Saints or sinners: the representation of women in Victorian art and fiction

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Detail from 'Past and Present Number One' (1858) by Augustus Egg
Detail from 'Past and Present Number One' (1858) by Augustus Egg

The conventional view of women cherished by many Victorians saw them as angels in the house, presiding over hearth and family. ‘Fallen women’ – and these could be girls driven to prostitution through poverty, innocents seduced by a false promise of marriage or kept mistresses – might inspire the philanthropy of Baroness Burdett-Coutts and Dickens, but respectable middle-class families ignored their existence.

However, the image of the ideal never corresponded to the reality even in apparently stable families, as more and more respectable middle-class females looked for fulfilment beyond marriage and motherhood, for education, for work that paid. This course investigates the ways in which fiction and art reflected these concerns, and considers how the idealized images of Victorian women contrast with more realistic and challenging depictions.

Weekly sessions

  • 20 February: Introduction: woman as scapegoat in Victorian middle-class ideology (Ulrike Horstmann-Guthrie)
  • 27 February: Eliot's Middlemarch: can a woman find fulfilment? (Ulrike Horstmann-Guthrie)
  • 5 March: Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles: "a pure woman"? (Ulrike Horstmann-Guthrie)
  • 12 March: Madonnas and monsters: the idea of a woman in Victorian art (Dr Ann Kennedy Smith)
  • 19 March: Women at work: representing the reality of being a woman in Victorian times (Dr Ann Kennedy Smith)

Online support

This course will be supported by our e-learning centre, ICE Online. You will be able to download course material, contact your tutor and talk to fellow students via the web at a time and place that’s convenient to you.

Visit the ICE Online introductory website to find out more.


pdf Application form

pdf Syllabus and reading resource list


Unless otherwise stated, teaching and assessment for ICE courses are in English. Students whose first language is not English should refer to the Competence in the English Language Policy for further guidance.

Printable versions of our brochures are available to download from the Institute Publications page.

Pre-enrolment information

Information about studying with ICE

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Madingley Hall
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

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01223 746262

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Course details

Start date

20 February 2012 (14:00)

End date

19 March 2012 (16:00)

Course code



5 weeks


Institute of Continuing Education
University of Cambridge
Madingley Hall, Madingley
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

Teaching sessions

Meetings: 5

Qualifications / Credits


Course director