“When peace breaks out, the stakes of marriage top up spectacularly” (8), or so claims Eric C. Walker in Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism, a densely argued book that takes repetition as both a central trope for marriage and a key principle of its own structure. In Walker’s analysis, the end of England’s long war with France, which had suspended the rhythms of ordinary life, precipitated the enforcement of “the cultural command that marriage and peace march down the postwar aisle hand in hand” (83). For then as now, as he adduces through brief remarks on the so-called marriage equality movement, “marriage is the default human condition, the norm against which all else is a deviation” (19); after war, he argues, that norm reasserts itself with a vengeance. Whether you are for it, against it, or — in one of the book’s key terms — indifferent to it, marriage rules, figuring and actualizing the daily round that war interrupts. Moving back and forth between careful readings of Austen’s fiction, in which “the end of war” constitutes a dividing line between her earlier and later works, and Wordsworth’s post-Waterloo poetry, where he tracks “the unremarked turn to marriage” (10) in a set of mainly neglected poems as well as the C-stage Prelude of 1819, Walker demonstrates that each writer wages “a pervasively ironic contest with conjugality” (7), characterized by “a rhetoric of indifference that simultaneously represents and resists the narrowing of the promise of human freedom to the conjugal” (10).
If marriage wins the battle, that is, it does so at a price. For marriage not only follows war in Walker’s account, but to achieve its triumph, marriage culture also wages a metaphorical war of its own, with its casualties littered across the Romantic landscape. The happy couple entering into wedlock requires “the death of all others” so that each partner to union may “disappear into the reciprocity of a single other” (18); thus actual and fictional “siblings must be shipped out to clear the way for the marriage settlement” (10) so that “in Wordsworth’s writing, the same diction, figures, and tropes work now sororally, now spousally” (126) as the sister-friend Dorothy gradually gives way to the wife-friend Mary. So, too, “as marriage increases, friendship decreases” in the normative conjugal dispensation: thus “[t]he birth of Mrs. Weston requires the death of Miss Taylor” (159). And not just from Emma Woodhouse’s point of view: “compulsory conjugality” (152) constitutes “a drawing together that is simultaneously a drawing apart … not unlike a form of death” (57) for those within the couple as for those outside it. Within this framework, marriage looks a lot like war by other means.
Although, absent statistical or demographic evidence, Walker’s broad assertion regarding the triumph of marriage “after war” may appear a bit speculative, it makes a good deal of intuitive sense. His argument about “the empire of marriage” mines a vein worked most thoroughly by Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations (2004), which traces the supplanting of consanguinity by conjugality from the mid-eighteenth century to its Austenian Waterloo in Persuasion. Walker is, however, far less interested than Perry in the historical and economic dynamics that produced that shift or the gendered asymmetries between unequal partners to marriage that her work traces in some detail. Implicitly writing if not against than at a measured distance from materialist and historicist accounts, Walker’s touchstone figures for theorizing Romantic-era marriage, in Chapter 2, are Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Cavell. Although he also differs from Perry on some particulars — for example, in rightly insisting on the persistence of Mrs. Smith at Persuasion’s end as a sign of Austenian resistance to the hegemony of marriage — Walker appears highly comfortable with constituting, as Perry does, the Romantic era as “the border between two principal Western marriage blueprints” (2), the sacramental and the affective, though the persistence of the former well into the nineteenth century gets short shrift in his account. From different perspectives, then, and in different registers, both Perry and Walker engage with materials that resist the triumphalist narrative, that mark marriage not as abundant recompense, but as a site of loss and diminution, for women and for men.
Rather than divide the readings of Wordsworth, who seems never to write about marriage, from those of Austen, who seems never to write about anything else, Walker toggles back and forth in each chapter between the two partners in this odd couple. Although this tactic is not without its problems, the constant juxtaposition of the highly familiar Austen materials with the “fugitive” (67) marriage writings of Wordsworth helps to expose some of the continuities Walker locates across differences of gender and genre, especially regarding the key Cavellian concept of marriage as remarriage — “most usefully understood as a mode of repetition” (50) — and the “new incommensurability of marriage and representation” that Walker identifies, following Kierkegaard, as central to the “rhetoric of indifference” (47). The strategy of reading the two together — in chapters on marriage and the end of war, marriage and siblings, marriage and friends, and, finally, on marriage itself — illuminates some striking and unexpected likenesses. It’s a hallmark of Walker’s style to attend to minute particulars of language, so that in pursuing the meanings of terms like “rest” and “sink,” or in focusing on the changing valence of “the cottage,” when they appear or disappear in Wordsworth’s revised manuscripts or feature in one Austen novel but not in another, the occasionally jarring movement back and forth delivers real payoffs.
So, too, does the pairing of Austen and Wordsworth lend credence to Walker’s larger claims about how “the empire of marriage” crowds out some of the most strongly felt intimacies in the lives and works of both writers. In Chapter 4, on siblings, which juxtaposes William and Fanny Price’s fantasy of spending midlife together to Dorothy Wordsworth’s making room for a third at Dove Cottage, Walker is particularly impressive in analyzing the “fissure” that opens up over time, in an array of closely related Wordsworth texts that span two decades, “between representations of sibling intimacy and spousal intimacy” (111). Tracing the naming and renaming of Dorothy Wordsworth in relation to her brother’s classical sources, Walker argues that these shifting names figure Wordsworth’s long goodbye to sibling intimacy; he also identifies an increasingly “reticent and euphemistic” (128) style in poems that ostensibly refer to Mary Hutchinson Wordsworth, as marriage disappears into its own privacy in the later writing. While I cannot do justice to this dense textual argument, which unfolds fully over the course of several chapters, I would strongly recommend it to Wordsworthians. Having argued for the “progressive diminishment of sibling pairs” (109) from Sense and Sensibility to Persuasion alongside the Wordsworth materials in Chapter 4, Walker turns to friendship, another “alternative form of the human pair” (131), in Chapter 5. With the Wordsworth portions of this chapter devoted to considering the 1819 revision of “the poem to Coleridge,” which shows how “the discourse of friendship alters fundamentally in contest with marriage” (131), the Austen sections focus on the term “attachment,” a word that “appears over a hundred times in her published fiction” and “name[s] a huge range of affective ties to objects, places, ideas, and persons” (160, 161). Walker argues that the disappearance of Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice shows how female friendship is “replaced by the dutiful attachments of marriage” (165), especially on Charlotte’s end, but that the persistence of Mrs. Smith, to whom Anne Eliott becomes re-attached in Persuasion, resists “pressures both to rule friends out of the conjugal frame or to blend them without hitch into the companionate marriage settlement” (174).
While Walker pursues a number of excellent readings in Chapters 4 and 5, I also felt that the organization of the book led to some difficulties here, and not just because there is a lot of important critical work on the relationship between sisterhood and female friendship that Walker simply ignores. Keeping friendship and siblingship separate from one another and seeing each only in relation to marriage, as the chosen structure of his book dictates, leads him to make sharper distinctions between these categories than is warranted, I think, by the multivalence of a term such as “friends,” often used to refer to kin, and the not exclusively biological basis for sisterhood or brotherhood. (Some attention to potential distinctions between same-sex and cross-sex siblingship might also be in order.) Moreover, that friends often promise (or threaten) to become part of the family through marriage and that friendships frequently promote marriages in early nineteenth-century lives and fictions suggest the need for a slightly more historicist stance on his terms of choice, which would create a somewhat messier map than the one Walker has drawn. All of this is to say that in order properly to contest the hegemony of marriage, then or now, we have to be historically minded about our categories of analysis.
The final chapter challenges the representation of marriage after war as safe harbor by turning to the interruptions of security, or “ease,” that dispel such illusions. Locating the Wordsworth texts “deep within the impervious quiet of marriage” (184), Walker concludes with an extended reading of “To ________” — and the lacuna of the title would seem to cinch his point, though he devotes a long appendix to arguing that its addressee is indeed Mary Hutchinson Wordsworth (229-38). Published towards the end of the decade alongside the “River Duddon” sonnets, which obliquely register the deaths of two Wordsworth children in 1812, this poem revises and refigures the many earlier pastoral representations of “conjugal refuge” (196), foregoing “the idea of the human pair as shelter in order to greet an idea of the pair as finding its rest, paradoxically, in risk” (197). Here again, Walker deploys Cavell’s figure of marriage-as- remarriage to great effect, so that “exposure and risk” (198) become the signs of a post-pastoral condition that speaks only through its silences. He takes aim in his section on Emma at the postwar and post-marital fiction of “perfect happiness” through analyzing the deceptive movements of the term “ease,” which attaches itself to such unsettled or unsettling characters as Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as well as to that quintessential valetudinarian, Mr. Woodhouse, and turns finally to remarriage once more in Sanditon to glimpse “a hint of a representational beyond not constrained by the empire of marriage” (226), that solitary space of indifference Jane Austen herself might be said to occupy. In lieu of a more voluble conclusion, this picture of single blessedness does just fine.
The John W. Steube Professor of English and Affiliate of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University, Mary Jean Corbett is the author of Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Cornell, 2008).