restricted access Poe, Southworth, and the Antebellum Wife
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Poe, Southworth, and the Antebellum Wife Ellen Weinauer In an often-overlooked moment in the 1838 story “Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator remarks on the money that came to him from his first wife. “I had no lack of what the world calls wealth,” he explains, for “Ligeia had brought me far more, very far more than ordinarily falls to the lot of mortals.”1 Ligeia was, in short, a wealthy woman who brought to her marriage, and consequently to her husband, considerable property. After Ligeia’s death, the narrator uses that property , first to purchase and decadently decorate a crumbling abbey and then to purchase a new wife, the ill-fated Lady Rowena. Even through the haze of opium addiction, the narrator recognizes, and pauses to comment upon, the mercenary transaction involving “the fair-haired and blue-eyed” Rowena. “Where were the souls of the haughty family of the bride,” he wonders, “when, through thirst of gold, they permitted . . . a maiden and daughter so beloved” to enter “an apartment so bedecked” (321) and a marriage so lacking in love? Setting the opium aside, this story’s reflection on inheritance and bequest, and on the ways in which ambition, aided by marital law, can pervert parental duty, seems more in keeping with the fictions of E. D. E. N. Southworth than with those of Poe. Southworth’s corpus is replete with plots driven by questions of inheritance, paternal exploitation, and perversions of marriage (both by fathers and by would-be husbands) in the interest of proprietary gain. While Southworth turns to these themes far more insistently than does Poe, they resonate throughout the work of the latter as well. “Berenice,” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Black Cat”—all bear traces of Poe’s interests in the often-abused power that social and statutory law gives men over women, in possession, bequest, and inheritance (of property, of character traits), and in marriage as an institution of control and domination. The phrasing could well be Southworth’s, but it is in fact Poe who refers, in an 1845 review of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery, to the “crime of making matrimonial merchandise . . . of one’s daughter.”2 222 Ellen Weinauer Given the insistent presence of Gothic forms and conventions in the work of both writers, we might anticipate this shared concern with the exploitative potential of marriage. For from its inception in Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), the Gothic has been interested in the death-dealing potential of marriage , particularly when it becomes a vehicle, as it almost inevitably does in the Gothic, for the pursuit of property. In this chapter, however, I want to explore what both Poe and Southworth depict as a more instrumental, even structural, relationship between marriage and the Gothic. An examination of the legal foundations of antebellum marriage, and of the contemporary debates about marriage with which both writers would have been familiar, reveals an intriguing Gothic valence to which Poe and Southworth were attentive and attuned. In the pages that follow, I want first to make a case for reading Poe’s “dead women” tales in the context of the antebellum debate about marriage. In particular, I am interested in Poe’s awareness of the transformational power of marriage, its capacity to refashion female and male identity in destructive and disturbing ways. Writing in the years immediately preceding Southworth’s emergence as a published author, Poe deploys a kind of Gothic vocabulary about marriage on which Southworth will go on to work her own unique variations. Focusing in particular on Southworth’s 1851–52 text The Discarded Daughter, I want to consider how Poe’s earlier gothicized treatments of marriage might be seen to pave the way for Southworth’s own. A novel that uses the mercenary marriage plot twice over, The Discarded Daughter echoes Poe’s earlier renditions in sometimes surprisingly direct ways. While it certainly seems likely that Southworth, an imaginative and bookish child who was formally educated in her stepfather’s Washington, D.C., school, would have encountered Poe’s work, such direct influence is, at this point, only speculative.3 What is definite, however, is that both writers confront a particular legal complex—marriage—in similar ways, strategically deploying the Gothic language circulating in the debate about marital reform in order to draw attention to what marriage does to both women and men. In short, regardless of whether Southworth encountered Poe...


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Subject Headings

  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, -- 1819-1899 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, 1819-1899 -- Political and social views.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Social values in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History.
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