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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.2 (2002) 53-69
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The Second Time Around:
Marriage and Remarriage in Riccoboni and La Guesnerie
University of Texas at Arlington
"le marriage est souvent pour nous un si rude esclavage"
(Mémoires de Milady de Varmonti)
During the eighteenth century the idea of companionate marriage based on mutual affection increased in popularity. This conception of marriage had been touted in romances of the preceding century; however, the vogue of sensibility and the increasing importance of sensation in eighteenth-century philosophical and medical discourse combined with the growing importance of the individual to give new weight to the idea of marriage as a voluntary alliance based on personal preference. Sensibility as a prime component in the foundation of individualism served to foster what could have been considered anti-social behavior undermining the traditional system for the transmission, redistribution, or acquisition of property—the arranged marriage. 1
In practice, the secular and contractual nature of marriage was established by the beginning of the eighteenth century. A dispute begun in the last year of the Concile de Trente (1563) over whether marriage was to be defined primarily as a secular (contractual) or religious (sacred) ceremony [End Page 53] was not resolved in France until the late 1690s by a series of royal edicts (Pilloret, pp. 34-41).What was at stake underlying the contract/sacrament dispute was individual liberty—who would control who married whom? For almost a hundred years the church and the state held opposing views. The church insisted upon the individual's liberty to marry and was reluctant to adopt strict ceremonial and administrative requirements hindering marriage, while the state upheld parental authority and refused to put into law the church's decrees by enacting its own stricter ordinances (Pilloret, p. 34). 2 In time, however, the opposition between political and financial aspects of arranged marriages and the private or individual aspect of companionate marriage was transposed onto the paradigms of reason (familial interests mimicking those of the state) and affectivity (individual rights). Marriage, then, in theory, became a testing site for a host of issues dealing with problems of authority (Daniels, pp. 8-10); and this site was thoroughly explored in fiction, especially by women writers.
Sensibility, especially in the 1740s and 1750s when it was still associated with a superior "feminine" morality, offered women a unique opportunity for self-authorization in a patriarchal society in which they had little power over themselves. Novelistic convention afforded two conflicting paradigms to regulate behavior: the Libertine and the Sentimental. Many women writers sought empowerment through the latter because it seemed to offer them a platform from which to speak. The courtship novel, evolving from the old romances, ended in the marriage of the heroine and focused on the triumph of sentiment over authoritarianism and economic concerns. It was the novel of sentiment par excellence. 3 It moved to the fore a young womanwho now had the prerogative of choice and action, albeit a limited one. Yet, the difficulties associated with a position that based its strengths in weakness soon became apparent. So although women wrote sentimental novels, they questioned the basic precepts underlying them. Novelists, women novelists in particular, explored the consequences and contradictions inherent in the sentimental paradigm, testing it in all its permutations through their roles as daughters, wives, and lovers.
The novels that mark the high points in the major evolutionary line from one form of the fictional conception of marriage to the other are madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1669), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), and the diptych formed by Samuel Constant de Rebeque's Le Mari sentimental (1783) and Isabelle de Charriere's Lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784). La Princesse de Clèves is the model text that sets out [End Page 54] married life resulting from arranged marriage as the background for the analysis of illicit love and a wife's struggle against the temptation of adultery. 4 Rousseau, writing against ethics of the old...