Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Middle-Class Victorian Family as Reflected through Dombey and Son, The Portrait of a Lady and The Awakening

[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]

Dombey and Son (Dickens, 1846-8), The Portrait of a Lady (James, 1881) and The Awakening (Chopin, 1899) all address, directly or indirectly, the varying forms the family took in the nineteenth century.  There are difficulties comparing novels produced within differing cultural contexts, whether historical (the 1840s, the 1880s and the 1890s); national (English, expatriate and American – or rather Creole); religious (Protestant and Catholic); and gender-based (male and female).  But they are united by a focus on the middle-class family: Charles Dickens and Henry James were dealing with upper middle-class milieux, and while that in Kate Chopin’s novel is ambiguous and complicated by its cultural background, Léonce Pontellier’s ability to remodel the family dwelling at short notice suggests a comfortable bourgeois existence.

The image of the middle-class Victorian family conjures up a network of idealised associations: a self-sufficient family with the father as benign but firm head, supported by his loyal wife, the ‘Angel in the House’ as Coventry Patmore characterised her in his 1854 poem (Mitchell 2000a, p.152).  The home is the domain of the wife and mother, and upon her rests the responsibility for the smooth running of the household.  Husband and wife are surrounded by healthy well-fed and well clothed children, all living in comfort and harmony, their home a private domestic space providing refuge from the wider currents of society and its ills.  It is hierarchical but supportive and cultivated.  Servants are treated with courtesy and included as part of the family for religious observance.  Through congenial family relationships the children are socialised by a mixture of love and firm but fair discipline, and thereby made fit for their future roles either outside or inside the home according to gender.  It is not a system of equality but it is one of affection and mutual respect.

On the other hand, subverting the idealised image is one drawn from melodrama, the autocratic father, embodied partly by Edward Moulton-Barrett as depicted in Rudolf Besier’s play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930).  He rules a home permeated by strict discipline, his authority underpinned by dour religion, dictating professions for sons and marriage matches for daughters, children either claustrophobically home-schooled by governesses and tutors or packed off to boarding school run by uncaring and profit-oriented tyrants.  It might be a household where one parent is dead, the loss of the father entailing straightened economic circumstances and downward social mobility, or the loss of the mother bringing in an unsympathetic stepmother to replace her.  The mother may have died in childbirth, and previously there may have been a number of infant deaths.  This is an image of the home not as a nurturing environment but as one of insecurity and indifference, and at its extreme it is one for which the negative connotations of ‘Dickensian’ are appropriate to sum up a home life in which the spirit is crushed.  It is clear from these conflicting, if exaggerated, depictions that the Victorian middle-class family was not homogeneous in its composition.  Nor was it static, it evolved as social and economic conditions changed.

It is no surprise then that Eric Hobsbawm in his history covering the period 1848-75 characterised the family as ‘the most mysterious institution of the age’ (Hobsbawm, 1997, p.278), and contemporary novels can be seen to reflect prevailing attitudes, but also the tensions and contradictions, of the family as an ideological structure.  Kelly Boyd and Rohan McWilliam note that ‘The nineteenth century was characterised by its elaborate enthusiasm for family life across the classes…. By the time Victoria ascended the throne, family life was viewed as the basis for a healthy society’ (Boyd and McWilliam, 2007, p.306).  However, as Tolstoy puts it at the beginning of Anna Karenina (1978 [1878])], a novel featuring a character that bears comparison with both Emma Bovary and Edna Pontellier, not all families were alike. ‘Family life’, even within a middle-class setting, encompassed a range of modes of living with varying degrees of satisfaction and self-fulfilment for its members.

The prevalence of premature death indicates the potential for the family to fracture and recombine.  In Dombey and Son, Fanny – the first Mrs Dombey – dies shortly after Paul’s birth and he himself dies in childhood; Edith Granger – the second – is a widow and becomes a stepmother; young Walter Gay has lost both parents and lives with his uncle.  In The Portrait of a Lady, Osmond’s first wife has died, Isabel becomes a stepmother and loses a young baby.  Edna in The Awakening had lost her mother when young and Robert and Victor have lost their father.  As this pattern suggests, life expectancy increased and puerperal and infant mortality declined across the nineteenth century among all social classes, particularly from the 1870s (Cunningham, 2004, p.94; Hobsbawm, 1994, p.193) and became a less prevalent motif in fiction.  In line with decreasing infant mortality, from 1875 women began to have fewer children (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.193) and large literary families like the Toodle family in Dombey and Son become less common.

Sebastian Mitchell (2000a, p.151) considers familial relationships in Dombey and Son as a whole to be unstable, and given how easily the catastrophe of death might occur it would not be surprising if they were.  Yet it is not entirely true.   It is one of the novel’s ironies that, despite Dombey’s distaste, the working-class Toodles have all the merits the middle-class family might take for granted, excepting the unfortunate blot of Rob the Grinder.  The group that assembles at the Midshipman is similarly a close-knit, if temporary, ‘benevolent community’ (Mitchell, 2000b, p.163) that mimics positive attributes of the family structure.  The Dombey household is dysfunctional in comparison to both; until, that is, it is reconstituted after the marriage of Florence and Walter.  Contentment within the family for Dickens is not yoked to economic status but rather depends on interpersonal dynamics – money alone is not sufficient for a comfortable home life.  The other two novels do not have such neat narrative closure: in The Portrait of a Lady the ending is ambiguous as it is left open whether Isabel returns to Osmond, while Edna offers the ultimate rejection of her family life.  Each of these families ‘is unhappy after its own fashion’ (Tolstoy, 1978, p.13).

 As he wrote in his 1908 Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James saw novels generally in structural terms, as ‘The house of fiction’ with ‘not one window but a million’ (James, 2009 [1881], p.7).  Linked to family dynamics is the role of the house the family inhabits, buildings often acting as a metaphor for the state of relationships.  They range from the affluent upper-middle class but cold Dombey town house, the warmth of the home of Sir Barnet and Lady Skettles, to the marginal, both economically and geographically, dwelling of John and Harriet Carker (the Harker siblings form a further variant on the familial establishment, and Catherine Waters sees the emphasis on brother/sister relationships in Dombey and Son as suggestive of ‘sexual ambiguity’ (Waters, 2001 [1988], p.263).  After Paul’s death the Dombey house is forbidding and neglected, until Dombey remarries.  Its refurbishment proves only skin-deep, like the marriage of Mr and Mrs Dombey.  By contrast The Midshipman is cluttered but welcoming, as is the Toodle home (with numerous thriving children).  Gardencourt, the Touchett country estate, is welcoming whereas Palazzo Roccanera, the house shared by Isabel and Osmond, lacks warmth.  Edna signals her independence by moving from the grand home she occupies with her husband into the tiny ‘pigeon house,’ which is firmly not a dwelling suitable for a family.

A crucial concept in understanding the middle-class family is that of ‘separate spheres’.  This was the division between the private sphere of the home (the female domain where the ‘natural’ role of loyal wife and nurturing mother could be fulfilled) and that of public life outside, including business, which was the male domain.  Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall trace the development of this gender division in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as an accompaniment of industrialisation; prior to the period, domestic and work spaces usually coincided but by the middle of the century this was unusual for middle-class families (Davidoff and Hall, 2007, pp.309ff).  For the husband, the domestic sphere supposedly had a soothing function.  John Tosh quotes Henry Mayhew’s approving sentiments on the middle-class home as a sanctuary for men from the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism, a ‘morally wholesome environment’ where ‘all the cares and jealousies of life are excluded’ (Tosh, 2007, p.320).  Dombey’s example, however, indicates that a rigid home/business bifurcation has to be treated cautiously.  The home could be an adjunct to the place of business, for example for confidential discussions, but more discreetly to cement and extend business relations.  These apparently gender-determined separate spheres actually had a boundary that was permeable to an extent.

Also undermining the complete separation of the spheres, Edith can be seen as a business asset, her acquisition signalling Dombey’s success in his personal life, and thus signifying sound judgement in his business activities.  There is an instrumental attitude to marriage on both sides: Dombey marries Edith as an adornment to his prestige while Edith marries for security.  Dombey is attracted to Edith’s pride because he complacently feels it matches and will enhance his own: ‘He had imagined that the proud character of his second wife would have been added to his own – would have merged into it, and exalted his greatness.’ (Dickens, 1995 [1846-8], p.519).  He fails to understand in his solipsistic self-regard that the nature of pride is that it is not inclined to bend to the will of another.  As head of the family, in the way that he is head of the firm, the undermining of his authority has an emasculating effect.  That he considers Edith to be a subordinate in his role as paterfamilias, in the way that he regards his clerks, is shown by his attempt at humiliating her by using James Carker as his emissary.  Léonce also treats Edna as a subordinate where the children are concerned.  When he returns from an evening out he wakes her and inconsiderately chats while undressing.  Then he claims that one of the children has a fever, and when Edna demurs he charges her with neglect.  Edna dutifully checks, but meanwhile Léonce goes to sleep, leaving her fully awake.

Financial aspects to marriage feature strongly in nineteenth-century novels, for example providing a common motif for Jane Austen.  Laura in The Woman in White (Collins, 1996 [1859-60]) is attractive to Sir Perceval because of her inheritance.  That these financial considerations were typical of the time is indicated by Aşkın Haluk Yildrim: ‘In the Victorian era, marriage was far different from the romantic affairs often delineated in many novels of the time. Love actually had little or nothing to do in the majority of matrimonies that took place’ (Yildrim, 2012, p.118).  In The Portrait of a Lady, Gilbert Osmond marries Isabel both for her money and intelligence (assuming incorrectly that he can mould her to his will and make her discard those ideas – of which he believes she has too many – that are not to his taste).  Initially Isabel, unfortunately for her, is unable to see past Osmond’s superficial charms into his real character and refuses to listen to the advice of those more experienced around her who distrust Osmond’s motives.

After marriage Isabel would have limited property rights (a situation that improved gradually in England with the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882), but worse, the Victorian husband might consider his wife as an extension of his property.  This applies to Dombey, Osmond and Léonce, each of which sees his wife as a possession.  When Léonce sees Edna is sunburned, he is described ‘looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage’ (Chopin, 1984 [1899], p.44).  Later she laughs at Robert for thinking that Léonce might set her free, saying, ‘I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not.’ (Chopin, p.167)  It is ironic that Edna swims out into the sea directly after Robert leaves a note saying goodbye, thereby preventing her from attaining ‘possession of the beloved one,’ that is, from seeing Robert in the very terms that she herself rejects (Chopin, p.172)

Issues of female identity and the way it is formed and maintained by societal pressures are present in all three novels.  In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel and Madame Merle discuss how the self is defined in relation to others, where it begins and ends, and by implication what obligations are imposed on the self in relation to others (James, 2009 [1881], p.207; Correa, 2001, p.121).  Selfhood is not unconstrained but works within the parameters of society’s mores, as transmitted through the family and social intimates.  An element of the depiction of identity is the crude dichotomy of women into the purity of angels on the one side and fallen women on the other.  Lynda Nead discusses fallen women in her wider examination of prostitution, pointing out that a fall implies fall from something, and was thus class-specific.  ‘The category of “prostitute”,’ she argues, ‘was not fixed or internally coherent; it was accommodating and flexible and could define any woman who transgressed the bourgeois code of morality.’ (Nead, 2007,p.349)  This is a broad definition, not necessarily entailing a financial transaction, and surprising to modern eyes with a less censorious attitude to sexuality.  On the other hand entering marriage for financial considerations might be seen as mercenary, but was not morally transgressive.

Applying the term fallen to Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary, who both transgress bourgeois morality as embodied in the family, shows how far outside the pale of respectability they have travelled.  Alice Marwood’s status in Dombey and Son as a fallen woman (and ex-transported felon) is clear-cut, but what is explicit in her case is implicit in that of Edna half a century later.  Creole society was much more relaxed socially than English or Protestant American society (Asbee, 2001b, p283) but Edna still contravenes its norms, and only escapes obloquy by her death.  Jarlath Killeen (2003, p.413) makes a somewhat extreme remark that The Awakening is ‘a novel of female emancipation, charting Edna Pontellier’s movement from being a white slave of the patriarchal family to individual personhood.’  In what sense her life can be thought to be slavery is unclear. After all, Edna’s father had been a Confederate colonel in the American Civil War, thus likely to have a clear notion of what slavery really meant.  However, ‘white slavery’ introduces a further set of connotations revolving around prostitution, hinting that the Pontellier marriage is a financial transaction in much the same way that the marriage of Dombey and Edith was.

An issue pertinent to an assessment of the family in The Portrait of a Lady and The Awakening is the predominantly middle-class, and controversial, phenomenon of the ‘New Woman’ (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.192), an example of which can be seen in James’ depiction of the journalist Henrietta Stackpole.  The New Woman was a reflection of increasing rights for women through the latter part of the century as they slowly gained a legal identity separate from husbands and fathers.  This amounted to the dream ‘of living beyond patriarchal Victorian culture’ (Gilbert, 1984, p.17), and incorporated an awareness that marriage was predicated on property relations (Ledger, 2007, p.156); Henrietta does become engaged eventually, so the ‘dream’ could easily clash with reality.  The increasing independence of middle-class women can be vividly seen by contrasting mid-century Dombey and Son and fin de siècle The Awakening.

Aşkın Haluk Yildrim discerns two types of female in Dickens’ novels (Yildrim, 2012, p.121).  Put simply, these are ‘the rewarded’ and ‘the defeated,’ their fates determined by whether they adhere to or transgress the boundaries of acceptable social roles.  Dickens though subverts this simple blueprint.  Fanny, conforming to Dombey’s wishes, is barely noticed by him, in life or death, in his overwhelming desire for an heir to carry on the family line.  Nor can one consider Edith defeated, despite her desertion, because her actions are justified by those of her husband.  In her final conversation with Florence (Dickens, 1995, p.801) she has lost her pride but not her dignity and she holds to her determination not to subordinate herself to Dombey.  Florence, sentimentally drawn, is also justified in her actions because she attempts to live within the role her father has assigned her, and only abandons that role when he assaults her.  Edith is perhaps unusual for her time in escaping punishment (or defeat) for transgression of social codes, but family structures are rigid and the stigma of Edith leaving is considerable, and not only for Edith herself.  Dombey’s own authority is undermined by his inability to control his wife.  Edith after fleeing Dombey’s house is completely disgraced, and eventually lives in exile in France.  Later in the century, with structures relaxing, it is perfectly acceptable for Mrs Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady to live separately from her husband in Italy, on her own terms.  Countess Gemini, who has had numerous affairs, is frowned upon but not ostracised.  Whether Isabel leaves Osmond or goes back to him is left open; the choice though does not revolve around the sacredness of family life, as it might have done earlier in the century.

Similarly, ‘The Awakening revolves around the key concerns of New Woman fiction – marriage, motherhood, women’s desire for a separate identity and bodily autonomy…’ (Heilmann, 2008, p.93).  An example of the increasing emphasis on depicting women as separate individuals with their own wants and desires is Edna’s refusal to see herself through the prism of husband and family.  Whereas Edith bonds with Florence in Dombey and Son, and Isabel with Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady, Edna rejects her own children as much as she does Léonce and what their life together represents, in the process rejecting the weight of the previous history of bourgeois expectations for wives and mothers.  She is content for her children to have an extended stay with their paternal grandmother in the country while Léonce is in New York, paying them only a short visit.  On a previous stay with their grandmother, the narrator avers that ‘Their absence was a sort of relief,’ even though she would not admit it to herself (Chopin, 1984 [1899], p.63).  To confirm this refusal to be identified completely with the role of wife and mother, as Edna is swimming away from the shore at the conclusion of the novel she thinks of her husband and children: ‘They were a part of her life.  But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.’ (Chopin, 1984, p.176)  She refuses to attend her sister’s wedding, bringing reproaches from her father, content to cast off the trappings of family in all its manifestations

Bert Bender examines the influence of Darwinism on Chopin, and her rejection of Darwin’s deterministic conclusions about the female role in natural and sexual selection for women’s status as autonomous beings.  Bender argues that Chopin is keen to establish that females are more active participant in the process of selection than Darwin credits.  The role of children is crucial to the analysis: ‘As a meditation on the Darwinian reality of Edna’s life, The Awakening begins and ends with the essential fact of motherhood.’ (Bender, 2001, p.490)  He notes that Edna sees no future for herself in terms of her relationships with men, and her despair extends to her children as they are the products of the same pressures of sexual selection that have created her unhappy domestic situation, to the extent that her children have become her ‘antagonists’ (Bender, 2001, p496).  That this is not an atypical situation is suggested by Sally Ledger, who notes the commonness of unfulfilling or tragic motherhood in fiction at this time (2007, p.162).

While other mothers at Grand Isle ‘esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels’ (Chopin, 1984, p.51), at the end of the novel, in a piece of blunt symbolism, Edna sees a bird ‘with a broken wing … circling disabled down, down to the water’ (Chopin, 1984, p.175).  For her, self-determination and family life have become mutually exclusive, and the only solution is to relinquish both.  The contrast is with Adèle Ratignolle, Edna’s friend, who suffers badly in childbirth.  Adèle subordinates herself to husband and domestic responsibilities in a way that Edna, following her awakening, cannot.  Even after her ‘sufferings’ Adèle can still exhort: ‘Think of the children, Edna.  Oh think of the children!  Remember them!’ (Chopin, 1984, p.170)  Edna does remember them, but in a reflexive way still wishes to place her body and soul beyond the call of others, even if it means putting them beyond her own.

As the domestic roles of women changed during this period, so did those of men.  Hugh Cunningham argues that ‘… middle-class men in the period 1830-80 lived in a culture of domesticity,’ actively engaged in the rearing of children.  In the last decades of the century though, he continues, this focus shifted to the wider world and it became ‘unmasculine’ to be too immersed in domestic life. (Cunningham, 2004, p94).  Yet here too it is dangerous to generalise.  While men may have valued the benefits of domesticity as a bulwark against the world, we can see from the example of Dombey that this did not necessarily translate into a desire to be involved too closely in the upbringing of children, apart from laying down guidelines for this to be accomplished to their satisfaction.  On the other hand, Osmond’s closeness to Pansy strikes the modern reader as suspiciously tactile.  She is described in words that infantilise her, consistently referred to as a ‘child’ even though she is in her mid-to-late teens during the course of the narrative.  At the beginning of Chapter XXIV she is called ‘little’ twice, clearly not referring to her size, once by the narrator, and by Osmond as ‘my little girl’ (James, 2009, p.257).  While they share a materialistic and instrumental attitude towards their daughters, Osmond is keen to manipulate Pansy into a marriage with Lord Warburton, ignoring her marital choice of Ned Rosier, and his controlling paternalism is the converse of Dombey’s in entirely ignoring the desires of Florence.  Good parenting, it would seem, lies in a middle course.

There is one aspect of Victorian family life that is easily overlooked.  Shelia Rowbotham posits that women were Hidden from History (Rowbotham, 1973), but middle-class family life could not have functioned without the employment of servants, mostly women (Hobsbawm notes that the percentage of men in service fell from 20 to 12 between 1841 and 1881; 1997, p.279) who were doubly hidden.  Some had a liminal status within the family, notably the governess, or Walter Hartright’s quasi-feminine position of art teacher in The Woman in White (Collins, 1996 [1859-60]), who hovered socially between family members and the upper servants.  Killeen (2003, p.422) points out that Edna’s awakening is possible thanks to servants: ‘Only because of their handy presence is she allowed the time and the space for the awakening of the New Woman mentality.’  Chief among these is the unnamed quadroon (that is, a quarter black; Asbee 2001a, p.249) who shoulders the burden of caring for the children in a maternal role that Edna herself is reluctant to adopt.   In Dombey and Son Dombey is obliged to hire a wet nurse after the death of Fanny.  As a mark of her subservient role Polly Toodle is given the name Richards, which ‘denies her identity as a wife and mother in another family’ (Klimaszewski, 2006, p.337).  She is forbidden to visit that family for the duration of her employment, betraying an ambivalent attitude towards those upon whom employers depended.  While Dombey subjects ‘Mrs Richards’ to a voyeuristic level of surveillance, Dickens in general treats her with respect.  However, in another example (along with the quadroon) of class and racial difference correlating, Joseph Bagstock’s unfortunate native servant in Dombey and Son is used as a comic foil to demonstrate how unpleasant the major is.  Other servants, from housemaids to butlers, are rarely seen in the novel.  In The Portrait of a Lady the great homes, and within them a comfortable mode of living, appear to function with little practical support.  We learn that a servant enters to tend the fire before Isabel’s lengthy meditation in Chapter XLII, and she requests fresh candles (James, p.419), but this is a rare appearance.  In all of these middle-class families there is an assumption that service is part of the natural order, and none of the three authors is concerned to examine this dependence.

It is testament to the richness of these novels that singly and together they neither completely endorse nor completely challenge preconceived notions of the middle-class nineteenth-century family.  This is not surprising, given that they were written in different times and places by authors with differing views of social relations.  The richest of the novels in its depiction and critique of the family generally, as opposed to marital relations more specifically, is Dombey and Son, and as Mitchell (2000a, p.156) notes, it supplies ‘examples of relationships which are more complex and unseemly than the more rigid ideological accounts of the family would allow,’ threatened with distortion as families were by free-market economic demands that constantly endangered their equilibrium.  Dickens was writing at a time of social, economic and political upheaval so it is not surprising that the family structure should resist easy categorisation.  The end of the century saw developments in the recognition of women’s rights, challenging patriarchal authority, and these developments fed through to literature; the situation in 1899 was very different from that in 1848.  It is not surprising that our image of the nineteenth-century family is contradictory, given that it incorporates a diversity of models which undermines any notion of a stable, unitary, ‘Victorian family.’  In their various ways, Dickens, James and Chopin assist us in understanding that.


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