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Epilogue: The Youngest Romantics

Sebastian, or Virtue Rewarded
Sebastian, or Virtue

NYPL, Berg Collection

Queen Victoria's pencil drawing
Queen Victoria's
pencil drawing of
hand, ca. 1830
NYPL, Pforzheimer

Her Highness the Princess
Her Highness the
Princess Victoria

NYPL, Print Collection

[Mary Wollstonecraft]
[Mary Wollstonecraft]
NYPL, Pforzheimer

The women of this last section came of age at the end of the Romantic era; their lives offer a glance at the transition to the Victorian period. Where poetry had been the most esteemed and popular form among readers of a generation before, the novel was now the most-read genre. The publishing business boomed as new methods of making paper resulted in cheaper books and magazines. Indeed, all of Britain—except for Ireland—was booming, in its industry, its population, its overseas empire. And in the magazines, the topics of debate reflected this boom: child labor, factory conditions, "scientific" racism, prostitution, conditions in the colonies. It was a larger world altogether, with starker differences between people.

Expectations of women’s sexuality had changed, too: convention had forced Mary Wollstonecraft to pretend that Gilbert Imlay was her husband, but George Eliot lived openly with her life partner, George Henry Lewes. In Wollstonecraft’s London, women were assumed to be the same lustful creatures as men, and even respectable newspapers printed gossip. In the larger, smokier, more secretive London of the mid-nineteenth century, it was easier for women to live independently, lost in the crowd. Within their families, however, social demands were more stringent, and middle-class women were assumed to be "pure"—that is, passionless. Women of the period before Victoria, their longings unsuppressed, seem more familiar to us. And while the past is not a mirror for the present, the strivings of these women—like Princess Victoria’s beautifully drawn outstretched hand, on view here—reflect the still unrealized plans that are their legacy.

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