Henry and Mary James, Unusual Newlyweds

June 28th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses

“Henry [Senior]’s new tea-table existence may have been the least of the burdens of his jobless, stay-at-home life.  Men of the time frequently drank rum, whiskey, or gin mixed with bitters even before breakfast; took a liquor break at midmorning, for ‘elevens’; then drank hard spirits at midday dinner and on into the afternoon and evening, with a fireside nightcap before turning in.  Temperance movements would gradually persuade Americans to put aside some of these alcoholic rituals, but the norms of the 1840s favored hard drinking and no doubt camouflaged Henry’s ongoing addiction.  But if certain fraids were to notice his problem later in the 1840s, Mary must have done so, too, and probably early in their marriage.

“Partly because Henry spent many hours shut away in his study, the Jameses’ improvised rental was probably the first place Mary acted with real independence.  Although hierarchy dictated that Mary follow her husband’s instructions on pretty much everything, he rarely laid down the law.  Their situation was hardly unconventional, in any obvious way, but it could have exposed Henry, especially as an alcoholic, to accusations of unmanliness.  In the temperance tracts of the time–the formulaic stories about drunkards and the saintly women who compensated for their vices–wives sometimes had to take on tasks usually reserved for men when their husbands drank.  Mary rarely acknowledged such an imbalance; she was too loyal to refer to her husband’s difficulty with spirits.  Yet Henry’s occasional incapacity, due to depression or alcohol, must have led to Mary’s taking charge–although Henry mostly remained active, driven, and to use one of his own favorite words, manly.

“But, as Henry’s friends recognized, he was ‘an unbusinesslike character,’ who knew little of the ‘value of money.’  His intimages trembled for him whenever he had to interact with ‘Wall Street people.’  Mary, fortunately, had a good head for figures: even when she couldn’t  make money for the family through its investments, she could save it by means of the trifty household management lauded by the  popular tracts and women’s periodicals of the time.  Mary sometimes read books that Henry recommended and caught onto his enthusiasms, but she instinctively belonged to what Americans had begun to call the Cult of True Womanhood–the nineteenth-century adulation for women’s domesticity that was growing along with the number of prosperous middle-class households.  Mary saw her home as her true sphere, and she wanted to make their new house a refusge for the man who had chosen her for his wife.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

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