Decorative Initial As Victorian society became increasingly capitalistic, the question of where and how British women were to fit became prevalent. Apparently, a large portion of them could be found in the work place. In fact, that more and more women began to hold jobs was so hot a topic that the December 1860 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine devoted an entire article to a social science report on working women more because they felt it was “to become a popular society subject, than for any other reason" (87 [December 1860]: 714). The impact of women in the workplace went beyond social gatherings. Statistically, in 1851, half of the 6 million adult women in England “laboured for their subsistence" while 2 million of these women “laboured thus and were also unmarried" (The Quarterly Review, 108 [July & October 1860: 345). The issues that surrounded the participation of women in labor included what would happen to the marital status of these women (and to their husbands), what aspects of British society at the time created the need for women to work and the ability for them to do so at such high numbers, and once these women were working, what jobs were considered appropriate and suitable for them.

The article from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine articulates that the movement of more women into the job market posed a situation in which “the strangest frightful picture of domestic anarchy gleams upon us" (710-715). This article also considers the population of working women at the time to come from an existing “surplus" of them, which was in turn due to the fact that their “natural mates are in all ends of the earth seeking their fortune" (713). What this “surplus" of women should do is the next question, as the article, considers the teaching profession overcrowded. The proclaimed solution is that, because the schooling system apparently lacks adequate instruction in domestic skills, and women are inclined to such abilities, “an admirable plan would be that which could wile the disengaged women of a locality into conjunction, common dwelling, common work, and set them to their natural office of training those whom nobody trains" (714). In other words, one envisioned occupation for women brings them together into commune-like circumstances with other women and encourages them to teach domestic skills. This situation kills two birds with one stone, as it shelters women from true capitalistic society and provides them with an appropriate occupation, one which supposedly comes naturally to them.

Another view on the appropriate situations is found in The Quarterly Review article. Though it focuses on Deaconesses in this period, this article also addresses working women in general. As far as the place that women should be allowed in the workforce, the author articulates that “It would surely be a great mistake to limit the Divine law of woman's mission on earth to the mere relation of marriage...motherly and sisterly care are often most needed when they can not be had within the sphere of domestic life" (The Quarterly Review, p. 347). Women, therefore, should be allowed to work outside of the home as long as they remain in the role of caretaker for neglected children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. Industrial work is not considered appropriate for women because it is “not suited to the talents and dispositions of women and...would interfere with work assigned to their more athletic brothers" (The Quarterly Review, p.346). Despite the fact that there exist definite limits on what work was considered suitable for women, there is, apparently, general acceptance that they will work.

One of the women who work outside of the home in Great Expectations is Pip's life-long friend and first teacher, Biddy. Biddy's first job entails running her grandmother's store essentially by herself. Because her grandmother also ran the first school that Pip attended, Biddy is also a key player in Pip's learning to read and write. Later in the novel, Biddy is called to work for the Gargery's, after the incident in which Pip's sister is assaulted and rendered incapacitated. In this situation, Biddy becomes responsible not only for running the household, but also for nursing Mrs. Joe. Pip acknowledges her skills at this job, as well as her obvious intelligence and scholarly abilities:

“Biddy," said I, “how do you manage it? Either I am very stupid, or you are very clever ."
“What is it that I manage? I don't know," returned Biddy, smiling.
She managed her wholedomestic life, and wonderfully too; but I did not mean that , though that made what I did mean more surprising.
"How do you manage, Biddy," said I, “to learn everything that I learn, and always keep up with me?"...
“I suppose I must catch it-like a cough," said Biddy, quietly, and went on with her sewing" (Great Expectations, p. 118).

Not only does Dickens portray Biddy as an able domestic caretaker, but she is also quite intelligent and at least as smart as Pip. When Mrs. Joe dies and Biddy must consider a new means of income, it is therefore not surprising that she is confident she will make a successful school mistress.

Biddy does in fact become the mistress of a nearby school, and by the end of the novel she becomes a wife as well. When Pip first sees her school house, it is shut up because it is Biddy's and Joe's wedding day. Dickens never recounts whether Biddy remains the mistress of the school, or whether she stops working once she is married. Perhaps the shut up school house on the wedding day symbolizes the end of Biddy's career there. Yet at no point in the novel does Dickens disapprove of Biddy's lifestyle, she is always a guiding force in Pip's life. Perhaps the ambiguity about what becomes of Biddy as a working woman is a manifestation of the contemporary debate surrounding such women.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 1996