Sunday, June 3, 2007

Levine-Clark reviews Foyster's revisionist Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857

Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857 (Cambridge University Press, 2005) is reviewed on H-Law by Marjorie Levine-Clark, University of Colorado at Denver. Levine-Clark writes:

In this well-structured, clearly written text, Elizabeth Foyster challenges some of the central arguments in histories of domestic violence. Much of her analysis is informed by a conversation with the existing literature, whose conclusions she explicitly disputes. Using the rich documentation of marital violence in church and secular court records, supplemented by newspapers,government documents, and more private recordings in diaries and correspondence, Foyster presents convincing evidence of the need to rethink our assumptions about the impact of such things as the ideology of domesticity and increasing privatization on marital violence. Foyster foregrounds historical continuities in ideas about marital violence, women's agency in resisting violence from their husbands, the impact of marital violence beyond the marital couple, and an expansive definition of marital violence which goes beyond physical wife-beating.

Arguing against historians such as Martin Wiener and James Hammerton, Foyster claims that the history of marital violence from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century reveals more continuities than changes. Wiener and Hammerton each identify a significant transformation in the Victorian period in attitudes towards domestic violence, emphasizing a new intolerance towards violent expressions of masculinity. The Victorians, in this interpretation,introduced a model of moderate masculinity which influenced both ideas and practices of domestic violence. Foyster, by contrast, contends that, over the course of her period, people consistently stressed masculine moderation with regard to marital violence and condemned men who went too far. Men's violence towards their wives "was not always seen as deviant behavior, and could be viewed instead as a feature of a 'normal', functioning relationship" (p. 4),but a man who crossed the line to "cruel violence," which seriously undermined the health and welfare of a wife, was denounced by both the law and the community in the seventeenth century, as in the nineteenth. Cruel violence was not limited to beatings; Foyster importantly points out that it could also include depriving a woman of economic necessities, medicine, her children, and her community support.

Foyster also questions the idea that marital violence became increasingly private over her period. The cruelly violent husband was regularly exposed to community criticism and had his reputation called into question. The private practice of cruel violence signified a man who had lost control of himself and his household, and this private chaos was thought to translate into public inadequacies as well. Private and public lives were, and remained, intertwined.Foyster details the involvement of kin, friends, and neighbors in mediating marital violence and, in doing so, reveals fascinating evidence about men's relationships with their in-laws. Children, too, were intimately involved in their parents' marital disputes, and Foyster does an excellent job of situating marital violence within family history and revealing the limits to privacy,even within a household. She demonstrates that even as the cults of sensibility and domesticity shaped demands for privacy, a couple's marriage was still something which seemed to be open to the intervention of outsiders.

Although arguing primarily for continuities, Foyster does establish some key points of change. The first is that class became increasingly important in conceptualizing cruel violence. Foyster makes explicit the legal and cultural premise that tolerance for violence was relative to a woman's social status: "what was tolerable in one social class was cruel in another" (p. 79)....

[T]he second major transformation Foyster identifies [is]: communities began to turn to professionals such as the police,magistrates, doctors, and the clergy to address marital violence. Interestingly, Foyster details the tensions in this development which was by no means complete at the end of her period. While some professionals criticized amateur responses to marital violence and argued that experts should handle the problem, others were less prepared to intervene in what had traditionally been an issue for families and communities. The significance of this transition, as Foyster eloquently argues, is that "when marital violence became somebody's problem, in terms of it lying within their professional expertise, it ceased to be everybody's problem. It is this change in attitudes that has cost so many women their lives" (p. 233). Thus the narrative of professionalization is more telling than that of privatization in Foyster's analysis, although the two seem to me to be interdependent.

To continue reading, click here.