Book Reviews

A Man's Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England
By John Tosh
Yale University Press

Book Review by William A. Spriggs, March 21, 2004

This book is an important link in my studies of evolutionary psychology and as I have written before, these book reports are not written as a public service, but reflect the current path that I am taking in my studies. The usefulness of the book to me it that it focuses on the developing groups of the "modern" (of the 1830s to late 1890s or so) family units and their development within the larger construct of English society; think of them as the inner core of an onion and the outer layers representing the larger society overlapping them - both interlinked, yet each having a distinct character. Another reason for the importance in the close investigation of this book is that it also gives us a view of historical timeline progression -- which also affects the social norms "of the times"; all these combinations interact with one another to give us just a few pieces of the tapestry that we call "human behavior."

It is important in my studies because it follows my last book review, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Anne Browne. In that review, I made the claim that Darwin framed his theory of sexual selection under the blazing spotlight of Victorian patriarchal social norms, and I needed confirmation of that position; A Man's Place was cited within Power of Place that gave references to the dominate masculine society that permeated Darwin's marriage and productive years during that timeline.

A Man's Place not only establishes beyond a doubt my claim of patriarchal social influence that encircled Darwin, but also gives us valuable insight concerning the power surrounding scientific social organizations -- one of which Darwin belonged -- that controlled the scientific environment of England at the time Origin of the Species (1859) was published. There can be no doubts that these science societies were all-male in their memberships, and overall views of the inferiority of women -- including both physical and mental -- were prevailing and consistent themes of those organizations during Darwin's "celebrity" years.

I feel that it is important to guide you through the main theme of A Man's Place: defining masculinity in relationship to domesticity within the emerging middle-class of Victorian England. The book establishes the definition of "middle-class" in the Victorian Era by taking us back in the historical timeline to just before the industrial-revolution -- about 1815, and leads us up to the turn of the century - 1901 - the date of Queen Victoria's death. This is the reason why I have such a fascination with Victorian England; it provides a valuable link in studying social societies as they evolved from agrarian past to modern industrial societies that dominate the western world (and some say, globally) today. In English history, this is a period of dramatic social change within a very small historical timeline and provides an excellent microscopic view of the evolution of modern social behavior - both good and bad.

Since, the beginning of this trek starts on the farm; the book explores the male and female development on those establishments. Man, woman - working together, side-by-side, in fields and in the home to secure the survival of the farm; they were linked in joint production. As farms grew because of technological advances in agricultural -- the two person farm took on "helpers,"; at this stage, we see expanded households of room-and-board assistants living on the farm and in some cases actually living within the same household, but in separate, yet attached quarters. Here, behaviorists can see the continuation of separate gender roles that flowed from the jungle and were based on child care requirements necessitating the female to be close for nurturance, with the male tending the fields and expanding the role of "breadwinner" and "protector." Perhaps, protector is the kind word - they were, in precise terms - paterfamilias - or patriarchal in their structure - in short - a behavioral mechanism that maintains domination and control over resources - including the female. To quote Tosh: "From the Reformation until the eighteenth century there was a vigorous advice literature on the aims and methods of domestic patriarchy…in its precise meaning of "father-rule," (the term evolved from Latin and the Romans) patriarchy remains an indispensable concept, not only because men have usually wielded authority within the home, but also because it has been necessary to their masculine self-respect that they do so. This was clearest with regard to the control of female sexuality.…if a husband wished to be sure he was not providing for - or still worse passing on his property to - another man's child, then he must exercise surveillance over his wife's behaviour (sexuality)…The man who was not master in his own house courted the scorn of his male associates, as well as economic ruin and uncertain paternity." P. 3.

So, if we combine all the accumulated knowledge of primatology, psychology, and sociology up to 2004, can we say that the origins of masculinity have their roots in the establishment of domesticity, or a family unit? Does the "modern" domestic family unit ('headed' by a male and has specific territorial boundaries) send a "display signal" within any group setting to other males within that group? Does the family unit send the "signal/message" that the male is dominating and in complete control of his "property?" Tosh, although completely unaware of the evolutionary perspective that we envision and seek, gives us the answers: "The domestic sphere then, is integral to masculinity. To establish a home, to protect it, to provide for it, to control it, and to train its young aspirants to manhood, have usually been essential to a man's good standing with his peers." Of course, some evolutionary feminists would argue rigorously on this point that the family unit evolved solely to establish a stable base for the large-brained infant that required long nurturance. And that masculinity or the "protective" nature of males evolved because the female "selected" males for this primary attribute. But, the bad news for radical feminists is that means that "female choice" (more like picking the lesser of several evils) had to put up with male domination. Without "good standing with his peers," the modern male can not make alliances that produce more resources for himself and his genetic prodigy. But let's make one thing perfectly clear in our search for human behavior: this behavior must be classified with a specific timeline and location on the planet. If we study other family units in other locations and in different historical settings, we may find variations of what would be considered "normal" patriarchal behavior - remember the first rule of evolution - It is adaptation to the local environment - location, location, location.

In the next developmental stage, we see the emergence of industrial-agrarian farms emerging, such as wool, flour, and food processing. It is within this developmental stage that we see the rise of this new "middle-class" -- and since this new middle-class was not part of the landed aristocracy, they could not rely on the crown to arrange and provide for their futures. Since personal property was still controlled and passed on to only the male of the family, professionally trained males were needed to continue to keep this new industrial machine moving along because of the resource wealth that it produced. In order to do that, the male elites of this new burgeoning class had to rely on providing higher forms of specialized education for their sons that were not available at the local levels. Hence, this new demand spurred the wide-spread expansion of public institutions of higher learning in England - a whole social phenomenon, in and of itself; along with the great expansion of public universities, we also see the emergence of the boarding school for young males away from home - another social development.

I think what is important before we embark on the next developmental stage of A Man's Place; is that we need to look more closely at this definition of what exactly is the "middle class." According to Tosh, there were only three classes in Victorian England:

The Victorian classes -- 1830 to1900
" The landed aristocracy - "landowners."
" The new "professionals": Scientists, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, and the new manufacturing class business owners -- "bourgeois."
" Those who got their hands "dirty"; the laboring class - "proletarian."

In establishing this definition for the emerging middle-class, A Man's Place gives us, what I thought to be, very important information -- and that was the "servant count" that assisted the rise of the middle class. With agrarian productivity improvements and land reforms in full swing, the need for excess farm populations was vastly reduced. Millions of farm hands and assistants were forced off the land, and in desperation, had only one place to go: the cities. These vast migrations into the cities, primarily London, created a surplus pool of cheap labor, and from this labor pool arose one of the new "professions," and that was the domestic helper; generally mostly females, who could help with the domestic chores that once were strictly the farm wife's role. Men found employment as stable hands, carpenters, and gardeners.

This passage from page 19 of the book is too good to pass up, and please take note of the "standard establishment": "The exclusion of apprentices, farm servants and lodgers left one remaining significant category of non-kin - living-in domestic staff. Servants had for a long time been regarded as a badge of middle-class status, since their presence had time for entertaining and display. In the Victorian period the association between servant-keeping and middle-class status intensified. The only major exception was in the northern industrial towns, where the numbers of servants were held down by a bourgeois ethic of self-denial, combined with alternative sources of employment for potential servants. Cooking, which had once been within the compass of the lady of the house, was now thought to be beneath her. Second only to the kitchen as a focus of domestic labour was the hearth - appropriately enough in view of its symbolic importance to the home. Coal had to be fetched, the grate cleaned, the fire laid, and the fire-irons and fenders polished. More fastidious standards of personal hygiene and cleanliness took their toll in human labour expended on such tasks as carrying water, laundering clothes, dusting surfaces and polishing furniture. More demanding wardrobe requirements increased the amount of sewing to be done in the home. The single maid-of-all-work was often taken to be the dividing line between the most marginal middle-class household and the labouring classes below, yet such a person could carry out only a small proportion of all these tasks. The standard establishment for a securely based bourgeois family was three live-in servants: a cook, a housemaid and a nursemaid (or sometimes a parlour-maid). Wealthy households employed the full 'below stairs' complement of butler, footman, housekeeper, several maids, coachman, groom and gardener. The employment of male servants was a mark of superior status since they usually cost more than female servants, and since the largest proportion did stable work, indicating that the master owned a horse and carriage. Male servants were deemed more difficult to manage, especially by the mistress, so the wife's undivided responsibility for domestic matters tended to intensify the preference for all-female staff."

Now if the "standard establishment" classification for middle-class is three live-in servants, I must now inform you that Darwin had eight live-in servants, three of whom were male -- which clearly establishes his family as upper-middle class amongst Victorian hierarchies. I can find no record of Alfred Russell Wallace's (the co-developer of natural selection) servant count, but strongly believe that he had none (In fact, it is recorded that Wallace had difficulty in finding a job after his return from the jungle and without elite connections (nor his social skills), his life in England, post-jungle -- was a chronology of missteps and misfortunes. Hearing that Wallace was financially destitute, Darwin himself solicited the Prime Minister of England in 1881 to provide a £200 pension for Wallace for his "lifelong scientific labour"). Do you think that Darwin's rank in the Victorian hierarchy had any influence in the receptivity of Darwin's natural selection theory to the world over Wallace's?

We now reach a new development in the relationship of the family unit and that is the rise of the female in this equation called "domesticity." Along with the rise of the middle-class and the use of servants to lift the burden from the female, we also see several cultural forces at work; one is the increasing importance of religion in the household, and the increased importance of the female in relationship to that cultural force. If you study the meaning of this next paragraph closely, you can see the evolution of thought of religion as an overlapping force on social behavior becoming justified into reality. "Ultimately, the power of home rested on the twin authorities of nature and religion. The home was ordained by nature because its function and structure predated civil society and was the precondition for its reproduction. It carried the authority of religion because the family was the medium through which the divine purpose had worked in both the Old Testament and the New, and most of all in the life of Jesus Christ himself…At its most elevated, the idealizing of home extended to the belief that domestic virtues would triumph over a heartless world." p. 29.

The other cultural force at play within this new movement is that we see the beginnings of the chaffing between domesticity and masculinity because of the open market system of the industrial revolution; the reason for this conflict lies solely in the new development in the unique behavior of the "commuting male." This development began solely because of the necessity of wealth acquisition now depended on the location of the male's need to commute to where the jobs of these new industries were located -- in the inner cities and their close environs. "More importantly, as work became detached from home, so its association with a heartless commercial ethnic became closer. Early Victorian social comment is full of the chasm between the morality of the home and the morality of business." P.30. Myself, I am more inclined to look at the "big picture" of the evolutionary pressures of masculinity at work as "man in constant motion" and the female making demands that the male "sit still" as a commitment and share in the responsibilities for this big-brained-infant that has helped to co-spawn. And that this shinning moment in English history between 1815 and 1900 as reflecting nothing more than a combination of events resulting in the best case scenario of domesticity for both genders in which to pass their genes.

But let's face it -- with males in control of businesses, science, politics, the media, and the ultimate influence in future generations - the flow of resource wealth -- what chance did the female have of maintaining this domestic bliss? Despite the fact that Evangelical Christianity was at its peak in Victorian England, giving the female the moral high ground at home, the REALITY of the competitive, dog-eat-dog world of the industrial revolution, in combination with the paterfamilias responsibility of raising the male heir of the family and making him ready for "the outside world" worked against the concept of domestic bliss. In a nutshell, "the idealizing of home extended to the belief that domestic virtues would triumph over a heartless world" mentioned above never really had a change. The male dominance in all things culturally began to dismiss the female's role in the upbringing of the young male as extremely detrimental to development in the long run because the "outside world" required him to develop different skills. Basically, the thought developed that the female and the "religious, moral world of the hearth" had an "effeminate" affect on the young male - and this would not work in the competitive, masculine "real" world. A Man's Place gives us multiple citations of men beginning to chaff under domesticity and find every excuse to not come home - pressures of work requirements, business dinners, association and social club meetings, and so forth. This sentiment alone and the requirements of higher education skills for young males created the demand and establishment of boarding schools. Here, the young male heir could be educated in the "real world" of a competitive, masculine environment - or was it the thought that it would take the young male away from the influence of the female mother because it would "effeminate" the young male? - Most likely, it was both.

We now turn to the final stages of this "battle" in the establishment of domesticity in Victorian England as we enter the latter stages of the 19th Century. "By the 1870s an astonishing growth in athleticism was under way in England. It included new sports like track athletics, Rugby Union, hockey, tennis, badminton, and cycling; the expansion of existing sports like cricket, mountaineering and rowing, and one notable import, golf from Scotland….for many men sport held out the reassurance of an alternative way of life to the feminized home." p. 188.

This new rise in "athleticism" in Victorian England reminds me of my America in 2004. Here it is, March 20, 2004, and on the television is this national basketball tournament frenzy occurring which we call "March Madness." It is a competition of 32 college basketball teams all engaged in a "battle" to become the number #1 team. The competition is held in (I think) 6 cities across the country and ends up about ten days later with the televised "national championship" being decided. To boil it all down into a quick sentence - the winning team must "vanquish" all competitors in every game in order to achieve this national goal. This basketball March Madness, and other ritualistic televised sports spectaculars that are becoming more and more plentiful on America's television screens seem to parallel, in my mind at least, with this "astonishing growth in athleticism" that was underway in Victorian England in the late 19th Century. And guess what? This apparent rise in competitive athleticism amongst young males in America in the past 20 years also seems also to parallel the rise of the conservative political movement in America; since the 9/11 terrorist's attack, this seems to cumulatively fit nicely into the current Administration's aggressive, "competitive," "dog-eat-dog" pre-emptive military political nature.

And how does this Victorian English athleticism seem to parallel America military's pre-emptive nature today? Because, at the exact time of this English movement to take young males out of the domestic sphere and teach them to become competitive men, the English Empire was at its peak. The phrase, "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire," was on the tip of every Englishman's tongue. Pride in nationalistic accomplishments was prominent, and the British flag was raised on every continent of the planet. For young men who were not born upwind of privilege, the call of duty to serve the English crown in service to the Empire was a call from heaven to escape the misery of the inner cities and held out the prospects of a much more promising future. In America in 2003, the celebrated "hero" of the Iraq "liberation" in March 2003 was an Army private named, Jessica Lynch. In her non-combatant role, she had the misfortune of being injured and captured by the enemy. She was rescued in a "swat team" effort that was highly celebrated and televised as a moral booster amongst the American televised talking heads; not until the recovery from her wounds did the facts reveal themselves: She joined the U.S. Army because her home town in West Virginia was devastated with a 15% unemployment rate. It seems that the "call of duty" for Ms. Lynch was also the motivation to escape boredom and poverty in West Virginia similar to that of Victorian England males in the late 19th Century.

Now, let's look at the final chapter of A Man's Place entitled: The Flight from Domesticity. By the late 1870s, several generations of young people had emerged from the strict sexually moral thumb of Victorian England, and they wanted none of it. Males in particular postponed marriage for as long as possible, giving rise to a whole population of "old-spinsters" in the respectable female populations. There was a greater "dialogue" in the culture about the drawbacks to marriage and domesticity, and it seems that the main disadvantage was "the check that it imposed on intimate relations between men." p. 172. No, A Man's Place was not suggesting inmate sexual contact, but the close bonding relationships that ally males together since our pre-human days when they grouped together for common defensive and offensive tasks - and still do -- as part of the innate nature of "manhood" - boosted, of course, by past precedents and the popular culture of their timeline.

And in conclusion of the book review, one of the most important paragraphs in A Man's Place comes to light: "That impression is confirmed by developments in the sphere of popular culture. Quite suddenly in the mid-1880s a new genre of bestselling adventure fiction was born. For a generation the most widely read novels had tended to deal with love and marriage, and thus to underwrite the claims of domesticity. A new group of writers headed by Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Rider Haggard believed that the reading public had been starved of flesh-and-blood adventure. While earlier adventure writers like Marryat and Ballantyne had been read by juveniles, Stevenson and Rider Haggard aimed to provide adults with something heroic, exotic and bracingly masculine. Their heroes are fighters, hunters and frontiersmen distinguished by their daring and resourcefulness. Men set off into the unknown, to fulfill their destiny unencumbered by feminine constraint or by emotional ties with home…Support and companionship are provided by the silent bonds of male friendship - what Kipling in an early novel called 'the austere love that springs up between men who have tugged at the same oar together.'…Arthur Conan Doyle later claimed that Treasure Island had marked the beginning of 'the modern masculine novel'. It is certainly true that from that point a sharp distinction grew up between men's and women's writing - sustained by Kipling, Conrad, and Conan Doyle himself." p. 174.

The most important thing to mention here if you are a evolutionary historian reading the above paragraph for the first time; you know full well that a famous quote arises from the Victorian timeline in 1884 just prior to the "outbreak" of these masculine adventure novels: the publication of Herbert Spencer's Man vs. the State, which contained the now infamous phrase, "survival of the fittest," became the rallying cry for elite English aristocracy to justify their Imperialist march to "civilize" the world. What better group of highly dedicated, highly intelligent, determined individuals to rule the world then the white English man? What influence do you think the publication of Spencer's Man vs. the State had on the publishing world in 1844? Did the male-dominated book publishers in Victorian England think he was on to something and made them receptive to taking financial risks on publishing a new genre of adventure novels targeting young male adults?

As I have written above, I see a parallel between Victorian England, their expansive masculine nature, and their "Empire" with America's rising athleticism, global business practies, athleticism and its own military pre-emptive expansionism today . We don't have the chilling social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, or the adventure novels of Kipling, Stevenson, and Doyle to prompt on young America male youth, but there is the establishment of conservative talk-radio hosts that have attracted millions of "followers" that fall into that category. The themes that the conservative radio host constantly blare from their higher-than-thou perches follow similar themes of "hands-off-of-the-wealthy-because-they-know-best about creating wealth in the world" and they share Spencer's negative views of "government handouts" to the poor because it only "encourages the survival of the unfittest."

These conservative talk radio hosts also constantly dwell on masculine achievements and constantly applaud and encourage the military aggressiveness of the current Administration. Also, in the late 20th century, there has been a major expansion of masculine magazines labeled, "laddie magazines" on America's newsstands; these magazines are generally devoted to "Sports, Sex, and Alcohol." All of which send the siren song of competition, adventure, and of course, advice on and displays of, the ultimate prize: the girl on the cover and those found within. Once again, we see the full circle of evolution: the passing of genes into the next generation and the species seeking advice on how best to achieve this feat through masculine adventure, risk-taking, and competition.. As our world becomes more complex, the problem of how to pass those genes becomes more complex - but it still maintains the basic, innate goal in mind. So is the meaning of life really all about doing the ol' in-and-out -- and how to achieve it? I leave that question to the phiosophes.

A Man's Place is a goldmine of information devoted to masculine and feminine domesticity during a very important time in our human history. The legacy that is England has influenced much of what occurs in America today. And what occurs in America today has great influence on what occurs in the rest of the world. Those engaged in the new branch of study called evolutionary intellectual history (those who understand the evolutionary perspective and fit that perspective into the major themes found in history) will find the book invaluable. However, since the book does not dwell on the evolutionary perspective in any way - just historical - it does not qualify for a place in my Recommend Reading section.

Click here to learn more or purchase from

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995- 2011