Victorian age was when the women’s equal rights movement found strong expression in society, and as a reflection, in poetry. However, the Victorian age also signals the end of the philosophically turbulent romantic period and we find several master pieces from the time which dwell at length on the mental state of women, of being constantly in search of a sense of fulfillment and completeness. The complete woman, who had the strength of character to be a wholesome identity by herself was still an idea in its germination stage and was reflected frequently in Victorian age poetry depicting women yearning for activity, love, and perhaps, empowerment. Poet laureate for almost four decades, Alfred Lord Tennyson depicts one such dreary picture in “Mariana’ which is reminiscent of the longing in Romeo and Juliet and other classics. The constant and haunting refrain that she is dreary as her beloved fails to return is as much a sense of longing as a declaration of incompleteness. Similar is the case of D.G.Rossetti’s Damozel who in an inversion of popular depictions of yearning for a dead beloved, is, a lover waiting for the appearance of her beloved at the pearly gate.
Both these works are perfect examples of a time when the woman question was more asked than answered (that answering period in society as well as literature was to follow the Victorian age). The woman of this age still has the trappings of the romantic period where all consuming love and passion for the beloved was the center piece of their existence. At the same time, the freedom that she was accorded, or she exercised by herself are subtly indicative of a shift, in the social attitude towards woman. Paradoxically, though the age itself is signified the name of one of the most powerful symbols of monarchy ever, Queen Victoria, the images of women of the time are rather docile. Queen herself appears in several of her portraits in decidedly feminine and domestic settings and does not adequately reflect the power she exercised on the world scene. Similarly, the leading liberal feminine figure of the time, Florence Nightingale was almost always depicted in fine arts in pursuit of rather feminine ventures. The fact that the band of nurses under Florence Nightingale equaled or sometimes exceeded the valor of the men of the times in tending to the wounded in gruesome battlefields was almost always well camouflaged.
The other predominant focus of the Victorian age was on physical and mental well being. Victorian intellectuals insisted on a healthy spiritual life but always reflected physical and mental well being as a manifestation of such spiritual health. In “Mariana” the constant refrain of a death wish is indicative of less than robust mental health and an obvious symbol of depression. Was Tennyson chastising “Marian” for basing her well being on her singular love ( of somebody who did not keep his promise) and not trying to create an identity for herself beyond her love life is a question that shall remain unanswered, though it seems a strong possibility, considering the society and times this poem was written in. Similar is the slight (by the standards of the contemporary times) but radical shift in Rossetti’s approach to the Damozel’s wish for uniting with her beloved. Is she not suggesting a hastening of her beloved’s death so that they can be united in heaven. She states
“When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is cloth’d in white,
I ’ll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light;”
Victorian age was an age when a momentum was generated and sustained to change the role of women in the society. Though universal suffrage was not extended to women until 1918, petitions to this effect started as early as 1840. The Married Women’s property Acts (1870-1908) were also steps in similar direction.
It can be argued that the disruption of Victorian image of woman with her preoccupation with marriage, love and a sense of incompleteness without either of these two was the most important aspect of this age. The woman question and the Victorian debate about gender is animated and passionate and was reflected in the works of pets and novels of the time. Though the legacy of the writers of this period does seem to suggest a largely domesticated woman, it is in this time that the revolutionary ideas ( in the context of the times) suggesting several other focal points in life apart from the pre designated role of a woman were proposed subtly in poems and novels. “Mariana” is a picture of despondency in that it describes dreariness in great detail but there are critics who suggest that Tennyson did get more expressive about woman’s desires. The almost phallic tree that breaks the flatness of the landscape and the fact that its shadow falls on Mariana’s bed seems to suggest the unfulfilled sensuality of the distressed protagonist. Similarly Damozel’s representation of a woman who is already an angel waiting for the appearance of her lover in heaven is a reversal of the hero always being loftier than the female protagonist. The daring in being wanton and incomplete in spite of the fact that she is in “rampart of God’s house” is a considerable forward movement in being expressive about a woman’s needs.
To conclude “Mariana” and “ The Blessed Damozel” break new ground in the expression of the woman’s desires though with the least possible noise. Victorian age representation of woman was slightly apologetic towards the forward momentum she was gaining and at the same time professed the inevitability of the stature woman shall gain in the generations to come. It is in this context that the trappings of romantic era are to be condoned both in Tennyson and Rossetti – that they knew the future changes n the role of woman but did not want to offend the sensibilities of the readers of the time and tried to be subtle about the indications of changes just around the corner. This is singularly true of all Victorian writing except for some radical shifts in the writers of later Victorian era