Family Ties in Victorian England

by Claudia Nelson


A vivid look at the Victorian British family emphasizing interpersonal relationships, using both non-fiction and fiction sources.

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February 2007


Pages 216
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics World History/Culture
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The Victorians were passionate about family. While Queen Victoria's supporters argued that her intense commitment to her private life made her the more fit to mother her people, her critics charged that it distracted her from her public responsibilities. Here, Nelson focuses particularly on the conflicting and powerful images of family life that Victorians produced in their fiction and nonfiction—that is, on how the Victorians themselves conceived of family, which continues both to influence and to help explain visions of family today.

Drawing upon a wide variety of 19th-century fiction and nonfiction, Nelson examines the English Victorian family both as it was imagined and as it was experienced. For many Victorians, family was exalted to the status of secular religion, endowed with the power of fighting the contamination of unchecked commercialism or sexuality and holding out the promise of reforming humankind. Although in practice this ideal might have proven unattainable, the many detailed 19th-century descriptions of the outlook and behavior appropriate to fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and other family members illustrate the extent of the pressure felt by members of this society to try to live up to the expectations of their culture. Defining family to include the extended family, the foster or adoptive family, and the stepfamily, Nelson considers different roles within the Victorian household in order to gauge the ambivalence and the social anxieties surrounding them—many of which continue to influence our notions of family today.



"In this well-written, well-researched sociological study of the Victorian family, Nelson links life and literature, showing literary attempts to inculcate virtue as defined by the culture and the individual author. Drawing in court cases and life stories of Victorians both well known and obscure, the author argues that Victorian literature offers a middle-class viewpoint that the working classes are morally inferior and shows the extent to which family, supposed to be the bedrock on which Victorian society was built, nonetheless appeared vulnerable. Employing the extended family, stepparenting, and adoption, Victorian writers could present poor parenting without attacking the assumption that all women are maternal. Not surprisingly, Nelson finds girls' and women's training and roles different from those of men and boys--boys raised to support families and given leisure and freedom, girls removed from school as young as seven (if they were needed to care for siblings) and expected to cater to the needs of brothers throughout life. This fascinating, timely, and eye-opening study adds to Nelson's outstanding Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910. Highly recommended. All readers; all levels."Choice

"By including a wide range of experiences, Nelson offers a well-rounded picture of Victorian family life....Nelson is a gifted writer with a firm grasp on both historical and literary issues and, considering the number of topics she had to cover in a brief text, she has done an admirable job of synthesis. This book will be helpful to introductory courses on Victorian literature or history, particularly ones stressing gender issues."Journal of British Studies

"In this volume, Nelson discusses representations of family life in Victorian fiction and non-fiction. Chapters are organized around familial roles, such as husband and wife, mother and father, and children and siblings, in addition to extended, foster, and stepfamilies. She addresses both the historical facts of Victorian domestic life and conflicting images in texts of the time, in an attempt to understand views of family life and domestic duties and how positive and negative ideas served the desires of the country. Some illustrations are included."Reference & Research Book News

"Draws on fiction and nonfiction writings in a study contrasting how family life was imagined and experienced during the period."The Chronicle of Higher Education

Other Titles of Interest

Victorian Needlework cover imageCourtship and Marriage in Victorian England cover imageThe Sporting Life cover image
Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England cover imageVictorian Technology cover imageVictorian Childhoods cover image

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