Skip to main content
Harvard University Press - home
Woman and the Demon

Woman and the Demon

The Life of a Victorian Myth

Nina Auerbach

ISBN 9780674954076

Publication date: 01/15/1984

Here is a bold new vision of Victorian culture: a study of myths of womanhood that shatters the usual generalizations about the squeezed, crushed, and ego-less Victorian woman.

Through copious examples drawn from literature, art, and biography, Nina Auerbach reconstructs three central paradigms: the angel/demon, the old maid, and the fallen woman. She shows how these animate a pervasive Victorian vision of a mobile female outcast with divine and demonic powers. Fear of such disruptive, self-creating figures, Auerbach argues, produces the approved ideal of the dutiful, family-bound woman. The awe they inspire associates them with characters in literature, the only vehicles of immortality in whom most Victorians could unreservedly believe.

Auerbach looks at a wonderful variety of sources: Svengali, Dracula, and Freud; poets and major and minor novelists Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Ruskin; lives of women, great and unknown; Anglican sisterhoods and Magdalen homes; bardolatry and the theater; Pre-Raphaelite paintings and contemporary cartoons and book illustrations. Reinterpreting a medley of fantasies, she demonstrates that female powers inspired a vivid myth central to the spirit of the age.


  • A daring and important book of cultural criticism… Woman and the Demon is beautifully written and even moving. Undertaking no less than a subversive rereading of Victorian culture, Nina Auerbach attempts to make available to the 20th century certain aspects of that culture which we have learned to dismiss with contempt at great cost to ourselves… Briefly her thesis is this: Where feminist criticism has consistently exposed the repressive implications of the Victorian myth of woman as ‘angel in the house,’ that myth actually disguises another dominant but unformulated myth—the myth of woman as demonic, polymorphous, vital, dangerous and transcendent… She extends her study as comfortably to Dickens as to Brontë, to Robert Browning as to Christina Rossetti, to Thomas Carlyle as to Florence Nightingale; and she reads these writers on the terms traditionally offered. Yet she changes them for us irrevocably… [Her] argument is outrageous, provocative and convincing.

    —George Levine, New York Times Book Review


  • Nina Auerbach was the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • Harvard University Press