Caroline Gilman Recommends Wifely Submission

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Caroline Gilman Recommends Wifely Submission

Book excerpt

By: Caroline H. Gilman

Date: 1838

Source: Gilman, Caroline H. Recollections of a Southern Matron. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838.

About the Author: Caroline H. Gilman was a South Carolina wife and mother best known for her 1838 autobiographical novel, Recollections of a Southern Matron.


Nineteenth-century Americans were romantics who dreamed of marrying for love. Unlike previous generations, they had great expectations for marriage. However, those who were already married, such as South Carolinian Caroline Gilman, warned young women against having high hopes of much happiness with their husbands.

The idea of marriage as an affectionate partnership tempted middle- and upper-class men and women beginning in the seventeenth century. Ideally, companionate marriage permitted individual choice in marriage based on personal affection and sexual attraction. It encouraged loving rather than controlling relationships between husbands and wives. Although Americans valued affection as a basis for marriage from the earliest days of settlement, colonial Americans were wary of unrestrained emotions. They sought to achieve a family life characterized by tranquility and harmony rather than by passion and desire. In colonial America, the family was organized as a mini-government, in which the relationship of husband to wife imitated that between king and subject.

The ideal of affectionate relationships became more pronounced in the revolutionary era. The attack against the king and patriarchal authority prompted Americans to view relationships as a matter of individual choice. For increasing numbers of couples, the pursuit of happiness included a quest for a marriage filled with love and respect. Abandoning such traditions as chaperones and marrying daughters off according to birth order, increasing numbers of Americans granted young men and women a degree of freedom from parental direction and supervision in order to enable them to evaluate their chances for happiness with a potential mate. Romantic love was becoming the most important factor in courtship as well as marriage by the mid-nineteenth century.


The planter's bride, who leaves a numerous and cheerful family in her paternal home, little imagines the change which awaits her in her own retired residence. She dreams of an independent sway over her household, devoted love and unbroken intercourse with her husband, and indeed longs to be released from the eyes of others, that she may dwell only beneath the sunbeam of his. And so it was with me. After our bustling wedding and protracted journey, I looked forward to the retirement at Bellevue as a quiet port in which I should rest with Arthur, after drifting so long on general society. The romance of our love was still in its glow, as might be inferred by the infallible sign of his springing to pick up my pocket-handkerchief whenever it fell …

For several weeks all kinds of droll associations were conjured up, and we laughed at anything and nothing. What cared we for fashion and pretension? There we were together, asking for nothing but each other's pres-ence and love. At length it was necessary for him to tear himself away to superintend his interests. I remember when his horse was brought to the door for his first absence of two hours; an observer would have thought that he was going on a far journey, had he witnessed that parting; and so it continued for some days, and his return at each time was like the sun shooting through a three days' cloud.

But the period of absence was gradually protracted; then a friend sometimes came home with him, and their talk was of crops and politics, draining the fields and draining the revenue … I was not selfish, and even urged Arthur to go to hunt and to dinner-parties, although hoping that he would resist my urging. He went frequently, and a growing discomfort began to work upon my mind. I had undefined forebodings; I mused about past days; my views of life became slowly disorganized; my physical powers enfeebled; a nervous excitement followed; I nursed a moody discontent, and ceased a while to reason clearly. Wo to me had I yielded to this irritable temperament! I began immediately, on principle, to busy myself about my household. The location of Bellevue was pictur-esque—the dwelling airy and commodious; I had, therefore, only to exercise taste in external and internal arrangement to make it beautiful throughout. I was careful to consult my husband in those points which interested him, without annoying him with mere trifles. If the reign of romance was really waning, I resolved not to chill his noble confidence, but to make a steadier light rise on his affections. If he was absorbed in reading, I sat quietly waiting the pause when I should be rewarded by the communication of ripe ideas; if I saw that he prized a tree which interfered with my flowers, I sacrificed my preference to a more sacred feeling; if any habit of his annoyed me, I spoke of it once or twice calmly, and then bore it quietly if unreformed; I welcomed his friends with cordiality, entered into their family interests, and stopped my yawns, which, to say the truth, was sometimes an almost desperate effort, before they reached eye or ear.

This task of self-government was not easy. To repress a harsh answer, to confess a fault, and to stop (right or wrong) in the midst of self-defence, in gentle submission, sometimes requires a struggle like life and death; but these three efforts are the golden threads with which domestic happiness is woven; once beam the fabric with this woof, and trials shall not break or sorrow tarnish it.

Men are not often unreasonable; their difficulties lie in not understanding the moral and physical structure of our sex. They often wound through ignorance, and are surprised at having offended. How clear is it, then, that woman loses by petulance and recrimination! Her first study must be self-control, almost to hypocrisy. A good wife must smile amid a thousand perplexities, and clear her voice to tones of cheerfulness when her frame is dropping with disease, or else languish alone. Man, on the contrary, when trials beset him, expects to find her ear and heart a ready receptacle …

I have not meant to suggest that, in ceasing to be a mere lover, Arthur was not a tender and devoted husband. I have only described the natural progress of a sensible, independent married man, desirous of fulfilling all the relations of society. Nor in these remarks would I chill the romance of some young dreamer, who is reposing her heart on another. Let her dream on. God has given this youthful, luxurious gift of trusting love, as he has given hues to the flower and sunbeams to the sky. It is a superadded charm to his lavish blessings; but let her be careful …

Let him know nothing of the struggle which follows the first chill of the affections; let no scenes of tears and apologies be acted to agitate him, until he becomes accustomed to agitation; thus shall the star of domestic peace arise in fixedness and beauty above them, and shine down in gentle light on their lives, as it has on ours.


For those who married for love and discovered that marital bliss was an illusion, divorce became easier to acquire in the nineteenth century. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, states passed new divorce laws that extended the grounds for divorce from adultery, desertion, and cruelty to permit the dissolution of unions ruined by neglect, jealously, and simple unkindness. As even the legal system recognized, affection had become a necessary ingredient in marriage.

The shift from patriarchy to companionship was not swift and not complete. Well into the nineteenth century, couples struggled with the contradictions of affectionate marriage. They found that their commitment to companionate marriage conflicted with their ideas about male authority. For many couples, especially those in the slave South, the persistence of male supremacy undermined the ideal of companionate marriage.



Cott, Nancy F. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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Caroline Gilman Recommends Wifely Submission

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Caroline Gilman Recommends Wifely Submission