Austen, Eliot, Besant, Browning: 19Th Century Views of Marriage and Property Essay

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¶ … Marriage in 19th c English lit

To a certain extent, England owes its national identity in the modern period to issues of marriage: it was over marriage policy that Henry VIII would break with Rome and establish his own church in the sixteenth century, and the Church of England's denial of sacramental status to marriage led to a large-scale literary attempt (whose results are evident in works as disparate as Spenser's "Epithalamion" to Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing") to find a cultural meaning for marriage when the religious meaning had been radically redefined. By the nineteenth century, however, the religious debate over marriage had largely been subsumed by a legal one (with extensive parliamentary wrangling over the status of married women's property rights, for example) but the cultural efforts had refocused on the status of women. I hope to show through an examination of several key works -- by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Annie Besant, and Robert Browning -- that the nineteenth century critique of marriage was largely focused on ideas of property and objectification.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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For something resembling a feminist analysis of marriage from the actual period in question, we may readily turn to Annie Besant's 1878 tract Marriage, As It Was, As It Is, and As It Should Be: A Plea for Reform. Besant's strange career -- which began as a feminist agitator and ended as an otherworldly disciple of Madame Blavatsky -- has somewhat overshadowed this early work, but a quick glance at Besant's arguments show that she is mainly concerned with the legal status of women as property more or less. (It might be worth noting that a more obviously Marxist resident of England at this time, Friedrich Engels, would offer a similar critique only years after Besant's publication in his 1884 Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.) Besant's work is concerned with elucidating the way in which wives are regarded as property: she notes the religious origin of the concept, writing that "in the old Hebrew books [...] the wife is regarded as the property of her husband" (Besant 5), and suggests the anthropological dimension as well by claiming that "amongst many semi-barbarous nations the wives are still bought" (Besant 6). But overall, Besant's argument focuses on the state of the actual laws in England in the Victorian period, arguing that "by marriage a woman loses her legal existence…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage" (Besant 8). Again this is traced back to the religious notion that husband and wife are "one flesh," but it is -- as Shanley notes, an accurate assessment of the state of English law at the time, which was still heavily influenced by "the notion that a husband in some manner owned his wife's affection and sexual services, that she was his property, but a wife did not have a similar legal claim on her husband" (Shanley 24).

These basic notions are perfectly evident in one of the best-known Victorian poems, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." It is worth noting that Browning had experienced many of the Victorian contradictions of marriage firsthand: his courtship of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, arguably the best-known female poet of the day, had to be conducted in secret fearing her father's disapproval, and eventually resulted in elopement, exile, and Elizabeth's complete estrangement from her family. It was, however, the difference in economic status between the two that was found objectionable. In Browning's poem, the title itself -- "My Last Duchess" -- is perfectly ambiguous: it refers either to the Duke of Ferrara's first wife, or the portrait of his first wife that hangs in his art gallery. The chilling revelation of the verse monologue is that, of course, the Duke's complete control over the portrait is intended to compensate for a certain lack of control he had over the actual wife, whom eventually he had killed: the Duke tells his guest that "none puts by / the curtain I have drawn for you, but I" (Browning 9-10), demonstrating that access to the late wife's portrait is entirely controlled by the husband. It is, however, the poem's conclusion that makes the logic most chilling:

…Will't please you rise? We'll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object… (Browning 47-53)

We learn at the poem's conclusion that the reason for this display of the late wife -- and the ambiguous admission of having murdered her -- is that the Duke is entertaining an envoy to contract a new marriage, with the daughter of a Count. As a result, Fra Pandolf's portrait of the last duchess is being revealed not only as a cautionary tale for the future bride, but also as a perfectly objectified part of her imminent dowry. Indeed, Browning's use of the word "object" at line 53 seems to have an uncomfortable double meaning.

Novelists in the nineteenth century present an altogether less gothic depiction of marriage than Browning does here, but in many ways the basic conceptual dynamic is the same. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for instance, the economic component of the marital unit is emphasized from the novel's famous opening line. Yet Austen is careful to demonstrate that not all marriages are as carefully contracted as the property issues might indicate, as we learn from the elopement of Lydia Bennett with the disreputable Mr. Wickham. Here we are offered Elizabeth Bennett's reflections on the hastily contracted marriage to avoid scandal:

But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was. An union of a different tendency, and precluding the possibility of the other, was soon to be formed in their family. How Wickham and Lydia were to be supported in tolerable independence, she could not imagine. But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture. (Austen, 50)

The irony here is that if much of the Victorian critique of marriage hinged upon its suppression of female autonomy, Elizabeth Bennett's (and by extension Jane Austen's) critique of the union of Wickham and Lydia Bennett seems to indicate it was due to an excess of female autonomy, where "their passions were stronger than their virtue." The sense of serious duty -- or of virtue -- being a crucial element is highlighted additionally in George Eliot's Middlemarch, which again begins with a disastrous marriage contracted for seemingly the best possible reasons. Dorothea Brooke at the novel's beginning is well beyond Elizabeth Bennett in her deep seriousness: as she tells her uncle, "I know that I must expect trials, uncle. Marriage is a state of higher duties. I never thought of it as mere personal ease" (Eliot, IV). Yet the novel's prologue is keen to compare Dorothea to Saint Theresa, a nun for whom questions of marriage were irrelevant, but whose public and social vocation indicates some outlet for women beyond mere marriage. Foster observes that "Eliot still assesses her heroine's femininity in essentially traditional terms. If Dorothea is, as Leavis claims, Eliot's 'day-dream ideal self' her perfection lies in the kind of high womanliness which her creator herself was anxious to represent." (Foster 219). To some extent, this womanliness will not deny marriage as a proper outlet, although Dorothea's mistake is (of course) to misunderstand the ways in which her marriage can be directed toward a socially useful purpose. By the novel's thirty-seventh chapter, we can see that Dorothea's hope of making a contribution to the world by assisting Casaubon's scholarly work has been disastrously misguided:

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