In This Article Domesticity

  • Introduction

Victorian Literature Domesticity
by
Monica F. Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0091

Introduction

Domesticity refers to the lived experience of private life, the material dimensions of the home, and an ideology that imaginatively organizes complicated and often contested ideas about privacy, work, gender identity, family, subject formation, socioeconomic class, civilizing morality, and cultural representation. For the Victorians it provided a language and a narrative for making an individual’s relationship to social life and to social structure intelligible and meaningful. Writers from a wide range of critical commitments and methodological approaches (feminist, Marxist, Foucauldian, New Historicist, psychoanalytic, structuralist—often in ingenious and provocative combinations) have illuminated the complex space where the human subject encounters ideology. Victorian domestic ideology itself pivots on two central components: the binary logic of separate spheres whereby the feminine domain of private life and feeling opposes the masculine domain of public life and work, and the figure of the middle-class domestic woman endowed both with a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit and with a socioeconomic authority that rests on the management of a household and the representation of familial virtues. To say that domesticity occupies a central place in Victorian culture is probably to understate its discursive ubiquity. Newspapers, novels, sermons, political debates, not to mention a flood of conduct books and domestic manuals, attest to the Victorians’ preoccupation with the material, spiritual, philosophical, and political dimensions of private life. That this apprehension derives from the products of a robust print culture nevertheless emphasizes the sense in which domesticity named an available and yet evolving discourse.

Primary Sources

In 1931 Virginia Woolf famously and scornfully caricatured Patmore 1891 (cited under Poetry) and its idea of the Victorian Angel in the House: “If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it” (Woolf 1942, cited under Essays). For Woolf 1989 (cited also under Essays), this extremely influential image of menacing domestic ideology precluded the woman artist from joining the ranks of gifted and accomplished professionals not only because traditional institutions excluded her, but also because the culturally constructed realities of her domestic work and her internalization of domestic ideals inhibited the full expression of her creativity and genius. Although the outlines of Woolf’s phantom Victorian Angel emerge most clearly in the extremely popular Patmore 1891 and the notorious comparison of girls to flowers in Ruskin 1933 (cited under Essays), the 19th century also saw the publication of countless domestic manuals, conduct guides, etiquette books, and women’s magazines: it was a print culture that both taught and glorified the managerial skills necessary for running a large middle-class household as well as the quasi-artisanal craft of homemaking in a perceived effort to consolidate middle-class culture under the figurehead of the domestic woman.

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