Domestic and Sentimental Fiction

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Domestic and sentimental novels, most of them written by white, middle-class women, dominated the literary marketplace before the Civil War. These types of novels, purchased by millions of readers, most of them women, exerted tremendous cultural influence in the 1850s and 1860s. Although some men did write within the tradition, the domestic and sentimental forms became forever associated with female authors striving for popular acceptance with little interest in critical acclaim. Nineteenth-century and twentieth-century critics and scholars granted such works little respect, arguing they possessed predictable plots, happy endings, and stock characters; were concerned with a trivial "woman's sphere"; and were written in an often exaggerated style thick with melodramatic flourishes. However, feminist scholars of the 1970s and 1980s argued that these previously marginalized literary modes performed important "cultural work" (in Jane Tompkins's words), extending women's influence well beyond the domestic circle. As a result, a whole new field of scholarship formed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century to study the domestic and sentimental fiction written by women during the 1850s and 1860s and the culture that produced and was influenced by it.

But what happened to these extremely popular forms after the Civil War, as the domestic and religious ideology that sustained them began to lose cultural hegemony? Certainly, they did not just disappear. A few of the popular antebellum domestic and sentimental novelists continued to publish. Most important, however, the domestic and sentimental forms continued to exert their influence on a new generation of American women writers but with significant differences. While many women continued to write about what they knew, namely women's lives, they did so with an increasing focus on the restrictions rather than the empowering opportunities of domestic life. And as they continued to employ what Tompkins calls the "sentimental power" found in antebellum novels, they did so with a greater emphasis on realist techniques, such as unique characterization and the depiction of harsh realities previously deemed unfit for female writers and readers. The domestic and sentimental traditions in fiction, therefore, underwent important changes as women's lives were altered drastically by the Civil War and the social changes that followed it.


Most of the best-sellers of the 1850s and 1860s were domestic and sentimental novels written by women such as Susan Warner, E. D. E. N. Southworth, A. D. T. Whitney, and Augusta Jane Evans. These novels, in the words of Nina Baym, presupposed "that men as well as women find greatest happiness and fulfillment in domestic relations, by which are meant not simply spouse and parent, but the whole network of human attachments based on love, support, and mutual responsibility" (p. 27). The "cult of domesticity" that buttressed these novels posited the affectionate relationships that are sustained in the home as the model for how human beings should interact, as opposed to the competition and greed governing business and political relationships in the public sphere. The sentimental technique of eliciting sympathy from the reader for less-fortunate characters was tied to the idea of "separate spheres," particularly the idea that the domestic sphere of women was the haven of compassion and, ultimately, should provide a model for civic life. In addition, these novels promoted a kind of "domestic feminism" by making their heroines models of an idealized femininity with the power to overcome vice and immorality. Like Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the female characters are closer to God and therefore are the conduit for others to receive grace; or like Gerty in Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), they learn to rein in their unruly impulses and become the center of a re-created Eden in the home. What these heroines either model or learn, time and again, is that they can harness the power of "true womanhood"—that is, the power of womanly influence—only by subordinating their own wishes for self-fulfillment to the ideal of service to others. The reward for such sacrifice is most often the hand of a man who has proven himself to possess domestic values or who is to be reformed by the heroine's loving guidance. As a result, most of these novels follow a young woman through a series of trials as she learns to accept her role, culminating in her marriage to a man worthy of her sacrifice.

A few of the domestic writers continued to produce popular novels after the 1860s, including E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899), who published until 1894. Susan Warner (1819–1885) published twenty novels between 1870 and her death. And Stowe (1811–1896), one of the nation's foremost promoters of the cult of domesticity—in her novels and articles and in the domestic manual she coauthored with her sister, Catherine Beecher—tried to adapt her valorization of domestic life to a modern, urban setting in her three New York novels, Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel (1871), My Wife and I; or, Harry Henderson's History (1871), and We and Our Neighbors; or, The Records of an Unfashionable Street (1873). Her last novel, Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (1878), returns to rural New England of the early nineteenth century and lovingly portrays quotidian rituals of the home and farm, leading up to the heroine's marriage and domestic bliss.

By the 1870s, however, it was clear that the heyday of domestic and sentimental fiction was waning. With the grim reality of war and its aftermath all around them and in the press, readers either sought escape in nostalgic local color fiction or demanded more realistic portrayals of increasingly complex ways of life in America. As a result, even the hugely popular E. D. E. N. Southworth, who through sheer productivity sustained a lucrative career as an author, did not match her earlier sales. In addition, as Richard Brodhead argues in Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America, the literary marketplace of the 1860s and 1870s became increasingly divided between the literary magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and the nonliterary or popular magazines, such as Peterson's and Frank Leslie's Illustrated. In its early years, the Atlantic Monthly (founded in 1857) had published many sentimental and domestic tales, but as Brodhead notes, during and after the war it experienced a "palpable stiffening of its selection criteria," resulting in the exclusion of many of its female contributors, who would find remunerative work to do for the more popular magazines. Many women writers pushed themselves in new literary directions, producing local color stories and realistic novels in line with changing literary tastes. However, the domestic and sentimental traditions continued to influence postbellum women writers, who often employed sentimental literary techniques but challenged the pieties of domestic ideology and plots. In essence, sentimentalism became more and more detached from the cult of domesticity, with which it had been intertwined during the antebellum years.


The separation of male and female spheres that was the backbone of domestic ideology underwent significant challenges as the patterns of women's lives began to change during the Civil War (1861–1865). Women participated in all kinds of war work that took them out of the home, such as nursing, organizing fairs to raise money for the war effort, serving as clerks in governmental offices, and working in factories to produce ammunition and uniforms. In addition, women all over the North and South filled the voids left by their men in the field and in commerce. Although nearly all of them returned to more traditional domestic work after the war, the notion that women had no place out-side the home had been dispelled. Perhaps more significant, marriage rates plummeted as over 600,000 men who went off to war did not return. Women left without the opportunity to fulfill their traditional roles as wives and mothers confronted new choices about how to live their lives. In Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) words, rather than be "sour, spiteful spinster[s], with nothing to do but brew tea, talk scandal and tend a pocket-handkerchief," many chose to "devote themselves to some earnest work" in fields such as "philanthropy, art, literature, music, [or] medicine" (p. 203). Many white, middle-class American women who had been raised to believe that their sole purpose in life was to create a happy home and devote themselves to the benefit of others began to assert their right to live for themselves. The social changes set in motion by the Civil War also began to erode the cultural hegemony of the domestic feminine ideal, the so-called angel in the house. Young women began to think of themselves as unique individuals rather than "true women," initiating the decades-long movement toward the independent "new woman," who would become a major cultural phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century.

It is important to remember that the majority of nonwhite and lower-class women did not have the luxury of trying to live up to ideals of domestic femininity, nor did they participate in such ideological shifts about their roles. Other social upheavals of the postwar years, such as Reconstruction and the abolition of slavery, the Indian wars, urbanization, and industrialization tended to have a much greater influence on their lives. Works by women of color, which flourished in the 1890s, often took up issues of social injustice. While antebellum domestic and sentimental fiction confronted social issues from the vantage point of the home—as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where Stowe attacked the institution of slavery for the way it wreaked havoc on the family—postbellum women's fiction tended to portray women leaving the home to confront the changing social landscape. Women's lives and the choices they made about how to live them were no longer confined to a private sphere of the hearth and the family but were increasingly the stuff of public discourse. Therefore, as women continued to engage the traditions of domestic and sentimental fiction, the cultural milieu in which they lived made it difficult, if not impossible, for those traditions to remain unchanged.


In the postwar years, idealized notions of hearth and home continued to appear in the works of Stowe and others but often with an elegiac tone, as if the simpler times and women's moral influence were waning. As with Stowe's Poganuc People, the novels of this period were often set in the prewar past, before the advent of factory towns, large-scale western migration, and the growth of eastern urban centers disrupted traditional, rural ways of life centered on everyday domestic rituals. A number of late-nineteenth-century women writers, influenced by Stowe, continued to focus on what Ann Romines calls the "home plot," but with a different perspective. Although Romines sees an even greater concern with domestic rituals in women's fiction in the postwar period, such rituals were "not always celebrated"; in fact, postwar women writers tended to tell more "complex truths about the satisfactions and dangers that domestic ritual has meant in female lives" (p. 9).

While previous domestic novels may have challenged the culture's basic assumptions about home life by exposing unfeeling family members who exploited young women, they nonetheless offered a reconstructed vision of home and family that could provide women with the security and power they desired. Late-nineteenth-century novels about domesticity, marriage, and motherhood rarely offered such alternatives. Instead, one sees a greater emphasis on the discontents of domesticity: the way it could imprison women, as in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899); stifle their ambitions, as in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis (1877); or expose them to brutal violence, as in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Jupiter Lights (1889). Marriage and motherhood are no longer the apex of a woman's life but the beginning of her ruin. In fact, these later novels focused on the unhappy aftermath of marriage rather than culminating in the marital bliss suggested but rarely described in earlier domestic novels. Domesticity is a burden rather than a reward for the heroines of these books, as illustrated when Phelps's (1844–1911) narrator explains Avis's downfall from accomplished artist to wife and mother:

Women understand—only women altogether—what a dreary will-o-the-wisp is this old, common, I had almost said commonplace, experience, "When the fall sewing is done," "When the baby can walk," "When house-cleaning is over," "When the company has gone," "When we have got through with the whooping-cough," "When I am a little stronger," then I will write the poem, or learn the language, or study the great charity, or master the symphony; then I will act, dare, dream, become. (P. 149)

In the midst of such constant domestic demands, Phelps's novel asserts, there is no time or energy for a woman to do anything for herself. While the heroine of Stowe's My Wife and I, aptly named Eva, holds the accomplishment of domestic harmony as her highest ambition, the heroines of a younger generation of women writers long for something more. Such novels, therefore, although they focused on women's domestic lives, can be seen as signaling the death knell of the domestic literary tradition.

The Story of Avis, more than any other novel of the postbellum period, sparked debate about women's discontent in marriage. Avis is an accomplished artist who has studied in Europe, and she has sworn she will never marry because she is not like other women. But she is ultimately won by the sweet promises of Philip Ostrander, who insists that he does not ask her to sacrifice her art and is not marrying her "to be my housekeeper!" In the scene below, the conflict between Avis's desire to continue her career as an artist and her duties as a new mother and wife reaches a crisis. Although she has believed that hiring help will solve the problem, it becomes increasingly clear that Avis must devote herself to housekeeping and caring for the baby while her studio collects dust. This realistic scene of domestic discontent is typical of late-nineteenth-century women's fiction, as opposed to the sentimental, idealized depictions of the home and family life in popular antebellum domestic novels.

On this particular morning she [Avis] came down late and wan. The fierce, free fire of her superb eyes had given way to the burnt-in look of anxious patience, which marks a young mother out from all other young creatures in the world. Her husband sat with a disturbed face at a disorderly table.

"Avis," he began, without looking up to see how she was, "the cracked wheat is soggy again."

Avis for a moment made no reply: she could not for sheer surprise. The husband's tone, breaking in upon her exhaustion of mind and body, gave her something of the little shock that we feel on finding our paper give out in the middle of an absorbing sentence. When she spoke, she said gently, but with some dignity, —

Phelps, The Story of Avis, chap. 15, p. 153.

"I am sorry, Philip: I will speak [to the cook] about it."

"And the cream," proceeded Philip, "is sour. The steak was cold; and the coffee will give me a bilious headache before night. I really don't see why we can't have things more comfortable."

"We certainly must, if they are so very uncomfortable," replied his wife with rather a pale smile, striving, she could hardly have told why, to turn the discussion into a jest. "But you remember you didn't marry me to be your housekeeper, Philip!" . . .

"Yes, I remember. I don't know what we were either of us thinking of!"

Scholars such as Romines and Josephine Donovan, however, cite another group of women as the most likely successors of Stowe's domestic realism and even domestic fiction generally: the New England regionalists, namely Rose Terry Cooke (1827–1892), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), and Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930). Unlike the large, sprawling domestic novels of the antebellum period, the regional or local color sketch enabled writers of what one might consider late-nineteenth-century domestic fiction to focus on the realistic details of women's domestic lives. As Elizabeth Ammons writes, "The form permits women to offer ungrandiose, concrete art, shaped, more often than not, by the rhythms of domestic and feminine experience, which is cyclical, repetitive, and often inconclusive" (Cooke, p. xxii). Moreover, these writers often avoided the subjects of marriage and motherhood altogether, so that many of their stories celebrated domesticity but stripped it of the conflicts and entrapments many other women writers explored. Regional sketches often featured single women living alone by choice, as in most of Freeman's best stories, including "A Church Mouse" and "A New England Nun" (1891). Or they depict homosocial bonds between women who prefer the companionship of another woman over that of a man, as in Jewett's series of sketches in Deephaven (1877). Perhaps the most likely late-nineteenth-century candidate for a work that carried on the domestic tradition is Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which portrays a single woman writer who discovers in the uncomplicated, rural life of a remote village a nurturing retreat from her busy, urban life. This quasi novel, comprising a series of related sketches, revels in the everyday details of men's and women's lives as well as in the traditional domestic rituals of the writer's landlady, Mrs. Todd. However, the book is peopled only by the elderly, nearly all of whom live alone. There are no children or traditional families because the town's young folk have left to find better economic opportunities in the cities or in the West. In the end, the writer returns to the city, leaving her friends and their domestic traditions behind. Domesticity is celebrated, but it is also a thing of the fading past.


In the words of Joyce W. Warren, late-nineteenth-century realists—meaning male writers such as William Dean Howells and Henry James —"established themselves in opposition to the feminine and asserted their realism by differentiating it from women's writing, which they characterized as sentimental and soft" (p. 5). Because of that stance, American literary realism, the dominant literary movement of the late nineteenth century, came to be deemed a masculine movement diametrically opposed to the domestic and sentimental writing of women, however much those male writers themselves were interested in the ways women's lives and the institution of marriage were changing. However, late-twentieth-century feminist critics, such as Warren, Sharon M. Harris, and Judith Fetterley, stress the ways in which women writers anticipated the realist movement of the 1880s and 1890s by focusing on quotidian experiences as opposed to extraordinary events, using dialect for their characters' dialogue, and portraying the social reality of their time. Other critics point to the Civil War and women's participation in reform movements as influences on early realist texts by women, such as Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches (1863) and Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills" (1861).

In the post–Civil War period, therefore, it is not surprising to see women writers such as Alcott, Davis (1831–1910), and Phelps producing works that clearly anticipate the tenets of masculine realism. However, their fiction does not set itself decidedly against the sentimental; rather, it suggests the ways in which, as Susan S. Williams argues, "we can see realism not simply as a reaction against the excesses of the sentimental and domestic novel, but in some ways as a logical continuation of it" (p. 167). For example, the realist's emphasis on exposing harsh truths is not so far afield from the sentimentalist's desire to uncover the pain and suffering of the oppressed. While male realists tended to emphasize the author's objectivity toward his characters, as a scientist would calmly and without moral judgment observe the specimen under his microscope, many women who wrote realistically tended to presume a moral universe or critique society from a decidedly Christian vantage point. Thus a belief in "the Hope to come," as in Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills," or the power of human sympathy to ameliorate harsh conditions here on Earth underpins their works, marking them as a hybrid of sentimentalism and realism.

Some good examples of sentimental realism include Alcott's Work (1872), Phelps's The Silent Partner (1871), Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (1884), S. Alice Callahan's Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), and Frances Harper's Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892). Each of these novels combines important elements of the two traditions, reflecting the ways women writers strove to portray the transformation of women's lives in the post–Civil War era, to expose the mistreatment of masses of voiceless Americans, and to argue for a new social vision. The Silent Partner, for example, portrays a young woman, Perley Kelso, who undergoes a transformation from sheltered domestic woman to Christian reformer. Shut out of active management of her father's textile business after his death because of her gender, she takes it upon herself to become acquainted with the workers and the condition of the mills, which, she soon discovers, is appalling. A note from Phelps at the beginning of the novel declares that her "fiction" is grounded in "facts" she has compiled from the Reports of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor and from firsthand testimony of friends. That realist base is then a catalyst for Perley's sentimental transformation as she is forced to see the effects of her class's decadence. When she is introduced to the crippled sister of a mill hand whom she befriends, she finds it difficult to look at her, but she does so, she says, "for love's sake" (p. 839). The realist gaze, therefore, is not merely voyeuristic but sympathetic and, in turn, motivated to change the circumstances that have created such pain and suffering. In the end, Perley rejects marriage so that she can devote herself to the work of reform, an outcome that shows how literary sentimentalism could be detached from the cult of domesticity.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, many women writers continued to compel readers to look at the injustices done to underprivileged groups (such as Native Americans for Jackson and Callahan or African Americans for Harper). But even as they insisted that their fictions were grounded in fact, they distanced themselves from the cold, scientific approach associated with male realists by carrying on the sentimentalist assertion of public feeling and sympathy as the goal of literature, continuing to place women at the center of such a project.

See alsoThe Country of the Pointed Firs; Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce; Feminism; Iola Leroy; A New England Nun and Other Stories; Ramona; Realism; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction; Women's Suffrage


Primary Works

Alcott, Louisa May. "Happy Women." 1868. In Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter, pp. 203–206. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Cooke, Rose Terry. How Celia Changed Her Mind and Selected Stories. Edited and introduced by Elizabeth Ammons. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. "Life in the Iron Mills." 1861. In Life in the Iron Mills, and Other Stories, edited by Tillie Olsen. New York: Feminist Press, 1985.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Edited and introduced by Marjorie Pryse. New York: Norton, 1981.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Silent Partner. 1871. In Popular American Literature of the 19th Century, edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, pp. 812–910. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Story of Avis. 1877. Edited by Carol Farley Kessler. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–70. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Donovan, Josephine. New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.

Fetterley, Judith, ed. Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Hendler, Glenn. Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 17901860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Warren, Joyce W. "Performativity and the Repositioning of American Literary Realism." In Challenging Boundaries: Gender and Periodization, edited by Joyce W. Warren and Margaret Dickie, pp. 3–25. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

Williams, Susan S. "Writing with an Ethical Purpose: The Case of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps." In Reciprocal Influences: Literary Production, Distribution, and Consumption in America, edited by Steven Fink and Susan S. Williams, pp. 151–172. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999.

Anne E. Boyd

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Domestic and Sentimental Fiction

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