History 298: The Role of Women and Domesticity in Victorian England

“The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits” Transcription

The primary source that I have selected for my HIST 298 research project regarding the role of women and the Cult of Domesticity in 19th-Century Britain is entitled The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits by Quaker-turned-Congregationalist Englishwoman Sarah Stickney Ellis. Sarah Stickney Ellis was born in England in 1812.
The Women of England was first published by Fisher, Sons, & Company in London in 1838. The work belongs to the genre of “conduct manuals,” a sort of nonfiction, Victorian-Era behavioral guide. It is important to note that these conduct manuals were not simply etiquette guides, as they placed more of an emphasis on proper morality and values for their audiences, rather than specific, nuanced behaviors.
Growing up, her father ensured that Ellis was well-versed in morality and housewifery. In addition to authoring numerous conduct manuals, abolitionist papers, and poems, Ellis also was the founder of the Rawdon House, a manners school for young Englishwomen. Her works include little personal biographical information, and she wrote no memoir.
There is little information available regarding the editing process that this specific work underwent, however, it is not uncommon for female-authored nineteenth-century British literature to undergo heavy scrutiny during the editing process so as to ensure that the text protects the reputations and dignity of all those involved.  Such a practice is indicative of the emphasis placed on dignity, morality, and gender roles by Victorian society. Let it be noted that despite her authorship of a conduct manual, Ellis is not without her own criticisms of this editing process, as she laments the fact that she has faced “contempt for having a book filled with trifles.” (Ellis, 177)
Currently, I am using a full-text version of this source as available online through Indiana University’s online Victorian Women Writer’s Project. (VWWP) The VWWP began in 1995 in an effort to expose lesser-known women writers of the nineteenth-century and is managed by students from the University, as well as Victorian scholars from across the United States.
Below is an excerpt that I have selected from The Women of England.
Chapter VII: Domestic Habits, — Consideration and Kindness, Page 176-177
“The man who voluntarily undertakes a difficult and responsible business, first inquires how it is to be conducted so as to best ensure success; so, the serious and thoughtful Woman, on entering upon the duties of domestic life, ascertains, by reflection and observation, in what manner they may be performed so as to render them most conducive to the great end she has in view – the promotion of the happiness of others; and as the man engaged in business does not run hither and thither, simply to make a show of alacrity, neither does the woman engaged in a higher and more important work, allow herself to be satisfied with her own willingness to do her duty, without a diligent and preserving investigation of what are the most effectual means by which it can be done. Women are most universally admonished of their duties in general terms, and hence they labour under great disadvantages. They are told to be virtuous; and in order to be so, they are advised to be kind and modest, orderly and discreet. But few teachers, and fewer writers, condescend to take up the minutiæ of everyday existence, so as to explain in what distinct and individual actions such kindness, modesty, order, and discretion consist. Indeed, the cases themselves upon which these principles of right conduct are generally brought to bear, are so minute, and so apparently insignificant, that the writer who takes up this subject must not only be content to sacrifice all the dignity of authorship, but must submit occasionally to a smile of contempt for having filled a book with trifles.”

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