All Happy Families: Anticonvent Propaganda, Domesticity, and the American Family Ideal, 1830–60

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Cassandra Yacovazzi, University of Missouri–Columbia
In 1853 Jane Chaplin Dunbar published The Convent and the Manse, a fictional anti-Catholic critique of convent life. Dunbar shied away from the more sensational content present in many other convent narratives of the time, such as Maria Monk’s best-selling Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu. Yet her censure of the cloister was no less incendiary. The novel traced the lives of two sisters, describing one’s existence in a convent and the other at her home in Brookside Manse. While the first sister languished in the gloomy, lonely, and solemn convent, the other flourished in a cheerful, comfortable home, full of warm companionship. The first sister also discovered that her dismal abode was unsafe, placing her beyond the protection of her father or a husband. By presenting convents a threat to domestic happiness and family ties, The Convent and the Manse discredited the nun’s life. While Dunbar’s book and other convent narratives also offered a religious critique of convents, reflective of the larger anti-Catholic crusade of the era, it was this domestic angle that issued a severe blow to the perception of nuns in America. The domestic critique permeated anti-convent propaganda, which contrasted nuns with wives and mothers and convents with the home. I will trace the ways in which anti-convent propaganda presented the nun’s life as threat to the family and how this critique reflected and forged cultural ideals of domesticity.
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