The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Domesticity: An aspect of the patriarchal, nineteenth-century doctrine of separate spheres, according to which a woman’s place was in the privacy of the home whereas a man’s place was in the wider, public world. Domesticity implied a wide range of “feminine” attitudes, behaviors, and character traits that were especially expected of middle- and upper-class women and that stood in stark contrast to the attitudes and activities (such as adventure, commerce, and intellectual inquiry) associated with “masculine” life.

In Victorian England, the phrase “angel in the house” was used to refer to the domestic ideal of womanhood. The phrase conjured up the image of a dutiful young wife and mother who embodied the virtues of marital fidelity, patience, kindness, self-control, submissiveness, and Christian charity. This ideal, domestic woman not only provided her children with a moral and religious education but also sought to make the family home a cheerful refuge for her hardworking husband. Sarah Stickney Ellis described this latter aspect of a woman’s domestic duty in her book The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (1858), in which she explained that women should provide a “relief from the severer duties of life” so that men can “pursue the necessary avocation of the day” while “keep[ing] as it were a separate soul for his family, his social duty, and his God.”

Domesticity and the larger doctrine of separate spheres for men and women implied by the domestic ideal are relevant to literature and literary study for a number of reasons, many of which have been identified by practitioners of feminist and gender criticism. For one thing, the ideal of domestic femininity made it extremely difficult for women to become writers. Young women being prepared for a life of nurturing others within the home received a very different kind of education than young men preparing for life outside its confines, and women who did manage to read widely and hone their writing skills were discouraged from pursuing writing careers, since writing was understood to be a public, and therefore masculine, activity. Furthermore, because writers tend to draw on their own knowledge and experience, many women who managed to write and publish in spite of societal discouragement confined themselves to domestic subjects and were careful to conform to stylistic proprieties. More ambitious women writers, such as the Brontë sisters, chose to publish their works under male pseudonyms.

In addition to having affected women’s careers as writers, the values associated with domesticity are evident in the content of nineteenth-century fiction and poetry. Nineteenth-century novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) reflect the prevailing social view that, for a proper young woman, one of the few acceptable alternatives to being a wife and mother was the undesirable job of governess — a mother and teacher rolled into one, a kind of substitute angel in some rich person’s great house. Poets, as well as novelists of the period, tended to depict women who were not wives, mothers, dutiful daughters, or good governesses as evil homewreckers (or even nation-wreckers). As Nina Auerbach argued in Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (1982), “women exist only as spiritual extremes: there is no human norm of womanhood, for she has no home on earth, but only among divine or demonic essences.” Thus, the “loose woman” — as depicted by William Makepeace Thackeray (in Vanity Fair [1848]), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (in Idylls of the King [1859]), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (in his poem “Jenny” [1870]) is only the flip side of the angel in the house, a dark manifestation of the ideology governing the doctrine of separate spheres and the ideal of domesticity.

The cult of domesticity, however, was not just manifested in literary works; it pervaded nineteenth-century political discourse more broadly, as exemplified in the Supreme Court’s 1876 majority opinion that one Myra Bradwell, though qualified in every way except sex, should not be allowed to practice law in the state of Illinois. “The domestic sphere,” Justice Bradley wrote, is “that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood… . The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”