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English Marital Violence in Litigation, Literature, and the Press

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 19, Number 4, Winter 2007
pp. 144-153 | 10.1353/jowh.2007.0065

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Scholars use marital violence as a tool to understand patriarchy, women's position within the institution of marriage and society, the nature of gendered relationships, and, increasingly, notions of femininity and masculinity. Elizabeth Foyster and Lisa Surridge have contributed further insights into these issues with two fine studies of marital violence in England, together covering the period 1660 to 1900. Both books also push forward our understandings in several key areas. These include the role that class played in marital violence, the permeability of the marital home to outside view, and the relationship between masculinity and wife beating. The similarities of their focus are yet more striking when we realize that Foyster and Surridge have a different chronological focus and work in different disciplines and therefore utilize different methodologies and sources.

Foyster is a historian who analyzes a range of legal cases from 1660 to 1800, including matrimonial litigation that was heard before the London Consistory Court, the Court of Arches, the Peculiars of the Archbishopric of Canterbury, the High Court of Delegates, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. She supplements these with printed Law Reports and cases of child or spouse custody that came before King's Bench. Finally, she draws on records of wife beating from the London Police Courts reported in The Times in the first half of the nineteenth century. Covering nearly two hundred years, Foyster sets out to explain broad patterns in attitudes and experience. Surridge, on the other hand, is a literary scholar who analyzes fictionalized accounts of marital violence and adopts a more pointillist approach by constructing each chapter around a key novel or serial from a different decade covering roughly seventy to eighty years from the 1830s to the turn of the century. These are Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1839) and Dombey and Son (1846–48), Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" (serialized in 1857), Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859–60), Anthony Trollope's He Knew He was Right (1869), Mona Caird's The Wing of Azrael (1889), and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine in the 1890s and early 1900s. Surridge explores the relationship between them and newspaper reporting of wife beating, which she contends increased around or after the major legal landmarks of the 1828 Offences Against the Person Act, the 1853 Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults on Women and Children, the 1857 and 1878 Matrimonial Causes Acts, and the married women's property acts of 1870 and 1882.

Bleak Houses and Marital Violence have somewhat different objectives. While Foyster overlaps with Surridge in her use of statutes relating to beaten wives and newspaper reports of wife beating, she treats them as empirical resources for an understanding of how marital violence was experienced, dealt with, and interpreted. In doing so she identifies and attempts to explain the emergence of two major misconceptions about marital violence in the period 1660–1800: that wife beating was a working-class phenomenon and that it increasingly became a "private" matter. In contrast, Surridge examines the numerous intersections between the law, debates about marriage, the press, and fiction. Thus, for example, she shows how realist fiction of the 1840s anticipated and helped frame debates on wife assault that surrounded the 1853 Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults on Women and Children. Novels also entered such existing debates as feminist concerns about married women's legal status. Thus women's position under coverture was central to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Surridge also shows the impact of newspaper reporting upon fiction. The structure of Collins's The Woman in White for example closely followed the structure of reported divorce cases since it was presented as a series of witness statements and uncovered domestic cruelty and sexual secrets.

The scholars' respective disciplines lead to some differences of emphasis. For example, Marital Violence contains a chapter devoted to the role of children in marital conflict, while Surridge only occasionally addresses this issue since the fiction she explores considers children primarily when parental custody is in conflict (as in...



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