In The Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt attributes the emergence of the courtship plot to the historical shift from the patriarchal to the conjugal family. The shift coincided with the rise of economic individualism, which women found increasingly difficult to achieve outside marriage. In Watt's words, these "combined effects of economic individualism and the conjugal family . . . would seem to explain why the great majority of novels written since Pamela have continued its basic pattern, and concentrated their [End Page 763] main interest upon a courtship leading to marriage" ([University of California Press, 2001], 148-49). Kelly Hager's Dickens and the Rise of Divorce and Charles Hatten's The End of Domesticity take up the two sides of this theoretical equation. Hager revisits the role that courtship has played in the development of the novelistic genre. Arguing that marital failure has been as central to that development, she sets out "to analyze—and break—the lock Watt's thesis has had on our understanding of the novel for over 50 years" (7). Hatten, whose relationship to Watt is more indirect, examines the tension inherent in the domestic novel's idealization of family life (and of courtship and marriage in particular): the domestic mode simultaneously legitimates hierarchies that exist within and outside the family and celebrates bourgeois individualism, which threatens those hierarchies. Although this tension is present from the mode's inception in the Renaissance era, Hatten locates the beginning of the end of the domestic ideal at the time of its apogee in the Victorian period—and not, as the critical consensus would have it, in modernism—when increasing industrialization and commercialization deepened the tension.
For Hager the failed-marriage plot—"the story of a marriage that disintegrates into mutual alienation or dissolves in separation or divorce" (6)—is the unrecognized ghost-in-the-machine of the traditional courtship novel. In bringing that ghost to life, Hager aims to further our understanding of novel history and realism and to deepen the skepticism of those critics who note the presence of failed-marriage plots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature but (like Mary Poovey) continue to use the courtship plot as a critical paradigm or (like Joseph Allen Boone) see those plots as always only countering the tradition Watt defined. According to Hager, there is no convention to be broken: "the failed-marriage plot was a competing and complementary plot from the beginning of the novel's emergence in the eighteenth century" (14); instead of providing closure, marriage is "the impetus for further, often highly-elaborated narrative development" (11).
The test cases for Hager's theory are the novels of Charles Dickens, "the novelist of hearth and home" (23), who wrote at the height of the Victorian marriage crisis in the years prior to the passage of the 1857 Divorce Act, when the failed-marriage plot's ability to subvert the courtship plot pointed most clearly to the failing of marriage as an institution. Hager traces a trajectory that begins with Oliver Twist (1837-38), Nicholas Nickleby (1837-39), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), whose monstrous marriages (ill-matched, mercenary marriages or literal monstrosities depicted as miniatures) are tucked into the plots as shameful secrets or warnings, thus leaving the reader oblivious to the fact that those marriages are actually driving the plots. The trajectory ends with Hard Times (1854), where marital failure becomes the plot. The two middle chapters focus on Dombey and Son (1846-48) and its melodramatic mode as "a way to demonstrate (and to demonstrate against) the inherent inequity of [nineteenth-century] marriage" (91), and on David Copperfield (1849-50), which Hager estranges in order to unearth the plots of divorce and desertion and, above all, the desire for marital dissolution that the novel's conventional plot tries to suppress.