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In her engaging and well-researched study, Dickens and the Rise of Divorce, Lisa Hager challenges traditional critical views that the English novel was inherently a novel of courtship. In contrast, Hager argues that "failed" marriages provide "a competing and complementary plot from the beginning of the novel's emergence in the eighteenth-century" (14). She takes issue with Ian Watt's formulation that English novels rely on courtship to provide closure and restore social harmony. Hager points out how Watt's reading of Pamela (1740) as the prototype of the domestic novel overlooks the ways that Richardson's novel continues beyond the wedding and represents the difficulties in negotiating the daily challenges of marriage.
Dickens and the Rise of Divorce presents a lucid and detailed summary of the history of divorce laws in England from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, showing the parallels between fictional marital discord and the changes in legislation that ultimately allowed men and (later) women to escape intolerable wedlock. Situating her argument within previous analyses of the rise of the novel and drawing on examinations of parliamentary debates, popular culture, conduct books, essays and journalism, Hager shows the ways that critics have overlooked or misread instances of miserable marriages in order to falsely prioritize conventional happy endings. Although Hager points out the centrality of failed marriages in the works of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens and the Rise of Divorce focuses on the representations of failed marriages in Charles Dickens's novels precisely because his "conservative, domestic plots" often idealize home and hearth; thus, if failed marriages are central to Dickens's novels, they can be understood as a central part of mainstream Victorian fiction (7). Hager’s study focuses on early- and mid-career novels of Dickens, from Oliver Twist (1837-39) to Hard Times (1854), all of which were published before divorce became legalized and before the dissolution of Dickens’s own marriage.
As social historian Stephanie Coontz has argued, the nineteenth century was a period that celebrated marital intimacy, and rejected pre-eighteenth-century notions of marriage for political and economic motives. Along with this relatively new celebration of the love-based marriage came a demand for the right to divorce in the case of loveless marriages. In addition to inspiring countless narratives of true love within marriage, the nineteenth-century novel contained numerous examples of the miserable consequences of ill-matched unions. Hager’s second chapter presents a compelling reading of the “monstrous marriages” in Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) which result from ill-fated, mercenary unions. Both Monks and Smike are the hideous abandoned progeny of loveless, (secret) mercenary marriages. They, as well as innocents, such as Oliver, Nicholas, and Nell, suffer when patriarchs make such loveless matches. Another reminder of the monstrousness of the loveless marriage is the figure of Jasper Packlemerton, a wax figure in The Old Curiosity Shop who is reported to have murdered all 14 of his wives by tickling them to death. This “figure of a figure of speech,” along with the Punch and Judy show, represents an intense hostility within marriage, a hostility that cannot be muted by conventional saccharine love plots of the heroes (79).
Hager’s chapter on marriage as melodrama in Dombey and Son, points out the ways that both Edith Dombey and Caroline Norton used the conventions of melodrama to construct roles as persecuted victims of unfair nineteenth-century marriage laws. Using Elaine Hadley and Peter Brooks’ formulations of melodrama as a genre that, although conventionalized, allowed for the expression of intense, authentic feelings, Hager shows how in Dombey and Son “Dickens is staging marriage as an institution which threatens the innocent, works by means of an intimate betrayal, and exploits the inherent structure of a family” (95). Both Edith and Caroline Norton defy their abusive husbands, are accused of adultery, but are ultimately constructed as innocent victims of unfair marriage laws. Edith’s acute awareness of the cash nexus of the marriage contract deconstructs the false image of the angel in the house who was supposed to create within the home a shelter from immoral capitalist transactions. Edith’s assumption of equality within her marriage is a refusal of the doctrine of coverture which denied wives a separate legal identity and thus made it impossible for them to own their own property. During the same period of time, Dickens was acting in the melodrama, The Frozen Deep, and was formulating his own narrative of marital discontent, an unhappiness that ultimately caused him to force his wife out of their home. While melodrama necessitates conventional, formulaic roles, it allowed Dickens to create a subversive character in Edith, a woman who leaves her husband but is not banished to Australia or killed as a result.
David Copperfield (1849-50), often regarded as the most autobiographical of his novels, was written before Dickens publicly announced his own marital unhappiness. Although the novel trumpets the idealized union of David and the angelic Agnes, it is filled with examples of dissatisfied wives who leave their husbands or who wish to escape the confines of their restricted marriages. Mrs. Micawber’s constant avowal of steadfast loyalty to her profligate husband--“I never will desert Mr. Micawber”--is an admission of a wife’s lack of legal power to leave a disastrous marriage. David’s wife, Dora, astutely perceives their absolute incompatibility but her only escape from a marriage that she believes will become less and less tolerable is death. Even the anomalously independent Betsey Trotwood, who presents herself as widowed, is in fact still married throughout most of the novel; her husband reappears as a shadowy menacing figure that she cannot escape. Tellingly, David’s first job is in the Doctor’s Commons, which was an ecclesiastical court that processed divorces until 1857, when the Matrimonial Clauses Act of 1857 moved divorce litigation to the civil courts. Previous to 1857, obtaining a divorce required either an annulment, or a private bill, both of which were prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthy. The 1857 law (helped in part by Norton’s publication of her difficulties in separating from her abusive husband) made divorce more accessible and paved the way for modern divorce laws. However, the new civil laws also necessitated costly trips to London, which put divorce beyond the means of all but the most wealthy.
The last chapter of Dickens and the Rise of Divorce reveals Dickens’s sympathy for those who had not the resources to end intolerable unions. In her examination of Hard Times, Hager reveals the ways that this novel – which was published during the debates on the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill of 1854 -- is predicated upon the failure of marriage and shows Dickens’s concern for the legal double-standard that made it difficult for the poor to obtain divorces. Hard Times is somewhat an anomaly in Dickens’s work in that it represents industrial labor (something Terry Eagleton and other critics argue he does woodenly and without authenticity) and does not contain any positive courtships. As Hagar notes, “Hard Times does not so much plot the failure of marriage as it takes that failure for granted as the condition that generates the plot” (161). The novel abounds with invisible spouses who are forced to remain legally linked. Most poignant is Dickens’s representation of the martyred Stephen Blackpool, who cannot get “unchained” from his alcoholic wife. Blackpool, an honest factory worker who is persecuted by both his bosses and the union, is locked into a miserable union in name only – his chances for personal happiness and financial solvency ruined by his profligate wife.
Ultimately, Hager’s book is useful beyond its convincing readings of Dickens’s early novels; it presents a counter-narrative to the assumed centrality of the courtship plot and instead forces us to consider the predominance of the failed marriage as a defining characteristic of the early novel. Although heavily researched and scholarly, Hager’s book is engagingly written and would be a wonderful text for an undergraduate course on the rise of the novel.
Aeron Haynie is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She is co-author of Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context (SUNY, 2000) and of Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind (Stylus, 2009).