Book review: Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters, by Sheila Fletcher

I’ve just finished reading Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton’s Daughters, by Sheila Fletcher. It’s a really excellent read, and a very fascinating picture of Victorian family life and sensibilities. Sadly, it also manages to not even remotely address the question that intrigued me enough to pick it up in the first place, namely why on earth would three intelligent women, whose father was actually responsible for the introduction of grammar schools for girls, consider the question of female suffrage ‘laughable’ and sign a petition against it?

This is mentioned in the preface, but never once in the book, and what we see of the girls’ characters does not, at least to me, provide illumination on this score.

I can’t say I feel cheated, though – it’s one of those rare non-fiction books that can be read in about the same amount of time as a novel; I couldn’t put it down. This was helped by the fact that all four daughters (Merriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May) kept diaries and wrote numerous letters to each other and to family friends, so that a very large amount of their personalities come through. Of course, as is always the case, the most fascinating parts are inevitably in the diaries and letters that didn’t survive.

May, the youngest, kept a diary from a young age, but the only diaries surviving date from her early twenties – but the letters and diary entries of her elder sisters, many of which allude to her unsatisfactory aspects (principally a lack of modesty and judgement) do remain. We don’t see May’s side of this at all. I note, in addition to this, that despite being a work of non-fiction, the biography follows the 19th century literary convention of making the heroine who will die young the one with the turbulent emotional life, the artistic sensibility and talents, the broken and tragic engagements. Life mirroring art? Equally, Merriel, the eldest, was reserved and wrote less than her sisters; we see very little of her inner life.

The girls’ story is quite an interesting one; they were the 1st, 2nd, 7th and 8th children in a family of twelve, whose mother died when the eldest daughter was 17. She, naturally, moved into the role of female head of the household, and was succeeded in this role by the next sister, Lucy, on her marriage. This role was seen to involve not just management of servants and household matters, but also the moral education of the younger children, most especially the boys (who could not be expected to grow up in a wholesome fashion without a civilising female influence).

But Lucy married when Lavinia, the next sister, was only fifteen and still in the schoolroom, so that she would be interrupted in her lessons by her father asking her to see to the servants’ wages, or by the housekeeper requiring her judgement on household matters. She would organise formal dinners, but would not generally preside at them. And, while she had the job of writing letters to the boys at school, she could hardly be expected to have much influence on her elder brothers (who were, fortunately, still receiving moral letters aplenty from Merriel and Lucy). Moreover, she was also in the position of organising the dismissal of a governess for reasons which she was not, as a young unmarried girl, allowed to know, as they were considered indelicate (the governess had designs on her widowed father). Instead, her grandmother, elder sisters and family friend wrote elliptical letters to each other about the matter until another pretext could be found for the governess’ dismissal; Lavinia herself being aware that this was not the real reason, but not being allowed to know what the reason was.

I really wanted more of Lavinia’s viewpoint at this point in the story, since I found her apparently mutually-exclusive combination of roles fascinating.

What was also interesting was the way that each sister in turn reacted with joy at turning 17 and being able to command her own time – and promptly turned to the library to read all sorts of works of literature. These were clearly highly intelligent women, determined to educate themselves (Lucy frequently lamented her lack of Greek; Lavinia’s husband began tutoring her in Greek and Latin during their courtship), yet, despite their father’s promotion of female education, their own education was very haphazard (a fact which the older daughters teased him about).

The most pervasive influence in the book, though, is that of religion and personal piety. This seems central to even the most (allegedly) flighty of the sisters, and particularly to the father. It’s a deeply conservative, Anglo-Catholic notion of religion, with a strong emphasis on Communion and on good works. Confirmation and communion are seen as hugely emotionally important, as well as spiritually important, because they put the children in communion with their dead mother (surely part of the communion of saints). But Lord Lyttelton suffers from bouts of depression (and possibly other mental health issues), and I found it interesting that this was viewed absolutely as a disease, rather than a moral failing – and that this perception was extended even to his suicide. There seems to have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was suicide, but equally no question that he should be buried in holy ground, or that he might not have attained heaven. It is suicide under the influence of mental illness, and thus Lyttelton is not seen as morally culpable; and the impression the book gives is that there was surprisingly little social stigma attached to his death, perhaps because his life had been such a moral one. This was a much more modern view of suicide than I would have expected.

Back to my original question – what sort of woman would oppose female suffrage, and why? The book certainly answers the first half of the question (the characters of the sisters are drawn in some detail), but not the latter. I really don’t understand this way of thinking, and would like to understand it better (especially if I am to write books set in the 19th century). All three were very happily married (Lucy spoke of her ‘blessed sense of dependence’ on her husband; but Lucy (who described women’s suffrage as ‘a joke’), at least, felt that it was unhealthy for a woman to derive all her opinions and thoughts and being from her husband. Obviously intellectual (moral?) independence was important, though emotional and financial independence were not.

This seems consistent with the notion of the woman as the moral compass of the household (a notion which I still find somewhat inconsistent with the idea of masculine superiority in other respects, but which I must accept as a common idea at the time), but if one accepts the premise that a woman is a moral and civilising influence, why on earth wouldn’t you want her to have the vote? Does anyone know of any biographies which would help me understand this (I want biographies rather than arguments in isolation, because it is too easy to dismiss the latter as being simply foolish; it’s the fact that intelligent, educated women could be against something which I would think is so crucial to their interests that I find hard to understand. But maybe they didn’t see it as crucial to their interests? I don’t know)? Though the arguments would be good, too. I can’t see anything in Christian doctrine that should preclude the right to vote (though clearly St Paul is against their right to actually lead), but perhaps I am not looking at it the right way? Any ideas?

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