Jane Carlyle
Jane Carlyle; drawing by David Levine

“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.

It is possible that had these particular women been enfranchised they might have preferred running for Congress, and that they could not is sad and unjust. But if they were by nature writers, as they seem to have been, it is difficult to imagine what “public stage” would have improved either their lives or their writing: The Today Show? People magazine? If Kelley means to impugn the restraints of the home, it might have been better to study women in other professions, if there had been enough of them, for most of the complaints voiced by the “literary domestics” pertain less to the condition of women than to that of novel-writers, a pastime by its nature isolated, quasi-domestic, and mined with self-doubts. Moreover it requires its practitioners, in order to have something to write about, to participate in the normative life of everyday, including, alas, its tribulations—things she seems to imagine would have been spared them in a more enlightened age.

One of the twelve did, indeed, write one of the most influential political works of the nineteenth century; the rest either had to or preferred to write about domestic subjects. Kelley is no doubt correct in judging that this is one of the reasons they have not attained critical prominence today, but she does not spend enough time assessing the quality of their writing to help the reader decide whether this neglect is justified (cursory examination of several of their works suggests that it may be, though this judgment may also be an expression of mistaken modern priorities). Certainly there is not an intrinsic lack of value in “domestic” stories.

Kelley says, “Paradoxically, while the literary domestics ranked as best-selling authors in the literary marketplace throughout much of the nineteenth century, they never left the cloistered corridors of their domestic consciousness. Their published prose made them public figures, but their identities remained private and domestic.” She seems not to have considered the connection between best-sellerdom and subject matter that is to its readers vital and interesting, or whether good authentic writing on subjects of domestic interest implies that the authors are likely to be themselves “domestic.”

It is worth considering Kelley’s idea that they did not have access to the hierarchy of literary influence and were denied or eschewed roles as “creators of culture” out of low self-esteem or diffidence, but she confuses “fame” with “influence” and therefore underestimates the influence of best-selling books on their numerous readers. Does she mean that they did not “create culture” because men did not read their books?

The literary domestics wrote about marriages, family problems, moral choices, and career/marriage decisions. In a number of stories, which Kelley shows are apt to be autobiographical in impulse, the heroine is an intelligent and/or literary young woman who inevitably meets with male hostility and derision of her ambitions to write. Like Kati and Cory she experiences some ambivalence about the conflicting roles of wife and writer, but marriage usually wins out, and Kelley finds that this denouement generally has the support of the authors, who appear to feel that their young fictional women should not sacrifice conventional roles as wives and mothers any more than Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre were allowed to do. No doubt the twelve were directed to this conclusion, like other novelists, by a certain lack of imagination, the inability to see in the circumstances that happiness could or should lie anywhere else.

One feels a tension between Kelley and her balky subjects. One of them, Mary Jane Holmes, has her heroine Rosa Lee give up career notions and say, “I began to realize that I was no longer Rosa Lee but Mrs. Richard Delafield.” She says this, Kelley notes, “with no sense of irony but with pride and happiness…. Thus does Rosa—and Holmes—inadvertently mock the earlier expression of a desire for being, by disappearing into the being of another.”

The irony and mockery are the creations, that is, of the sensibility of a modern woman whose implicit denigration of domestic subjects adequately confirms her thesis that these women did not “create culture” well enough—or else they would have left her a legacy of respect for the values they themselves respected. Presumably, for Kelley, culture is created only by books about whales. In fiction written by men there has often been (though there is not obliged to be) a scene of combat in which the hero faces a deadly serpent, a rival chieftain, a crook with a gun. No doubt the meaning of this scene is ultimately metaphysical, to do with human courage in the face of death, with acts of valor and resolve.

In fiction by women too, or in domestic tales by either sex, there are large meanings, perhaps the same meanings underlying stories whose settings and particulars differ in tone or imagery. The regard in which this tone, this imagery, is held is obviously political, connected to the status of women and the location of literary power rather than owing to any intrinsic inferiority. Woman readers understand the images and larger significances because they are early acquainted with them; men can learn them, but they are not often given books to read that are set in a home or categorized as “women’s fiction,” even though such fictions instruct them in an area of consciousness from which they have begun to complain they have been excluded. It is all very odd, but in some ways Kelley, more than her subjects, seems a victim of the cultural forces she feels have prevented those women from writing about whales.

We have a choice of attitude toward the people of the past—piety, pity, indifference, contempt. Pity perhaps becomes us least, is the most self-satisfied, and luckily is the hardest to sustain in the face of the thoughtful, brave, accomplished people who emerge from the undifferentiated abstraction Victorian Woman, whose submissive style and endless drudgery are too easily mocked. Many seem to have been cheerful, talented, aggressive, well occupied. To believe that since the dawn of history the whole female race has, until recently rescued, existed in a swamp of misery and darkness—this is to have a rather low opinion of them, and to find them very backward for not having protested sooner. Kelley and Halttunen both have to struggle to force real people into Victorian picture frames.

It is otherwise with Phyllis Rose, who, one suspects, may have begun with a thesis, but submits to human oddness and in her book on Victorian marriage has found a real playground of it. These are the marriages of the John Ruskins, the Charles Dickenses, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. It begins with a sweep, scenes, dates, but subsides into gossip and anecdote, and in the process reminds us that gossip, with all its allusive and suggestive properties, is a very good vehicle for rendering clearer the opacities.

Like gossip these case histories of troubled and odd marriages generate the impulse to take sides—poor Mrs. Carlyle, poor John Stuart Mill—though Rose is kinder to Harriet Taylor than most scholars (irritated, perhaps, by Mill’s excessive adulation) have been. Poor Mrs. Dickens, mother of ten (not counting miscarriages), whom Charles, not content with merely discarding (for a young actress), had to criticize publicly into the bargain in a statement to his readers, inventing, among other things, “a mental disorder under which [she] labours.”

While some might feel that in matters of marital fault it is not ours to judge, Rose judges, and that is the strength of her book; what we have here is not so much new facts as new responses, as in her remarks about Dickens:

Although he thought he was unique, Charles Dickens, in his unrest and his impulse to blame it on the person with whom he had chosen to spend his life, was probably representative of many. Trying to be good, wanting to be loved, he made himself known in his own time as a model of (as they would have put it) ungentlemanly behavior. For us he provides a fine example of how not to end a marriage.

Without generalizing or patronizing, she hopes that her readers will be “prompted by these stories to question how the presumption of marriage, the fiction of marriage, has affected the shape of their lives.” Hers is an argument for history written as stories, for, as she says,

Easy stories drive out hard ones. Simple paradigms prevail over complicated ones. If, within marriage, power is the ability to impose one’s imaginative vision and make it prevail, then power is more easily obtained if one has a simple and widely accepted paradigm at hand…. In regard to marriage, we need more and more complex plots. I reveal my literary bias in saying I believe we need literature, which, by allowing us to experience more fully, to imagine more fully, enables us to live more freely. In a pragmatic way, we can profit from an immersion in the nineteenth-century novel which took the various stages of marriage as its central subject.

All this seems apposite to history-writing itself.

Two, perhaps three, of the marriages she discusses were sexless, which, she says, she prefers to see as examples of flexibility rather than abnormality (a question debated in English papers recently on behalf of a paraplegic man who had been denied marriage in the Catholic Church because he couldn’t have, said the Church, a Marriage). The sexless Victorian couples were John and Effie Ruskin, the Carlyles, and maybe the Mills. Rose’s discussion serves nicely to illustrate to what extent stories, like histories, depend on the emotions of the historian. Perhaps because she likes the Carlyles, one would not really know from reading their chapter alone that there were any sexual difficulties between them. Her discussion of the revelations by Froude and Mrs. Jewsbury regarding Carlyle’s impotence and Jane’s virginity is tucked away in the Ruskin chapter and Ruskin notes, while the chapters devoted to the Carlyles’ home life and emotional relationship are recounted in the imagery of sexual love, as we all would have preferred had been the case.

That Mill’s marriage to the bookish but beautiful Mrs. Taylor was without sex had never occurred to me, and Rose, encountering this tradition, addresses it with skepticism, finding, indeed, that there is absolutely no evidence one way or another. But her account is fascinating in showing how previous speculation on the topic has followed the predisposition of the viewer, Freud for example feeling that Mill was too prudish and “unearthy” to be human, because of Mill’s view that women were the same as men.

Harriet Taylor might serve Halttunen as an example of a woman motivated by strategy and grand designs, setting up John Stuart Mill to express her opinions. It is this suspicion that she was calculating, and the extravagant praise given her intellect by Mill, that have set posterity against her. Indeed, the tradition of their sexlessness may owe something to superstitions denying sexual attractiveness to brainy women. Or she might serve Kelley as an example of an able woman too diffident to “create culture” without a male mouthpiece. In either case, Rose finds that many late-nineteenth-century critics of Mill routinely hint “more or less snidely at the sexlessness of his life or absence of masculinity in his nature…as a way of attacking the credibility of his theories about women.”

Freud wraps up his strictures against Mill with his own famous conclusion that “the position of woman cannot be other than what it is: to be an adored sweet-heart in youth, and a beloved wife in maturity.” Mrs. Dickens could have told him a thing or two. What would Harriet Taylor or Jane Carlyle have felt? Certainly Phyllis Rose’s is a graceful contribution to the case material on the subject. One wonders finally, though, if it is not Mary Kelley who provides the epigraph for the whole topic when she observes, in the course of an examination of the economic and social status of nineteenth-century women, that “in retrospect, conceptions of gender simultaneously altered and buttressed the status of women. As much as the condition of women changed it remained the same.”

This Issue

April 12, 1984