chapter
24 Pages

COMPANIONATE MARRIAGE AND THE

The comfortable assumption that marital violence was a problem peculiar to the lower orders often left middle-and upper-class commentators basking in their own complacent sense of self-congratulation. Only in the later years of the nineteenth century did some awareness of the incidence of violence among the middle class begin to develop. Even Frances Power Cobbe, who did so much to expose the savage treatment meted out to their wives by poor labourers, was ambivalent about the conduct of educated husbands. Admitting that wife-assault existed among the upper and middle classes ‘rather more’ than was generally recognized, she nevertheless felt it was mostly innocuous, rarely extending ‘to anything beyond an occasional blow or two of a not dangerous kind’. Still she saw the most puzzling paradox to be the indifference of civilized men, habitually protective of their own women, to the suffering of the abused women of the poor:

How does it come to pass that while the better sort of Englishmen are thus exceptionally humane and considerate to women, the men of the lower class of the same nation are proverbial for their unparalleled brutality, till wife-beating, wife-torture and wife-murder have become the opprobrium of the land?1