History 298: The Role of Women and Domesticity in Victorian England

Sarah Stickney Ellis’ Characteristics of a Proper Englishwoman: Thesis

The following statement is my thesis for my HIST 298 research project regarding conduct literature author Sarah Stickney Ellis’ prescribed characteristics of a proper Englishwoman.


“Sarah Stickney Ellis defines a proper Englishwoman as one who keeps the peace within the homebound sphere, is a hard worker with attention to detail, and who is well-read and educated in household skills in order to serve as a role model for the future of Britain.”


In understanding The Women of England Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits, it is important to keep in mind a few characteristics of Victorian Britain. (1837-1901) First, the era existed in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, which led to the formation and growth of the middle class. With this new class, Britain saw a rise in literacy rates across its citizens, leading to an increased demand for published literature. This demand for literature coincided with a conservative romanticism, as a longing for the so-called “age of chivalry” of the Middle Ages was present in myriad Victorian works. As publishing companies grew, the genre of conduct literature, a form of women’s behavioral literature, rose flooding the market with books, pamphlets, and magazines all intended to promote Victorian women’s ideals. Many women, including Sarah Stickney Ellis, embraced these ideas, going as far as to publish their own works for the benefit of Englishwomen and England as a whole.

Using her work, The Women of England as a primary source, Ellis outlines the following factors as being key characteristics of a proper Victorian Englishwoman.

Attention to Detail: 

Ellis’ notable quotation “trifles make the sum of human things”  (Ellis, 1) rings true throughout The Women of England. Ellis consistently cites the notion of separate spheres, a prominent Victorian ideology that states that woman are best suited for the private, homebound sphere, whereas men are suited for the public, employable sphere. In line with her notions on a woman’s education, Ellis argues that a good Englishwoman should possess strong attention to detail and moral character, characteristics which would encourage her to inquire and embark upon self-reflection. Ellis argues that a “successful woman” inquires upon how to best fulfill their domestic duties (Ellis, 176) 

The image of an inquisitive, hardworking, homebound wife was omnipresent throughout the Victorian popular culture, including in paintings, books, pamphlets, and women’s magazines. In works of fiction, the stereotypical portrayal of a homebound woman and her publicly-oriented husband proved to be quite popular, in part because a novel portraying two working adults was simply too boring to read. (Langland, 2-3) Furthermore, the notion of a hardworking female was in line with the Protestant notions that were so important to Victorians as a whole. Ellis, being a Quaker-turned-Congregationalist, was quite familiar with the Protestant ideology that encouraged work as a means towards salvation. (Langland, 2) 

Keeper of Peace in the Homebound Sphere

Ellis expresses her concern over the apparent lack of kindness in the youth of England, citing that she worries about the “moral worth” of young women. (Ellis, 67) In order to key the peace within the home, it is important that the woman does not seek employment outside of the home, which would upset the essential balance of the family. Further, Ellis argues that a woman’s kindness is key in keeping homebound peace, as her family can rely on such kindness to motivate and console them in times of need. Such kindness extends beyond the family bloodline and towards that of the household help, as Ellis argues that a woman should “be kind to [her] servants, [as] they are people, not machines. (Ellis, 179) 

In the quintessential work on gender norms and roles in Victorian England, Leonore and Hall’s Family Fortunes notes that the Victorian family was dependent on the woman in the private sphere, as, without her, the Victorian family would crumble. This notion is in line with the greater mid-nineteenth-century notion that one’s privileges and duties differed by gender, (Leonore & Hall, 30) and that whenever possible, a woman should remain at home. This notion is also seen in George Elgar Hick’s triptych “Woman’s Mission,” in which the Victorian woman is portrayed as a tireless and selfless wife and mother. 

Well-Read Role Model

Ellis argues that all women should be well-read and well-educated, as education is a key factor in creating role models for the children of England. Ellis argues that a girl’s schooling should be based both on the principles of Christianity, as well as the intricacies of housework and morality. Claiming that the value of school is for “the improvement of self,” (Ellis, 65) Ellis argues that women are valued for their morality and household worth, not their sheer intelligence. Drawing on anecdotes from her personal life, Ellis tells the tale of two girls she remembers from her school days, contrasting a smart, but crass girl with an unintelligent but caring girl, arguing that the girl who “never turns an ear from a friend in need” is of the most value to English society.

Ellis’ prescriptions for the education of women are in line with that of other popular works of conduct literature from the day, most of which was published to promote appropriate Victorian values in the form of pleasant and digestible women’s literature. In addition to conduct literature, the emphasis placed on women as caring role models is to be seen in works of fiction as well, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which it is argued that a woman is known not for her grand accomplishments, but rather, her attention to detail and kind heart.

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