A feminine focus

The Womanly Virtues of the Victorians - and Us: Some Thoughts on Modesty and Dignity

Sally Davey

I love reading Victorian English novelists - you know, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope… Maybe you studied some of them at school or in English courses at University? A few years ago, when I was re-reading some of their works, I started asking myself what the attraction was. Why did I find myself so drawn to the lives depicted in the pages of this literature, written 150 years ago? I realised it was the system of values by which the characters lived that caused me to start daydreaming about Jane Eyre and her contemporaries. They were attractive because they were living out what is good and right and noble and, yes, self-effacing! These were the values that enabled men and women to deny themselves something they desperately wanted (like marriage to someone they loved if elderly parents needed looking after; or life at home if war or missionary service called) because there was a higher duty they had to put before self. I have to say that I find it enormously refreshing to dip into a world where self and instant gratification are not the determiners of choice in life. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that we start basing our own values on those of a culture in some other time or place - (I always find that kind of “let's get back to our golden heritage” approach to values more than mildly irritating). No, a past society, or any other society, can only act as an illustration of possible ways to live out biblical values. But having said that, I'd like to explore some of the womanly virtues characteristic of early Victorian society that bring our own failings into sharp relief. Let's do that by exploring three biblical passages that enshrine those virtues. (Doing so should help us see why the Victorians had these things sorted out well).

The Biblical Model

The most extended picture of godly womanhood being Proverbs 31, it is appropriate to begin there. Many observe that the woman of this passage is an energetic, creative, and generally strong character. She is in command of her situation, and executes many responsibilities calmly and well. She is busy, wise and kind. She is an admirable person, in every sense of the word. Notice verse 25, which finds this woman reflecting on the sensible provision she has made for the future: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future.” This is a woman, as we have already noticed, who is strong. She is in command of herself and carries out her responsibilities well. She is also dignified. What does this mean? A somewhat old-fashioned word, not terribly PC today, perhaps? Not something you would like to be described as? The trouble is that the word has, in popular parlance these days, become associated with stuffiness or even snobbishess. But strictly speaking, it conveys the idea of honourability, worthiness, and excellence. The godly woman should be clothed, figuratively speaking, with the honour suggested by her character and her actions. There are particular applications we could make today.

Wisdom Is A Key

An important feature of the Proverbs 31 woman is her wisdom. Do we, also, have a mature knowledge of God and His ways that shapes our actions, controls our words, guards our sense of humour, and informs our fashion-sense? Now, this is getting specific! What I mean is the inner understanding of what is lovely, right and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) that means that what we say, do, laugh about and wear will be wise (or God-honouring). This means loving God's values in our hearts so well that they become second nature; and that we want to live them out, exercising spiritual discernment when it comes to specific actions. This means that we won't need explicit, legalistic rules about behaviour - loving the principles of wisdom makes it easier to find the ways to apply them!

Conversely, having dignity means not being foolish, or indulging in foolish behaviour. It always amazes me that women who claim to be Christian could want to do some of the things we see around us today. Think of our dress. Wise choices in the clothing and deportment department result in an impression of dignity; and it is second nature to dignified dressers to avoid worldly excesses, such as garments that draw attention to the more private parts of the anatomy; or hair colour that screams attention to itself. Christian women who love the Lord should know in their hearts that God does not delight in provocative displays of the body - and yet we see plunging necklines, semi-transparent garments, ultra-mini skirts or thigh-high splits (to mention but a few unmentionables) any number of Sundays in worship. How can this be? Wise women who want to be dignified have no desire to push the limits of decency, to flaunt their bodies and engage in all manner of folly in the way the world does. They know what is appropriate to their calling. Likewise older women, knowing what befits the dignity of mature Christian womanhood, have no interest in dressing as if they were 18 again. It is simply inconsistent with wisdom. Beauty of character, which permeates from the inside out, does not draw attention to the body, but results in external beauty because its adornment has been wisely chosen.

The Model Of Other Christians

Perhaps some of us grew up without being taught these things by the example and advice of our mothers? That is where the church, our spiritual family, comes in. Paul has this in mind in his letter to Titus when he urges older women to teach the younger women by their example, as well as by their words, to be “reverent” in every aspect of their behaviour (NASB) or in the way they live (NIV). William Hendriksen (in his commentary on Titus) explains it like this: “In their entire bearing (hence, not only in their dress…) as well as in their deportment, aged women must be reverent, conducting themselves as if they were servants in God's temple, for such, indeed, they are!” Older women should be living examples of grace and godliness in their character, in their actions, in their words and in their appearance to the younger women with whom they live in the church. In short, they are to act as spiritual mothers. Paul has a very specific purpose in mind: if the more mature women do this well, they will foster godliness of heart and life in the younger women; and then the gospel will be held in high regard by those looking on in the world. What insight! It is certainly true, and has been since ancient times, that the behaviour of the young is an indicator of the spiritual life of the church. The world is not blind. Neither is it stupid. It expects those who call themselves Christians to live like Christians. When it sees young men and women behaving like itself, it has nothing but contempt for the church. Paul's focus on what the older women are to teach is on self-control and purity - two fruits of a spiritual heart; interestingly, two of the characteristics of Victorian Englishwomen so striking in their general absence today. Certainly, giving in to the drive to have what I want, and now, is the direct opposite of self-control. Instant gratification of sensual desires, and free rein given to unruly passions, are what Paul wants us women to avoid at all costs. The goal is purity of character, which of course is reflected in every choice we make in speech and action.

The Spirit Within

Peter makes very similar points in his first letter (Chapt. 3) His words to women here are one of his applications of the general principle that Christians are to live as a “people belonging to God”, as “aliens and strangers in the world.” Peter urges wives to live pure and reverent lives. Beauty, he stresses, should be seen as a spiritual quality of character - something that comes outward from the heart - not something physical that can be affixed to the outside by way of decoration. Peter's words in v.4 are almost poetic (and worth memorising): “[your beauty] should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.” This is the kind of beauty that can “win over” unbelieving husbands without a word; the kind of beauty that attracted Mr Rochester to plain Jane Eyre; the allure of the gentle and quiet spirit portrayed by Charlotte Yonge in so many of her female characters. In a word, gentleness, quietness, self-control and reverence may be subtitled modesty, the second of the two defining words of the Victorian English ideal of womanhood. Such women were not weak and passive: instead, they showed remarkable strength of character; extraordinary steadfastness in the face of overwhelming suffering. Their courage did not go unnoticed. Across the Atlantic, women in old Southern society (contemporaries of the Victorians) were trained to live by the same values. During the bitter struggle of the Civil War in the 1860s, these women showed remarkable feminine courage and self-sacrifice. The men of South Carolina later memorialised their contribution in a monument we found (on a recent trip to the South) behind the State House in Columbia. Here is what they wrote on it:

In this monument generations unborn shall hear the voice of a grateful people testifying to the sublime devotion of the women of South Carolina in their country's need. Their unconquerable spirit strengthened the thin lines of gray. Their tender care was solace to the stricken. Reverence for God and unfaltering faith in a righteous cause inspired heroism that survived the immolation of sons and courage, that bore the agony of suspense and shock of disaster. The tragedy of the Confederacy may be forgotten, but the fruits of the noble service of the daughters of the South are our perpetual heritage.

Think about it: what will our men remember us for?

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