Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel

Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel

Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel

Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel


During the nineteenth century, as hundreds of thousands of British citizens left England for the New Worlds, hearth and home were physically moved from the heart of the empire to its very outskirts. In Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel, Diana Archibald explores how such demographic shifts affected the ways in which Victorians both promoted and undermined the ideal of the domestic woman. Drawing upon works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Samuel Butler, Charles Dickens, Charles Reade, and William Makepeace Thackeray, the author shows how the ideals of womanhood and home promoted by domestic ideology in many ways conflict with the argument in favor of emigration to imperial destinations.

A rather predictable pattern emerges in almost every Victorian novel that encounters the New Worlds: if an English hero is destined for a happy ending, he either marries an English angel-wife and brings her with him to the New World or, more often, abandons thoughts of settling abroad and returns to England to marry and establish a home. This pattern seems to support the supposedly complementary ideologies of domesticity and imperialism.

The literary texts, however, reveal much ambivalence toward this domestic ideal. Female emigrants were desperately needed in the colonies; thus, a woman's imperial duty was to leave England. Yet her womanly duty told her to remain an untainted idol beside an English hearthside. The domestic ideal, then, seems to have been more in conflict with imperialistic ideology than heretofore supposed.


As the story goes, my great-great-grandmother was a mail-order bride. Reputedly an extraordinary beauty, she came from a well- to-do Scottish family. Having seen some advertisements calling for women of good character to immigrate to the new towns of California, she made her way to the American West. I imagine the pamphlets she must have read—depicting untamed, rugged frontier towns as thriving, prosperous cities with gold-paved streets. No doubt she was disappointed with the rough mining town of Bodie; nevertheless, she married the man who had paid her passage. We know little else about her—nothing about her experiences in California, her marriage, her dreams and fears. We know simply that she bore three children, and when the third died soon after birth, she became distraught and killed herself. If her grave was ever marked, we cannot find a sign of it now.

Or do we “know” these facts? A slightly different and much simpler version of this story appears in the little book chronicling the history of my family: here the entry simply reads “Christina Marie McCann—b. 1850, Dublin, Ireland; d. 1877, Bodie, California; m. George J. Parker; children: George, Jr., b. 1871, and Margaret Clara, b. 1872.”

Yet a third version of the story asserts that Christine Clarissa McCann met George Parker on the ship to America. After arriving in the country, they traveled together to Ohio, where they married, and eventually they moved out West to a mining town in Nevada. They never lived in Bodie. George deserted her and her two small children, and because of her beauty another man fell in love with her. They had an affair, and when she found that she was pregnant, she took an overdose of laudanum. This version of the tale is in some ways the most heartbreaking, perhaps because such a death seems so unnecessary. Rather than live in shame, as a nineteenth-century Hester Prynne, Christine chose to follow the path of too many fictional “fallen women” and do away with herself. As a consequence of her suicide, her children were raised in Bodie by her mother-in- law, Clara, and Clara's second husband, who, as a staunch Angli-

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