Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview
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6
Feminine Hygiene: Women in the Sanitary Condition Report

Perhaps the most insistent narrative element of the Victorian novel is the marriage plot. Early Victorian novels, especially, achieve closure by having the appropriate characters pair off, read the banns, marry, and -- the reader is apparently supposed to assume -- live happily ever after. Even Coningsby, which as I pointed out in Part I almost ignores the marriage plot as a central narrative device, ultimately has its protagonist marry: the domestic must be managed before that most promising of young politicians can don the mantle of the public trust. Conventionally, eponymous heroes and heroines in particular can either marry, like Nicholas Nickleby and Sybil, or die, like Alton Locke and Helen Fleetwood. Ideologically the marriage plot secures the division of labor and life between the gendered spheres of the public and private, and as a result reasserts already in-place constraints upon the subjectivities of male and female middle-class adults in early Victorian England. A woman's place is in the home and a home is best defined by a wife or, failing that, a daughter or mother. The man's place is in the world, and when he enters his (or another's) home, though it may be "his castle," he should be in a distinctly feminine realm.

The marriage plot, instrumental as it is to Victorian fiction, also finds considerable purchase in the Sanitary Condition Report. Although Chadwick is not tracing long portions of the life of any of the many characters that populate the pages of his work, he and his informants often focus on the institution of marriage within working-class culture. Like most political economists, he appears satisfied with "a conventional view of the family as separate from the market and providing a haven from the competitive thrust of the economic world" ( Davidoff and Hall185). This, of course, is a middle-class conception of the world -- one in which the male in a companionate marriage is the sole financial supporter of the family and the woman is therefore "free" to attend to domestic matters. Even for "feminist" politia1

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