From Preservation Issues, Volume 3, Number 2

Understanding Louisa...

by Bonnie Stepenoff
At the end of Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times, a regretful Mr. Gradgrind says to his daughter's unfeeling husband, "Bounderby, I see reason to doubt whether we have ever quite understood Louisa." When the husband denies any responsibility for Louisa's unhappiness, Gradgrind accepts the guilt himself and reiterates, "I doubt whether I have understood Louisa. I doubt whether I have been quite right in the manner of her education. This is a painful admission for a masterful Victorian man, accustomed to living in a well-ordered universe, in which his daughter had a natural and clearly defined place.

Abraham Lincoln also had difficulty understanding l9th-century women. According to proper Victorian ideology, women were naturally squeamish, small, defenseless, innocent beings, who needed protection from the male worlds of business and politics. Naturally, then, the great emancipator was somewhat perplexed when he confronted Harriet Beecher Stowe, the New England-bred matron who passionately denounced slavery in the pages of her big, best-selling novel, Uncle Tom * Cabin. Reportedly, the Civil War commander-in-chief said to the mother of six, who wrote her book on the kitchen table, "So you are the little woman who made this great War."

Although a surprising number of l9th-century American women did write books, and many more went out to work in factories and stores, the majority remained at home, rearing children and trying to cope with Victorian men. Confined to the domestic sphere, Victorian women made the middleclass home a place of power in a free market society. As consumers, they profoundly influenced the production and distribution of goods. As guardians of morality, they banded together in the temperance movement to bring their erring husbands back home. As mothers, they instilled in their children the values of frugality, hard work, and sexual continence that virtually defined the Victorian Era.

Victorian women created homes that lavishly and sentimentally expressed the domestic ideals of their era. Heavy draperies asserted the desire for privacy and escape from the hubbub of business. Framed portraits expressed the significance of the family. Objects of art gave evidence of refinement and taste. Abundant collections of bric-a-brac attested not only to wealth, but also to the settled and permanent nature of the household.

In outward form, Victorian houses were gloriously feminine. Cozy gothic cottages suggested soft laps and encircling arms. Ornate "wedding cakes" seemed to emerge from the dreams of romantic young girls. Queen Anne, the most emphatically Victorian of all architectural styles, rejected straight masculine lines for curves, color, texture, and frivolous ornamentation. Gilded Age businessmen maintained a sober exterior, but decked their houses, and their wives, extravagantly.

"Victorian women created homes that lavishly and sentimentally expressed the domestic ideals of their era."
Photo not attributed. The Moorish room at Rockcliffe Mansion in Hannibal ca. 1900 illustrates the Victorian craze for "exotica" in the late 19th century. Notice how the tufted Turkish divans piled with plump pillows from India and a rich assortment of other exotic objects combine to create this highly sophisticated "bazaar."

Ultimately these houses became "dolls' houses" that imprisoned their mistresses. Twentieth-century women (and men) could scarcely wait to walk out of them and slam the door. For decades many of them remained scorned white elephants, suffering from neglect. By the 1970s, however, free from painful memories, people began to appreciate these houses for their charm and beauty.

But how much do we really know about the ladies of these houses? We tend to think, in stereotypes, of the fluttery girl, the blushing bride, the prickly spinster, or the jolly matron. If we were honest with ourselves, we might doubt, like Mr. Gradgrind, "whether we have ever quite understood" Victorian women.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bonnie Stepenoff, Ph.D., is a freelance historian and archivist who resides in Jefferson City. Stepenoff will present a special session on Victorian women at Victorian Missouri - A Celebration April 16-18 in Carthage. The session titled "Clothes and Consciousness" will include a lecture, a fashion show of vintage clothing, and a slide show of historic photos taken in Missouri.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic copy: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.