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 …

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Letters

Literary Domestics’ October 11, 1984