Recently I came across two curious 1840s lithographs from the Library of Congress online image collection. Titled “Stages of Woman’s life from the cradle to the grave”, both lithographs portray the ideal trajectory of a woman’s life according to the prevailing European and North American social norms. The principal feminine virtues depicted are chastity, religion, philanthropy, wifely devotion and maternal love.
The first lithograph sets out a romanticised version of a woman’s life in which every stage has its own beauty and dignity. I have written out the accompanying text; poetry of dubious quality, which is otherwise rather hard to see at the bottom of the image.
A wailing infant, first she plays,
Unconscious of her future days.
Her girlish pastimes reveal for show
The cares which woman’s life must know.
Her ripened beauty all confess
And wonder at her loveliness.
A husband’s arms, in hope and pride,
Enclasp her now, a lovely bride.
A mother’s anxious love and care
With toilful heart is hers to share.
Now to the poor her hands dispense
The blessings of benevolence.
Absorbed in household duties now,
The weight of toil contracts her brow.
She now resigns all earthbound care
And lifts her soul to heaven in prayer.
At eighty years, her well-stored mind
Imparts its blessings to her kind.
The hoary head, us all should bless,
Who abound in ways of righteousness.
The body sinks and wastes away,
The spirit cannot know dismay.
The second lithograph is of a very similar design and espouses the same sentiments about childhood, marriage and motherhood, but, interestingly, it’s noticeably more pessimistic about the fate of older women.
In swaddling clothes behold the bud,
Of sweet and gentle womanhood.
Next she foreshews with mimic plays,
The business of her future days.
Now glorious as a full-blown flower;
The heart of manhood feels her power.
A husband now her arms entwine,
She clings around him like the vine.
Now bearing fruit she rears her boys
And tastes a mother’s pain and joys.
Like sparkling fountain gushing forth,
She proves a blessing to the earth.
A busy housewife full of cares,
The daily food her hand prepares.
As age creeps on she seeks for grace,
Always to church and in her place.
Now second childhood loosens all her tongue,
She talks of love and prattles with the young.
A useless cumberer on the Earth,
From house to house they send her forth.
Chained to her chair by weight of years,
She listless knits till death appears.
It’s unsettling to see life mapped out in this apparently simple way. The lithographs seem to say: this is exactly how a woman’s life should proceed, and any deviation is a sign of abnormality. Of course, we know that huge numbers of women did not fit into this neat pattern, whether by choice or necessity. Many never married, and some of those who did remained childless. By no means was every middle-aged Victorian woman busily engaged in philanthropic activity, as is suggested; the lithograph only portrays well-off middle class ladies.
The myth that all old women were exceedingly pious is also undermined by the unrepentant old ladies we know from diaries and literature, who blasphemed and drank gin until their dying day. That’s not to mention all those who never reached a particular life stage because of the dire mortality statistics for women during the Industrial Revolution.