The Taboo World of Infidelity and “The Haseltons”

© Copyright 2017 Alexandra Kazakos, Ryerson University


“The Haseltons” by Hubert Crackenthorpe in Volume 5 of The Yellow Book is a narration showing a snapshot into the life of Ella and Hillier and their oxymoron of a flawed married life. Both of them cheat on each other, Ella emotionally cheated with Hillier’s cousin and Hillier cheated with a high class woman with no real remorse when he is exposed by the same cousin. Through the exploration of the controversial topic of infidelity, the short story allows room to contextualize perspective of 1890’s society on this issue. Hubert Crackenthorpe dealt with infidelity and marital struggles within his own life, giving him first hand insight to be able to pen a troubling story about a broken home.

1800’s Influence

During the 1800’s, the Victorian era emerged; representing the shifting cultural practices of the time period. Specifically looking at the end of the century, there was a lack of women’s rights, divorce rights and proving adultery, this was such an issue it was named the “Woman Question” (Mazzeno, 13). Woman had to be submissive, pure and childlike and take care of their homes for their husbands while men battled the public world of business and industry (Mazzeno, 14). Due to the rains of culture being looser on men, they were able to carry out practices such as infidelity that are still today deemed unaccepted in mainstream culture. It is believed that Victorian society had a sexual double standard where men’s sexual practices were deemed more acceptable than women’s.” (Steinbach) Women were stagnant objects that became their husband’s property once married and due to a lack of funds, shame from a broken marriage and other concerns most women stayed and endured the adultery.

So What?

Due to my extensive research on the topic, I believe that although the act of infidelity was not widely accepted as a result of Victorians’ view on marriage, 1890’s perpetuated a society that subconsciously allowed people to cheat. The Yellow Book and ‘The Haseltons’ were not controversial texts as they displayed the same ideals that Victorian society projected but highlighted a taboo issue that many men and some women carried out that deemed the content in the book controversial.

Man is proposing to a seemingly disinterested woman. The Proposal. John Pettie, R.A. (1839-1893). Oil On Canvas, 1869.

Victorian Marriage and Love

Victorian marriage was something held of high regard in the 1890’s, people were finally allowed to marry for love and that elicited the true success of the marriage. Two people who were in love could stop nothing to be together and that was the basis of the unions during that time period. Love was “believed to be the strongest foundation for marriage and the best way to ensure happiness” (Phegley, 3). As many people believed in the ideal of marriage, couples had to live up to this standard even if they did not, Ella thought “perhaps now and then, his attentions to her in public seemed a little ostentatious but then, in these modern uncourtly days, that in itself was distinctive” (Crackenthorpe,150). Marriage was seen as a leading act in a women’s life and throughout the story Swann takes Hillier’s betrayal more than not loving his wife, talks about the chivalrous appearance of his actions when confronting him about it. He says, “ ‘How can you be such a brute?’ Swann burst out unheeding. ‘Don’t you care? Is it nothing to you to wreck your wife’s whole happiness –to spoil her life, to break her heart, to deceive her in the foulest way, to lie to her. Haven’t you any conscience, any chivalry?’ ” (169). It perceives this as his wife’s only purpose and it has be subsequently ruined by his decision. Divorce was not an option, “Hillier- the blackguard-she would have to go on living with him, trusting him, confiding in him, loving him…”(163). Women were absolutely owned by their husbands during this era, as all their belongings owned to the husband with marriage (Mazzeno, 13) As women did not leave their husbands over the fact that they had to uphold the value of marriage and the belief of love, men were able to cheat without serious repercussions.

Moral Grey Area

In this era there was a concept called “Age of Doubt” where religion seemed less feasible to the ever-changing views of the world (Mazzeno, 17). This broke some cultural conventions circled around faith, Walter Pater an art critic and Oxford don created a theory that there was no extra moral code to adhere to and no afterlife to work towards so immoral practices could be entertained such as adultery (Mazzeno, 18). A moral code that governed the society was starting to be believed to be untrue by society and this opened doors for people to believe cheating among other taboo concepts to be accepted.

Women Perceptions

Women were perceived as weaker creatures and The Yellow Book was not different to this line of thinking. Men were perceived as hard business men living double lives, to go into society and contribute and then come home to unwind in a home made by his completely devoted wife (Phegley, 7). Women were seen as dismissive, in society and inside The Yellow Book as Ella was described as “she was naïve by nature; and the ignorance of her girlhood had been due rather to a natural inobservance than to carefully managed surroundings” (150). This view was culturally accepted by the rest of society as a women’s purpose. The domesticity that served Ella showed that the wife had only to look towards her children and her home among nothing else, “And she- she had nothing- only the helpless child; her soul was brave and dismantled and dismal;” talking about love (165). Women were seen to please their husbands “And so she would wait till he came in, and when he had played his part, just as she had imagined he would play it, she would follow him, in dumb docility, up-stairs to bed.” (166) and could only handle this role. Anything other than the house role would be too much, “but she had displayed no suppressed, womanish jealousy” (173). Even though Hillier did cheat on Ella she accepted him, and did not display ‘womanish jealously to her husband cheating on her, as if this type of feeling could only apply to woman and was undervalued as an emotion. A weak, home contributing, dismissive housewife is the only role women could play in society and this is how men could take advantage of women and diminish their say, their role and their laws that they had in the rest of the society.

An ad for a product that promises no divorce with the use of it in their home. Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections, Advertisement.1900

The Law and Women

Laws that inhabited the time period displayed the society’s lack of importance on women and their rights. The story reflects the culturally influenced laws of the Victorian era. Men believed to be superior, and because most women did not hold a job, the lawmakers were the men during this time period. In The Yellow Book, women were not perceived as equal as men, specifically less than men, “certainly, now in the eyes of the world, it was agreed beyond dispute that she, his wife was of quite the lesser importance” (149) Women were perceived as widely different creatures than their counterparts that were unable to have the capacity to handle the men’s worldly problems. “but what did that matter?… –only why were men’s natures so different from women’s?…” (175). In this respect, women received fewer rights that negatively affected how they could live and specifically rights pertaining to adultery culture. For a women to divorce her husband and prove adultery, she had to prove a pattern of adultery along with one other attack on her such as violence. While men just had to prove adultery happened once to receive the divorce (Phegley, 20). The culture around these laws, displayed a lack of trust and respect for women and an acceptance of infidelity for men to commit as long as they are discovered to be consistent or beating their wives as well. In the story the narrator agrees with this theory as they say “The world-that is, people who knew him and her -would probably have discredited the story, had it come to be bruited.” (158). Men’s perception is never tarnished and has designed the laws that govern society around this concept.

You Like to Cheat? So do we!

Some people perpetuated the infidelity culture, many turned the other cheek to adultery and provided theories to normalize the act of infidelity for their own sake or for others. In this era there was a concept called “Age of Doubt” where religion seemed less feasible to the ever-changing views of the world (Mazzeno, 17). This broke some cultural conventions circled around faith, Walter Pater an art critic and Oxford don created a theory that there was no extra moral code to adhere to and no afterlife to work towards so immoral practices could be entertained such as adultery (Mazzeno, 18). A moral code that governed the society was starting to be believed to be untrue by society and this opened doors for people to believe cheating among other taboo concepts to be accepted When Swann was chasing after Hillier and the woman, the coach was following along as nothing new happened “he was conscious that’s the man’s jaunty tone seemed to indicate that this sort of job was not unfamiliar.” (162). Jealous lovers chasing after one another was a regularly practiced activity, deems to normalize the activity. Ella and Swann’s adulterous friendship seemed to be underdeveloped. It was described as this sweet exchange of people put in a bad situation, but this kind of exchange these days would be seen as emotional cheating. Ella really enjoyed Swann’s company with the absence of her husband “regarding altogether gravely her relations with him- their talks on serious subjects, the little letters she wrote to him, the books that he had given to her” (155) They had a romantic relationship, with things of sentimental value given back and fourth. The stories in The Yellow Book were not deemed controversial and that includes ‘The Haseltons’ and this helped for further aid in the infidelity culture not being perceived as such a controversial issue (Markovitch).

Keeping With the Status Quo

Even though there were a lot of cultural practices that encouraged cheating specifically for men, Victorian society did not agree with infidelity. Victorian marriage believed in unions of two people in love (Mazzeno, 1), not a marriage and someone on the side. Swann was very angry to learn of Hillier’s infidelity because he loved Ella but also because it was a deplorable thing for him to commit, Swann felt so strongly he thought of physical violence towards Hillier “the impulse to drag the cur from the cab, to bespatter him, to throw him into the mud, to handle him brutally, as he deserved.” (161) Hillier is made out to be the villain in this section, which society agreed with the marriage beliefs of the time period. Ella was very sad and cried often about the infidelity, as she felt cheated. This was a universally known concept and Hillier tried to show remorse for his actions, as he did know this was wrong. Hubert Crackenthorpe did include in ‘The Haseltons’ how society felt about infidelity, people were hurt that were involved and it was not perceived as an acceptable behavior.

In Conclusion

The culture around infidelity in the 1890’s was perceivably a predominantly man issue, giving men more leeway to do what they pleased without severe consequences. Although the act of infidelity was and still is frowned upon, men controlled a lot of their wives’ lives through various laws set in Victorian society they were easily allowed to get away with it. The women perception displayed throughout The Yellow Book and ‘The Haseltons’ itself are a prime example of the power struggle between the sexes and the flawed aspects of the otherwise perfect ideal of Victorian marriage. The story adhered to a lot of social conventions of the time period and although marriage was seen as unflawed union, Hubert Crackenthorpe brings to light the reality of when two people do not love each other.


Works Cited

Marcovitch, Heather. “The Yellow Book: Reshaping the Fin De Siècle.” Edited by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2016. Literature Compass 13.2, https://journals-scholarsportal

Mazzeno, Lawrence W. “Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Victorian Literature.”Victorian Literature, Matrimony, Property, & Woman Question in Anne Bronte and Mary Elizabeth Braddon Edited by Lawrence W. Mazzeno, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 12-14, 114-122

Mix, Katherine Lyon. “A Study in Yellow: The Yellow Book and its Contributors” 1960.University of Kansas Press;view=1up;seq=10. pp 1-13 & 183 -185

Steinbach, Susie. “Understanding the Victorians : Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain” Gender & Sexuality Edited by Routledge, 2017. EBSCOhost, pp.176-179 & 240-259

Phegley, Jennifer. “Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England” Victorian Marriage:Love, Companionship, and the Law, Courtship Conduct & Bachelors, Old Maids, and Other Challenges to Marriage, ABC-CLIO,LLC, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 1-35 & 145-151

<a title=”By Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons” href=””><img width=”256″ alt=”Tenexine Company (3093632008)” src=””/></a>

<a title=”John Pettie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons” href=””><img width=”512″ alt=”Proposal by John Pettie” src=””/></a>

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