How to be a Man: Gender and Emotions in Victorian England

“Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!”

The Victorian Era was one of strict gender roles (although, some may argue little has changed). There was a very particular way a man must act and a very particular way a woman must act. No one strayed from it, at risk of being ridiculed. Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White portrays male and female characters, both in physicality and in what they say, in such a way as to emphasize the importance of this. In particular, the interactions between Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright show what strict standards both men and women were held to.

Much of Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright’s interactions appear to be Miss Holcombe, who is described in a rather masculine manner, telling Hartright to, in no short terms to man up. After Miss Halcombe tells him to leave the house as it is clear Hartright is in love with Miss Fairlie, Hartright is visibly upset. Miss Holcombe immediately comes in with “Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!” (Collins). It, in this case, is emotions of heartbreak and distraught brought on by Miss Holcombe insisting it is for the best that Hartright leaves Limberidge House. In Miss Holcombe’s, and the Victorian audience’s, mind to succumb or “shirk under” emotion is to make one more feminine. To be a man is to crush them, “tear it out; [and] trample it under foot”. This is just one of many times we the reader see Miss Halcombe remind Hartright to be a man. To be repeated so many times goes to show what a strong influence societal expectations and gender roles held on the Victorians. To have Miss Holcombe, a masculine woman, remind Hartright of his role as the actual man minimizes and furthers the reading that Miss Holcombe is not a “real” or “proper woman” and that Hartright is not quite to the standard of a Victorian man.

One thought on “How to be a Man: Gender and Emotions in Victorian England”

  1. Hi! I really enjoy your take on Miss Holcombe and Mr. Hartright. It is so odd to have a woman play such a strong and dynamic role in a Victorian novel. Miss Holcombe, most of the time, appears to be more of a man than anyone else in the house. Which makes me question why Collins chose to portray her this way. If there are already many male characters, why have her take on such a dominate and masculine role? I am really curious how readers of the time reacted to these reversed roles. Did they like Miss Holcombe or was she too masculine for them? I’m sure it definitely kept the reading interesting and ~sensational~ however, were they supporters?

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