Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction

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The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1828 opened magistrates' courts to abused working-class wives. Newspapers in turn reported on these proceedings, and in this way the Victorian scrutiny of domestic conduct began. But how did popular fiction treat private family violence? Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction traces novelists' engagement with the wife-assault debates in the public press between 1828 and the turn of the century. Lisa Surridge examines the early works of Charles Dickens and reads Dombey and Son and Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in the context of the intense debates on wife assault and manliness in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Surridge explores George Eliot's Janet's Repentance in light of the parliamentary debates on the 1857 Divorce Act. Marital cruelty trials provide the structure for both Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. Locating the New Woman fiction of Mona Caird and the reassuring detective investigations of Sherlock Holmes in the context of late-Victorian feminism and the great marriage debate in the Daily Telegraph, Surridge illustrates how fin-de-siecle fiction brought male sexual violence and the viability of marriage itself under public scrutiny. Bleak Houses thus demonstrates how Victorian fiction was concerned about the wife-assault debates of the nineteenth century, debates which both constructed and invaded the privacy of the middle-class home.