The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family

The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family

The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family

The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family

Synopsis

Love of home life, the intimate moments a family peacefully enjoyed in seclusion, had long been considered a hallmark of English character even before the Victorian era. But the Victorians attached unprecedented importance to domesticity, romanticizing the family in every medium from novels to government reports, to the point where actual families felt anxious and the public developed a fierce appetite for scandal. Here Karen Chase and Michael Levenson explore how intimacy became a spectacle and how this paradox energized Victorian culture between 1835 and 1865. They tell a story of a society continually perfecting the forms of private pleasure and yet forever finding its secrets exposed to view. The friction between the two conditions sparks insightful discussions of authority and sentiment, empire and middle-class politics.


The book recovers neglected episodes of this mid-century drama: the adultery trial of Caroline Norton and the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne; the Bedchamber Crisis of the young Queen Victoria; the Bloomer craze of the 1850s; and Robert Kerr's influential treatise, celebrating the ideal of the English Gentleman's House. The literary representation of household life--in Dickens, Tennyson, Ellis, and Oliphant, among others--is placed in relation to such public spectacles as the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill of 1848, the controversy over divorce in the years 1854-1857, and the triumphant return of Florence Nightingale from the Crimea. These colorful incidents create a telling new portrait of Victorian family life, one that demands a fundamental rethinking of the relation between public and private spheres.

Excerpt

I cannot take leave of the subject without a remark on English
dwelling-houses, which stand in close connection with that
long-cherished principle of separation and retirement, lying at
the very foundation of the national character. It appears to me,
to be this principle which has given to the people that fixity
of national character, and strict adherence to the historical
usages of their country, by which they are so much distinguished;
and up to the present moment, the Englishman still perseveres in
striving after a certain individuality and personal independence, a
certain separation of himself from others, which constitutes
the foundation of his freedom. … [It] is this that gives the
Englishman that proud feeling of personal independence, which
is stereotyped in the phrase, “Every man's house is his castle.”
This is a feeling which cannot be entertained, and an expression
which cannot be used in Germany or France, where ten or fifteen
families often live in the same large house. … In England,
every man is master of his hall, stairs, and chambers—whilst
we are obliged to use the two first in common with others,
and are scarcely able to secure ourselves the privacy of our own
chamber, if we are not fortunate to be able to obtain a secure
and convenient house for ourselves alone.

The preceding, written by the physician to the king of Saxony, Dr. Carus, appears at still greater length in the introductory pages to the census report of 1851, where the voice of rotund officialdom delivered its views on the Victorian family. Carus's entirely conventional opinions could not have been more reassuring, or their Saxon origins more agreeable. For under the bland tones of the report can be detected an eager desire for domesticity and nationality to cleave together—and then what could be more pleasant than to have the proud native character confirmed through the testimony of the Saxon foreigner? The tribute seems to have roused the rhetorical passions of the registrar-general, who will immediately affirm in his own voice that “the possession of an entire house is, it is true, strongly desired by every Englishman; for it throws a sharp . . .

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