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Bleak Houses

Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction

Lisa Surridge

Publication Year: 2005

“Professor Surridge exhibits a clear and persuasive historical sense as well as sensitivity to the novels and stories. I believe this study will have lasting value because of its careful historical research and corresponding interpretation of the texts,” says Naomi Wood, Kansas State University The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1828 was a piece of legislation that opened magistrates' courts to abused working-class wives. Newspapers in turn reported on these proceedings and in this way the Victorian scrutiny of domestic conduct began. But how did popular fiction treat the phenomenon of “private” family violence? Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction traces novelists' engagement with the wife-assault debates in the public press between 1828 and the turn of the century. Lisa Surridge examines the early works of Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in the context of the intense debates on wife assault and manliness in the late 1840s and early 1850s. George Eliot's Janet's Repentance is read in light of the parliamentary debates on the 1857 Divorce Act. Marital cruelty trials provide the structure for both John Sutherland's The Woman in White and Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. Locating the New Woman fiction of Mona Caird and the reassuring detective investigations of Sherlock Holmes in the context of late-Victorian feminism and the great marriage debate in the Daily Telegraph, Surridge illustrates how fin-de-siècle fiction brought male sexual violence and the viability of marriage itself under public scrutiny. Bleak Houses thus demonstrates how Victorian fiction was actively engaged with the wife-assault debates of the nineteenth century, debates which both constructed and invaded the privacy of the middle-class home. ABOUT THE AUTHOR---Lisa Surridge is associate professor of English at the University of Victoria, Canada. She is co-editor of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd and has published on Victorian fiction in many journals including Victorian Literature and Culture, Women's Writing, Dickens Studies Annual, Victorian Newsletter, and Victorians Institute Journal.   

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Page

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p. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii


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p. ix

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. 1-14

In “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” (2904), Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to investigate a murder in an upper-class home. Sir Eustace Brackenstall lies dead in his dining room, felled by a blow from his own poker. ...

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1. Private Violence in the Public Eye: The Early Writings of Charles Dickens

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pp. 15-43

On 9 September 1848, Punch published a spoof on the trend of “Hand Phrenology,” or the analysis of human character by the shape of the hand (104). The accompanying cartoons featured a cast of a boxing glove (fig. 1.1) and the blunt-fingered, powerful hand inside it (fig. 1.2). ...

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2. Domestic Violence and Middle-Class Manliness: Dombey and Son

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pp. 44-71

In his sketch “Meditations in Monmouth Street” (Morning Chronicle, 11 October 1836), Charles Dickens turns his attention to the connection between manliness and domestic assault. Gazing at an array of secondhand men’s clothing in a shop—a boy’s suit,...

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3. From Regency Violence to Victorian Feminism: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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pp. 72-102

As I point out in chapter 1, between the 1820s and 1840s the Victorians’ daily exposure to newspaper accounts of marital violence changed radically, a shift propelled by the 1828 Offenses Against the Person Act. An important aspect of this newspaper coverage was the...

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4. The Abused Woman and the Community: "Janet's Repentance"

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pp. 103-131

The wife-assault debates of the late 1840s, which pitted emergent feminists against those who wished to preserve current gender roles, set the stage for the intense debate during the 1850s on women’s place in marriage. Imbricated in this debate was George Eliot’s story “Janet’s...

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5. Strange Revelations: The Divorce Court, the Newspaper, and The Woman in the White

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pp. 132-164

In “A Case of Identity” (1891), Sherlock Holmes declares to Watson that “life is infinitely stranger” than fiction. “If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which...

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6. The Private Eye and the Public Gaze: He Knew He Was Right

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pp. 165-186

As I argue in the previous chapter, divorce court journalism and sensation fiction were related cultural phenomena of the early 1860s. The effect of these two forms of representation, I have suggested, was to erase middle- class marital privacy in favor of a series of detections,...

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7. Marital Violence and the New Woman: The Wing of Azrael

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pp. 187-215

The two final chapters of this book turn to the Victorian fin de siècle —a period identified with widespread gender crisis, the interrogation of masculine and feminine roles, the forging of the social identity of the homosexual, and the rise of the New Woman. ...

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8. "Are Women Protected?" Sherlock Holmes and the Violent Home

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pp. 216-246

“Any reading of the Holmes stories must recognize that, whatever else the tales are doing, they are, above all else, celebrating the power of reason, venerating the human intellect and its ability to penetrate the mysterious surfaces of the world and explain the workings of the universe as...


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pp. 247-253


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pp. 255-262


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pp. 263-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780821441992
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821416433

Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 191953298
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bleak Houses

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Violence in literature.
  • Family violence in literature.
  • Abused women in literature.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Marriage in literature.
  • Domestic fiction, English -- History and criticism.
  • Child abuse in literature.
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