"Domestic fiction" is a term used to describe a body of popular narrative literature written by, for, and about women that flourished during the mid-nineteenth century. Also called "woman's fiction" by the critic Nina Baym, who was one of the first scholars to study the genre in great detail, this literature focuses on the daily domestic lives of young, mostly middle-class white girls as they grow into womanhood. The plots of domestic fiction deliver didactic life lessons that members of the dominant culture considered useful in preparing nineteenth-century female readers for their lives as adult women. The life lessons conveyed in this fiction mirror the Protestant Christian values of the time and usually subscribe to what Barbara Welter has termed "the cult of True Womanhood," a nineteenth-century cultural ideal of femininity that upheld the four virtues of purity, piety, domesticity, and submission.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY
Historians have often characterized the nineteenth-century United States using the paradigm of "separate spheres," the notion that gender differences between men and women relegated them to different social, economic, and cultural roles. While cultural and social history is more complex than such a paradigm allows, and men's and women's lives probably functioned a bit more fluidly, this concept is useful for understanding domestic fiction. From the 1820s through the 1860s, advice and gift books, children's textbooks, household manuals, periodicals, and popular fiction, including domestic fiction, reinforced the ideology of separate spheres, which held that a proper woman's place was at home, tending to the spiritual, emotional, physical, and moral needs of her husband and children. As Nancy Cott has argued, the image of the "lady" served as a model of femininity for the age. The ideal of the True Woman persisted in the popular imagination, and women writers and characters of the nineteenth century were often judged on their adherence to these values.
In reality, of course, the ideal of separate spheres was inaccessible to those whose economic circumstances prevented its practice. Many women worked in factories or as servants or slaves and certainly could not conform to the ideal of a True Woman that circulated in print any more than women's lives today resemble those of "Cosmo girls" on magazine covers. Thus, although the cultural icon of the True Woman saturated mid-nineteenth-century popular media as a universal and achievable Christian imperative, it ignored the realities of class status. Many women, including women of color, lacked access to resources that would enable them to practice this ideal. For example, enslaved women could not control the way their masters used their bodies, which were also commodities and unprotected by the sanctity of home. Denied homes of their own and ownership of their own bodies, enslaved women could not educate and nurture their children, care for their husbands (marriage among slaves was forbidden in many states), or practice Christianity. Submission, one of the four cardinal virtues of the True Woman, according to Welter, meant something entirely different in the context of slavery, for instance. Indeed, domesticity reinforced the link between black women and their physical bodies even as it functioned in an opposite manner for white women. As Gillian Brown observes, by making housework transcendent—separating white housekeepers from the products and processes of their labor, and disciplining their bodies into invisibility—domestic ideology divested white women of their corporeality, circumscribing their movements and possibilities in the world.
Nonetheless, the concepts of separate spheres and True Womanhood had important socioeconomic and cultural functions in the context of the era. Some aspects of nineteenth-century women's lives may have particularly suited them for the pursuit of piety. Women were largely responsible for care of the sick and preparation of the bodies of the dead; at a very young age, women of this time would have lost friends and family to death in childbirth or through incurable diseases such as consumption (tuberculosis). Christianity, as several critics have observed, is the ultimate democracy—the disempowered on earth are delivered into an equitable and even triumphant afterlife. Another socioeconomic function of True Womanhood and the notion of separate spheres, as Nancy Cott notes, is the rise of mercantile capitalism, which transformed the family from a self-supporting unit to one reliant on a larger market economy, which increasingly necessitated men's work outside of the home. The division of the culture into separate spheres, at least in the popular and historical imagination, may have evolved as a result of men's employment outside of the home and the need for the nation's moral and spiritual values to flourish in safety. The reliance on the marketplace may have led to an imagined split between workplace and home because the workplace functioned according to the arbitrary rules of capitalism, whereas the home could operate from a Christian worldview.
Several critics have argued that True Womanhood offered many benefits to women privileged to deploy it as a strategy. Cott and others have noted that domesticity gave women a vocation with intrinsic value outside of the shifting market. That is, Christian piety, moral character, and the care and education of children became a meaningful profession that united many white, middle-class women with common values and gave them what many historians characterize as "influence" over their husbands and sons. In her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) argued that women were accomplishing "the greatest work that ever was committed to human responsibility" (p. 14). Separate-sphere ideology led not merely to women's confinement in the home but to women's increasing solidarity outside of the home in their work with churches and reform organizations. Women organized for causes such as temperance, self-improvement, and the abolition of prostitution and slavery. One might even argue that this organization of white, middle-class women with shared concerns and values laid a foundation for the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to discuss the condition and rights of women, concerns encapsulated in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (1815–1902) Declaration of Sentiments. However, it can also be argued that domestic ideology represented another form of imperialism in its focus on the values and lives of certain women at the expense of others.
The typical plot of a domestic novel is comparable to the familiar Cinderella story, according to Nina Baym, who argues that these narratives recount the protagonist's trials and eventual triumph. Following the loss of her mother and often both parents, the main character, a young or adolescent girl, embarks on a voyage of self-discovery, usually within a circumscribed domestic sphere. Finding herself alone, powerless, and without parental love and guidance, the heroine faces cruel, selfish, or immoral adversaries as she struggles to retain the Christian values inculcated by her mother, a True Woman. Through trial after trial, the protagonist slowly acquires the qualities of True Womanhood and recognizes their centrality to her survival and success. The story usually ends when she has sufficiently mastered the arts of True Womanhood. Often, this moment coincides with finding the love of a kind, fiscally sound, and morally upright man, whose support ensures the heroine a home of her own. Critics disagree about the extent to which this typical ending undermines the message of self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and the importance of women's education that these novels undoubtedly relay.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) famously made a frustrated comment on the "d—–d mob of scribbling women," a reference to women writers of domestic fiction whose hold on popular taste assured their commercial success. These women writers, including Susan Warner (1819–1885), Fanny Fern (pseudonym of Sara Parton; 1811–1872), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), Maria Susanna Cummins (1827–1866), E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), widely known practitioners of the genre, treated the so-called woman's sphere—the home—with gravity and even realism. By the late nineteenth century, however, many literary critics, including Henry James (1843–1916) and William Dean Howells (1837–1920), agreed with Hawthorne's assessment and considered domestic fiction "romantic." The genre then fell out of favor—and print—and went generally unnoticed or was dismissed as "sentimental" by literary critics. This trend continued well into the twentieth century, as the foundation of literature as an academic discipline emphasized aesthetic complexity and literary formalism over historical and cultural approaches. Herbert Ross Brown acknowledged the enormous influence of the genre in The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789–1860 (1959), although his characterization of these novels as unrealistic escapism reiterated the common view. Finally, in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist critics in the academy revived domestic fiction as part of the expansion of the literary canon and the project of recovering "lost" works written by women.
In a 1977 study that examined the split between elite and popular literary culture, Ann Douglas sparked renewed interest in domestic fiction. Douglas pronounced the genre guilty of "debased religiosity" and "sentimental peddling of Christian belief" (p. 6) and held its practitioners responsible for the subsequent devaluation of so-called feminine values throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, Douglas was the first to consider domestic fiction in such detail. Her study maintained that the genre was historically and vitally important for an understanding of Victorian culture and modern readers' own immersion in contemporary mass culture. The following year Nina Baym answered Douglas's indictment of nineteenth-century "sentimental" values with Woman's Fiction, a survey of the genre and several of its key authors. While Douglas dismissed the values conveyed by these works, including passivity, Christianity, and self-sacrifice, Baym viewed the heroines of domestic fiction as intelligent, resourceful, and courageous. Instead of vilifying the home and the values associated with it, Baym insisted that the writers of domestic fiction viewed the home as a crucial alternative to American capitalism and industrialization. Baym discusses the heroine in domestic fiction in contrast to two other feminine types, the passive woman and the "thoroughly modern" woman. The former is characterized by her incompetence, fear, and undeveloped emotional and intellectual capabilities; the latter is demanding, selfish, and enamored of luxury, money, and power. While the heroines of domestic fiction are not flawless, Baym argues, they do possess the strength, courage, and wit to endure adversity in practical and resourceful ways. Baym views domesticity and its concomitant values of Christianity and love as a support system for women's strengths, desires, and fulfillment. Her book shifted scholars' understanding of the American literary canon away from its focus on what Baym herself had called in an earlier article "melodramas of beset manhood" and paved the way for a generation of feminist critics, including Judith Fetterley, Sharon Harris, and Annette Kolodny, whose renewed interest in the genre continues to influence the way we read American literature.
In 1984 Mary Kelley published Private Woman, Public Stage, which considers twelve women authors of nineteenth-century domestic fiction whom Kelley dubs "literary domestics": Caroline Howard Gilman, Maria Cummins, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mary Jane Homes, Maria McIntosh, Sarah Parton (Fanny Fern), Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Virginia Terhune, Susan Warner, and Augusta Evans Wilson. Relying on the personal papers of these authors, ten of whom chose public, nontraditional, and intellectual lives out of economic necessity, Kelley argues that all found writing at odds with domestic ideals. Comparing the personal histories of these women novelists with the novels they produced, Kelley is less optimistic than Baym about the role domesticity played. Kelley maintains that these authors compromised their work in the struggle to reconcile social expectations of women and women writers with their own sense of purpose so they could earn their living. She argues that women were second-class citizens even within the home but that the market demanded their complicity with domesticity. Writers of domestic fiction, therefore, were able to extend their roles as women into the public realm specifically because they were viewed as performing proper women's work. In some ways, Kelley suggests, they broadened the sphere of women's influence by speaking to the world beyond the home. In 1990 Susan Coultrap-McQuin extended Kelley's argument with a study of "gentleman publishers" of domestic fiction, editors who assumed guardianship of these women and their works and whose loyal patronage assisted them to financial success.
Jane Tompkins, however, took a more radical view of domestic fiction in her groundbreaking book Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (1985). Furthering both Douglas's and Baym's arguments about the central role of popular fiction in culture, Tompkins shifts attention away from aesthetic concerns ("But is it any good?") and focuses instead on the "designs" popular novels had on their audiences. This rhetorical and critical strategy, which relied on nineteenth-century readers' responses and an awareness of the historical context for the novels' production, enabled a new kind of discussion about the genre. Tompkins argues forcefully that this fiction traded in stereotypes and sentimentalism for the purpose of moving its audiences to action. In compelling chapters about Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851), Tompkins advances the notion of "sentimental power," a concept that influenced the next decades of criticism on American domestic fiction. Tompkins's basic point is that domestic fiction is feminist and political; its central goal, she contends, is to revolutionize the world from a woman's viewpoint. For the authors of domestic fiction, the home is neither escape nor refuge but a model of how a truly democratic world should be organized—with women at the helm. In Tompkins's reading, the Christian and feminine values of submission linked with the cultural ideal of True Womanhood become strategies for achieving godliness and ultimate power.
Tompkins's important argument does not accommodate the inherent biases of True Womanhood. One might ask from which woman's point of view the world should be reorganized. As the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883) famously asked, "And ar'n't I a woman?" The revolutionary aims of the domestic novel may represent the replacement of one form of imperialism with another. A collection of essays edited by Shirley Samuels, The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (1992), follows Tompkins in considering sentimentalism as a cultural phenomenon. However, Samuels's volume advances the ways that sentimentalism, which domestic fiction often deployed, depended on the representation and circulation not simply of ideals but of specific bodies marked by gender, race, and class. If, as Tompkins argues, this fiction attempts to move its audience to feeling and, through feeling, to action, then Samuels's collection examines how these important differences in bodies might influence feeling and impact action. Essays in this collection consider the politics and aesthetics of the convergence of sentimentalism and race within a specific historical context, which previous critics had not made a primary category of analysis.
PRACTITIONERS OF DOMESTIC FICTION
Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) may have inaugurated the genre of the domestic novel with A New-England Tale (1822), which focuses on women characters in domestic settings and delivers a moral lesson. Like most novels in this genre, the orphaned heroine relies on her inner resources, including piety, industry, and intelligence, to rise above her situation and even support herself as a schoolteacher. However, the story ends with marriage to a wealthy widower, who purchases the heroine's childhood home, which she had lost earlier in the novel through the deaths and bankruptcy of her parents. While the novel follows the Cinderella story of rags to riches via a wealthy husband, it also emphasizes the role of education, independence, and morality for women's success. Sedgwick followed this first novel with many others like it, including Redwood (1824), Clarence (1830), and The Linwoods (1835). Her most important novel, Hope Leslie (1827), is a historical novel that considers women's roles in early Puritan Massachusetts. Although not purely domestic fiction, the novel focuses on three strong and motherless female characters, each of whom represents one aspect of True Womanhood.
Published in 1851, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, the first American book to sell over a million copies, epitomizes the genre of domestic fiction. Contemporary reviews praised its delineation of character, its wholesome purpose and religious feeling, and its avoidance of sensationalism. The narrative follows Ellen Montgomery, a privileged and beloved child until the illness and death of her mother, as she learns the values of hard work, humility, and Christian self-sacrifice at the hands of her cruel and ironically named Aunt Fortune, who lives on a working farm. Befriended by a kind neighbor, the angelic Alice Humphreys, a True Woman who closely resembles Ellen's mother, Ellen finds spiritual and emotional comfort and guidance. In the Humphreys's home, Alice's brother John, a minister, essentially educates Ellen for the role of his wife, prescribing courses of reading in philosophy, language, and the Bible and reinforcing the importance of piety, purity, and submission. Perhaps Ellen's biggest challenge is acquiring the art of self-discipline, made even more difficult by the emotionally wrenching nature of her trials while in the care of tyrannical and exacting guardians. Critical response to the preponderance of tears in the novel has run the gamut from frustration to feminist acceptance. Nina Baym argues that the novel enables the expression of grief that accrues to powerlessness, while Jane Tompkins finds that only through the mastery of emotion can the heroine ally herself with true authority, God. Also problematic in this novel is the role that the highly masculinized John Humphreys plays in Ellen's education and survival. That is, the heroine exhibits not the qualities Baym lauds, resourcefulness and intelligence, but what Tompkins describes as the complete "extinction of her personality" (p. 600) through obedience to masculine and godly authority.
Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854) enjoyed enormous popularity, selling forty thousand copies in the first month of publication alone. Cummins's Gerty is less dependent and passive than Ellen, although she certainly must learn self-discipline. In a tale set in urban Boston, the orphaned heroine cares for the aging Mr. Flint until his death, when she is taken in by the kind, wealthy, and unobservant Emily Graham, who arranges for her education. The novel depicts a wide range of working- and middle-class characters who gain success based on their merit, including the heroine herself, who becomes a teacher. The outspoken, high-spirited, passionate, and impulsive Gerty, unlike Warner's Ellen, marries a man who is her equal at novel's end. Although Cummins's sympathetic characters are undoubtedly Christians, the story emphasizes the values of domesticity and industry, informed by life and educational experience, as most important. Similarly, Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall (1854), a thinly veiled autobiography of the author (Sara Parton), emphasizes the heroine's industry and resourcefulness as a writer struggling to support and retain custody of her children despite her cruel and stingy relatives. While Christianity is a given, these novels cite education and intelligent use of their wits as most central for women's survival in a masculine world.
Serialized in the antislavery newspaper National Era in 1851 and 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly was published in two volumes in 1852 and became the best-selling novel of the century. This narrative traces the stories of two slaves, Tom and Eliza, as they are forced deeper into slavery. Although the novel follows a different plot than typical domestic fiction, Stowe is generally considered the most important contributor to the genre, and her work embraces the values of maternal-based Christianity and True Womanhood fundamentally. Uncle Tom's Cabin, written as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted escaped slaves to be captured from nonslaveholding states and returned to their masters, considers slavery as a moral problem that right-thinking Christians are obligated to address through feeling and action. In its treatment of Tom, a passive, loving Christian black man, and Eliza, a young slave mother frantic to save her child and preserve her family, the novel demonstrates slavery's serious threat to the values of motherhood, Christianity, democracy, and the home. Stowe accomplishes her goals through frequent sentimental addresses that ask both male and female readers to consider the question "How would you feel?" and at the same time she deploys sentimental plot structures that show the evils of slavery, including its destruction of families and the depredation of the morals of both slaves and slaveholders.
Jane Tompkins argues that the novel's twinned heroes, the white child Eva and the black slave Tom, enact the sentimental conviction that death is the ultimate victory. By drawing a parallel to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, the suffering and deaths of the innocent Eva and Tom reminded nineteenth-century readers of the power of Christianity to change the world. Stowe's novel, Tompkins argues, hinges on the power of religious and emotional conversion to transform the course of history by placing women and their values at the center of the sociopolitical world, represented by the pacifist Quaker household of Rachel Halliday. Subsequent critics have questioned Stowe's vision, which, through its representation of black bodies as commodities, seems to leave racialized structures of power intact.
In 1859 two books of domestic fiction appeared that seem to critique domestic ideology and its possibilities for reform: E. D. E. N. Southworth's wildly popular The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap, published serially in the New York Ledger, and Harriet E. Wilson's virtually unknown Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North, Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There. Southworth's novel is often considered a parody of domestic fiction in that its heroine seems to mock True Womanhood by overplaying purity, piety, submission, and domesticity as a strategy to catch the villains that beset her. Like most heroines of domestic fiction, Capitola is orphaned, but she dresses as a newsboy to earn her living on the New York streets, where girls are not permitted (or advised) to work. Rescued by a grumpy "uncle," and raised in his southern mansion, Capitola, who does not realize she is an heiress, encounters a series of villains determined to get their hands on her money. Bored by domestic life and undaunted by bands of robbers, Indians, and would-be rapists, Capitola cross-dresses, rages, impersonates, and even fights a duel in her determination to save her reputation, create a just world, and have adventures. Although Southworth's witty and resourceful "Cap" seems to challenge previous models of domestic heroism, she does eventually marry and settle down, and the text reinforces the powerlessness of women central to all domestic fiction. The Hidden Hand, although comic, chronicles a sobering array of dangers that women faced: arrest, imprisonment, institutionalization, seduction, rape, forced marriage, submission to unfair laws, ruined reputations, poverty, isolation, exposure to the whims of white male authority, and even slavery. As with many other examples of the genre, the novel often ignores the race and class politics that enable Capitola's heroism and success.
Harriet E. Wilson's fictionalized autobiography Our Nig provides an important perspective on domestic fiction. Written to earn money for its ailing and poverty-stricken author, the novel traces the story of Frado, a mixed-race child abandoned by her white mother upon her father's death. Sold into indentured servitude, Frado is repeatedly and cruelly abused, both physically and emotionally, by her white mistress, Mrs. Bellmont, and her mistress's daughter. Although Mr. Bellmont and his sons are sympathetic, they are also ineffectual, like most men in domestic fiction. Like other heroines, Frado exhibits industry, seeks education, and devotes herself to her Bible. However, her staunch piety and drive for self-improvement are no match for the physical and economic hardships she faces from a life of incessant servitude. Unlike other domestic novels, Our Nig ends not with marriage but with the deserted and then widowed and penniless Frado struggling to support her child and avoid the workhouse. Wilson's story provides an important critique of domestic fiction, highlighting the race and class inequities inherent in but ignored by the genre and its critics. By depicting a heroine who possesses all of the qualities of a True Woman and yet is unable to triumph over her trials, Wilson characterizes domesticity as a white and middle-class ideal, an impossibility for free black women.
Domestic fiction continued to flourish throughout the 1860s in the publication of Augusta Evans Wilson's St. Elmo (1866), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Gates Ajar (1868), and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868–1869). Increasingly, however, authors experimented with different kinds of heroines, sometimes known as the "new woman." Described by Frances B. Cogan as the "all-American girl," this heroine, like Alcott's Jo March (or even Southworth's Capitola), is intelligent, physically fit, self-sufficient, and far less interested in self-sacrifice. Cogan locates the emergence of this heroine in women on the Oregon Trail, school-teachers, and even in the many self-sufficient, prolific women writers behind domestic fiction. By the 1870s, however, domestic fiction as a generic form seemed to have played itself out. Considered romantic and unrealistic by critics such as Henry James and William Dean Howells, domestic novels were replaced by so-called realist and local color fiction. The Cinderella plots of domestic fiction were inadequate to explain an increasingly complex society and its rapidly growing and diverse population of readers.
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Lisa M. Logan