Domestic Violence in Victorian England

by Megan Markevich

“Wife beating” was a prominent occurrence in Victorian times. It is socially acceptable and may be seen as a characteristic of the lower classes, but “wife beating” is prevalent in all classes. In William Montagu’s social investigation Round London: Down East and Up West, he tells of women in the hospital: “Sometimes as many as twelve or fourteen women may be seen seated in the receiving-room, waiting for their bruised and bleeding faces and bodies to be attended to […] In nine cases out of ten the injuries have been inflicted by brutal and perhaps drunken husbands” (Montagu). Many incidents of domestic violence in Victorian times are influenced by alcohol. But “wife beating” is present in all classes, not just the lower classes as Montagu portrays. Caroline Norton, a Victorian author in mid nineteenth century England, commonly writes of her husbands continuous “wife-beating.” Her husband being a member of parliament is obviously not lower class. Yet she writes of his “physical violence” towards her and how the servants restrain him from “inflicting serious damage” (Norton 1). Sir Pitt also beats his wife also even though he is considered upper class.

The article “Spousal Abuse” discusses that Victorian perception of religion, domestic principles, and laws allows men to justify “wife-beating.” Domestic violence during Victorian times is mainly attributed to the idea that the man is the ruler in all worlds. The man’s responsibility of being a protector is the main idea in contributing to domestic violence.

In the area of religion the “emphasis of religious based subordination suggested that, for a woman to be virtuous and serve God, she must follow the lead of her husband […] this gave men the impression that they had a God given right to control their wives, even if this mean through the use of physical correction” (Nolte 1). Due to the fact that religion is claimed to be an important Victorian ideal, men believe that for women to lead a virtuous life, she must follow the wishes of her husband. Even if these wishes allow her to be beat.

Domestic principles of Victorian England also promoted the dominance of men. The husband was the supreme being in the house and it was “a husband’s duty to protect his wife […] this authority also allowed for him to use violence, if necessary, in order to keep her in line” (Nolte 3). Caroline Norton gave evidence of this when she disagreed with her husband upon the actions of another lady. When Norton defended this certain lady, her husband “seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor” (Norton 5). Norton’s husband believed that he was keeping her “in line.”

Also a lot of the laws in Victorian England favored men. Men had legal power over most all of his wife’s possessions, including her wages, children, and any inheritance. Many women felt enslaved to their husbands as Frances Power Cobbe describes in her writing “Wife Torture in England:” “The whole relation between the sexes in the class we are considering is very little better than one of master and slave” (Hamilton 442). The comparison between the relationships of a wife and husband versus a slave and his master is very common in Victorian literature concerning domestic violence. The laws of the Victorian era contributed to this relationship because it gave the legal right for men to be overbearing: “It was widely accepted around the world that ‘wife-beating- was included in a man’s legal right power over his wife and her property” (Nolte 2).

“Wife-beating” is not taken seriously in Victorian times as it is today. The men casually justified it while most women accepted it as a way of life. The ideals concerning law, religion, and domestic roles contributed to the allowance of spouse abuse. But, in the later nineteenth century, women did gain some rights through reform laws which allowed them child custody and possession of their own things.

Works Cited

“Caroline Norton.” The National Archives Learning Curve. 3 November 2004. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wnorton.htm>.

Hamilton, Susan. “Making History with Frances Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminism, Domestic Violence, and the Language of Imperialism.” EBSCOHost. 4 November 2004. <http://search.epnet.com>.

Montagu, Williams. Round London: Down Easy and Up West. 1894. The Victorian Dictionary. 4 November 2004.<http://www.victorianlondon.org>.

Nolte, Michelle. “Spousal Abuse” Women’s Issues Then and Now: A Feminist Overview of the Past Two Centuries. 3 November 2004. <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/femhist/spousal_abuse.shtml>.