Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Light of the Home

I just finished reading an excellent book called The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. It not only details what it was like to be a woman in Victorian times, but what it was like in the daily life of all people in general. Of course the book is about Americans, but still, prevalent moral codes and philosophies in those days I'm sure transcended borders. Two quotes especially made me think of the Victorian contemporaries of these women...the Pre-Raphaelites...specifically our man, William Morris.

This home was to be the opposite of the man’s world; rather than an environment that bespoke commerce and trade, it was a miniature universe of culture and education for family and visitors. Here the arts and sciences of the museum, concert hall, and schoolroom were translated into the shells and other curios adorning the parlor, the prints and paintings on the walls, the piano or organ in the parlor, and the books in the library. Women were the organizing force and marshals of this domain. Defined as more emotional and sensitive than their male counterparts, they were charged with transforming the rude brick, stone, and wood of the exterior and the blank walls and empty rooms of the interior into places which would both communicate a family’s status and provide it with repose and moral uplift.

The style of interior decoration in the late nineteenth century was emblematic of the separate realms and responsibilities of middle-class life. Visual complexity and intricacy characterized popular decorative taste in the home, as could be seen in both the massing of discrete objects in a given space and the juxtaposing of different patterns and textures. This celebration of asymmetry and visual surprise served as more than mere display of worldly goods: it was an evocative and feminine counterpoint to the increasingly bureaucratic, machine-straight lives of middle-class men. The volume and variety of objects and textures in a typical house, when properly arranged, were supposed to alter immoral and unchristian behavior by the power of “influence,” rather than by direct confrontation. The woman’s “sphere of influence” was passive and limited, both by her culturally prescribed role as helpmate and by her husband’s control of the family finances. His economic power placed her in a position of dependency.

The segment on interior decorating fascinated me, because it explained not only the way a woman decorated her home in those days, but why. It wonderfully explains why William Morris' radical concept of simplicity in one's home was so incredibly revolutionary, and difficult to catch on among middle-class women. The way in which a woman decorated her home wasn't just based on aesthetic preference. There was an entire society of reputation and morality to consider when choosing how one portrayed onself in one's home.

This also made me ponder how difficult it must have been for Jane Morris. An outsider from another class, she married William Morris and really had much less say in the interior decor of her home than most wives. The decor of their homes was much more a collaborative process, involving not only the two of them, but friends and loved ones. Although the result was amazing (of course you know I think so), it was certainly *not* the norm in those days, and would cause further ostracism between Jane Morris and other ladies of her new social status. She was put on a pedestal by Morris, Rossetti, and those hangers-on who would visit the house and gawp at her...But I digress. The general point is that the above quote, and indeed the entire chapter of the book on decor, solidifies just how very revolutionary William Morris was in his ideas of decorating in the Victorian times. White walls? Relatively few fabrics draping the windows? A total lack of tchockes? Who had heard of such a thing?

Red House interior shots. Imagine how revolutionary this was in his day.


Hermes said...

What a good post and pictures. "There's a Red House over yonder ..." I wonder if he meant this house!

Grace said...

Thanks Hermes!

In my heart, this is the one and only Red House :D

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh Grace,
Well written commentary and what an insight of Victorian life. I have never read anything on the subject, but the art and decor of this time definitely reflects the thought of the day. I wish we could jump into a time capsule to just spend one day in each era! I love the interiors...the last front door is a dream with all that iron hardware! Stay well, Anita