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  • Marriage, Coverture, and the Companionate Ideal in The Coquette and Dorval
  • Karen A. Weyler

Following Cathy N. Davidson's work in Revolution and the Word, virtually every critic who has since written about the novels of early America has discussed, in one way or another, female sexuality and its consequences in, and implications for, the novel. This fact is not surprising, given that most novels equate female value with virtue or, often more specifically, with chastity. But the novels of early America are likewise concerned with other, more material forms of value, as an important passage from the novelist Charles Brockden Brown suggests. In the sketch "Walstein's School of History," Brown, writing in the guise of a reviewer of the philosophy and works of a fictional European historian, Walstein, discusses what he calls the "intricate relations" that bind people together. He identifies the foremost of these relations as property, claiming that "[n]o topic can engage the attention of man more momentous than this. Opinions, relative to property, are the immediate source of nearly all the happiness and misery that exist among mankind." Continuing his discussion of these intricate relations, Brown asserts, "Next to property, the most extensive source of our relations is sex. On the circumstances which produce, and the principles which regulate the union between the sexes, happiness greatly depends" (152).1 Indeed, Brown's construction of the intricate relationships between property and sexuality holds true not only for his own writings, but also for virtually the entire corpus of early American fiction, as I have argued elsewhere.2 Yet I find this passage from Brown so central to understanding the work of the novel in early America that I want to revisit it here while pursuing a different line of argumentation. Whereas in previous work I've focused on seduction, in this essay I focus on women's property rights; I intend to explore the "intricate relations" specific to married unions and property in early American fiction because coverture—the common law doctrine that held that a woman's legal identity merged with her husband's and that [End Page 1] her property became his upon marriage—becomes emblematic for novelists of the inequities embedded in the legal system of the United States in the post Revolutionary era. Within these seemingly domestic plots, novelists expose the structural inequalities that governed the economic lives of women and that the cultural ascendancy of the affectionate marriage helped to mask.

Female novelists are most likely to grapple with coverture and its remedies indirectly within the plots of their novels.3 In this respect, my argument builds upon an assertion Sharon M. Harris makes in Redefining the Political Novel: Female authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often "conflated the political and the domestic to expose the false constructions of the political that have separated the so-called public and private spheres" ("Introduction" xx). While the trend toward companionate marriage helped to create the illusion of marital privacy, privacy gained within marriage was simultaneously sustained and undermined by the doctrine of coverture. It was sustained because the woman's legal identity merged with that of her husband, and their interests could not be separated against their collective will. It was undermined because the affectionate marriage effected no legal changes; law still governed economic relations between husbands and wives, but this law now operated under the guise of affection rather than patriarchal authority.

In this essay, I focus on Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette and Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood's Dorval, novels suggestive of how the topos of coverture is explored in early American fiction with regard to bourgeois women. While discussions of coverture in general speak to the foreclosure of independence for women in the wake of the American Revolution, both Foster and Wood expose the larger economic implications of coverture for a nation in which wealth was becoming increasingly portable and hence vulnerable to the schemes of unethical or fiscally irresponsible men. The Coquette and Dorval reveal the failure of the legal codes of the new United States to adapt to changing social conditions, and they suggest that coverture was an impediment to the increasingly idealized companionate...


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