These three paintings representing the decline of a family as the result of the wife’s presumed infidelity cannot be read in strictly linear fashion, as if they followed the narrative structure of serial fiction. Rather, a reading of the painting that takes into account the spatial and iconographic relationship between the three panels yields the complex and open-ended meaning of the triptych’s story.
Prior to political agitation for the reform of married women’s property laws, nineteenth-century fiction emphasized primogeniture (the common law doctrine of consolidating wealth in the hands of eldest sons) alongside coverture (the common law doctrine that marriage voided a wife’s separate legal identity) in order to show how both contributed to women’s economic marginalization. The reform movement, however, focused its attention on coverture, and by the time of the 1870 Act, fiction begins to divorce its sympathy for women’s subjugation in coverture from its treatment of women’s condition with respect to primogeniture. This case study of novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot suggests that, as coverture comes under closer scrutiny, primogeniture is no longer showcased as one of women’s most significant economic disadvantages. Instead, the claims of primogeniture begin to appear as an argument against women’s rights to property.
This essay examines Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which has been called “the most famous English cookery book ever published.” It contends that Beeton’s work shares the same concerns as the nineteenth-century realist novel, and that The Book of Household Management captures the contradictions, anxieties, aspirations and fantasies of middle-class domesticity and thereby offers a vision of family life that is novelistic in its complexity. Specifically, the essay focuses on Beeton’s representation of the middle-class housewife as a domestic manager responsible for maintaining the family’s class identity by creating a “tasteful” lifestyle. In doing so, it concludes that the line from the Victorian Mrs. Beeton to the Martha Stewarts of our own day is a fairly direct one.
For more than 70 years the English engaged in heated public debate about whether a man should be able to marry his deceased wife’s sister. While twentieth-century scholars either ignored this controversy or attributed it to Victorian obsessions with psychological and/or cultural repressions of incest, the documents of the debate suggest that anxiety about the anomalous legal and economic autonomy of unmarried adult sisters drove the controversy. Recent interest in the Marriage with a Deceased Wife’s Sister (MDWS) debates seems fueled by increasing scholarly perceptions of “family” and its various relational terms, including “sister,” as historically and culturally embedded constructs that vary both within and across historical/cultural sites. Re-examined through this lens, the MDWS debates can be understood as negotiating competing ideals of “family” and “household” in which the adult unmarried sister either provided valuable material and/or affective support of the marriage or represented a disturbing intrusion of labor into the domestic space. For literary scholars, the MDWS debates signal the necessity of reading representations of family and, specifically, sibling relations without assuming the stability and/or uniformity of ideas and practices of “family” during the period.