Every time I read Lydia Maria Child’s work, new thoughts and paths emerge. Discussing “Chocura’s Curse” and “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” this semester, my classes explored the ways that Child address the Cult of Domesticity. In the above stories, Child does not necessarily address each of the four pillars of the Cult of Domesticity–piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Notably, she addresses the pillars of domesticity and purity within the stories, and she even highlights the fact that the Cult of Domesticity, and its promise of “womanhood” to all who followed it, did no apply to enslaved individuals.
“Chocura’s Curse” takes place in colonial New Hampshire during the seventeenth century. The marriage between Cornelius and Caroline Campbell does not appear as the focus of the narrative, but it is nevertheless important. Our introduction to Caroline makes it appear that she will challenge the Cult of Domesticity by defying patriarchal expectations: “She had possessed extraordinary beauty; and had, in the full maturity of an excellent judgement, relinquished several splendid alliances, and incurred her father’s displeasure, for the sake of Cornelius Campbell.” Her “father’s displeasure” did not dissuade Caroline from marrying an “active enemy of the Stuarts.” With this decision, Caroline challenges her father and his power over her; however, upon marrying Cornelius, she falls into the domestic life.
Years of marriage caused “[t]he bloom on her cheek” to fade, and her “intellectual expression” increased some. However, “the exercise of domestic love, which where it is suffered to exist, always deepens and brightens with time, had given a bland and placid expression, which might as well have atoned for the absence of more striking beauty” (emphasis added). Rather than creating a happy life for Caroline, “domestic love” brought about blandness and stagnation. Perhaps this is an allusion to Child’s marriage to David, but I am not sure.
Immediately following the above statement, the narrator asks, “To such a woman as Caroline Campbell, of what use would have been some modern doctrine of equality and independence?” Even though Caroline goes against her father, she becomes subsumed by the domestic sphere with Cornelius on the frontier in New Hampshire in the seventeenth century. How could the women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and calls for equality reach her? Even though they probably wouldn’t the mere fact that the narrator asks this question is important because it shows that domesticity hinders Caroline.
Later, the narrator continues by showing that Caroline loved her home as a bird to its nest. Again, though, we see the possible push back, this time in the form of a statement and not a question: “To have proved marriage a tyranny, and the cares of domestic life a thraldom, would have affected Caroline Campbell as little, as to be told that the pure, sweet atmosphere she breathed, was pressing upon her so many pounds per square inch” (emphasis added). Again, even if someone pointed out to Caroline marriage as “tyranny” and a “thraldom,” she would not listen because was focused on her husband and family. While small, this question and statement counter the Cult of Domesticity even while Caroline embraces it. This occurs because he reader is forced to consider which position is correct, and the formulation of the question and the statement point towards the fetters that ensnare Caroline in colonial New Hampshire.
In “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes,” Child challenges the pillar of purity, and through this challenge, she also argues that enslaved women do not have the opportunity to achieve society’s idea of “womanhood.” It must be noted, from the outset, that the Cult of Domesticity was geared towards white, middle-class women, so they were the ones who could ultimately become “women” based on its strictures. From the beginning of the story, the pillar of purity comes to the forefront. Fredric’s wife Marion “had been nurtured in seclusion, almost as deep as that of the oriental harem.” Here, Child presents contrasting images of purity. The “seclusion” points to Marion being unaware of sex, or at the least, still a virgin. However, the references to an “oriental harem” juxtaposes that purity with sexual awareness and activity. So, is Marion pure? The answer never really comes.
While Marion must uphold the Cult of Domesticity, Fredric does not expect Rosa to do the same. For Fredric, Rosa exists as nothing more than a sexual being, one who is impure because of her licentious nature. She does not have the chance to uphold the pillar of purity because, even as Marion refers to her, she is nothing more than a slave an property. After noticing that George and Rosa like each other (in fact they are already married), Fredric seeks to possess Rosa because he now sees her as an object of desire that one of his slaves, not himself, possesses. Fredric ends up raping Rosa because he believes that she does not have an humanity and exists only as property.
The subject of enslaved women being raped is something that Child writes about often. She addresses the issues in her Appeal in the Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) and even in her editorial work for Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl (1861). In each book, the vulnerability of enslaved women to sexual assault and rape becomes apparent, and each text highlights the ways that the Cult of Domesticity did not extend to anyone other than white, middle and upper-class women, especially not to enslaved women. Harriett Jacobs forefronts her desires to remain pure. In order to maintain control over herself, she decides to have sex with a man to keep her master from raping her. This decision causes her to contemplate her purity.
Along with the enslaved woman, Child also calls attention to the ways that masters raping slave women affected their wives. Even though Marion and Rosa grew up like sisters, Marion still consider Rosa her slave, and Marion becomes jealous of Rosa when Fredric rapes her. Even though Rosa did not initiate the action and fought back, Marion still sees Rosa as culpable for “allowing” Fredric to violate her. This jealously causes Marion to slap Rosa in the face. Marion stands in shock of her actions as Rosa states, “Oh, mistress, I am not to blame. Indeed, indeed, I am very wretched.” Rosa knows she is not at fault, but she still feels responsible. Marion responds by saying that she should not have struck Rosa an that he is wretched as well. Marion’s and Rosa’s wretched is important because both women have experienced trauma and they remain, in essence, as part of Fredric’s harem.
The next morning, George asks Rosa where she was the previous night. George rejects her attempts to hold his hand, and she states, “Oh, George what can I do? I am his slave” (emphasis in original). Denied any semblance of humanity, Rosa is Fredric’s chattel, and Frederic believes he has the right to do whatever he wants to her whenever he wants. He denies her the opportunity to even achieve purity under the Cult of Domesticity, thus denying her access to “womanhood” and humanity. Fredric’s jealousy and desire to control Rosa leads him to kill her. After having her whipped countless times, Rosa dies during child birth.
In both of the stories discussed above, Child addresses the Cult of Domesticity. In “Chocrua’s Curse,” she presents it as something that stifles growth. In “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes,” she shows how enslaved women were denied the opportunity to even attempt to uphold the pillars of the Cult of Domesticity because they were viewed as property and not humans. These two stories are not the only places where Child addresses the Cult of Domesticity, as mentioned briefly above.
Where do you see Child countering the Cult of Domesticity in her work? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.