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Darn that Darning

The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America

by Harvey Green
Pantheon, 205 pp., $18.95

Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America

by Mary Kelley
Oxford University Press, 409 pp., $24.95

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages

by Phyllis Rose
Knopf, 318 pp., $16.95

In the vast literature on personal conduct published in America after 1830, middle-class concerns about the problem of hypocrisy assumed the form of an extended attack on two archetypal hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman.” Thus Karen Halttunen in Confidence Men and Painted Women. Her apocalyptic view encourages skepticism: “these archetypal hypocrites threatened ultimately, by undermining social confidence among men and women, to reduce the American republic to social chaos,” and “the life of fashion, in destroying personal sincerity, threatened to reduce middle-class ‘society,’ and by implication American society, to complete chaos.”

There follows a discussion of some familiar enough American types—the Yankee peddler, the confidence man, the shell-game operator, the city slicker, the gambler—and of how Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century combatted these villains with ideals of sincerity and naturalness. Halttunen further argues that these ideals changed, and that we became by the end of the century able to accept and even able to employ hypocrisy, or at least strategy, as advised by Horatio Alger or, in our century, Dale Carnegie, and symbolized by bustles or “bosom friends,” and the wearing of makeup. I have simplified drastically a discussion that has much incidental interest (fashions, funeral customs, parlor theatricals), but this is to do no more than the author does in oversimplifying culture and historical change.

No doubt historians of culture must be ruthless in their anatomizing, but such amorphous qualities as sincerity and hypocrisy, dissected and laid upon the table, seem strands too feeble to bring down society. We might in this connection think of other generalizations about Victorian culture: that the fathers were typically authoritarian, or that Victorian women did not enjoy sex, statements that, while they express a sense we get of these vanished forerunners, render them also more opaque, acting as a kind of shield against which our attempts at understanding are repelled.

How to break through to the elusive reality? Harvey Green, in The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, gets at women’s daily routines and attitudes through conduct manuals, catalogs, and surviving domestic articles, of which he is a museum curator. Some are as alien as medieval chastity belts; we are precipitated into both empathy and revulsion by photos of such baroquely peculiar objects as a bean slicer, an apple parer. Still, there are only so many ways to slice a bean. We can rather easily gain imaginative access to the Victorian kitchen.

The Victorian bedroom and the Victorian heart remain dim, screened from us by reticence or unfathomable conventions of speech. Despite our view of them as repressed and exploited, we know that nineteenth-century women had contraceptive practices, orgasms, used nursing bottles and abortifacients; one of Green’s sources writes that in Michigan at one period, one-third of pregnancies were terminated by abortion, though abortion then as now was inveighed against by “purity” factions, who, because their literature is today more accessible than any records of something so private as abortion, can seem to have been expressing the majority view.

But at times a remark, offhand, signals to us with peculiar resonance the existence of a body of implicit assumptions that remain unspoken: “Let her read in peace,” suggests a manual on raising daughters. “It will do her more good than anything else, and lay the foundation of an intelligent mind.” Or, in the course of a diatribe against contraception: “All attempts to secure the pleasure of a physical relation and escape its legitimate results are a menace to the health and a degradation to the moral nature.” The desirability of intelligence, the pleasure of sexuality, are taken for granted, though some cranky material from the period may denounce “voluptuous spasms,” or push goodness over brains, and these odd views have arrested attention.

Both Halttunen and Green rely on conduct manuals, but set aside the interesting question of the extent to which, and how, prescriptive sources differ from real life, presenting instead idealized or dramatized versions that no one completely believes, or else understands in an allegorical way. What will a reader of the future infer about modern ideals of behavior from reading the influential Germaine Greer in a recent London Sunday Times (January 22, 1984)?

We talk of sex education in schools, as if there was but one series of tenets to teach, including the spurious notion of “normal” or “complete” intercourse. We would be better advised to teach our children the history of British sexuality through some of the best love poetry in history.

Also in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago, two pieces by women: Cory James writes that this is the year she’s going to finish the novel she’s been writing for seven years. She’s going to take herself seriously and say “no” to distractions,

admitting that the time has gone when I was the only person in the house who could cook meals and iron shirts, admitting that I’m not indispensable, which may cause me a pang…. This will kill another excuse for the noncompletion of the novel.

On the next page Kati Marton writes a similar piece about writing, housework, and guilt:

It is the number of compartments in my life and their apparent lack of substance which sometimes leave me feeling unrewarded at day’s end. I am sure that Charlotte Brontë did not bother with the size of her earrings nor worry about shirts stuffed guiltily under a bed. Why then do I?

Because, of course, she was conditioned to, like Charlotte Brontë, who would certainly have worried, and like the twelve women studied in Mary Kelley’s Private Woman: Public Stage, and like any contemporary woman writer. Americans may notice, though, that these primitive complaints have been eliminated, if not from our lives, from our discourse, it having been officially settled that one ought to take one’s novel seriously and say to hell with housework or share it. This gap between unspoken and spoken complaints, and the gap between English and American “consciousness” also reminds that while history marches on, sensibility seems minutely responsive to local variations, and it is hard to force into the role of being representative disparate lives that may reflect the received notions of their day but also display considerable deviation from them. We are reminded, too, that some things seem not to change, or not to have changed, or never will change.

Kelley looks at twelve women writers, “private domestic women” (she has an unfortunate way with words, private women suggesting “public women”; and the least happy is her appellation “literary domestics,” which suggests maids who write book reviews)—anyway, women who became successful writers and found “their female selves unexpectedly transformed into public figures, economic providers, and creators of culture.” The idea is that these women exemplified career/marriage conflicts typical of their day and afford some insight into the lives of all nineteenth-century women. Though the discussion is marred by some odd assumptions both about writers and about domesticity, she implies that had they been “liberated” they might have had different careers or less personal conflict. More convincing is her contention that their work has been dismissed because of their domestic subject matter.

The writers are: Maria Cummins, Caroline Howard Gilman, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mary Jane Holmes, Maria McIntosh, Sara Parton, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Virginia Terhune, Susan Warner, and Augusta Evans Wilson, most of them unknown today, and in fact rather hard to keep straight in Kelley’s text. A few generalizations emerge which will barely surprise: these women were “culturally advantaged,” had “an education generally superior to that of their peers, male or female,” sought and found a role model in an intelligent or accomplished woman in their own backgrounds, and also had distinguished male forebears.

Though fewer of them married than was true in the general population, those who did married college-educated professional men. Like other women of their day they participated in the debate over the nature of female intelligence and woman’s place, and (like writers generally) they felt themselves to be gifted or chosen to the vocation of writer. Like other people of their social class they felt social responsibility, and all were concerned with the issue of female equality, though their views differed. In short they were like Cory or Kati or any other twelve woman writers today, allowing for the differences that antibiotics and contraception would have made in their lives.

Research into women’s history has largely been directed to assessing when and whether they were better or worse off. The view has been that the status of women will always be low where the public and domestic spheres are divided and women isolated from one another in the home, and that they gain authority and autonomy by taking on men’s roles and establishing female hierarchies and networks. Until recently it has also been orthodox to believe that they were better off in the eighteenth century than in the nineteenth century, when the status of women was reduced by their withdrawal from productive labor. Some revisionists, including Kelley, have argued that women were worse off in the eighteenth century than had been thought, and did in fact make progress in the nineteenth. But clearly much depends on what you view as progress; Kelley, for instance, believes broom-making at home is economic progress and that access to the public sphere and freedom from housework are the highest goods.

She therefore deplores that her twelve were obliged to occupy their time with household duties, of which she seems to have a particular horror, drawing our attention, for example, to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description of her grandmother as an intellectual: “My image of her in later years is of one always seated at a great table covered with books, among which nestled her workbasket.” Doubtless Stowe meant to depict a well-rounded, contented woman, but Kelley insists on the cruel significance of the workbasket: “Needless to say, the workbasket beneath the books contained the grandmother’s sewing and knitting materials.” No one would dispute that a woman with seven children, as Stowe had, has more to occupy and distress her than is consistent with the ideal life of the mind; but darning?—darning is restful, and more conducive to literary reflection, one would think, than, say, marlin fishing, or boxing.

Kelley’s finding that these women had intellectual, literary foremothers supports the current idea of the value of role models—though it somewhat subverts her paradigm of woman’s gradual emergence into the light by suggesting that there had been some light all along. The “literary domestics, then, offered tributes to the intelligence of their female forerunners that inadvertently spoke to a life of the mind absorbed by or forcibly attached like an appendage to the female life of the home,” and “whatever the trials, the most basic, underlying all the rest, was the fact that woman, unlike man, was generally restricted, in mind and body, to the home.” But it just will not do to impose a modern aversion to home upon a culture for whom (as Green shows) home was a valued and interesting place for men and women both.

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