“I fell down the stairs:” Marital Violence, Material Culture and Space

Along with “I walked into the door”, “I fell down the stairs” is an awful claim that we associate with women who are trying to excuse the marks of violence perpetrated by their partners. Falling down stairs is such a recognisable stereotype that it has been used in a disturbing short film in Germany to highlight the work of the Federal Association of Women’s Counselling Centres and Rape Crisis Centres. It is not only a cliché of violence, for marital violence is often located on domestic stairs.

staircaseStairs are dangerous places in the home as Vicky Holmes’ blog posts on 19th-century accidental deaths caused by falling on stairs demonstrate. Her posts prompted me to think again about the numerous incidents of husbands attacking their wives on stairs, which I found when investigating marital cruelty cases in the long 18th century. I’m thinking about these examples, however, in the light of my current task of writing a review article, which means I’m reading recent material culture publications. The definition of material culture is broad. Many historians refer to Daniel Miller’s conceptualisation which relates objects, spaces and people to each other. Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson quote his conclusion ‘that objects are important not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable, but often precisely because we do not “see” them’.[1] Some objects no longer exist, some – as in the case of stairs – are just too ubiquitous to notice.

Here are some of the stairs previously ‘invisible’ to me:

In 1680 Lady Mary Smithson of York described how her baronet husband would attempt to throw or pull her down the chamber stairs, intending, she claimed, to break her neck or limbs.

In 1709, after discovering that his new wife had a bad reputation, Edward Mould forced her out of their lodging rooms and kicked her downstairs and into the street.

When Elizabeth Finch sought to separate from Samuel Finch in 1779, she presented an undated note as evidence, which stated that she was his fourth wife and that he had hastened his other wives to their deaths through ill-usage; throwing one wife downstairs so that she broke her back.

Elizabeth Spence accused her husband, a gentleman of Ripon, of frightening her so much with his ill treatment, in the 1770s, that she would lock herself in her bedchamber. At those times he would place himself upon the stairs with a penknife in one hand and a hatchet in the other and threaten to kill her.

William Rogers, a clothier of Holbeck, beat his wife Betty unmercifully on the night of 2 April, 1787, throwing her down stairs at midnight so that she was stunned and deprived of her senses. She fled the house to save herself and lodged at a nearby pub until she could get to her father’s house the next day.

Catherine Warburton refused to sign over some of her money to her husband,  in 1798; he retaliated and tried to coerce her by seizing ‘her in his Arms and forcibly dragged her up Stairs to the first landing where in great rage he threw her down’.  He ordered her up the next set of stairs into the garret and locked her in for several days until she was released by friends.

In April 1797, Elizabeth Lees, wife of a cotton manufacturer of Saddleworth, had given birth a couple of weeks previously. James Lees was in a bad temper with her in the evening and would not let her leave a room upstairs. He followed her and when she tried to go downstairs ‘he with great violence pushed her as she was passing him and said “Damn thee go thy way” whereupon she fell from the top of the .. stairs to the bottom, but fortunately catching hold of the banister of the stairs her fall was broken so that she was not then very much hurt’.

So what do these incidents mean – in the sense of what does their location tell us? In 2006 I published an article on the location of marital violence, primarily to challenge the thesis associated with the ‘civilising process,’ in which wife-beating became less tolerated in the later eighteenth century and thus became more hidden, retreating behind closed doors. You can read the full version here. I found that wife beating occurred predominantly indoors (dwellings, including from shared lodgings to solely lived-in houses) in 74 per cent of the 172 cases examined, ranging across several rooms, including bedrooms, kitchens, sitting rooms and dining rooms – although in many dwellings this is difficult to categorize since rooms were multi-purpose – as well as in stairs and passages. I concluded that ‘wife beating was temporally and spatially fluid, occurring over long periods of time and over several places, moving from inside to outside and back again’.

Is there more that can be read from these sources – by using material culture as a lens? Daniel Miller’s definition of materiality leads him to suggest that it is the ‘exterior environment that habituates and prompts us’.[2] The stairs themselves have some symbolic functions as a household object. The materialised form of the domestic arena has been the subject of several studies in the last few years. These show that rooms convey different meanings according to their uses, the time of day, and prevailing social and cultural trends. Stairs thus represent the connections and divisions between these different spaces of the house.

As such, stairs symbolise hierarchies. The social hierarchy is captured in the phrase below stairs, which summons up the status division between the elite and their servants.

Gender hierarchies may also be intimated in smaller homes in the past[3]. Bourdieu suggested that Berber homes symbolized gender hierarchies (1973): ‘The low and dark part of the house is also opposed to the high part as the feminine to the masculine: besides the fact that the division of work between the sexes, which is based upon the same principle of division as the organization of space, entrusts to the woman the responsibility of most objects which belong to the dark part of the house – water-transport, and the carrying of wood and manure, for instance – the opposition between the upper part and the lower part reproduces within the space of the house the opposition set up between the inside and the outside.’ (Cited in Tim Dant, Material Culture in the Social World, 1999, pp. 65-6).

This does prompt me to speculate that the occurrence of violence on stairs may not be simply about an ‘accidental’ location as men pursued their wives through a house. After all, wives were usually thrown downstairs – not attacked going upstairs. Were men thrusting wives into the female parts of the household? Banishing them to the lower quarters? Exerting their dominance not only physically, but metaphorically? Hence, if we now think of material objects as agents, were stairs – as objects – shaping behaviour?

[1] Hamling and Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings, 2010, pp 7-8.

[2] cited in ibid, p. 8.

[3] For fantastic studies of space and gender see Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England, 2006 and Jane Hamlett, Material Relations: Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850–1910, 2010.

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