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DISTINCTIVE REALISM: WIFE BEATING IN THREE TALES OF THE VICTORIAN ENGLISH PEASANTRY BY RICHARD JEFFERIES WILLIAM J. HYDE University of Wisconsin-La Crosse A letter from Tennyson to Sophia (Rawnsley) Elmhirst on the day following his wedding (14 June 1850) consists simply of two short sentences: "We seem to get on very well together. I have not beaten her yet" (Letters 1:328), making a grotesquely playful comment on a marriage that was to bring "the peace of God . . . into my Ufe" (H. Tennyson 1:329). WhUe it seems to concede die ordinariness of wife beating among humanity at large (indeed die range of court cases later in die century indicates that "upperclass men were as likely as those lower in the social scale" to employ extreme cruelty to their wives [Hammerton 276]), it may assume a difference between die behavior of a respectable middle-class man, beginning marriage late after long choosing a wife, and the ever more visible brutaUties of die lower orders1, who were often driven into marriage by early impulses and the consequences of pregnancy tiiat foUowed. In focusing on tiiis class of people as a reporter and an aspiring realist Richard Jefferies was to make distinctive contributions to the social record of his time as he developed his realistic methods of reporting. His main concern was not to filter reality through any moral judgment or prove die predominant guUt of either gender, but simply to cause us to confront and to feel die shortcomings ofour common humanity. Special circumstances, which I shall first review, made wife bearing a problem of particular intensity among the agricultural poor in the nineteenth century. Jefferies (1848-87), the bookish son of an unsuccessful WUtshire farmer and his "irritable and queer" wife, daughter of a London bookbinder (Taylor 5), was from die start of his life in a very close, perhaps uncomfortable position to make observations on the marital problems of the rural poor. A central problem in his observations of rural Ufe is the frequency of unwanted Victorian Review 25.1 (Summer 1999) WTLLIAM J. HYDE51 pregnancies coupled with the man's reluctance to assume responsibility. Jefferies observed in 1874 tiiat among the agricultural poor "scarcely any [marriages] occur until the condition of die girl is too manifest to be any longer concealed" ("Field-Faring Women," in his Toilers 136). Many years eartier, in a House of Commons report upon the poor laws, clergymen interviewed had stressed the great number of poor women, perhaps 4/5 or 19/20, who come to marriage with chUd (Report 96). In die years before the Poor Law Amendment of 1834, when the Speenhamland system adopted throughout most of the south of England provided outdoor reUef based upon the number and sex of family members and die price of bread, women were commonly paid 2s. a week for each illegitimate chUd (Report 95; NichoUs 3:59, 102-103). Mr. Tweedy of Yorkshire reported to die Commissioners of a woman in Carleton who boasted tiiat with her third bastard expected, "she could Uve as well as any body" (Report 95). A study by U.R.Q. Henriques of the Bastardy Clauses in the New Poor Law of 1834 emphasizes die exclusion of the previous means a woman had to obtain outdoor relief and maintenance orders against the man accused of fathering her child (see esp. 108-1 14). The new Clauses focused responsibility on die mother, or her parents, with help for herself centered witiiin the Union workhouse, and "exempt[ed] the putative father" from all legal obligations of maintenance. These Bastardy Clauses, "among the most unpopular in the whole of the Poor Law Amendment Act" (114), led to the ""Little Poor Law' of 1844" and later acts that aUowed the mother to claim support in action against the father in court, but only with "provision of corroborative evidence of paternity" (1 18-120). Hence Jefferies would come to observe tiiat orders of maintenance from the petty sessions as weU as some aid from die parish were common means for an unmarried mother late in the century not only to survive but at times to "sin with comparative immunity" (Toilers 136-137). Marriage, however...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 50-63
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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