Secret Societies and Fraternities in the Late 19th Century

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As mentioned below, the Freemasons boasted of some pretty important people among its members. In the photo above, Prince Albert and King George VI are among the Grand Masters of this Freemason lodge in Scotland.

Photo Credit: Photo with, among others, Prince Albert and Duke of York, who later was to become King George VI from Lodge Glamis No. 99 in Forfarshire, Scotland. Photo taken by Peter Ellis on 2nd June 1936. Masonic Centre, Queanbeyan, New South Wales: Scribedia/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Sometimes things come up in novels that you never thought you’d find yourself dealing with. The entire writing and rewriting process of Tales of Actaeon has been like that for me. As I mention here, much of my fiction is about women. My historical fiction is loaded with ideas about women’s place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their isolation and limitations within the separate spheres. Most of my protagonists are women.

But for Tales, I chose to write the story of Jake Alderdice. Jake is the younger brother of Vivian Alderdice the unofficial protagonist of the series. As a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, I was interested in definitions of masculinity in the Gilded Age, this transitional time between Victorian and modern (ergo, 20th century) values. In his story, then, the idea of secret societies and fraternities came up.

Although such societies were nothing new in the 19th century (the Freemasons established a foothold in America as the granddaddy of all secret societies in the 18th century and boasted of such members as George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin), their heyday occurred in the late 19th century. In fact, editor Alfred C. Stevens wrote a book in 1899 called The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities that claims to document more than 600 of these societies active in America at the time. 

Why did secret societies and, I should add, specifically male fraternities, flourish in the Gilded Age? There were practical reasons, of course (such as secret societies based on business interests where members could make valuable connections) but I’m talking here of the more psychological reasons. I didn’t find much in my research about this, but I have a few ideas of my own. As I mention in my blog post, this was a time in America for great change and innovation. The nation was shifting from Victorian to modern very fast, and, in the eyes of many, not necessarily for the better. Excess, commercialism, and corruption abound. The life many people once knew was rapidly being hurled toward the new century. In this chaotic atmosphere, secret societies offered a sanctuary. Many based their ideals on “old-fashioned” values and established rules, rites, and rituals that remained static amidst the armageddon of the changing world. They also offered a stable identity for many of their members (for example, the Knights of Pythias was organized in the mid-19th century based on the ethic of brotherly love). They gave Gilded Age men a sense of identity, belonging and protection, the feeling that someone “had their backs”. They also gave men (predominantly white, Protestant, and middle class) the feeling of superiority. The assurance of these men of their domination had been theirs for much of the 19th century but was starting to crumble with the advert of labor unions, immigration, and women’s rights. Even the sometimes bizarre and frightening initiation for new members was a sort of badge of courage for members to wear after they became members. 

Unfortunately, many of these secret societies have a bad reputation. Popular media has portrayed many of them either as silly and junior-highish or dangerous. One great example is in a film I talked about on my old blog called Smile. Make in 1975 at the height of the women’s movement, the film is a social satire of the worship of beauty in America in the form of beauty pageants. One of the film’s subplots involves a male fraternity with a rather disgusting and humiliating initiation that involves kissing a rather unsavory part of a raw chicken. The enthusiasm and excitement that “Big” Bob (Bruce Dern), already a member, shows toward this ritual as he explains it to his friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), who is about to be initiated, makes a mockery of the more serious initiation rights of many secret societies and, in the context of the film, serves to show male ideas of fun and fulfillment (like the beauty pageant itself) as absurd and immature.

In Tales, Jake is introduced to a secret society of men called The Order of Actaeon. Their philosophies are based on Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of combining manly virtue and honor with masculine aggression and cunning. However, many of these philosophies become twisted into a definition of modern masculinity that lead to tragedy at the end of the novel.

To learn more about Tales of Actaeon, due to come out in December, please see this page. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please go here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from Tales that involves the secret society in the book, you can do so if you join my readers group in Facebook, Tam’s Dreamers.   

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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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