ENGL 2581: Women Writers
Dr. Sigler

Domestic Fiction: Definition and Characteristics

Sometimes referred to as "sentimental fiction" or "woman's fiction," "domestic fiction" refers to a type of novel popular with women readers during the middle of the nineteenth century. The genre began in the 1820s and remained a dominant fictional type until after 1870. In their reliance on the inherent goodness of human nature and the power of feelings as a guide to right conduct, these novels were in part a reaction against Calvinistic doctrines that viewed humanity as inherently depraved.


1. Plot focuses on a heroine who embodies one of two types of exemplar: the angel and the practical woman who sometimes exist in the same work. This heroine is often contrasted with the passive woman (incompetent, cowardly, ignorant; often the heroine's mother is this type) and the "belle," who suffers from a defective education.

2. The heroine struggles for self-mastery, learning the pain of conquering her own passions.

3. The heroine learns to balance society's demands for self-denial with her own desire for autonomy, a struggle often addressed in terms of religion.

4. She suffers at the hands of abusers of power before establishing a network of surrogate kin.

5. The plots repeatedly identify immersion in feeling as one of the great temptations and dangers for a developing woman. They show that feeling must be controlled.

6. The tales generally end with marriage, usually one of two possible kinds:

      1. Reforming the bad or "Byronic" male.

2. Marrying the solid male who already meets her qualifications.

7. The novels may use a "language of tears" that evokes sympathy from the readers.

8. The novels are usually set within the domestic world of home and family.




"Married and Happy"
Frontispiece, Peterson's Magazine 37 (January 1860).