The Perfect Victorian Man

I am interested in what the ideal male marriage partner is according to Victorians.  On page 57, Heathcliff tells Nelly “I wish I had light hair and fair skin, and was dressed, and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he will be!” in reference to Edgar Linton.  Readers know from earlier in the book that Heathcliff has darker skin and hair, and is too poor to dress well.  As Catherine shows interest in Edgar, Heathcliff becomes jealous.  Rather than character, Heathcliff thinks Edgar’s advantages over him that attract Catherine are appearance and wealth.  His beliefs are even supported on page 78 when Catherine admits to Nelly that her reason for wanting to marry Edgar is that “he is handsome…And he will be rich,” and Catherine desires to be “the greatest woman of the neighborhood.”  These separate disclosures to Nelly indicate that the standards for a Victorian male partner are that he must be handsome and rich.  However, Victorian standards of being handsome include having “fair” skin and “light” hair, hinting that their visions of beauty are inherently racist and biased toward a Eurocentric beauty standard.  This conclusion is evidenced by Victorian era pseudosciences like physiognomy, which claimed that one’s outer appearance indicated one’s inner character, and provided excuses to be racist and colorist, deeming those with darker skin “unworthy” and even “uncivilized.”  Because Heathcliff has darker skin than Edgar, he is a less desirable marriage partner for Catherine.  In addition to racism, Victorians also perpetuate classism.  Heathcliff is poor, has unrefined behaviors, and dresses shabbily.  In contrast, Edgar is richer and posher.  This difference once again makes Edgar a more desirable husband.  This instance of classism is clearly not a rare occurrence unique to Catherine because In Mary Barton, Mary almost marries Henry Carson for the same reason.  Mary and Catherine are justified in wanting to escape a lower class lifestyle, but the people they truly connect with, Jem and Heathcliff, are cruelly cast aside because they seemingly cannot provide the ladies with a lavish future.  Emily Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell both emphasize that a rich lifestyle is widely yearned for among  Victorian people, and that marrying into wealth is a quick way to ensure obtaining one.  However, both authors also stress that marrying a man for his money ends poorly compared to marrying for love.  Mary is happier with Jem, and Catherine is unable to forget Heathcliff.  To Victorians, their strict rules and standards often take precedence over true desires, two of those standards being the racist and classist ones that determine whether a man is worth marrying.  Brontë and Gaskell highlight the consequences of conforming to Victorian expectations and marrying for status over love, as well as reveal that the ideal Victorian male marriage partner can still leave their wife unsatisfied and unhappy. 

One thought on “The Perfect Victorian Man”

  1. There is absolutely a parallel of superficiality between Mary Barton and Catherine. Both women spend a period considering men only for their wealth as that is what they are taught is most important in the marriage: social standing. However, there is also a component of internalized physiognomy which is not present between Jem and Harry. Jem never explicitly considers his appearance, but Heathcliff is set on making himself physically desirable based on the wealth and status of an endowed society built on a foundation inherently suspicious of race. He is undeniably a psychological victim of that system.

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