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Effects Of Domestic Fiction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5609 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Domestic fiction as a genre was predominantly written for girls and young women by women writers, and the genre grew exceedingly popular and flourished in the nineteenth century, especially during the mid to late nineteenth century. Domestic fiction, often referred to as ‘sentimental fiction’ (due to its sentimental plotlines and characters) or simply ‘women’s fiction’, became the dominant genre for girls in both Britain and America and the majority of domestic writing upheld and supported the restrictions of the female role. Many novels of domestic fiction have thus been criticised for not attempting to challenge these limitations and empower young women to live a fuller and more rewarding life, rather than simply reinforcing the idea that women must exist solely within the domestic sphere. This dissertation will discuss three different texts of the domestic fiction genre – Elizabeth Wetherell’s The Wide, Wide World (1852), Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family (1865) and Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale Little Women (1868) – and will examine whether literature aimed at girls and young women in the nineteenth century began to empower women and present them with the idea of a life away from the restrictions of the domestic sphere, or whether the genre of domestic fiction simply enforced the rules and restrictions of the female role.

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During the nineteenth century, the influences upon the lives of children and young adults were very few and far between. Whereas children of the twenty-first century are still undeniably influenced by literature, these children live in the age of television, extensive advertising, communication, the internet and modern technology, and have an eclectic range of influences at their disposal rather than just literature, one of the main and major influences for children during the nineteenth century was the literature that was written specifically for them. Literacy, and literature itself increased considerably during the reign of Queen Victoria, and this can be attributed to a number of factors – one of the most important factors being the expansion of popular education. Children and the idea of childhood had begun to be viewed and treated as a state which was entirely set aside from adulthood, and the child was considered to be far more innocent, and possess a far more malleable mind than the adult. As John Back observes in his study Towards a Sociology of Education:

‘Everything to do with children and family life had become a matter of worthy attention. Not only the child’s future, but his presence and very existence was of concern: the child had taken a central place in the family.’ [1] 

The Victorians of the nineteenth century created an increasingly sentimental view of childhood which would grow to become widely accepted. Queen Victoria herself and Prince Albert set an example for a ‘prim and proper’ family in which the children were greatly loved and tenderly cared for. Additionally, Victorian parents were advised to be firm with their children, but to deal with them with a larger degree of tenderness than in the past, and adults increasingly saw childhood as a period in which the child needed to be protected from the complicated adult world and its concerns. As a result of this changing view, education for children became paramount, and increasing concern was placed upon ensuring that children were appropriately taught. As Judith Rowbotham writes in Good Girls Make Good Wives: Guidance for Girls in Victorian Fiction;

‘The child was the father of the man, and it was important to adults to ensure that children, who represented the next generation, should be properly taught. The question that occupied many minds however, was of what did a ‘proper’ education consist?’ [2] 

Boys were given ‘penny dreadfuls’; inexpensive novels which often featured violent adventure or crime and were issued in monthly instalments. However, a well-educated female at this time was assumed to have been fruitfully instructed in the importance of her domestic and social duties and responsibilities, as well as in academic subjects. As a result of this assumption, girls were presented with the domestic novel. Young women and girls were deemed to be more ‘suited’ to life within the domestic sphere, and the aim of domestic fiction and ‘girl’s stories’ was to justify the boundaries of the female position within society and to convince the female, especially the impressionable young woman, of the necessity to conform to the roles of the domestic sphere. Didactic writing of this kind was certainly not a contemporary phenomenon – educational and instructive books for young minds were also featured heavily in the eighteenth century. These however, were intended for an upper-class market and were published in the form of essays rather than as books. The contribution that girls made in their home was very significant, however it should be noted that that their lives were not always solely made up of domestic duties and responsibilities – it was quite common for girls to be as well educated as boys, and to be accomplished and taught in skills and talents such as art and music. Still more genteel than what their brothers were taught, yet there was life away from the duties of the home. Public schools were available to the lower and middle classes, although they were not yet made mandatory, and girls were educated most often from the age of six until they reached fourteen or fifteen. However despite this, women were still discouraged from pursuing an education, as this would interfere with their duties within the home. The July 1848 edition of the publication The Mother’s Magazine featured an article entitled ‘Female Education, which encouraged mothers to restrict the time that their daughters were in education, claiming that their accomplishments would be rendered unnecessary after they married. The article states that young women should remain focused on their duties within the home:

‘[…] let her seek a thorough practical understanding of those principles of which she may as a wife, mother and housekeeper, be called to make daily use.

We are advocates for a thorough scientific education; but at the same time, for an education for the ordinary […] duties which females, as wives, daughters and mothers, will be called upon to perform. The piano, and the brush, should never take the place of the needle.’ [3] 

Domestic fiction at this time was renowned for sentimental and predictable plotlines, exceedingly dramatic scenes and weak, weepy female characters, and this characteristic earned the genre its description as the ‘language of tears’. This was a time when the biggest ambition of young girls was to be married and to marry well – for a woman to remain single was considered not only to be a misfortune, but a travesty and yet many of the authors who wrote these books were themselves single women. These books were on of the very few ways that young girls could imagine a life other than their own and therefore must have a lasting and effective impact on how they viewed themselves, both in regards to society and personally. Furthermore, the writers of domestic fiction were generally exclusively women, and for a woman to be a writer was at this point a new notion, and additionally, if their works were considered ‘unseemly’ or inappropriate material for young girls, no one would purchase them. Due to the fact that for these female authors writing was their only source of income, the sale and popularity of their creations was paramount. As a result, it was extremely rare that domestic fiction for girls in the nineteenth century would feature a character who would step outside of society’s restrictions upon young women, and who pushed the boundaries of ‘appropriate’ female behaviour. For this, the genre has experienced many forms of criticism. The early forms of domestic fiction, conceived by authors such as Maria Edgeworth and Mrs. Sherwood, achieved popularity and social status and these stories whilst being improving, were also considered to be entertaining. Alison Adburgham has commented that:

‘the novels were handbooks to the language of the beau monde, to the etiquette of chaperonage, to permissible and impermissible flirtations, to extra-marital affairs, to all modish attitudes and affections.’ [4] 

The literature was instructive and the characters unrealistic and wooden – domestic fiction was treated as the perfect device to teach young girls how they should behave and present themselves. However, writers such as Charlotte Mary Yonge and Louisa May Alcott nonetheless managed to write characters who did venture beyond the boundaries of assumed stereotypes in understated and subtle ways, and unlike authors such as Elizabeth Wetherell, these writers managed to present an alternative life for girls through their characters, and succeeded in upholding society’s limitations upon girls in the process. Instead of doing nothing to challenge these stereotypes and being criticised for this issue, these writers somehow were able to empower their female audience to move beyond the restrictions of their domestic sphere and live a far more stimulating life, or in other cases if their female characters did eventually conform to the institution of marriage and a domestic orientated way of life, they would still manage to maintain the qualities which some readers may have deemed ‘undesirable’ and inappropriate. Moreover, with the publication of Little Women in 1863, Alcott challenged and succeeded in changing what it was to be a young girl in the Victorian age, and for decades to come.

Due to the vast popularity of the domestic fiction genre in the nineteenth century, it is certainly indisputable that the genre had great effect on its readers, whether it was the impressionable and innocent little girls which read them or the mothers who read them to their children. But an underlying question of this particular genre is whether the effect was constructive in terms of the development of women’s rights and their prospects in life and the growth of their position within the social structure, or whether these novels merely upheld and supported the outdated and strict boundaries set upon women of the nineteenth century and earlier, and supported the stereotypes placed upon them without attempting to make changes to this. I will attempt to answer this question in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 1:

The embodiment of the feminine ideal: Elizabeth Wetherell, The Wide, Wide World (1850 – published in Britain in 1852)

The girl of the mid-nineteenth-century spent the majority of her time in the company of other women and middle-class girls in particular spent their time with their mothers, their sisters and female servants or nannies who may have lived with them in their houses. Their experience was majorly influenced and centred around a feminine community, in which domesticity and the domestic role which they would pursue in their futures was central to their lives. As the term implies, domestic literature presented the home and the family as the best context and environment for the character building and moral reformation. Drawing heavily on the ‘Sunday school’ movement, the genre embodied children with the idea that they were able to transform and save others around them through charity, prayer and devotion. Domestic fiction generally tended to conform to one basic plot line, which featured the story of a young woman (possibly newly orphaned, or separated from her parents) deprived of support she had previously depended on and is thus faced with the task of making her own way in the strange and unfamiliar outside world. Her ego at the outset of the novel is often damaged or is simply non-existent, and she believes that her guardians will always be there to protect and ‘coddle’ her; however she learns painfully that this is not the case as she becomes acquainted with the real world. This is a world in which she is extremely vulnerable – certainly not immune to loss, pain or hardship as she may have previously been, and she is surrounded by people who are far less virtuous than her. The failure of the world to exceed her expectations awakens the young girl to her own possibilities, and what she herself is capable of due to her overwhelming good nature and spirituality. By the climax of the novel, the young woman would usually come to realize and believe in her own worth and most importantly, will come to realize an extremely significant Christian value that everything in life, even if it is bad, is caused by God and will eventually lead to something good. Commenting on domestic fiction, Nina Baym describes the genre of the domestic novel in Women’s Fiction as ‘the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout her life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world.’ [5] Written by Susan Warner and published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell, The Wide, Wide World is argued to be the novel which first established the genre of children’s domestic fiction, and one which certainly embodies these characteristics of the domestic novel.

The Wide, Wide World is one of the earliest and best examples of what would grow to become the most popular genre of nineteenth century fiction – the domestic (or sentimental) novel and furthermore, it is considered to be America’s first ‘best-seller’ novel. Warner was an American evangelical writer of religious and children’s fiction and, of course, domestic fiction. However, as novels were considered by some to be ‘sinful’ [6] and damaging to moral education, Warner described her novels as stories. Sales of the ‘story’ were unprecedented during the time of its publication as in almost a year, The Wide, Wide World sold over 40,000 copies and this number would rise to 225,000 at the end of the 1850’s. Her works were among some of the most popular of domestic fiction written in the nineteenth century, and many featured storylines in which both moral and religious messages were woven. Warner’s novel featured an accurate portrayal of what life was like during the Victorian era in America and this is one reason for its great popularity. Although the novel is written and set in America, the characters of the story are well-born English and Scottish, and they act according to their stock and upbringing, and a period at the end of the novel takes place in Scotland itself. As a result, despite this being an American text, The Wide, Wide World was wholly relevant and applicable to English readers. Mid-nineteenth century readers of the novel recognised and appreciated its relevance to their own lives and women saw themselves and their situations mirrored in the situation of the protagonist Ellen Montgomery, and the people she meets throughout the story. Although this book was written by a woman for women, it was not particularly aimed at children. What sets it aside as a children’s text and more importantly a girl’s text is the fact that the protagonist is a young woman.

Published in 1850, the novel went through fourteen editions in just two years, and the novel was eventually published in Britain in 1852. It maintained its vast popularity throughout the nineteenth century; however it waned in popularity during the early part of the twentieth century, especially around the 1920’s at a time when non-domestic children’s literature began to flourish. In What Katy Read: Feminist Re-readings of ‘Classic’ Stories for Girls by scholars of nineteenth century girls’ fiction Shirley Foster and Judy Simons it is stated that Warner’s text ‘served as a bridge between the pious Sunday school stories of the 1830’s and the child-centred adventures of the latter half of the century’ and furthermore the novel featured an ‘unprotected heroine overcomes suffering and tribulations to achieve spiritual perfection and moral maturity’, [7] and this would become the archetypal plot which dominated the domestic fiction genre.

As mentioned in the introduction, domestic fiction in some cases had become known as the ‘language of tears’, and Warner’s novel certainly conforms to this description, as we can see at many points throughout the text. The novel begins with the disruption of Ellen’s happy life, as her mother is dying and her father has lost his fortune and upon doctors’ recommendations, her parents travel to Europe, and it is unknown how long they will be absent. Ellen leads a fulfilling and pampered lifestyle in New York, and as a result of her parents’ departure, she must leave her home in order to live with her Aunt Fortune, her father’s sister (who seems to share his temperament) in the countryside. Ellen attempts to be brave for the sake of her mother; however she finds little comfort and is clearly devastated at her departure and Ellen, crying, flings ‘her arms around her mother, and hiding her face in her lap gave way to a violent burst of grief that seemed for a few moments as if it would rend soul and body in twain.’ [8] As well as being a prime example of the domestic novel, The Wide, Wide World is considered to be a piece of ‘sentimentalist’ literature, and the novel unquestionably portrays how sentimental Warner’s style is. The action of the story is introverted within Ellen, and we can see that she is a weepy character at many points throughout the novel. For example; ‘Dressing was sad work to Ellen today; it went on very heavily. Tears dropped into the water as she stooped her heard to the basin,’ [9] is an extract from a four page stretch of the novel, and within these pages Ellen is portrayed to be crying on five separate occasions. On average, Ellen sheds her tears almost once every two pages, and it is clear that her readers are expected to cry with her, and many probably did.

The Wide, Wide World is described as the quintessential domestic novel, and many feminist critics have focused on analyzing the novel’s portrayal of gender dynamics. Warner’s characters conformed to the stereotypes of ideal young women. Ellen Montgomery, the heroine of the novel, is the epitome of what society desired a young woman to be in the nineteenth century; her ‘behaviour is always modest, indicative of unselfish submission to those in due authority over her, such as her parents. Elizabeth Wetherell was an early provider of the stereotype of a good girl on the most ideal lines.’ [10] Her conduct is perfectly ladylike and throughout the novel she pursues self improvement, and although she is descended from luxury and money, she discovers how to become ‘domestic’ and to care for both the household and herself, and also commenting on this issue, Rowbotham goes on to claim;

”The message of didactic fiction throughout the nineteenth century was that feminine influence was more essential to the daily moral health and strength of the family unit and of the nation than that of a man. It was a woman’s first duty in life therefore, to become as professional in her sphere as a man in his; to cultivate her feminine talents in the emotional realm so as to maximise their usefulness within the domestic orbit’ [11] 

In addition to this, it was believed that self-sacrifice as opposed to self-sufficiency was what marked women as professionals, and Ellen certainly conforms to this belief and it is clear that she sacrifices her own desires for the benefit of those around her. We observe Ellen’s thoroughly good and self-sacrificing nature at many points in the novel, particularly when her Aunt Fortune becomes ill. Although her Aunt has treated Ellen badly since she arrived in her care, Ellen must cast this fact aside and take over as head of the household, as it was essential for an ideal nineteenth century girl to become adaptable and to keep her composure in difficult situations. Throughout the novel, Ellen experiences and learns self-sacrifice and unassuming nature and learns to do without the luxuries she has been used to, and it could be suggested that Ellen is the perfect embodiment of the Victorian feminine ideal, often referred to as ‘The Angel in the House’. The image of ideal womanhood, as defined by Barbara Welter in her well-known article The Cult of True Womanhood features feminine virtues such as:

‘Piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, not matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.’ [12] 

Women were desired and largely required to embody these characteristics and to become the domestic ideal, and this Victorian image of the ideal wife and the ideal woman came to be known as ‘The Angel in the House’. The ‘angel’ was powerless, passive and devoted to her husband, and completely pure. The expression ‘Angel in the House’ originates from the title of the extremely popular poem by Coventry Patmore of the same name, in which he presents his wife Emily- the ‘angel’ of the title – as a model for all womankind, under the impression that his wife Emily was the absolute ideal Victorian wife. Warner’s novel is a text which features women, most notably Ellen’s mother and Alice Humphreys who conform to the ideals of ‘The Angel in the House’ and it is from these women that Ellen learned to become the perfect and exemplary middle-class Victorian girl. As Signe O. Wegener observes in James Fenimore Cooper Versus The Cult Of Domesticity,

‘Whereas [authors such as] Child and Sedgewick marginalize the mother, Warner allows her more prominence and influence, constantly emphasizing the almost symbolic attachment between mother and daughter. Mrs. Montgomery, although an invealid, is the most important person in the heroine Ellen’s life, carefully shaping her daughter into an angel in the house – and a mirror of her pious and self-sacrificing self. As befits a mother from the hey-day of the cult of domesticity, she has the “proper priorities”. [13] 

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Ellen’s mother is submissive to her husband, yet is conflicted as she does not want her daughter to be sent away and certainly does not want to go to Europe. However, since both her doctor and her husband (who are both dominant males) demand that she do, she must obey them and the narrator observes, ‘Captain Montgomery added the weight of authority, insisting on her compliance.’ And of course, the submissive angel in the house, Mrs. Montgomery is required to succumb to the separation. Mrs. Montgomery has absolutely no power in her husband’s household yet she never voices her complaints, even when she is to be separated from Ellen whom she loves and adores – Ellen learns and demonstrates much throughout the novel from her guidance and it is evident that this is what her mother desires, and we are presented with this fact upon her mothers departure when Ellen is presented with a bible and workbox, essential items for the ideal Victorian girl. The reason for these gifts, her mother explains, is that these will provide everything necessary for keeping up good habits, and that this will help Mrs. Montgomery to rest assured that Ellen will:

‘be always neat, and tidy, and industrious, depending upon others as little as possible; and careful to improve yourself by every means […] I will leave you no excuse, Ellen, for failing in any of these duties. I trust you will not disappoint me in a single particular.’ [14] 

Furthermore, under her the guidance of her mother (albeit, her invalid mother) Ellen learns to become the ‘the angel in the house’, and one instance in which we can see this is the point at which Ellen ‘experiments’ in poking the fire in her home. As Mrs. Montgomery is unfit for housework, Ellen learns to recognize the unspoken agreement in which the household duties are transferred onto her:

‘The room was dark and cheerless; and Ellen felt stiff and chilly. However, she made her way to the fire, and having found the poker, she applied it gently to the Liverpool coal with such good effort that a bright ruddy blaze sprang up, and lighted the whole room. Ellen smiled at the result of her experiment. “That is something like”, she said to herself; “who says I can’t poke the fire? Now, let us see if I can’t do something else.”‘ [15] 

Ellen is often unsure of her abilities within the domestic sphere, and this ‘experiment’ with the poker gives her some idea of what she could be able to perform, and what outcomes they could provide for the house and for others around her and this is clear as she continues ‘experimenting’ within the room. This suggests, quite literally, that her labours could light up and bring warmth to a cold, dark and cheerless home. She could become the ‘angel in the house’ or the ‘light of the home’ and through her domestic labour, as we can see, Ellen herself becomes happier and far more contented. Furthermore, it would appear that her mother’s instruction and influence was not in vain and Ellen has seemingly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, as we can see by friends describing Ellen as:

‘”[…] a most extraordinary child!” said Mrs. Gillespie.

“She is a good child”, said Mrs. Chauncey.

“Yes mamma, I don’t think she could help being polite.”

“It is not that, […] mere sweetness and politeness would never give so much

elegance of manner. As far as I have seen, Ellen Montgomery is a perfectly well-behaved child.”

“That she is’ said Mrs. Chauncey; ‘but neither would any cultivation or example be sufficient for it without Ellen’s through good principle and great sweetness of temper.”‘ [16] 

The embodiment of ‘the angel in the house’ seems to be a dominant theme throughout Warner’s text, however one of the women in the forefront of Ellen’s life who should essentially serve as a kind of substitute of Ellen’s mother, is the exact opposite of this feminine ideal. Ellen, despite all that her mother has left her with to make an ideal life for herself in her absence, finds little solace with her father’s sister, Fortune Emerson. Described in What Katy Read as:

‘In terms of the paradigmatic fairy-tale structure of the novel, she is the wicked stepmother. Apparently incapable of affection and bearing deep grudges, she tyrannises over Ellen: she cheats her of her mother’s letters, she refuses to make it possible for her to attend the local school, and in order to vindicate herself in the eyes of Mr. Van Brunt, her farm manager, she makes her niece confess to faults of which she is not guilty. […] In gender terms, indeed, she seems not only more male than female, but embodies a domineering and aggressive masculinity.’ [17] 

Ellen’s Aunt Fortune turns out to be the complete opposite of her mother. Unkind and callous, she shows Ellen no affection whatsoever, and in a letter to her mother, it is clear just how uneasy Aunt Fortune makes her, even in aspects beyond her control such as her appearance and manner:

‘I wish there was somebody here that I could love, but there is not. You will want to know what sort of person my aunt Fortune is. I think she is very good looking, or she would be if her nose were not quite so sharp: but, mamma, I can’t tell you what sort of feeling I have about her: it seems to me as if she was sharp all over. I’m sure her eyes are as sharp as two needles. And she doesn’t walk like other people; at least sometimes. She makes queer little jerks and starts and jumps, and flies about like I don’t know what.’ [18] 

In her new life with her aunt who is neither a ‘lady’ nor a Christian and who certainly does not behave in a familial manner towards Ellen, Ellen is clearly superior. Furthermore, Aunt Fortune blatantly denies Ellen the further education that her mother desired. Only when Ellen meets Alice Humphrey, a refined Christian woman (who is certainly reminiscent of her mother) does she find consolation in such an unforgiving and seemingly hopeless place. Alice is a pious and idealistic woman and as the daughter of a minister, she is a faithful churchgoer – unlike anyone else in the area. Alice essentially takes Ellen under her wing and with this new found companionship, and Ellen receives the schooling and moral instruction that her Aunt Fortune has denied her. Alice and her bother John, who is often away studying at school, save Ellen from the unkind and impious atmosphere her aunt has created and this act of rescue by Alice supports the idea and instruction that girls should not affirm their own desires, but wait for a fellow Christian to act as a saviour and to intervene and of course in this kind of domestic novel, this was always the case.

As well as supporting the ideal of the angel in the house and creating characters that appear to embody all of the characteristics of the Victorian feminine ideal, The Wide, Wide World also promotes the Christian idea that the good and virtuous die young, but despite an early demise their deaths are seen as being religiously meaningful however untimely. As a result of these deaths, other characters are able to recognize the failure in their own morals. Although Aunt Fortune is gravely ill, Warner does not allow her a meaningful death as she is not religious or devout enough to be worthy of it. However Alice Humphreys enters Ellen’s life as an ideal role model and certainly the embodiment of the feminine ideal, and her thoroughly good and pure nature essentially means that she is not for this world:

‘She is able to mount a rescue mission and take over Mrs. Montgomery’s duties. However, Alice Humphrey’s is such a perfect Angel in the House that it is not surprising that Death had already marked her for his own. Before she dies, Ellen learns from her how best to combine education, accomplishments and domesticity, taking over Alice’s place as daughter and provider of comfort in the Humphrey household.’ [19] 



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