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The Victorian Man and the Victorian Household -
Role in the Family

Husband and Wife

For the first time in May 1867, John Stuart Mill proposed that the word "person" should be substituted for the word "man" in the Second Reform Bill climaxing his lifetime commitment to women's emancipation. No longer did women and men live "separate" lives, separate in their thoughts, amusements and occupations. They were becoming equal companions working toward the common good of their family.

This partnership, however, was based on the premise that women should have the same advantages as a man as to education, occupation and the right to vote. While they did not deny the possibility of such a marriage, they felt it rather radical as male superiority and the supportive wife in a marriage had become the self image of the Victorian family. They flattered themselves in that they liked to believe that marriage was about love, comfort and morality but looked at their superiority in such a relationship separately and in some ways a right as the breadwinner.1

It was the wife's duty to be the sympathetic ear and soother. It was at home where the man's failings in other areas could be overlooked. They were not in turn, however, to bring up her domestic woes as they would only serve to disturb the "cheerful complacency" of the home. Much advice on this subject was received in the women's publications that she should not expect the same kind of support from her husband as her husband received from her.

During the period what we today call as emotional support, was looked upon as being "moral" support influenced by the powerful Evangelical movement during a time of crumbling moral values in the market place. The middle-class Victorian man expected their homes to reflect a moral vision of life and thus affecting the family as a whole for the better. It was, of course, the woman's duty to be morality's teacher, whether it be a mother, sister, favored daughter, but most often that of his wife.

It was also during this time that the term "angel" became used in references to feminine and domestic associations. Women who tended to the poor and sick were often called angels, but the home was the first place for a woman's "angelic mission", the subject of much advice given both privately and in women's publications. It became the structure for much of the interaction between husband and wife and many husbands looked for the moral support from their wives to comfort them from their disturbing and sometimes unethical business world. Many a Victorian woman was forewarned by their fiancÚ, to be prepared for unspecified faults and weaknesses in her beloved, requiring future sympathy and support.2

The young doctor James Paget, employed in the surgical wards early in the Victorian period told his future wife Lydia North in 1837 that he helped to find in her his "spiritual nurse".3Similarly, after two years of marriage, John Heaton of Leeds told his wife Fanny that he often felt disturbed, angry or misanthropic; "I hope you will "preach" to me whenever you feel prompted to do so, that you may instill some of your goodness into me and make me more like yourself.4

The Victorian man also expected that when he was home that his home be clean and well-ordered, warm and appealing, have a good meal on the table and attention when ill; comfort without effort. As per William Landels, a bestselling Baptist writer, "Man has no aptitude for domestic duties, and so long as they require to be done - that is, so long as the world lasts - woman will be required to do them."5 One's wife, however, could not be taken for granted as there were definitely times when her illness or childbirth would disrupt the household and additional help would become necessary.

Despite the belief that all Victorian men engaged in sexual relationships outside the home, much written on the subject indicated that it was practiced mostly on the part of the single Victorian man. While some married men did go this route occasionally, prostitution in Victorian society served mostly the needs of unmarried men of all classes, including confirmed bachelors or those postponing marriage until their income could provide for it.

The Victorian man was expected to marry for love and would choose their wives from women in their own class or above, often marrying into families with whom they had business connections. According to advice literature on conjugal relations is that it should be a pleasure for both parties; however, this was not always the case. Lack of knowledge often lead to disappointment or fear of pregnancy. Some, like Joshua Pritchard and Isaac Holden, both of whom spent long periods of time away from their wives on business, often expressed their feelings of the loss of their togetherness in letters to their wives. This was not the typical, however, as what went on in the Victorian bedroom was considered to be a most private matter.

The premise of a marriage of partnership or companionship was that husband and wife would be spending a great deal of time in each other's company - lingering meal times, music-making, reading aloud, the afternoon tea. When discord did appear, the blame was placed on the wife who was often accused of neglecting her family as the result of socializing and philanthropic work. The lower middle-class husband would spend more time on the actual "doing" of activities around the home in the form of the carpentry work, assisting in the teaching of his children in music or fixing their toys, while the upper middle-class man had staff to do the drudge work, and participated in music-making and reading aloud.

Those who worked in the professions spent more time at home as much of their work was performed there while businessmen and office workers spent more time away. The clergy did their work in "tied-houses"; doctors and lawyers took over libraries and dens in their homes and worked from there. Oftentimes there was also a room such as a study that was set aside for the husband's use alone, a retreat/refuge from which he could escape his daily activity. The stay-at-home husband, however, was not always conducive to family harmony as the husband who spent too much time at home was prone to assert his authority more and make unfair demands of his family.

Household authority had been a benchmark of adult masculinity for hundreds of years, essential to the Victorian man's status. For the Victorian man who could not keep domestic order counted little among his peers.6 The census in 1841 was deemed the responsibility of the "occupier", defined as the one who could "retain his quality of master, reserving to himself the general control and dominion over the whole house", implying that being "master" could not be taken for granted, but was to the individual's credit who exercised it.7 An insubordinate wife was seen as a black mark against her husband's manliness.

Between 1820 and 1870, war had been raged against those who practiced physical-force patriarchy, much of which existed in the working class. Domestic violence was kept very much hidden within the family. It wasn't until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 that divorce was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Church to the civil courts where it was handled more quickly and at a lower cost. As the number of divorces began to rise, so did the publicity in the daily newspapers with no details left out. Instead of the negative reaction to this form of behavior, the advice publications still enforced the male dominance in the family unit. The failure of the marriage was deemed the wife's fault. The message was still clear, the husband's duty was to provide for the family and govern it, the management of the family belonged to the wife.8

While the Victorian woman did not usually question their husband's entitlement to household authority, they desired trust and intimacy which made them less ready to accept husbands who treated them as inferior beings. While holding back on conjugal domesticity, the areas of household finances, hiring and firing of staff and the management of the children were all areas which could be called into dispute by her husband with his wife feeling an intrusion into her sphere.

  1. John Stuart Mill, speech in the House of Commons, 20 May 1867, Hansard vol. 187, cols 821-3.

  2. Daniel Macmillan, journal, May 19, 1853, quoted in Hughes, Memoir p. 193.

  3. James Paget to Lydia North, February 18, 837, quoted in M. Jeanne Peterson, Family, Love, and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen, Bloomington, IN, 1989, p. 82.

  4. John Heaton to Fanny Heaton, September 24, 1852, Heaton Papers (Leeds).

  5. William Landels, Woman: Her Position and Power, London, 1870 p. 97.

  6. Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500-1800 London, 1995.

  7. Henry Abelove, The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists, Stanford, CA, 1990, pp. 49-70.

  8. Henry Venn, The Complete Duty of Man, London, 1836 pp. 246-7.

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