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Clarissa and the Marriage ActMary Vermillion Richardson published Clarissa five years before the passage of a law that altered the history of marriage. In 1753 Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act prompted one of the most heated debates of the eighteenth century in the House of Commons before passing there by a vote of 125 to 56. Near the century's end Horace Walpole observed that it was an Act "of such notoriety ... on which so very much was said at the time, and on which so much has been written since, that it would be ... very unnecessary to enter much into the state of the question."' Lord Chancellor Hardwicke brought in this notorious Act in response to the rising number of clandestine marriages, some of them by daughters of wealthy aristocrats to "fortune-hunters," and others by their sons to penniless maid-servants. In order to prevent such marriages and to render proof of marriage and succession of property more certain, the Act stipulated that (with the exception of the Royal Family, Jews, and Quakers ) marriages were valid only if they were performed by clergymen of the Church of England between the canonical hours of eight a.m. and noon in a place of public worship after the publication of banns or with a licence. The Act's most controversial stipulation—one that Richardson held dear—was that everyone under the age of twenty-one obtain parental consent before marrying.2 1 Horace Walpole, Memoirs of King George the Second, ed. John Brooke, 3 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 1:225. 2 I base my analysis of clandestine marriage and the Hardwicke Marriage Act on William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 36 vols (1813; reprinted, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1966), 15:1-94; Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987 (New York: EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 9, Number 4, July 1997 396 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION Clarissa anticipates the Marriage Act's focus on women under the age oftwenty-one. Clarissa asks: "Is not the space from sixteen to twenty-one that which requires this [parental] care, more than any time of a young woman's life?"3 As a printer and reporter for the House of Commons from 1733 to 1769, Richardson knew that increasing numbers of children married secretly without parental approval. Many bills concerning clandestine marriage passed through his print shop while he was working on Clarissa and Grandison* Like Members of Parliament in favour of the Marriage Act, Richardson explicitly advocated parents' rights to veto the marriage choices of their children who were still minors. In Clarissa, for instance, the heroine says that renouncing a suitor "can give but a temporary concern, which time and discretion will make light: this is a sacrifice which a child owes to parents and friends, if they insist upon its being made" (p. 255). Richardson's support of the parental veto is also apparent in his correspondence with young unmarried women. Most of these women saw Richardson as a father figure, and most begged him to end Clarissa with the heroine's marriage to Lovelace.5 Richardson, of course, vetoed this marriage. And he boasted that his epistolary discussion of Clarissa with Hester Mulso (later Chapone) "obtained the notice of those who brought in and carried through a bill [Lord Hardwicke 's Marriage Act], which should, by a national law, establish the parental authority."6 Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 96-137; Erica Harth, "The Virtue ofLove: Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act," Cultural Critique 9 (1988), 123-34; Katherine Sobba Green, 7Ae Courtship Novel 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991), pp. 69-79; Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes ofReproduction 1300-1840 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 122-29; Jon Stratton, The Virgin Text: Fiction Sexuality and Ideology (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 108-12; John R. Gillis, "Conjugal Settlements: Resort to Clandestine and Common Law Marriage in England and Wales, 1650-1850," in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 261-86; Christopher Lasch, "The Suppression of Clandestine Marriage In England: The Marriage Act Of 1753...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 395-414
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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