I am sure my fancy raised up something round that blue-eyed mite of a child, which etherealized, and made a very angel of her.

Category: Gender | Type: Discussion | Title: David Copperfield (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: I Have a Change

David's idealization of women (the "Madonna" or Angel side of the Madonna-Whore equation) will govern large parts of David's life, as it did Dickens's own life and his novels. The causes for Dickens's idealization of women are to be found in both his own life and in his culture (Search Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House, 1854, 1862; see too the Introduction). The modern reader may find some of the women saccharine to the point of unreality. We come to resist what we are intended to adore. Thackeray's fiction succumbs for the same reasons to a similar exaltation of certain women as siritualized perfection. But it is clear that in Dickens and Thackeray their personal experience as boys and men is far the greater force than the culture is, for Charlotte and Emily Brontë do not succumb to such idealizations, nor do George Eliot, Trollope, and George Meredith. As the century proceeds the view of women becomes more realistic and in some cases astringent, as in Meredith and George Gissing. 

Impelling the more realistic view is a change in the legal status of women with the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 (Search). Prior to its passage, a wife lacked the legal right to own property (money, land, jewels) and to what she made by her work, as, say, Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Gaskell did as writers. Any property in her name before marriage became her husband's and any gift or inheritance in the course of marriage became his. (This situation bears directly on two of the women in David Copperfield.)  

These constraints affected middle-class women in particular, since the working classes had little property and in any case did not always marry and the aristocracy and gentry, who often had large amounts of property and money, depended when possible upon a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed the wife to retain a portion or to guarantee that most if not all of the dowry she took to the marriage would go to the couple's children. Otherwise the only legal way a woman could recover her property that had become her husband's was through his death, and that presumed that he did not will it to others. Were there to be a divorce, all property remained with the husband, another inequity so blatant that it assisted in the passage of the Married Women's Property Act. 

The situation did not apply to single women, some of whom chose independence over being legally extinguished in a marriage (Jane Austen's Emma says she will not marry). The 1870 Act specified that a woman's wages and property acquired during marriage would be her legal property; the 1882 Act included all property acquired by any means and at any time. The 1870 Act made it possible for a woman in a wretched marriage who had some property to move out (divorce was still expensive and difficult) and support herself and any children. George Gissing's 1893 novel The Odd Women comments on the further liberation of women through the invention of the typewriter, which allowed middle-class urban women to work at a job other than teaching or governessing and to have the prospect of living independently. 

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