THE VICTORIAN woman is a familiar figure. We know her as Marmee, as Melanie Wilkes, as Victoria herself. We recognize her by her devotion to her family and home, by her tireless activity in the service of others, by her good works. Now, thanks to historian Harvey Green's The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, we also know why this bustling do-gooder is so recognizable. The forces that created this "perfection of womanhood . . . the wife and mother, the center of the family, the magnet that draws man to the domestic altar, that makes him a civilized being . . . the light of the home," are still with us today.
Green, who is historian of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, the repository of an enormous collection of American Victoriana, has analyzed thousands of household objects, labor-saving devices, advertisements, letters, fiction, advice manuals, and diaries and has come up with a fascinating, lavishly illustrated, and very disturbing inventory of the means by which "woman's place" was defined in the years between 1870 and 1910 and by which it has been maintained for the past century.
The post-Civil War Total Woman was, on the one hand, the saintly conservator of society's private--religious and moral--values; on the other hand, she was the unpaid drudge who bore the blame for the faults and shortcomings of the outer, "male" world. It was she who had failed if her husband was unfaithful or a drunkard or unsuccessful in the world. As Green writes, the very future of WASP pre-eminence on our shores was placed on her shoulders, as the popular notion spread that "white Anglo-Saxon Protestants would have fewer children, while the 'lower races' of working-class immigrants and Roman Catholics would grow in number, and ultimately claim the power and influence of the established elite."
So, the light of the home cooked, cleaned house, kept her children and husband well fed and clothed, and tried to keep the cracks in her facade concealed. And there were plenty of cracks. Green's history is most grimly compelling when he catalogues the dark side of middle-class Victorian housewifery. Far from being the endlessly fruitful creature she was urged to be, in fact, in her heyday, the average family size dropped from seven (five children) in 1800 to about five-and-a-half (3.42 children) in 1910. Since birth control devices were scarce, and contemporary information about conception was just plain wrong (it was believed that conception occurred not in the middle of the menstrual cycle, but just before menstruation), birth control after that fact was common. Abortifacients could be ordered by mail, and an abortion itself cost about $10 in major cities. So popular was this form of family planning, that in 1898, the Michigan Board of Health estimated that one-third of all pregnancies were artificially terminated.
The inequity of woman's lot was reflected in the diseases she succumbed to, especially neurasthenia, the catch-all affliction whose symptoms ranged from "sensitivity to weather changes" and insomnia, to "dry skin, yawning, and hopelessness." Tellingly, when the malady was originally diagnosed--in successful urban men--experts linked it to "Protestant culture, maintaining that Roman Catholic cultures were free from it because they lacked individualism, intellectual challenges, and social intercourse." When the disease was diagnosed in women, though, it became a symptom of idleness, not industriousness, and neurasthenic women were urged to discover their "nobler sphere," and to find a cure in a renewed dedication to housework, baking bread, canning fruit, and home economy. So, in neurasthenia, Green says, "what began as a disease of the urban 'brain worker,' who occupied his place in the advanced corporate, urban world because he had evolved to a higher, more sophisticated form of life, was transformed into a disease of indolent women of leisure." Eventually, patented cures, sold by the carload to neurasthenic women, became inextricably linked to the disease itself: "Formerly treated with a variety of drugs, electricity, and alcoholic patent medicines, it was by 1905 thought to be the effect of such compounds."
Again and again, advances in industrial and medical technology that might have made the Victorian housewife's job easier, that might have freed her to enter the public sphere, were twisted into means of further entrapment. The Light of the Home details the elaborate housekeeping routines that dominated women's lives, despite the labor-saving household devices that began to flood the market during this era. Bread-baking, for instance, dominated one or two days out of every week, and as late as 1900, 75 percent of all bread consumed in this country was still home-baked. Laundering, despite the invention of home washing machines, remained a day of hellish labor over boiling caldrons of soapy water. Ironing took another day, and sewing was literally never ending, as more elaborate fashions ate up much of the free time created by the invention and popularity of the sewing machine. Sorehead critics of mechanization even delcared that "women of the present day labor under the disadvantage of being placed where most of the comforts of life are to be obtained without physical effort, and this fact has probably been at the root of the deterioration of bodily strength which is the common observance of travellers in regard to American women."
The cure proposed was simple: a return to the practices of values of an earlier time. The centennial celebration in 1876, especially, created a popular nostalgia for the homey values and strong limbs of colonial women, although their lives, even according to dewy-eyed Victorian accounts, must have been ones of unending toil.
So, unliberated by the advances that might have lightened her burdens, the Victorian woman retreated into the home, only venturing out in a highly ritualized series of formal visits and encounters. Gradually, though, her range of permissible social contacts broadened and became the means for her manumission. Calling on acquaintances, shopping in department stores (the "middle-class woman's counterpart to the private men's clubs of the late nineteenth century,") reading novels in which "hostility toward men, the church and marriage . . . were condoned in a fictional framework," and above all, the growing interest in healthful exercise as an antidote to feminine sloth began to give women a sanctioned role in the outer world. Active sports ended the tyranny of the corset; bicycling and golf gave young women (and their suitors) privacy; the new rage for camping permitted relaxed, prolonged encounters between the sexes, and roller skating and ice skating afforded an opportunity for physical contact that simply hadn't been possible before.
Finally, in the early 20th century, women began to emerge from their economically powerless, second-class state, a process that continues today. Green's examination of 19th-century kitchen middens is as interesting as the humor and persistence with which he links his Victorian subjects with the women of our day. In explaining our past, he has provided insight into our present, especially in his analysis of the economics of a sexually stratified society: "The separation of the economic (male) sector from the domestic (female) sector . . . placed women in the position of culpability for societal ills, but denied them access to the real means of rectifying them."
So, the personal was political, even then. And the personal lives of Victorian women are not merely visible to us through The Light of the Home, the sheer weight of detail makes them familiar, too. Reading The Light of the Home, one begins to feel as comfortable in a world of calling cards and plush lambrequins and dados as our great-grandmothers must have been. Through sheeer accumulation of detail, by sorting through the contents of a thousand attics, through Green's research we come, metaphorically, upon oddities and devices for which we no longer have any use. But here and there, among the well-preserved clutter, we come across objects and fashions that, strangely and poignantly fit us to a T. The following books are scheduled to be reviewed this week in the Style section of The Washington Post: SOLO RUN, by Hans Herlin. Once more we journey into the looking-glass world of espionage, where nothing is as it seems, and no one can be trusted. Reviewed by Lawrence Block. HONORABLE INTENTIONS: The Manners of Courtship in the '80s, by Cheryl Merser. Ladies and gentlemen followed the advice of Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post; but how do modern men and women regulate their social and sexual lives? Anecdotes and advice. Reviewed by Susan Dooley. A LONGING IN THE LAND: Memoir of a Quest, by Arthur Gregor. The Americanization of Arthur Gregor--from Viennese ,emigr,e to New Yorker poet. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley. TENDER PREY, by Patricia Roberts. A psychological thriller about a child-killer, hunted by a Brooklyn cop. Reviewed by Dan McCoubrey. FORCED LANDING, by Thomas H. Block. Airline captain Drew O'Brien contends with hijackers and safely lands a DC-9 on the deck of a World War II- era aircraft carrier. Reviewed by Douglas B. Feaver.