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The Victorian Man and the Middle Class Household -
Domesticity as an Ideal

To get a clearer picture of the Victorian male masculinity and role in the household, we must examine the inner workings of the household.

In March of 1851, John Heaton wrote an entry in his diary adding the name of a son to his household which included a wife, two female servants and a stable boy. He married at the age of 32 after a stormy courtship. His marital status and birth of a child now saw his masculine status as "secure". By 1861, his family had grown to include 3 more children, 3 additional servants and a governess. He was employed as a physician and had moved from his home in commercial Leeds to a Georgian villa he called Claremont on the edge of town (London).

This type of progression was commonplace of the rising middle class Victorian man during the period. Careers in medicine, law and the Church held high prestige and conferred one's gentlemanly status as the result of the education attained and the charging of a fee for a service as opposed to buying and selling. Other careers gained similar acknowledgment, accounting, engineering, surveying and architecture, writing and journalism. These professions made up a significant segment of the middle class exceeded by tradesmen and business owners during this period.

The average income of the middle class Victorian male, distinguished from the aristocracy and gentry because they worked regularly for a living, was 300 a year and could run a household with at least 3 servants. The truly successful professional could earn up to 1000 or more a year and maintain a horse, carriage and groom. At the lower end of the spectrum were the men who lived on incomes of between 100 and 300 a year whose household could afford the employ of only a servant or two. These men, typically consisted of clerks and were considered the lower middle class which consisted of approximately 510,000 households compared to 90,000 households in 1867.1

The cluttered homes of the period were the reflection of activities which were carried on within the home and included a daily period of worship, the education of the children, reading by the fire, playing the piano and the entertainment of family and friends. What it did not include was what the household depended on for its existence. Paid work kept the household running and helped to keep servants who were relied upon to do the backbreaking, monotonous labor. And while evidence of the source of the family's income was not generally exhibited in the homes of the West End of London, residents in the less desirable areas, the provincial towns outside of the city and on the farms, usually did conduct their business and domestic life under the same roof. The separation of work from the home really wasn't seen developing until the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century not driven by the increase in the establishment of factories, but rather due to the pace of economic growth in the towns.

During the period many changes took place within the Victorian home, changing the character of the Victorian family household. It gained more attention as a "badge" of social position becoming an essential qualification for that status. The occupation of the Victorian man became the core of the middle-class masculine identity with his social circumstances being that which showed his success and his moral character. Although Sarah Ellis, author of many advice books for women in the 1830s and 1840s wrote "gentlemen may employ their house of business in almost any degrading occupation and if they have the means of supporting a respectable establishment at home, may be gentlemen still."2 Hence a non-working wife, servants, and tastefully furnished house used solely for domestic pursuits became more of a demonstration of class than the husband's business or profession.

The changes that were taking place in the Victorian household also affected the marriage. Initially it was the "patriarchal organization" of the household where the father was responsible for making all decisions about his work dealing with suppliers, customers, tax authorities, etc. and the organization of the labor resources of the household. As the separation of work from the home continued, the definition changed and the Victorian man concentrated on the areas of business while his wife tended to the running of the household including the housekeeping accounts.

The principles of marriage included companionship as well as authority. Early in the period time spent together was a prerequisite, with the friendship being the by-product of a working partnership in the home with the husband and wife sharing responsibilities on a daily basis. By the early 19th century this changed as the separation of work from the home increased and the Victorian woman's movement out from the private sphere into the public sphere.

"Home" defined as comfort, privacy and time spent with family, was sought after by the Victorians more than any other generation, not as an end to itself, but as the means to realizing domestic vision. To be without was to experience "homesickness", a term which usage rose significantly during the beginning of the 19th century. Domesticity became known as all that was moral, placing a high value on the quality of relationships between family members by the higher and middle-class Victorians, not so, however with those living in poverty and squalor.

The Victorians believed marriage to be a personal choice, for love, not arranged or imposed. Advice books on relationships suggested that the married couple should share equally in its burdens, yet implied that the man be the master.3 Romantic love was not based on equality, but rather on the dominant role of the male as the wife benefitted from her husband's education and public life.

Children were the "family" and the center of the family's life. While in the wealthier homes, much of the child-rearing activities were performed by nursemaids and governesses, the children were always under the perusal of their parents and the parents derived much more pleasure from them than admitted. As written by Hippolyte Taine on the Victorian family in the 1850s, "Every Englishman has, in the matter of marriage, a romantic spot in his heart. He imagines a home, with the woman of his choice, the pair of them alone with their children. That is his own little universe, closed to the world.4

Marriage and the family was all that was "holy" and wholesome and idealized that domestic values triumphed over a heartless world. But this premise was not the norm as prior to 1837, life in the Victorian period had consisted of much promiscuity.5 One's wife was expected to accept the immoral behavior of her husband as she retained the rank of his "first and dearest friend."6 It wasn't until the 1830s-1840s that "home" became the cultural norm.

The separation of work from the home while sparing some from back-breaking manual labor, was not always "friendly" or undemanding. There were long hours, deals that ended in unethical business practices, etc. One's "home" became the Victorian man's escape, his refuge from his work and its pressures. Home was cooperation and love and business impersonal competition. The man became not only the more dominant one in the family, but the more superior on many levels.

This was however what made the appeal of living in the country so ideal, the opportunity to escape the oppressive environment for green grass, trees and quiet, the desired characteristics of the middle-class home. The perfect home consisting of a small villa surrounded by a large area of property, approached by a winding drive and featuring gardens in both the front and back of the house, a home filled with nurturing, love and religion.

One of the most important symbols in Victorian England was the development of Christmas. The tree was imported from Germany and illustrated the shift from a private, family atmosphere to one that blended the secular and spiritual. Christmas became a time for children and gift-giving, previously seen as an act of charity to the poor, now was extended to the children.

The Victorian home revolved around gender and the roles each played both in the public and the private spheres. Its success depended upon how well the husband and wife complemented each other, giving and receiving what the other could not give, the woman the giver of love, nurturing and moral teacher, the husband the breadwinner and rationalist.

Thus, for the upper classes, domesticity and the Victorian home focused on familial relationships while at the same time served as a means of affirming one's social status; the home considered the wife's domain and the business world her husband's.

  1. William Lucas, A Quaker Journal, 2 vols, London, 1934.

  2. Margaret Hunt, The Middling Son: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780, Berkeley, CA, 1996.

  3. A. James Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life, London, 1992, pp. 74-79.

  4. Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England, trans. E. Hyams, London, 1957, p. 78.

  5. Kathryn Hughes, The Victorian Governess, London, 1993, pp. 28-29.

  6. Daniel Cruickshank and Neil Burton, Life in the Georgian City, 1990, p. 181.

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