Women and Men in the 19th Century: The Separate Spheres

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Photo Credit: OpenClipartVectors/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.

In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres. 

I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.

To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.

What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.

What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies. 

In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?

The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Mrs. Coventry Patmore, John Everett Millais, 1851, oil on panel, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: PKM/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future. 

The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms: 

“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949). 

However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:

“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949). 

It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.

Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.

One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.

Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.

To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.

You can read more about the Waxwood Series here.

And if you like mysteries, you can read up on my upcoming Progressive Era historical mystery series here.

Works Cited

Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.

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Ghost From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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Photo Credit: Aquamarine, Blue sapphire and diamond necklace and earrings, cropped, designed by Ernesto Moreira, Houston, TX, 2006, Wikipedia Loves Art Photo Pool: File Upload Bot (Kaldari)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.5

A lot went into my upcoming historical family saga, the Waxwood Series. Here I talk about the way it evolved from a novel into a 4-book series. A similar evolution occurred with Penelope Alderdice, one of the main characters of the first book, The Specter. She basically went from being a persona non grata to a specter.

I never intended for Penelope to be more than a background character. The original novel focused on the immediate family, and my thinking for the series was that it should do the same (with additional characters making an appearance). But Penelope’s voice was so strong, so insistent on being heard, I couldn’t ignore it.

Penelope’s story, which takes up about half of The Specter, had its roots in an incident from an old draft of the original book, which I then expanded into a short story. I wrote the story and offered it as an earlier gift to my newsletter subscribers. At the time, the first book was about Jake Alderdice, the brother of the series’ unofficial main character, Vivian (you can read more about Vivian in a blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud blog later this month – watch this blog for the link). I wrote a story “After The Funeral” about the wake of Vivian and Jake’s grandmother, Penelope. Since Penelope was influential in Jake’s childhood, I thought knowing a little about her would help readers understand Jake better.

In the story, an old friend of Penelope’s crashes the funeral reception and starts to reveal elements of Penelope’s early life that Vivian and Jake were never told. Later, after the reception is over, Vivian confronts her mother about the lies they were told about who Penelope really was. It becomes an important moment between mother and daughter. 

When I wrote the story, I realized Penelope was a much more complex character than I had first envisioned her and I wanted to know more about her and, more importantly, let readers know more about her. I felt, in fact, that there were incidents in her life that were the driving force behind what was to happen to the family later on in the series. And I knew there was a connection between Vivian and Penelope that couldn’t be denied.

So I began to dig deeper into who Penelope was. I saw her as a woman whose seemed the perfect image of the pre-Gilded Age era, the sort of woman you would expect to see as a character in one of Gertrude Atherton’s books about San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Her angelic demeanor, her charming socialite countenance, and her performance in the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman hid a more complex woman who had, in her youth, fought the expectations put upon her as a wealthy debutante. Her passion for art, at one time, exceeded her desire to please her parents and the society around her, and there was one moment, one rebellious moment in her life. Her own insight and intelligence couldn’t fight the strength of the conventions and social position into which she was born, so this one moment had a bittersweet ending.

That, then, is part of what The Specter is about. We hear Penelope’s own voice in letters she wrote to her mother from Waxwood in the 1850’s, when it was a quiet, quaint coastal town a stone’s throw away from San Francisco. And her strong voice and rebellious streak, squelched by the expectations put upon women of her time, follow Vivian throughout the book. She is, in fact, the specter of the title, at least for her granddaughter.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy, go here.

Want to know more about the Waxwood Series? I’ve got you covered right here.   

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A Personal Look at the Gilded Age

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This is one of the most iconic cartoons of the Gilded Age. John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly that sparked the anti-trust acts in America (not to mention a slew of progressive reforms that would characterize the era following the Gilded Age).

Photo Credit: Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped aro und the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. Keppler, Udo J., Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 Sept. 7): Animalparty/Wikimedia Commons/ PD US

Several months ago, on my old blog, I posted about the Gilded Age, which is when my upcoming book and series takes place. I focused on how it was a time of excess, commercialism, dirty politics and class divides. I’ll be posting a revised version of that blog post on this new blog at some point in the future, but for now, you can read it on my old blog here.

Because the first book of my series is coming out and already available for preorder, and I’m working diligently on the second book, I thought it was time to offer a little more personal insight on what brought me to this time in American history, and why I am so fascinated by it.

My exposure to the Gilded Age began in 2007. I was back in Texas and searching for some direction in life. I already had a master’s degree in English but was a little bored with teaching college English courses. So I decided to enroll in a master’s program in History to broaden my teaching prospects. It was a logical choice for me, as I loved literature and writing, but I also loved history and felt I was missing background and knowledge both from a professional and artistic perspective.

One of the first courses I took was about the history of America in the  late 19th century. Our course textbook was The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, a collection of essays written by different historians subjects relevant to that time and our time (big business, politics, popular culture, etc). While some essays interested me more than others, I was compelled by how much  of the foundations of 21st century America were set down more than one hundred years ago. I was inspired by this course to look back at the past and see its connection with the present and future.

Although the idea for the Waxwood Series didn’t come until much later, I knew right away I wanted to eventually write fiction set in this time period. It was such a vibrant time of change not only on the practical level (like politics, business, and entertainment) but on the societal and psychological level, with shifting ideas and values. When I started to conceive of the Waxwood Series, I wanted the Alderdice family to be stuck in the past of old Victorian ideals of family, loyalty, and life. I could envision them being in direct conflict with their environment, where the world was changing all around them (especially in San Francisco, the hub of the Far West at that time). I saw the conflicts between the older generations of the family (the grandparents and the mother, Larissa) and the younger generation (Vivian and Jake). These conflicts I knew would be subtle, cryptic almost, embedded within the family drama and they would come out in the unwritten and unspoken acceptance of family behavior and values based on those old ideals. 

Since the Gilded Age is thought to span approximately the last quarter of the 19th century, I had quite a few decades to choose from when I thought about when I would set each of the four books in the series. I chose to place the last 3 books at the very end of the 19th century for a reason. Hurling the Alderdice family into the new age by Book 4 offered a fascinating way to look at how this family would cope, leaving open questions for their future.

Part of writing historical fiction, for me, is about more than just reliving the past. It’s also about how characters react to the changes around them and adjust themselves (or, in some cases, don’t adjust). In the Gilded Age, changes in America were happening so rapidly that a family like a wealthy and influential family like the Alderdices would be reeling from the impact. These families were the most reluctant to change for obvious reasons — the old world ways were working for them, so why rock the boat?

So in the Waxwood Series, history plays an important role, but what the story is really about is the Alderdice family within their historical time. As I explained in my recent blog post for the OWS CyCon blog tour, history comes alive for me when we see the people in it. That’s what  I hope to give readers in my fiction.

To learn more about The Specter and get hold of a preorder copy, go here.

You can learn more about the Waxwood Series here.    

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From Novel to Series: The Evolution of The Waxwood Series

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Photo Credit: Biarritz – La Grande Plage – L’Hôtel du Palais – L’Église Orthodoxe, Rafael Toussaint, 2013, oil on wood: Colibrix/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

If you were to poll most writers, you’d probably find many of their books and series have a story behind them — how they came to be, what sparked the idea, what real life people inspired the characters. That’s because we take inspiration from everywhere, everything, and everyone. There’s an old joke that says, “Don’t piss off a writer or you might find yourself as the character who gets killed off in their next book”. This is an exaggeration, of course, but the fact remains we gather threads of inspiration from the world around us, just like any creative person.

The inspiration and evolution of Waxwood Series is a little complicated but I’ll try to explain it. 

The Waxwood Series began as a single, stand-alone work of contemporary literary fiction in 2004. I was going through some heavy-duty family issues at the time (which I’m not at liberty to disclose) that forced me re-evaluate the meaning of family and look at my own psychological reality. I saw for the first time some of the denials and illusions I had been holding on to since a child. It was a difficult time for me, and while I had no interest in writing a memoir or a “based on true events” kind of story, I was interested in this idea of how, when we face our past as adults, we see things as they really are, which aren’t always as rosy as we think they are or were. But only through this kind of self-honesty can we start to heal those wounds, stop repeating past mistakes, and move on to the future.

I knew I wanted to write a complex story about one family where the members were in denial of their dysfunctionality and the toll it had taken on their lives. I wanted to write a story where circumstances forced member os the family to face those demons, and I was curious who would be able to handle them and who wouldn’t. The book I ended up writing had 3 separate narrative voices: The adult daughter’s, the adult son’s, and a voice that belonged to the young woman who came into their lives and changed them all. The story was about a well-to-do San Francisco family spending their summer in a resort hotel whose relationship crumbles because of an ambitious, ruthless young woman looking to exploit the vulnerable, needy mother and her wealth to get ahead in her career as a chef. 

I finished the first draft, roughly 85,000 words. But when I set out to revise the book, I kept coming up against a brick wall of dissatisfaction, doubt, and anxiety. I kept changing the story, the characters, putting the book aside, then going back to it. I was convinced it was just an amateur effort and should be shelved, for, although I have been writing since I was a teenager, this book was my first serious dip into psychological literary fiction. 

And yet, the family in the book wouldn’t let me go. It took me many years to realize why I was so attached to them — although their background and situation was entirely different from mine, they were dealing with emotional and psychological issues that were close to my own experience.

When I began self-publishing in 2017, I picked up the book again. Reading through it, I realized the story of this San Francisco family needed to be told so that their psychological evolution was the focus rather than the idea of a stranger infiltrating into their lives and ruining that relationship. The ruin had to come from within the family structure and not from without. Their interactions with the outside world would force them to face the past, but it couldn’t override the life-changing revelations that the family members had to reach on their own.

To that end, the three separate voices became three separate books for the series. I considered the daughter of the family (who eventually became Vivian Alderdice) the main protagonist of the series, but I knew I didn’t want the series to be just about her. Her brother had his own story in the original novel, which I have kept (and which will be Book 2 of the Waxwood Series). The young woman who, in the novel, was the catalyst for change (alibi, not a very positive one) has her own story as well, which will be Book 3 of the series. 

I also knew I wanted to change the original book from contemporary to historical fiction, and that both the collective and personal history of this family were relevant. Therefore, I conceived of the story of the previous generation (the grandparents) and the effect of their past on the present generation.

You can read more about the Waxwood series here

The first book in the series, The Specter, is now available for preorder on Amazon and other online retailers. You can find out more about the book and the links to those retailers here

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Revealing the Hidden: Psychological Reality Revisited

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Photo Credit: iceberg painting 2, oil on canvas, Philippe Put, taken on August 21, 2013: Philippe Put/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“Our psychological reality… lies below the surface….”  (Nin, Ch. 2, location 816)

Welcome to my new blog! It’s actually not a new blog – it’s the old blog in a new place.

There’s no better way to kick off my old blog in a new place than by revisiting one of my first blog posts. I chose this one because psychological reality is the foundation of everything I write, from my fiction to my blog posts. Even though I’m moving into different territory in terms of genre, my fascination with this concept hasn’t waned since I first discovered it. But the concept has evolved for me over these last 3 years.

The idea festered for years before I published my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories in 2017. The term was first introduced to me in Nin’s book The Novel Of The Future. I was fascinating by this idea that reality was more than what we experience in our daily lives, something that, as a teenage wrier, I had discovered when I dove into my own stories and lived the lives of my characters.

I know the concept sounds abstract. But psychological reality is really the opposite side of the coin to physical reality. We have what we experience on the surface through our contact with the world. This is the life through the sensations and intellect and the patterns we form as we go through our daily routine.

Psychological reality is the hidden aspects of our lives, the things we try to shrug off or don’t talk about because we know they have a deeper meaning and connection to some of the unpleasant aspects of our lives. It’s the stuff that doesn’t always come to the surface, whether we know if or we don’t. It’s made up of a tapestry of emotions, perceptions, and motivations, and goes beyond what we do or see in our daily lives, as it forces us to examine how and why we do what we do and makes us question what we’re really seeing.

For example, a while back, I wrote a story based on an interesting incident my mother told me about a birthday celebration she had while I was living in the States. My father was doing some contract work at the time for a big chemical plant (he was a chemical engineer before he retired) and was working with a young man whom my mother met a few times. My father mentioned he wanted to take my mother out for her birthday and asked the young man to recommend a restaurant. On the day of my mother’s birthday, when my father asked for the check, the server informed him it had already been paid. My mother found out later the young man who had worked with my father had paid it.

The story intrigued me and I wrote about it using a fictional couple who were middle-aged and had been estranged for some time. The incident with the birthday dinner took on meanings behind a kind gesture and became a story of emotional tensions between the couple, the husband’s failure to understand his wife’s emotional needs, and the young man’s platonic appreciation for the woman he had only met once but who had shown an understanding and compassion for his art which his own wife did not understand. The story that surfaced was more about those difficult emotions than it was about the birthday party.

A story might be just a story meant to entertain. I read a lot of classic mystery stories where the mystery is intriguing and the “whodoneit” engaging. I love Agatha Christie because she writes stories that lead to unexpected twists and turns and readers get caught up in trying to solve the mystery themselves. There are no hidden meanings behind why the criminals commit their crimes. There’s some background, perhaps, as to what motivated them, but these are more surface level facts, like a blackmailer who is killed to stop him from draining the purse of a widow who can no longer pay him.

One of the reasons why I love19th century fiction is because it is devout of the modern obsession with realism (though, of course, there was a school of literature at the time that attacked just this issue). Victorian fiction has been accused of being too ornate and sentimental and far-fetched. I just read an article where poet T. S. Eliot slammed Victorian mystery writer Anna Katherine Green for lapsing into sentimental melodrama. But, in fact, Green’s fiction is about characters and their psychological motivations and her stories have more psychological reality than most mystery fiction.

My upcoming historical family saga, The Waxwood Series grew out of my own psychological reality and digs into the lives of the Alderdice family. They are a wealthy Gilded Age family, high up on the San Francisco social register, but the mangled relationships between its members mirrors the kind of dysfunctionality we’re more familiar with today. The series traces the way in which psychological realities such as hidden family secrets, half-truths, evasions, dreams, and unexplained family mementos lead Vivian, the main character of the series, down a path of self-discovery. But the series includes other characters outside the family who also take their own journeys and make their own discoveries. The thread of looking back at the past so that it won’t stop the future runs through all four books.

Anais Nin sums it up when she says, ““[one can] only find reality by discarding realism.”  (Nin, Introduction, location 115, par. 2). This is not to say realism doesn’t have its place in fiction. Historical fiction is filled with real facts, real events, and real people that make the past come alive for readers, as well as the social, political and cultural realities related to a certain era that still speak to us today. But if we become too obsessed with physical realities, we miss out on understanding life and understanding ourselves on a much deeper level

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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