I sometimes find in my research that there is a wall that prevents us seeing the whole panorama of history stretching off into the distance. One of them is that of the English family, as shown by Victoria and Dickens, which were far from typical through time. Most English people had to wait for someone to die for them to get somewhere to live so could marry, so extended families were rare. This also explains why there was a population explosion after epidemics – cleared out the housing stock.
But there is another wall here – that of the discovery of the contraceptive pill, which for the first time liberated women from the constant danger of pregnancy. We assume that a marriage involves sex. Adultery, ie the breach of the marriage contract, is based on physical intimacy with another person. But there were marriages with no children. In my research into wife selling, it seems that childless marriage were fairly common, which begs the question, where they actually being intimate with each other?
I am starting to think that they weren’t. I’ve been reading a book on famous Victorians, such as John Ruskin who married Effie grey, but who was disgusted by her body on their wedding night and the marriage was never consummated. This caused outrage, as it was seen as a denial of her natural need to be a mother, so he was seen as a monster. she was granted a divorce on the grounds that the marriage was void, but she had to prove her virginity to 3 male doctors which must have been pretty humiliating for her, but at least she got the man and the children she wanted in the end.
The other truly odd relationship, was between Marion Evans aka George Elliot and George Henry Lewes. When they met, his wife had already given birth to the first of several children by Thornton Leigh Hunt. The two Georges had an incredibly close, devoted relationship, with no children, whilst Lewes continued to support his legal wife. Yet the two considered themselves to be husband and wife, if not legally so.
At around the same time, there were a number of women who formed close relationships with each other, in America some were called ‘Boston Marriages’ which were apparently very close, but not physically intimate. Modern authors assume they were gay; they struggle to comprehend such relationships, because to us, sex is a given in couples. But if you really read about relationships in the past, there was a much wider range of possibilities. Many men served in the military, so knew about brotherhood under fire. Women knew about holding things together in their absence. There were many women who never married, so they helped out those who did, they volunteered for good causes, they formed social groups, the Bluestockings being the most famous.
Dickens virtually invented the notion of big Victorian families, possibly due to his troubled childhood, and yet by the time he and his wife had their 5th child, he was struggling to support them and losing interest in his wife. Yet they had another 5. So many people then had more children than they really wanted, queen Victoria among them.
Back then, childbirth was potentially lethal. Many women, like Mrs Dickens, were worn out by the constant cycle of childbirth and child rearing, the constant dangers, the grief. Some, like Marion Evans, had other things to do with their lives, and preferred some privacy, their own space, as Virginia Wolfe wrote, a room of their own. And it worked. George Elliot is one of the great authors – male or female. There is no way she could have produced such work in a houseful of children. In part because she didn’t want to. And that, in itself, was incredibly radical.