Amanda Paxton, ‘Husbands and Wives: Nineteenth-Century Contours of Power’

 Philip Hermogenes Calderon's St. Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation, 1891
Philip Hermogenes Calderon's St. Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation, 1891

By Amanda Paxton

One of the most rewarding opportunities I had while researching my doctoral dissertation was working with the manuscripts of the clergyman, novelist, and social reformer Charles Kingsley in the British Library, particularly the uncompleted prose text “Elizabeth of Hungary.” Begun in 1842 but never completed, the breathtaking oversize volume was intended to provide a retelling of the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, whose biography served as the subject of Kingsley’s later verse closet drama, The Saint’s Tragedy (published in 1847; dated 1848). Kingsley was both fascinated and repelled by the life of the saint, whom he saw as being exemplary of the folly underlying the asceticism he perceived to be integral to Catholic practice.

Accompanying the text, which is written in Kingsley’s painstakingly artful hand, is an assortment of illustrations made with equally fine attention to detail. In one sketch, a naked female figure carries a cross upon her shoulder; in another, a woman is attacked with flaming pokers by a bevy of grotesques; the title page shows a naked woman crucified on a ship’s anchor. The care, mastery, and unfinished hesitancy of the book is, to my mind, a reflection of the simultaneous conviction and uncertainty with which Kingsley and so many of his contemporaries approached the vexed issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and religion in nineteenth-century England. My forthcoming article, “Charles Kingsley’s Saintly Trials and Husbandly Duties,” uses Kingsley as a case study in examining a larger trend of the spiritualization of specific gender dynamics and domestic relations, particularly in Protestant circles. I suggest that the case of Kingsley demonstrates in relief a broader reaction to the swift changes in nineteenth-century understandings of gender and the concurrent transformations in religious belief.

With the growth of companionate marriage as an ideal over the course of the nineteenth century, marital norms began to shift, and physical violence was no longer publicly sanctioned as a prerogative of husbandly authority. A. James Hammerton notes that new formulations of masculinity mandated self-control and stigmatized outbursts of temper; with the advent of Divorce Court in 1857, many trials centred on what was perceived as mismanaged masculinity. Added to this reconfiguration of masculine authority in the Victorian household was the supposed incursion of Catholic priests and confessors into the positions of husband and father. Young people – particularly women – were perceived as being especially vulnerable to the overtures of wily priests, leading to what Susan Casteras terms the “danger of supplanting parental (especially patriarchal) authority with religious hierarchy.”[i]

Within this nexus of tensions surrounding male domestic authority, I observe a schizoid pull exemplified in Kingsley’s fixation on and disdain for the sexualized asceticism and mortification with which he associated Catholicism. In a paradoxical identification with the male Catholic authorities that bore the brunt of his ire, the Broad Churchman transposed the markers of husbandly power from physical domestic expression into a religiously based imaginary. Like the sketches in Kingsley’s manuscript, the contours of traditional domestic relationships are both present and absent, transcribed in new outlines from the physical world to the imaginary, and haunted by ghostly images of masculine power that cannot be eradicated.

[i] Susan P. Casteras, ‘Virgin Vows: The Early Victorian Artists’ Portrayal of Nuns and Novices’, Victorian Studies, 24.3 (1981), pp. 157-84 (p. 165).

Amanda Paxton holds a doctorate in English Literature from York University, Toronto, where she recently completed her dissertation examining sado-eroticism and subjectivity in Victorian religious verse. She specializes in nineteenth-century poetry, with specific interest in the intersections of aesthetics and sexuality. She is the Reviews Editor at the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *