- "Familiar Marriage" & Victorian Fiction
IN GEORGE MEREDITH'S The Egoist, Clara Middleton is caught in the middle of two men's plans for her future happiness: her father, a clueless, well-meaning clergyman, and her suitor, the ridiculous Sir Willoughby Patterne, whose worship of her is like something out of a horror story. She contemplates her situation with accumulating desperation: [End Page 394]
[S]he had mused upon liberty as a virgin Goddess––men were out of her thoughts; even the figure of a rescuer, if one dawned in her mind, was more angel than hero. That fair childish maidenliness had ceased. With her body straining in her dragon's grasp, with the savour of loathing, unable to contend, unable to speak aloud, she began to speak to herself, and all the health of her nature made her outcry womanly: "If I were loved!"––not for the sake of love, but for free breathing; and her utterance of it was to insure life and enduringness to the wish, as the yearning of a mother on a drowning ship is to get her infant to shore. "If some noble gentleman could see me as I am and not disdain to aid me! Oh! to be caught up out of this prison of thorns and brambles. I cannot tear my own way out. I am a coward. My cry for help confesses that. A beckoning of a finger would change me, I believe. I could fly bleeding and through hootings to a comrade. Oh! a comrade! I do not want a lover. I should find another Egoist, not so bad, but enough to make me take a breath like death."
Meredith's novel was published in 1879, a few years outside the decades bracketing Talia Schaffer's engaging study of the nonromantic marriage plot in Victorian fiction. But Clara Middleton's heartfelt cry for a comrade instead of a lover could have been the motto for many midcentury heroines who craved intellectual and emotional fulfillment and an active communal life far more than erotic passion, sexual adoration, or a soul mate. Schaffer's book richly validates what many feminist readers have long suspected: that there is another plot and an alternative view of love that both parallels and rivals the Victorian romance plot. Schaffer calls it "familiar marriage," a form of the eighteenth-century ideal of companionate marriage, in which a woman marries from rational esteem rather than romantic rapture. Once you begin to notice the contours of the familiar marriage plot—easily recognizable in Jane Austen, but also emergent in the Brontës, George Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, and Charlotte Yonge—it begins to seem ubiquitous. Familiar marriage is standing in the wings of Victorian fiction, away from the limelight. In Schaffer's metaphor, familiar marriage is "the dark side of the disk whose brightly lit romantic side" is what we usually see when we read the Victorian novel. It is the story that "shines a spotlight onto romantic marriage, revealing its shadows and dark spaces, the gaps that familiar marriage stretched to fill."
Schaffer offers compelling historical explanations for the emergence of familiar marriage in Victorian fiction––as well as reasons for its demise. Social conditions during the reign of Victoria had changed enough so that neither the marriage of rational esteem nor the marriage of emotional passion offered completely satisfactory models for women who desired a wider scope for self-development and for participation [End Page 395] in public affairs. The two-suitor plot developed, she suggests, as a means of testing these incompatible cultural values. According to Schaffer, this was "a long negotiation," and it was not at all clear that romantic marriage would dominate the fictional landscape, for the values of familiar marriage had a strong pull for a generation of women (and men, presumably) who were adapting to radical changes in the organization of modern society. In The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977), Lawrence Stone asserted that the movement from the extended clan system––where marriage merged familial and group...