[Thackeray created the decorated capital “B” for Vanity Fair.]

Illuminated initial D y “Victorian morality” I mean that which places great emphasis upon chastity, sexual purity, and the inviolability of marriage. Such moral emphases at first might seem odd to link to Francis Power Cobbe, who devoted many of her eighty years to defending rights of women violated by the marriage laws. Cobbe argued long and fiercely that women needed to be protected from bad, abusive marriages by controlling their own property, by having the legal status to petition for protection from their husbands, and, above all, by having the power to participate say in the political process both by voting and running for office. She is, after all, the person who wrote that “it is in the nature of things disgraceful and abominable that marriage should be the aim of a woman's life” (47).

Nonetheless, as Sally Mitchell points out in her biography of Cobbe, she refused to have anything to do with women like George Eliot who openly had extra-marital sexual relationships. When the novelist “was then in Florence staying with Thomas and Theodosia Trollope, Cobbe did not accept an invitation to meet her because, she explained in a private letter many years later, she had ‘a very strong old fashioned prejudice in favour of lawful matrimony & against such unions as hers. . . . What infinite pity it was that her real genius allied itself in such base fashion!’” (111). Cobbe herself may have wanted no part of marriage and devoted many years to pointing out how it harmed women, but she abruptly refused the request of Anna Kingsford, the pioneering female physician, to nominate her for the first women's club, because she was a “married woman who lived, not with her busband and child, but ‘under the same roof’ as her unmarried male friend” (285). What some thought her “old-fashioned moralizing” when she attacked “looser and more ‘Bohemian’ manners” (270) alienated some of the younger women feminists.


Mitchell, Sally Francis Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Last modified 7 July 2014