Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

Captain Ahab Had A Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Lisa Norling (2000)

In her lengthy examination of New England women and their lives in the whaling community, Lisa Norling argues that these women thrived within the whaling world by embracing the Victorian ideals of female domesticity.  Norling is faced with a difficult task, attempting to find a path to understanding women in a historically “man’s world”.  To rise to the challenge, Norling utilizes diaries, correspondence, and ledgers to find the women who inhabited this world. The problem with this approach, and one which I struggle with in much of my research, is that the historical records only allow us to examine women through the men to whom they were attached. I cannot claim to have an alternative approach to studying women during this period, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge this shortfall in the historical record within the analysis of the materials. Indeed, this approach further limited Norling’s study to “prominent” Quaker and then New England families, a group more likely than poor families to want to project the ideals of Domesticity.

Wrestling with the ways that Victoria domesticity could work within a whaling community results in Norling tracing the New England whaling economy nearly from inception on colonial Nantucket through the 19th century. I thought that the organization of the book, while important to laying the foundation for an understanding of New England Whaling practices and economy that shaped the world in which these women lived was separate from the main argument about domesticity. In fact, this exposition shifts the focus of much of the book onto the practice of Paternalism within New England and Fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Understanding that women, and communities, depended on paternalism to survive when such a large part of the population was gone for increasing lengths of time is crucial to understanding the roles that women had to step into, but almost half of each chapter is devoted to reviewing the state of paternalism at that point in time. The relevance to Norling’s overarching argument that Victorian ideals of domesticity were successful, are confused by the extensive discussion of paternalism and its intricacies. As Norling’s study goes further into the 19th century and the paternalism system continues to break down, women were forced to expand their roles as substitute husbands and breadwinners, at a time when Victorian Domesticity were at an all time high. The new ideals of femininity and masculinity become subverted according to Norling during this time:

For centuries a supply of firewood had been a basic necessity of life, one of the essentials granted by New England towns to their indigent and often specified as part of widows’ portions. Henry Beetle’s inability to provide his wife [who was according to her letters chopping wood herself] and child with the means to acquire wood seemed to stand for his failure as his family’s sole support and thereby, with the new definition of masculinity and femininity, challenged his very manhood. The image of Eliza outside, swinging an ax and hewing wood, seems to have upset Henry’s notions of female delicacy and dependence. (Norling 163)

This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?

Norling’s argument continues to become muddied with her consideration of the many ways that women were forced to find employment or income during the absences of their men. Norling suggests that this is offset by the romantic symbolism and epistolary writings found in the correspondence between whaling men and their wives. Norling’s use of select letters, I believe, romanticizes the relationships of these individuals. I appreciated her inclusion of letters from women detailing their struggles, and their frustrations with being left ashore with families to care and provide for, but would have liked to hear more about how frequently these letters are found in the trove of letters that Norling has explored. This frustration seems to provide a more realistic glimpse of Victorian life (as a mother today I could relate), but I think she could have used more analysis on them to reveal the reality of the world of a Whaling Wife, rather than reinforcing the Victorian idea that women wanted to be perceived as the center of romance and the home.

I don’t want to deter from the overall importance of Norling’s work. I think it is a crucial book and a fascinating read. My task for this post was to look at the success of Norling’s argument, and I am unsure that I can answer definitively that it was a successful argument. I keep returning to questions posed on Amber and Michelle’s posts for Captain Ahab Had A Wife,  How does this reliance on domesticity and separate sphere hamper Norling’s argument, and Does reading backwards preordain the conclusion? I think that Norling utilized the ideal of separate spheres for men and women, and domesticity to propel her historical narrative, but the reliance on these two (now) shaky foundational ideas of 18th and 19th century life reveal a conclusion that I don’t think fully can withstand further research or analysis.

Postscript: This is the first analysis (and even extensive writing) that I have done since I sustained a mild brain injury ending my semester early and unexpectedly. I will be posting several more posts in the next few weeks as I attempt to finish my semester work.


One thought on “Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

  1. Great post and glad to have you back! This question is music to my ears: “This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?” Yes!

    I think Norling’s book exposes the underside of the domestic ideal. In the eighteenth century, whaling wives modeled the ideal in many ways, but its cultural ascendance meant that the fractures and unevenness were exposed. If husbands were away, who was doing all the work at home?

    Liked by 1 person

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