“This Little Action”: The Feminine Manner of Touching in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters“


  • Molly Livingstone (Georgia State University, Atlanta)




A close look at scenes of physical intimacy between women in nineteenth-century novels reveals much about larger Victorian concerns with affection and sensibility, femininity, and identity. Given that nineteenth-century English society propagated the belief that a woman’s nature suited her best for wife- and motherhood, and that certain “feminine†traits of affection and simplicity of heart were considered essential in the domestic woman, it was necessary that women who desired to marry show themselves to possess these characteristics. Using Judith Butler’s performativity theory, which states that ‘gender is the repeated stylization of the body,’ I contend here that one powerful vehicle for presenting a woman’s femininity, and therefore desirability as a wife, was the deployment of female touch. More specifically, I argue that certain kinds of touch between close friends – specifically spontaneous, sincere and affectionate touch – signified for the Victorians a distinctly feminine identity, indicating the aptitude for sensuality and a loving, “womanly†heart. Conversely, touch between women that did not meet such standards could be read as suspicious or problematic. An examination of the female characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters“ clearly exemplifies the ability of touch to function in these ways.