- In Bed with the Victorians: The Life-Cycle of Working-Class Marriage by Vicky Holmes
Vicky Holmes’s In Bed with the Victorians: The Life-Cycle of Working-Class Marriage contributes, with its focus on the marital bed, both to histories of marriage and to object studies. Holmes uses the bed as a way into understanding marriage, aligning herself with scholars who have used other domestic objects (clocks, tea tables, chairs) to explore the familial and social contexts in which those items are used. The marital bed is, of course, a particularly resonant object, “both a space that symbolized [a couple’s] union” and “a space distinctively occupied by both husband and wife” (3).
Holmes depends for her evidence—and her evidentiary access to working-class bedrooms—on coroners’ inquests from Essex and Suffolk in the second half of the nineteenth century. Holmes argues that those inquests are “an incredibly underutilised source amongst Victorianists,” although they have been productively used for studies of earlier periods in English history (2). While Holmes does not describe in detail the structure of inquests, she notes that they often “detail the activities within and surrounding the marital bed through the testimony of its own occupants” and have the advantage, in most cases, of immediacy (6). Equally important for Holmes is the fact that inquests often included testimony by both husband and wife, thus becoming an unusual source in histories of marriage for the husband’s point of view.
Holmes’s sample of inquests reveals a careful attention to sleeping arrangements, and especially to the allotment of space within a family home or lodging house. The evidence supports a perhaps surprising argument that among the many newly married couples who could not afford a home of their own, it was urban couples with access to lodgings who had more private space, not only beds but also rooms that could have locks on their doors. The inquest reports also offer glimpses of other facts that historians have had a hard time accessing, like the apparently common practice on the part of these couples of wearing nightclothes to bed instead of sleeping naked “as is often suggested” (52).
In Bed with the Victorians is interested in, and structured by, the life cycle of married (or long-term cohabiting) couples; the chapter arc takes us from the first days and weeks of marriage to bereavement. In between, Holmes includes one chapter on the transformation of the marital bed into a childbed in the time surrounding birth, and two chapters on the role of the bed in “marital strife,” including the use of the bed as a site (and sometimes a weapon) of domestic violence (3). The structure allows Holmes to tell a story that allows for accretion of meaning over time.
The story Holmes tells resonates with several decades of work on the history of privacy, especially in relation to marriage. The book is especially strong when it deals [End Page 672] with the allotment and use of space as families struggled to accommodate newlyweds in small and/or pass-through rooms or in beds adjacent to their in-laws’. The third chapter explores the re-gendering of space and access as the marital bed becomes, for a time, the childbed. According to Holmes, husbands were excluded from the bed and the room; they could, if space were tight, be replaced in the bed by a female relative who had come to help with the birth. In one case the female bedmate was both relative and lodger; the husband moved into her bed for the period surrounding the birth. Holmes and her sources allow us to see not only the layout but the flexibility of spaces at specific moments in the life cycle.
Holmes is careful to include not only the physical or visual contours of space but also its auditory dimensions. She argues that although physically excluded from the room, husbands tended to remain within “earshot” of their wives as they labored (41). Similarly, and more sinisterly...