Friday, 16 August 2013

"I'm in Fear of Him Always"

The Verners' bailiff Giles Roy, a generally mean character, "was accustomed to keep his wife in due submission. ... [S]he was afraid of her husband." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 5). Not a single friendly word passes between the couple in the whole novel. Mrs Roy consistently weeps, cowers and hides herself throwing her apron over her face (Verner's Pride, Chapter 45). Her life has been reduced to such misery by her violent husband: "she had often been seen in a shaky state from very trifling causes" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 6). When she is questioned as a witness by Mr Verner after Rachel's death, he asks her why she continues to be so alarmed. Mrs Roy replies: "Because my husband says he'll shake me, she whimpered, after a long pause. (Verner's Pride, Chapter 6)

"Giles Roy knew that his wife was prone to flights of fancy. He was in the habit of administering one sovereign remedy, which he believed to be an infallible panacea for wives' ailments whenever it was applied - a hearty good shaking. He gave her a slight instalment as he turned away.
"Wait till I get you home," said he significantly. "I'll drive the ghosts out of ye!"" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 5)

Henry Mayhew's The London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2) in Volume 1 describes violence among the London coster-mongers: "Another lad informed me, with a knowing look, "that the gals—it was a rum thing now he come to think on it—axully liked a feller for walloping them. As long as the bruises hurted, she was always thinking on the cove as gived 'em her." (p. 36. Source Tufts Digital Library. See particularly sections "Of the Education of the Coster-Lads" and "Of the Coster-Girls." Note that both Internet Archive and Google Books have volume 2 under the title of volume 1).
Round London: Down East and Up West was published in 1892 (with a preface by Charles Dickens), just after the death of its author Montagu Williams Q. C. (1835-1892). It contains sketches of London life Williams wrote for Household Words. One of them (Chapter VI) is entitled "The London Hospital" and in it he writes (pp. 50-1):

"If any one has any doubts as to the brutalities practised on women by men, let him visit the London Hospital on a Saturday night. Very terrible sights will meet his eye. Sometimes as many as twelve or fourteen women may be seen seated in the receiving-room, waiting for their bruised and bleeding faces and bodies to be attended to. In nine cases out of ten the injuries have been inflicted by brutal and perhaps drunken husbands. The nurses tell me, however, that any remarks they may make reflecting on the aggressors are received with great indignation by the wretched sufferers. They positively will not hear a single word against the cowardly ruffians.
   “Sometimes,” said a nurse to me, “when I have told a woman that her husband is a brute, she has drawn herself up and replied: ‘You mind your own business, miss. We find the rates and taxes, and the likes of you are paid out of ‘em to wait on us.”’
   One day a German woman, who could not have been more than twenty years of age, was introduced into the general ward to be treated for a broken jaw. On the following day several friends came to see her, and among them her reputed husband, who had inflicted the injury. As soon as she saw him she burst into tears, and begged the nurse to allow her to return home with him at once. Upon being told that her removal from the hospital would be attended with danger, she re­luctantly consented to remain there for the time being; but she left two days afterwards. As she was taking her departure, the nurse warned her that the slightest additional violence on her husband’s part must be fatal, whereupon she exclaimed impatiently
   “Ah, ma’am, you don’t know anything about it. You see, I love him with all my heart.”
   And at this time the jaw had not even been set.”
Source: online version available at This quote is also included in Lee Jackson's The Dictionary of Victorian London. He gives the publication year 1894.

Domestic violence is seldom a simple matter, but is entangled in all kinds of emotional and financial ties and social expectations. Dinah Roy's character is an example of this. In Victorian times (perhaps even more than today) abuse like the one experienced by Mrs Roy remained hidden inside the four walls of the home. According to Professor Clive Emsley: "Domestic violence rarely came before the courts. ... among some working-class communities it continued to have a degree of tolerance, while amongst other classes the publicising of such behaviour, even, perhaps especially, in the courts, would have been regarded as bringing a family's reputation into disrepute. (Source:

As Emsley's words indicate, it was not only working class women who suffered in the hands of their husbands. Domestic violence and a robust exchange of view between spouses in Verner's Pride is very much a working class trait. But in reality domestic violence happened on all levels of society.
In her blog Writing Women's History, Jen Newby describes the a middle-class divorce case: "In July 1894 Mary Gertrude Campbell filed for divorce from her husband, Frederick Burleigh Campbell. In a quiet middle-class Cheltenham street, Frederick Campbell had apparently been behaving cruelly and even violently towards his own family." (

Perhaps the most famous case of marital violence at the top of the society is that of Caroline Norton (1808-1877). (See her biography A Scandalous Woman by Alan Chedzoy, or for a shorter overview Spurred on by her personal situation and helped by her high social standing, her persistent political lobbying led to several advances in women's legal rights (1839 Infant Custody Bill, and 1857 Divorce Bill).

Domestic violence was also a concern for the suffrage movement. In 1866 the Kensington Ladies Discussion Society presented a petition signed by 1,498 women (1,499 according to the Wikipedia and 1,500 according to Spartacus Educational []) demanding women's suffrage.  John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) introduced it in the Parliament (he was the step-father of Miss Helen Taylor, one of the organizers of the petition). Mill ended his speech:

"I should like to have a return laid before this House of the number of women who are actually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors; and in an opposite column, the amount of the sentences passed, in those cases where the dastardly criminals did not get off altogether."
(Source: A. N. Wilson The Victorians (2002), p. 314).

In Verner's Pride, domestic violence is an indicator of Roy's unpleasant character. He is querulous, ambitious and greedy, but he is not a criminal or a villain. And none of the other characters seem concerned about Roy's treatment of his wife. Some of the working class couples in the novel occasionally resemble a Punch and Judy show rather than respectable marriages. Parkes forces his ill wife to get out of bed and go to work (Verner's Pride, Chapter 93) and the Peckabys provide a complete slap-stick marital subplot (running between Chapters 22 and 74), which nicely contrasts with the marriage of Lionel Verner. (For comments on the Punch and Judy show and marriage see Chapter 2 in Rosalind Crone's Violent Victorians [2012]).

Significantly, the morally questionable men in the big house are idle, profligate, unconcerned for the welfare of their workers or the morals of their servants. John Massingbird tries to steal a kiss from shocked Rachel Frost (Verner's Pride, Chapter 1), Frederic Massingbird makes and breaks his promises to her (Verner's Pride, Chapter 80). As owners of the estate, they let their workers live in squalor with annual epidemics of ague (Verner's Pride, Chapter 79). But none of the gentlemen, we can assume, would resort to anything as crude and uncouth as physical violence against women. Domestic violence is working class behaviour.

Lionel Verner asks Dinah Roy: "What are these fears that seem to pursue you? ... What is the cause?" She replies:

"Roy keeps me in fear, sir. He's for ever a-threatening. He'll shake me, or he'll pinch me, or he'll do for me, he says. I'm in fear of him always."

And how does Lionel reply to this? - "That is an evasive answer." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 45). Domestic violence was not only tolerated in the working class community of Deerham, it was tolerated by the enlightened, benign master of that community, who is also the gentleman-hero of our story. It can also be argued that it was accepted as part of working class way of life by the narrative of Verner's Pride. There is no happy end for Dinah Roy - against her will she is forced to emigrate to Australia with her husband: "He had never studied her wishes too much, and he was not likely to begin to do so now." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 90).

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