How Victorian Novels Structured Social Norms Around Love

How Victorian Novels Structured Social Norms Around Love


Literature of the past is the closest thing to finding out what daily life, social norms and culture was like. Back before film was around, writing was the main form of preservation. By reading novels from the pre-film era, we get a glimpse of how everyday life and language were.

For this project, I have decided to go through the Victorian Women Writers Project, a database that collects writing from women writers during Queen Victoria’s reign. The Victorian era represented a big change in society, it managed to keep the repressive and uptight traditional roles we acknowledge today while having a woman ruling one of the most powerful nations at that time. These ups and downs of cultural change are depicted and immortalized within this corpus dating from the 1850s-1900s giving a range of fifty years’ worth of history woven into stories.

My research question is on the topic of how Victorian novels structured social norms around love in their writing, especially since all of the texts in this corpus were written by women. This corpus features thirteen texts which total out to be around 839,010 words. All of these texts were found within the fiction genre section on Victorian Women Writers Project database, and all were written in the midst of an era that was starting to take a new appreciation for women in the fiction genre. Nancy Armstrong, a scholar on writing in the Victorian era, stated “I know of no history of the English novel that can explain why women began to write respectable fiction near the end of the eighteenth century, became prominent novelists during the nineteenth century, and on this basis achieved the status of artists during the modern period. Yet that they suddenly began writing and were recognized as women writers strikes me as a central event in the history of the novel.” (p. 7).

The Theme of Gender in Love:

The Victorian era showed a big step for the gap between gender in society with high ranking women like Queen Victoria, Emily Brontë and Florence Nightingale being recognizable names. However, there was still a huge theme of traditional and conservative values held during the Victorian era, women were very much looked down on in every aspect of life. I will admit that I was interested to see how women writers during this era would portray their own sex. Would they fall into the sexist stereotypes that are still seen in modern times or would they break away? The first queries that I researched through the database were terms relating to gender such as man, woman, husband and wife.

10 closest words to “man” with their word similarity:

1        man           1.0000000
2      woman           0.7974546
3  gentleman           0.7277711
4     fellow           0.6807487
5     person           0.6404568
6       girl           0.6270949
7      man's           0.6193221
8        jew           0.5807850
9    widower           0.5767281
10     chaps           0.5763726

10 closest words to “woman” with their word similarity:

1        women             1.0000000
2          men             0.7916638
3       people             0.6701637
4       slaves             0.6551138
5       ladies             0.6366898
6     beauties             0.6314745
7      nations             0.6186347
8  significant             0.5875152
9       tricks             0.5842282
10       girls             0.5705522

Already, there is a big difference in the results. Men are often referred to with very vague nouns such as “gentleman”, “fellow” and “chap” (which usually refers to a man in British Victorian/Edwardian slang). Meanwhile, women are referred to as “slaves” and “tricks” both of which show the offensive terms used to refer to women. The results portray the blunt sexism used in Victorian literature.

10 closest words to “husband” with their word similarity:

1    husband               1.0000000
2   daughter               0.5564028
3  allowance               0.5490407
4       wife               0.5378469
5     refuge               0.5358267
6      lover               0.5352064
7    becomes               0.5338080
8     friend               0.5303921
9    marries               0.5303042
10   nursing               0.5296115

10 closest words to “wife” with their word similarity: 

1        wife            1.0000000
2      sister            0.5644738
3    daughter            0.5635592
4       child            0.5589752
5     uncle's            0.5583363
6     darling            0.5407327
7  sweetheart            0.5389743
8     husband            0.5378469
9   betrothed            0.5324849
10      helen            0.5288024

When we look at terms like husband and wife through the queries, we get a more subdued result. However, it is interesting that Victorian social norms placed terms like “daughter” and “child” higher up than words like “husband”, “wife” and “betrothed”. Victorians placed children and maternal affection in high regards. Women were supposed to take care and produce children while showing them a decent but restrained type of maternal affection. This became a big theme in their literature. Alison Chapman states in the novel Victorian Women Writers and the Women Question, “this ideal of the domesticated, confined, ethereal, and asexual wife and mother attempts to position women’s influence safely within the home.” (p.62). The duty of raising children often surpassed actual love in marriages during this time, which is why marriages based on love were so rare and sensationalized like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s marriage. This was the perfect example of an ideal marriage in the Victorian era because Victoria was seen as a mother, wife and was in love with her husband, something that seldom occurred during a time of arranged marriages.

The Role of Weddings and Marriage:

Marriages during the Victorian era were seen as a business arrangement more than a ceremony of love. Society often dictated for a couple to make the most advantageous match in marriage, not only for themselves but for their own families.

10 words closest to “men + wedding” with their word similarity:

1. wedding 0.7639692
2. men 0.7018675
3. marriages 0.5914481
4. significant 0.5879561
5. women 0.5855146
6. nurses 0.5745830
7. ladies 0.5646758
8. eternally 0.5580430
9. brethren 0.5467134
10. threes 0.5384379

Looking at the queries of “men + wedding” and “women + wedding” there are words that clearly show this theme being prevalent in literature as well. For example, with “men + wedding” there are words like “significant” which could indicate the urgency of making a significant match in marriage. For “women + marriage” we see results like “slave” and “cooking” which could point to the sexist social norm of the domestic wife and mother that was mentioned above.

10 words closest to “women + wedding” with their word similarity:

1. wedding 0.7792893
2. women 0.7032009
3. marriages 0.6251413
4. eternally 0.6074727
5. cooking 0.6015998
6. significant 0.5588928
7. men 0.5534721
8. nurses 0.5489298
9. children’s 0.5479142
10. slaves 0.5469898

Also looking at the traditions of a courtship and engagement in Victorian society show us results that lead up to the theme of an advantageous marriage. Courtships was closely monitored by both families, often regulated with visits from both parties until the man would traditionally ask permission for the woman’s hand in marriage from her father. These traditional views are also shown in Victorian literature with results like “permission”, “visit” and “assented” being some of the top words connected with engagement, and “inheritance” being a top word for courtship which also tells us how much money plays a hand in marriage and love.

10 closest words to “courtship” and their word similarity:

1.       courtship                 1.0000000
2.         manhood                 0.6011585
3.     inheritance                 0.5862635
4.  correspondence                 0.5724209
5.             etc                 0.5596204
6.      represent                 0.5559712
7.       ambition                 0.5536221
8.     legitimate                 0.5516429
9.       guardians                 0.5405547
10.        boyhood                 0.5388763

10 closest words to “engagement” and their word similarity:

1. engagement     1.0000000
2. assented       0.5339991
3. quit           0.5255894
4. permission     0.5229844
5. visit          0.5099944
6. beforehand     0.5032650
7. interests      0.4985159
8. cousin         0.4966089
9. complain       0.4948327
10.begging        0.4888412

The Art of Drama in Love:

Something that was prevalent to me while collecting this corpus was the theme of drama surrounding love. The language is very dramatic and strong, a lot of adjectives are used in relation to romance which is perhaps why we look at Victorian romances and period dramas with a lot of intensity. Words like romance and betrothed are connected to words both positive and negative, but never the less they carry a lot of weight with them.

10 closest words to “romance” and their word similarity:

1       romance               1.0000000
2         snare               0.6301541
3      poetical               0.5808821
4        tragic               0.5733490
5        elixir               0.5680049
6     essential               0.5591671
7     sentiment               0.5586292
8        riches               0.5570105
9         trait               0.5406579
10 independence               0.5307496

10 closest words to “betrothed” and their word similarity:

1      betrothed                 1.0000000
2           quit                 0.6451835
3        inherit                 0.6439130
4           lied                 0.6374398
5  peculiarities                 0.6350886
6        refuses                 0.6150848
7       inferior                 0.6038882
8  congratulated                 0.5993992
9        elected                 0.5957792
10          heir                 0.5945111

The results show words like “quit”, “lied”, “snare” and “tragic” having a big connection to the theme of love and marriage. This shows how literature helped to contribute the necessary drama to keep readers interested, it also was perhaps relatable to readers of the Victorian era since back then it was more common yet just as scandalous to hold mistresses, affairs and children out of wedlock (unless you were a rich and wealthy man who could scam your way out of it). These queries help us to look at the language more and get a sense of how Victorian writers interpreted these intense emotions.


To answer the research question of how Victorian literature structured social norms around love, I would say that it helped to establish the traditionalism and uptightness that we often associate with that time period. Writing towards love in the Victorian era focused specifically on more areas of inheritance, ambition, and how much a match could benefit two families. It played into the domestic housewife role for women, and the breadwinner role for men. Victorian women writers often emphasized the role of children much more since it would be a connection to their readers who were mothers as well. By depicting the maternal housewife in their writings, it would form a sense of normalcy in society towards that role. It also would have made women feel seen in a society that often made them stay in the background if the characters they read in novels were just like them. I will admit that I was disappointed but not surprised when the results of queries towards women were harsher in language compared to queries with men. Words like “slave”, “cooking”, and “children” often showed up whenever the word “woman” was mentioned. This corpus helped to prove that Victorian literature structured social norms by writing about love in a way that seemed advantageous, money driven and extremely traditional. It seemed like there was no variation or change in the views towards marriage and love throughout these different stories which helped to continue a sense of uptight rigidness throughout Victorian society.

Something that I would do differently if I did this project again would be to expand my corpus way more, I think that since I just went over the required word count there were a lot of repeats and I could have reached more themes with a bigger word count and more texts. I think that I also had some trouble with coming up with a research question at first, and it might have seemed a little rushed. In the future, I would probably narrow down on a much more specific topic.

Corpus and Work Cited:


Cometh Up as a Flower Vol. 1 by Rhoda Broughton

Daphne, or Marriage à la Mode by Mrs. Humphry Ward

Henrietta’s Wish; or Domineering by Charlotte Mary Yonge

Lady Audley’s Secret Vol. 1 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Miss Brown by Vernon Lee

My Flirtations by Margaret Wynman

Sea-Thrift by Dollie Radford

The Incomplete Amorist by Edith Nesbit

The Red House by Edith Nesbit

The Story of a Modern Woman by Ella Hepworth Dixon

The Treasure of Heaven by Marie Corelli

The Woman Who Didn’t by Victoria Crosse

Why Paul Ferroll Killed His Wife by Caroline Clive


Work Cited:

Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. United States, Oxford University Press, USA, 1990.