who objects to self-immolation, on the ground that it is the most refined form of selfishness, and distinctly injurious both to the idol and to the idolator, is denied all claim to the quality of womanliness.


  1. Unfair, of course, since I only reported these views as historical curiosities and was very careful not to endorse them!  ↩
  2. De Goncourt.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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