- “Throwing the Wedding-Shoe”:Foundational Violence, Unhappy Couples, and Murderous Women
When we were all in a bustle outside the door, I foundthat Mr. Peggotty was prepared with an old shoe, whichwas to be thrown after us for luck.—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
When peggotty and Mr.Barkis embark on their wedding journey, Mrs. Gummidge dissolves into tears as she throws the wedding shoe after the couple. This curious practice formed a significant portion of Edward J. Wood’s popular study of The Wedding Day in All Ages and Countries (1869)—as well as in the newspapers that lauded the book. Across Britain, the papers highlighted the “transfer of authority” occasioned “by a blow on [the bride’s head] given with the shoe” (Wood 2: 112). This gesture suggests a foundational violence in marriage, even in the act of the wedding celebration. How the gesture came to signal a wish for “luck” in the nineteenth century, however, is more puzzling. It seems to suggest that if the bride followed social strictures and kept her place, the bridegroom might not feel compelled to resort to knocking her with his shoe. In other words, everyone would be “lucky” if the bride passively played her part and the social order stayed intact. This reading, however, subtly implies that she might not do so and that the substructure of the groom’s luck was a woman’s (unreliable) passivity at mid-century. In this essay, I will contend that women may have posed far greater threat of violence in the home at mid-century than men did with their preliminary knock of the shoe. The threat of women’s homicidal violence may have been foundational to mid-century legal and social shifts.
Even after 1857, when divorce became a legal option for women,1 it was not a suitable social option for most of them. Women were therefore often compelled to submit to violence in its myriad forms as a condition of marriage. In David Copperfield (1850), Betsey Trotwood, though hardly a docile character, submissively and unhappily makes payments to the husband whom she “paid off” and sent to India because he beat her (12). Like the return of the repressed, the nightmare of her unhappy marriage will not go away, in spite of her wealth. Mrs. Copperfield must demonstrate her submission to her cruel new husband, Mr. Murdstone, even when her child’s well-being is in jeopardy and when his treatment of her child runs counter to her own fundamental beliefs (a choice that leads to her early death, a form of perfect passivity). These depictions follow, of course, the classic Dickensian image of violence in common-law marriage: the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist (1838), a scene theatrically performed by Charles Dickens himself until his death in 1870. In the novel, Nancy remains meek and compliant while Bill Sikes beats [End Page 39] her to death, an idealization by Dickens, as Lisa Surridge calls it, of “marital devotion” (31). One might walk away from such narratives, however, thinking that Dickens doth protest too much in his depiction of Nancy. Surely there were few—if any—women who would submit to being beaten to death by a husband either for the sake of love or for the sake of buttressing a culturally pleasing narrative of passive womanhood and wifehood. Why, we might ask, would the culture need such an overwrought vision of a woman’s passivity in the face of violence?
Most studies of unhappy Victorian marriages assume that women had one of two choices: accede or manage within socially tolerable bounds.2 These studies have traced an increasing attention to men’s violence and a growing legislative attention to women’s safety, particularly with the rise of feminism and writing that began to express dissatisfaction with the lack of legal protection for women. Surridge suggests that newspaper accounts rendered violence in marriage visible and that in the fiction of the period, we see attempts to grapple with this visibility. I have argued that sensation fiction voiced these tensions. A. James Hammerton and Martin J. Wiener have both outlined the legislative and legal evolution...