The Spectacle of Intimacy: A Public Life for the Victorian Family

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Love of home life, the intimate moments a family peacefully enjoyed in seclusion, had long been considered a hallmark of English character even before the Victorian era. But the Victorians attached unprecedented importance to domesticity, romanticizing the family in every medium from novels to government reports, to the point where actual families felt anxious and the public developed a fierce appetite for scandal. Here Karen Chase and Michael Levenson explore how intimacy became a spectacle and how this paradox energized Victorian culture between 1835 and 1865. They tell a story of a society continually perfecting the forms of private pleasure and yet forever finding its secrets exposed to view. The friction between the two conditions sparks insightful discussions of authority and sentiment, empire and middle-class politics.

The book recovers neglected episodes of this mid-century drama: the adultery trial of Caroline Norton and the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne; the Bedchamber Crisis of the young Queen Victoria; the Bloomer craze of the 1850s; and Robert Kerr's influential treatise, celebrating the ideal of the English Gentleman's House. The literary representation of household life—in Dickens, Tennyson, Ellis, and Oliphant, among others—is placed in relation to such public spectacles as the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill of 1848, the controversy over divorce in the years 1854-1857, and the triumphant return of Florence Nightingale from the Crimea. These colorful incidents create a telling new portrait of Victorian family life, one that demands a fundamental rethinking of the relation between public and private spheres.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement - Sarah Churchwell
In readings that diplomatically maintain alliances among literature, politics, the law and social history, Chase and Levenson disclose a complex economy of public and private that transversed Victorian life. No separate spheres here; this is first-rate interdisciplinary scholarship.
From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2000

"In readings that diplomatically maintain alliances among literature, politics, the law and social history, Chase and Levenson disclose a complex economy of public and private that transversed Victorian life. No separate spheres here; this is first-rate interdisciplinary scholarship."—Sarah Churchwell, Times Literary Supplement

Times Literary Supplement
In readings that diplomatically maintain alliances among literature, politics, the law and social history, Chase and Levenson disclose a complex economy of public and private that transversed Victorian life. No separate spheres here; this is first-rate interdisciplinary scholarship.
— Sarah Churchwell
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691006680
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 6/5/2000
  • Series: Literature in History Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Chase, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Eros and Psyche: The Representation of Personality in Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot." She has also written a book-length critical study of "Middlemarch." Michael Levenson is also Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of "A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922" and "Modernism and the Fate of Individuality: Character and Form in the Modern English Novel," and is the editor of the "Cambridge Companion to Modernism."
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Read an Excerpt

The Spectacle of Intimacy

By Karen Chase Michael Levenson


Copyright © 2000 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-00668-0

Chapter One



When in the last years of the 1830s Caroline Norton fought her successful campaign for the Infant Custody Bill, she displayed in the clearest possible terms the politics of domestic life. Arguing that the law of custody had never been understood and that misinformed women persistently believed that they possessed legal recourse against established immorality, Norton turned away from her imaginative writing in order to produce a series of fiercely polemical works-privately printed or published pseudonymously-that exposed the legal nullity of the wife and mother. Vilely abusive husbands who separated from their wives still enjoyed full and incontestable custody of their children; pining mothers petitioned the courts in vain. Accumulating painful recent stories of marital disaster, Norton took her own life as the most compelling of examples. If history has granted her the dignity of heroic begetter of the Infant Custody Act of 1839, she purchased her reputation with humiliating exposure to the wide public eye.

But to speak of the politics of domesticity here is to refer not only to the systematic constraints of family law but also to the less formal, but no less palpable, workings of domestic power. At a time of rapidly changing attitudes, the failure of Norton's marriage became a spectacular figure of domestic pathology. In a letter written in 1837 and published soon after, Norton etches the bloody outline of the struggle.

I can prove (if indeed Mr. N will ever dare the investigation) that not only was he a careless husband, but that he was a most violent and cruel one; that in his rage there is nothing he has not attempted, short of murdering me, and that on the most trivial occasions of dispute. I can prove, that when I was within three months of my confinement of my youngest child, he kicked the drawing-room door off its hinges, and dragged me out by main force, flinging me down the stairs; and I mention this instance not because it is worse than others, but because, by a fortunate chance, I have the admission and defence of it in his own handwriting to my brother.

They were married in 1827; he was twenty-six, and she nineteen. George Norton was younger brother to the present Lord Grantley, with whom he was on the most fragile terms, but whose childlessness meant that the lordship was likely to pass into George's family. A staunchly Tory line, the Nortons liked to trace their pedigree back to the Conquest. For her part, Caroline Norton saw her grandfather Richard Brinsley Sheridan as the eminent precursor, referring to herself, at moments of argumentative stress, as the "granddaughter of Sheridan." The playwright had no blood pedigree, but through a long, low ebb in British drama, his achievement kept its luster, and then, too, Norton's relation to this patriarch carried far more than literary implication. Sheridan was still remembered as the celebrated partisan, the legendary parliamentary orator, whose intimacy with the great Whig families would have important bearing on his granddaughter's marriage.

Alongside the sharp contrasts in temperament, these party differences might have counted for less, had it not been that the problems in the Norton marriage coincided with the political crisis of the late 1820s. In the intensity of debate over Catholic Emancipation, in the weakening and then the fall of the long Tory rule, and then, climactically, in the agitation over the Reform Bill, party politics assumed a scarcely precedented intensity. For the young Norton marriage, the public turmoil was no greater than the private shudder. George Norton, who had been MP for Guildford, lost his office in the landmark election of 1830: it certainly cannot have encouraged marital harmony that his political career foundered in the reformist campaign blithely championed by his wife.

And yet, Caroline Norton's staunch reformism, her willingness to challenge entrenched customs through barbed prose polemic or sentimental verse, needs to be placed in the still more immediate context within which she suffered and wrote. Her relation to Whig politics came not only, or first of all, through her commitment to the ideals of social renewal; it came through her family relations to the great Whig aristocrats who led the party and, beyond that, to the royal patronage extended by the prince regent. After the death of her father Thomas Sheridan, son of the playwright, her mother was given apartments in Hampton Court, where the seven Sheridan children came into daily contact with the titled and the parasitic. Lacking both high birth and high fortune, the Sheridans nevertheless cast their social identity with those at the summit of power. The three daughters in the family, each of legendary beauty, entered a difficult marriage market, where their charms had to stand in place of blood and money and where their liberal politics counted less than their deportment. Set on parade in the London season, they endured such rituals of display as the "Fancy Quadrille of the Twelve Months," in which each of the year's debutantes danced with a different basket of flowers and fruits on her head.

Norton's coming to a writing career and her coming to consciousness of her body met violently, met productively, and no reflection on the material conditions of her literary life can ignore that first materiality, the young female body, marked as sensuous and adorable, the body paraded, gazed at, discussed, and engraved, the only sure resource within a close system of sexual and marital exchange. This is the body, glowing as a burnished artifact, that writes itself into the early poetry, as in this characteristic passage from "The Undying One":

... beautiful is she, who sighs alone Now that her young and playful mates are gone: The dim moon, shining on her statue face, Gives it a mournful and unearthly grace.

"Statue face" captures well the artifactual self-possession that Norton knew in excruciating precision.

For her eldest sister, Helen, the ceremonies of the London season yielded a marriage to Price Blackwood, later Lord Dufferin; for the youngest, Georgiana, it ultimately brought a still more glittering match with Lord Seymour, eldest son to the duke of Somerset. But for Caroline the events of the season brought no husband. Three years earlier George Norton had been told that she was too young for his love; when he renewed his offer in 1827, the portionless Caroline agreed.

The Sheridan family would bitterly claim that Norton had badly misled them about his personal fortune. Misleading or not, his position was hardly lustrous, and early in the marriage it became clear that George's best hopes lay with his wife's connections. By her account he bullied her into trading on her grandfather's reputation in order to appeal to Whig grandees. Fatefully, Lord Melbourne, the former William Lamb, then home secretary in the government of Lord Grey and soon to be prime minister, gave a favorable response, visiting the Norton household and then arranging a comfortable position for George Norton as magistrate for Lambeth. Thus in an act of conventional patronage began a relationship destined for an awful celebrity.

All the while she wrote, and if in her entrance to Georgian society Caroline Norton found the exquisite refinements and ceremonies of the marriage market, in her accession to poetry she found Byron. In the 1830s Byron's dead face looms up everywhere in the universe of the literary annuals. In the poetic remains of Caroline Lamb, in the romantic melodramas of Mary Shelley, in the lush engravings of dying lovers, all the dangerous transports of love are performed with props from Byron's theater. Here is Norton in a characteristic lyric entitled "The Favourite Flower" (the engraving for the poem appears as Figure 1).

Thine be the starlike jasmine; pale, And cold as cloister'd maiden's face; Thine be the lilach, faint and frail, And thine the clustering rosebud's grace; But me the burning poppy bring, Which evermore with fever'd eye, Unfreshen'd by the dews of spring, Stands gazing at the glowing sky; Whose scarlet petals flung apart (Crimson'd with passion, not with shame), Hang round his sear'd and blacken'd heart, Flickering and hot, like tongues of flame! Scentless, unseemly though it be, That passion-lorn and scorch'd up flower.

Norton's poetry was certainly not alone in favoring the overheated stress of passionate abandonment, but she was a privileged figure in the poetic throng. In the best-remembered judgment of her literary gift, Hartley Coleridge would firmly link her to Byron, praising her as the first female poet of the age: "This lady," he wrote, "is the Byron of our modern poetesses." Coleridge's opinion is unsurprising, and yet its sententious certainty has misleadingly frozen the career of a writer whose power lay in her political and literary improvisations.

Certainly, Norton began within the Byronic medium where always, there at the start, she pursued the long, reaching rhythms hurtling toward sensual extremity. Sometimes the scene of erotic transport lies along the rocky shore, often in the dark forest, sometimes in the waste spaces of nowhere; the costume can be medieval or oriental; but always the performance ends in the fatality of passion, the cataclysm of desire. And yet within the frame of such a Byronism, Norton quickly saw and keenly felt that a woman is not a man. Her first challenge was to shift poetic attention within the circuit of power and to take as her great early subject the abjection of female passion.

In the long ambitious narrative of "The Undying One," a close forgotten counterpart to Tennyson's "Tithonus," Norton evokes the Wandering Jew, Isbal, condemned to live out a spectacularly un-Tennysonian immortality. In her version of the tale, the never dying man becomes an emblem of resistless male power, an erotic conqueror, invulnerable to the corrosions of time. Not for this Jewish Tithonus to sink into the withering loss of bodily strength-rather for him to exercise an ever young erotic fascination, attracting lovers through the centuries, who must then age and die, while he lives on, loves on, with the next in a series of captivated women. Edith, Xarifa, Miriam, and Linda, each dies in extravagant submission, while the undying male continues the quenchless Byronic career. In scarifying anticipation of Brontë's Heathcliff, Isbal digs Marion out of her grave, props her body next to him,

And we once more were seated side by side- The half-immortal, and his victim bride. (Undying One, 101)

Norton's earliest poetry achieves a startlingly deep solidarity with the erotics of victimage. The narratives hover around a sexual agon organized within the recurrent terms of the "haughty" and the "convulsive"-male haughtiness exacting and inciting the convulsions of the yearning, pleading woman. In "The Reprieve," a prostrate and groveling speaker begs for the life of her husband; here is the inevitable fate of the female statue; she is toppled, broken, degraded.

Yet it is the very extremity of the abjection that will become a resource for transformation. Her earliest success, "The Sorrows of Rosalie" (1829), perfected the apparatus of submission even as it glimpsed the insurrection of the victim. Deserted by Lord Arthur, left with his child, and yet still enthralled by his bright face, the penniless Rosalie sees him with his bride.

Despair gives strength-with one convulsive bound I reached him, clung to him with fervent grasp; And when he gazed in wild amazement round, And strove to disengage my frantic clasp, I burst the bounds of silence with a gasp. (Undying One; Sorrows of Rosalie; and Other Poems, 158)

The clarity of this insight, that despair can give spasmodic strength, will become a source of Norton's transformation, and it will do so, first of all, within the household economics of a strained domesticity. For it fell to Norton to ease the embarrassed circumstances of her husband through the achievements of her literary career. The great vogue of the literary annual, heavy, gilt-edged, finely illustrated, rich with the names of eminent writers, opened a roomy arena for an ambitious young writer. As she disarmingly put it, "Luckily for me, light serial literature was the express fashion of the day. Nor did the greatest authors we had, disdain to contribute their share to the ephemeral 'Annuals' and Periodicals, which formed the staple commodity of the booksellers at the time." Both as contributor (of poems and stories) and as editor, Norton quickly became a popular annualist much in demand. What she could not have anticipated in her first dreams of literary success is that her genteel achievement in the annuals would become an indispensable part of the family income. George Norton's sinecure as a fifteen-hour a week magistrate did not stretch nearly far enough; it fell to his wife to sustain the marriage on the lower edge of high society.

"Our position in this respect," she later wrote, "was extraordinary and anomalous; inasmuch as instead of Mr. Norton being, either by the exercise of his profession or patrimonial property, what Germans call the 'Breadfinder,' it was on my literary talents and the interest of my family, that our support almost entirely depended, while I still had a home" (English Laws, 23-24). Under the pressures of need, her gentility passed quickly into a professionalism. She produced popular fare at great speed, nurtured her relations with editors, and kept long hours.

I rejoiced then, at finding, -woman though I was, -a career in which I could earn that which my husband's profession had never brought him. Out of our stormy quarrels I rose undiscouraged, and worked again to help him and forward the interests of my children. I have sat up all night, -even at times when I have had a young infant to nurse, -to finish tasks for some publisher. I have made in one year a sum of u1,400 by my pen. (26-27)

Part of the scandal of this failed marriage, and no doubt part of the fascination it attracted, came from this tableau of domestic reversal: the male breadwinner grown weak and ineffectual gives way to the energetic female. Within a wider economy that would resolve ever more thoroughly into separate spheres, the affront of the Nortons was precisely to invert the spheres. Given the immediate needs of the household, Norton cast aside an ideal of permanent literary value, settling happily for the rapid manufacture of salable textual commodities-the author as reproducer. "I have written day after day, and night after night, without intermission; I provided for myself by means of my literary engagements; I provided for my children by means of my literary engagements" (Letters, etc., 12). In her well-earned pride, she displayed satisfactions common to many other newly confident professionals. Although her family history, her childhood milieu, her friendships, and her social pretensions placed her within the most exclusive drawing rooms in the realm, the crisis in her marriage and the conditions of her labor marked her as a vigorous literary entrepreneur.

Her husband, on the other hand, not only embodied aristocratic privilege, his son ultimately succeeding to the title of Lord Grantley; within the context of reform, he also signified a moral decadence. Conspicuously marked as indolent, pampered, arbitrary, and ill-tempered, George Norton became fixed in an image (effectively prepared by his wife) of the unregenerate aristocrat illsuited to modernity. As one who enjoyed the legal right to his wife's income, he never hesitated to feast on the fruits of her writing labor, as she so bitterly recorded.

The names of my publishers occur as if they were Mr. Norton's bankers. If Murray of Albemarle street will not accept a poem, -if Bull of Holles street does not continue a magazine, -if Heath does not offer the editorship of an Annual, -if Saunders and Otley do not buy the MS. of a novel, -if Colburn's agreement is not satisfactory and sufficient, -if Power delays payment for a set of ballads, -if, in short, the WIFE has no earnings to produce, the HUSBAND professes himself to be "quite at a loss to know" how the next difficulty of payment is to be got over. (English Laws, 25-26)

At a time of tense negotiation between the ambitious middle classes and their wary social superiors, the Norton marriage represented the domestic performance of the public struggle. There he lounged, the spoiled child of the aristocracy, desperate to preserve a life of ease and privilege; and there she labored, the professional writer, skillful in manipulating the new resources of publishing in order to earn a substantial income that would preserve the family's precarious gentility.


Excerpted from The Spectacle of Intimacy by Karen Chase Michael Levenson Copyright © 2000 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
INTRODUCTION The Trouble with Families 3
PART ONE: The Political Theater of Domesticity
CHAPTER ONE The Trials of Caroline Norton: Poetry, Publicity, and the Prime Minister 21
CHAPTER TWO: The Young Queen and the Parliamentary Bedchamber: "I never saw a man so frightened" 46
PART Two: Beneath the Banner of Home t
CHAPTER THREE Sarah Stickney Ellis: The Ardent Woman and the Abject Wife 65
CHAPTER FOUR Tom's Pinch: The Sexual Serpent beside the Dickensian Fireside 86
PART THREE: Was That an Angel in the House?
CHAPTER FIVE Love after Death: The Deceased Wife's Sister Bill 105
CHAPTER SIX The Transvestite, the Bloomer, and the Nightingale 121
PART FOUR: The Architecture of Comfort and Ruin
CHAPTER SEVEN On the Parapets of Privacy: Walls of Wealth and Dispossession 143
CHAPTER EIGHT Robert Kerr: The Gentleman's House and the One-Room Solution 156
PART FIVE: The Sensations of Respectability
CHAPTER NINE The Empire of Divorce: Single Women, the Bill of 1857, and Revolt in India
CHAPTER TEN Bigamy and Modernity: The Case of Mary Elizabeth Braddon 201
EPILOGUE: Between Manual and Spectacle 215
Notes 221
Index 247

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"A major, often dazzling work of fascinating implications and interest. Scholars of such diverse subjects as Dickens, Tennyson, Victorian sensation fiction, the Divorce Bill of the 1850s, Lord Melbourne, Victorian feminism, the history of sexual scandal, or changing ideas of Empire will want and need to consult this book. Students of epistemes, eras, and broad cultural phenomena will also have to reckon with it. Written with clarity and wit, The Spectacle of Intimacy is a pleasure as well as an intellectual boon to read."—Robert M. Polhemus, Stanford University

"The Spectacle of Intimacy offers wonderfully intelligent and vivacious literary and cultural analyses of domesticity in Victorian Britain. It approaches its subject through a broad array of sources and engages those materials with great canniness, cogency, subtlety, and wit. Any reader interested in Victorian Britain will want to read this book."—James Eli Adams, Indiana University

"An important study. This is a major work in Victorian and nineteenth-century scholarship. It functions both as a synthesis of cultural material and as an analysis of particular subjects. It is also a pleasure to read and a scholarly and intellectual boon to read clear, lucid, witty, and expert prose by Chase and Levenson, it has point, simplicity, and elegance."—Robert Polhemus, Novel: A Forum on Fiction

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