Friday, April 19, 2013

The Victorian Home – The Place of Peace

by Maggi Andersen

When the father returns home…it ought to be a scene of order, harmony and comfort,” wrote Sarah Stickney Ellis, a prolific commentator on the home and the family in The Mothers of England.
In Dickens' novels too, there is the quintessence of home, suggested by a young woman, cheerful and busy, managing an orderly household with housekeeping keys dangling from her waist, and a work basket awaiting any leisure moments.

Home was a place of comfort and refuge, but also of activity and responsibility.

The Victorian home was maintained by women and controlled by men, ideally a place from which friction can be abolished, where standards of behavior and taste can be preserved, into which vulgarity and ugliness should not intrude.

The Victorians saw women as decorative and useful, and marriage for a woman meant the acquisition of an ‘establishment’, her own place, financed by her husband. Unless he was excessively tyrannical, like Mr. Murdstone in Dickens' David Copperfield, published in 1850, it was a place where she had at least some freedom of choice and activity, which she might not have had in the parental home. But women were denied activity beyond their protectively closed front doors.

Victorian men often did not marry until they were 30 or so, and so marriage offered an alternative to celibacy, where someone else was responsible for the provision of food and comforts. Home also offered a decorative symbol of achievement and, perhaps most important, a solidity and a status which society approved, indeed deemed almost a necessity for the pursuit of a conventionally acceptable career, or occupation, or simply existence.

Marriage without a home was not so acceptable. Marriage in rented rooms, or digs lacked comfort and status.

Dickens did not much like what he saw of the effects of cash and industry and commercial success. In his last novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865) the dreadful Lammles, consumed by ambitions for wealth and social acceptance, live in rooms while keeping up a pretense that they are awaiting the ‘doing up’ of their own house. ‘Their own house’ does not exist, but it improves their status greatly if people think it does. Ownership did not matter so much, as rented houses were the rule rather than the exception throughout the Victorian period, but control did. Landladies were not likely to be accessories to social success.

It was John Ruskin’s view, as he says in Sesame and Lilies, he considers it the woman’s function to preside over this refuge. “This is the true nature of home – it is the place of peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.”

Countless pieces of Victorian writing, fiction and non-fiction, echo Ruskin’s attitude. Home was a refuge and women made it such.

But increasingly, in the 1800s those who were not ‘working class’ had to earn a living. The leisure classes were getting proportionately smaller. The expanding middle class was the result of making money, and money-making, that devastating achievement of the Industrial Revolution, meant work.

If making money had previously been the results of commerce and trade – it was merchants, above all, who bought their way into government power and up the social ladder. Then as the Victorian era progressed, it was manufacturers, industrialists, railway tycoons, and the bankers who were following those paths. 

Commerce had always been frowned on by the gentility –Jane Austen’s novels expressed this. But if trade was unacceptable to the English upper classes, and even more so to the genteel middle class, how much less acceptable was industry – until the wealth and power that industry could bring became undeniably obvious.

Although leisure was approved of and encouraged and hard work morally improving, selling one’s labor was not. Victorians had difficulty coming to terms with what they considered in some way adulterated life and involved one in a world that was dirty, impure, and unfit for what was best in humanity. 

It was not only the contamination of money, the buying and selling of things and the buying and selling of labor that was desirable to shut out of the home. Society itself was ugly. The urban world was not nice to look upon. There was dirt, noise, human excrement, starvation, crime, and violence to assail the senses, if one ventured beyond their own front doors.

In order to preserve a moral and respectable view of oneself, there had to be an alternative, one that preserved and emphasized the values that work seemed to destroy. That alternative was the home.

A working wife was frowned upon. It was the wife who made the home, who cared for the children within it, who bought her husband back to it when the work was done, who provided the hot dinners and created the atmosphere of comfort and protection.  

The Victorians worked to preserve this belief by ignoring or distorting the essential nature of family.

Resource: The Victorian Home, Jenni Calder B.T. Batsford Ltd., London.

Maggi Andersen is a historical romance author. Her novel, The Folly at Falconbridge Hall, is released 8th May.

Vanessa Ashley felt herself qualified for a position as governess, until offered the position at Falconbridge Hall. Left penniless after the deaths of her artist father and suffragette mother, Vanessa Ashley draws on her knowledge of art, politics, and history to gain employment as a governess. She discovers that Julian, Lord Falconbridge, requires a governess for his ten-year-old daughter Blyth at Falconbridge Hall, in the countryside outside London. Lord Falconbridge is a scientist and dedicated lepidopterist who is about to embark on an extended expedition to the Amazon. An enigmatic man, he takes a keen interest in his daughter's education. As she prepares her young charge, Vanessa finds the girl detached and aloof. As Vanessa learns more about Falconbridge Hall, more questions arise. Why doesn't Blythe feel safe in her own home? Why is the death of her mother, once famed society beauty Clara, never spoken of? And why did the former governess leave so suddenly without giving notice?

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