If you find it challenging to juggle a successful career with a rewarding love life, pity the poor Victorian women for whom it wasn’t an option. Opportunities for fulfilling work outside the home were few and far between and if women did try to forge a career they’d most likely find it hard to get a husband. Those from the poorest households took menial jobs for the money and juggled them with raising kids, but the middle and upper classes tended to wait, like Jane Austen heroines, for the right man to come along or else they risked being left on the shelf.
Take Florence Nightingale, for example. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a nurse but she hoped to marry as well, believing marriage was the route to true happiness. For seven years during her twenties she was pursued by a man named Richard Monckton Milnes, the MP for Pontefract and biographer of Keats. They were compatible on many levels – intellectually, morally and passionately, she wrote in her diary. She knew she would suffocate in a traditional marriage with her days occupied by domestic concerns, so hoped to persuade Mr Monckton Milnes to accept a working wife. But it was not to be; he stormed off after proposing one last time at a garden party in 1849. No one knows exactly what was said but Florence later told her aunt there had been a “misunderstanding”. It seems he wanted a wife to support his political career while she hoped to study nursing in Germany, and they could not reach agreement.
Florence was deeply depressed about the break-up, saying “life is desolate to me to the last degree without his sympathy”, and she was cut to the quick when he barely spoke to her when they next met the following spring. He married someone else, and in 1854 Florence was sent out to Constantinople to set up a hospital for troops wounded in the Crimean War, where as the “lady with the lamp” she became England’s national heroine. She went on to have an extraordinary career, setting professional standards for the training of nurses and improving healthcare throughout the nation, but she never married. She had hoped to have it all – a useful career and a loving marriage – but she was simply born too soon.
Writing novels was a popular career for Victorian ladies, since it did not involve working in dirty dangerous places such as hospitals where they would have to mingle with the lower classes. But all the best-known female novelists of the age had difficulty finding love, perhaps because, consciously or unconsciously, they knew it would stop them pursuing their ambitions. Jane Austen fell for a man named Tom Lefroy but when his family prevented the match she channelled her heartbreak into writing the book that became Pride and Prejudice. Would she have produced the six novels we all know and love if she had married Tom? It seems unlikely. But if she had, under Victorian property law, her husband would have owned the copyright in her work.
Charlotte Brönte avoided marrying till the age of thirty-eight, by which time she had produced her great works. Her novelist sisters Emily and Anne died young without marrying, and Mary Ann Evans had the most complicated love life of all, full of heartbreak and angst. While working as assistant editor on the Westminster Literary Review she began an affair with a married man, George Lewes, and they moved in together, which led to her being ostracised from polite society. She published her seven hugely successful novels (including Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss) under the pseudonym George Eliot fearing that they wouldn’t sell under her own disgraced name.
One area in which Victorian wives could be active was charitable work, perhaps supporting the poor of the parish. This fitted the idea of women as ideals of moral probity and could be combined with the highest goal of all – motherhood. Elizabeth Fry managed to campaign for prison reform alongside her husband Joseph while raising an impressive eleven children. But Octavia Hill, who fought for social housing for the inner-city poor, chose women as her closest companions (and, some speculate, lovers).
Some women might become involved in running the family business but it was difficult for them to own it in their own right until changes in the property laws took effect in the 1880s. Bathsheba Everdene, Thomas Hardy’s heroine in Far From the Madding Crowd, was based on a real woman he heard about who tried to run a farm inherited from an uncle, and was considered scandalous by the locals. Hardy cops out by giving her a love interest, Gabriel Oak, to save the day, because obviously a woman could not have managed on her own!
Gradually the tide began to turn as a result of the efforts of these early pioneers. By the 1890s, Pierre Curie was respectful enough of his wife Marie’s scientific career to give up his own research and help her in her discovery of radioactivity. In 1919 Nancy Astor had her husband’s support when she became Britain’s first female member of parliament. But throughout the twentieth century many career-women still had to put their love lives on the back burner in order to reach the top.
My great-aunt Julia was one: a multi-lingual secretary at the British embassies in Paris and Madrid in the 1920s and 30s, she went on to work for the Special Operations Executive, the secret organisation that parachuted spies into Occupied France to liaise with the Résistance during World War Two. She had an exciting, fulfilling life but she never married. When I was a medical student and she was in her nineties, she told me she was glad I would have a career but wanted to know if I was “courting”. I told her all about my hugely complex love life and she smiled and said I was lucky because my generation could have it all, whereas it hadn’t been possible in her day. I didn’t like to ask if she had ever been in love but after she died I found many love letters amongst her possessions so it seems she had her chances. Did she regret choosing a career over marriage? Based on our conversations I think she would have liked to have children. I suspect all the women who made that choice must have looked back and wondered “What if…?”
We seldom have to choose outright between a love life and a career these days: it’s more a case of little daily compromises. Who takes a day off when a child is sick? Who puts their own work to one side to help their partner through a challenging deadline? We have many more options nowadays, with long-distance relationships, live-apart marriages, and all kinds of compromises that allow couples to pursue their careers and love lives at the same time – although the high failure rate in celebrity marriages is often attributed to them not spending enough time together. And some female politicians (Liz Kendall, Condoleeza Rice) find it hard to combine their ambitions with their love life. But ask yourself truly… If a situation arose in which you had to choose, as Florence Nightingale did, between career advancement and the man you really loved, which way would you go? Maybe we should think about this next time we’re moaning about juggling a partner, a home and a career.