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  • "What did you mean?":Marriage in E. D. E. N. Southworth's Novels
  • Cindy Weinstein

Sentimental novels are filled with communication gone awry. This observation applies to the written word, as well as the spoken. For example, in The Wide, Wide World, Ellen Montgomery's Aunt Fortune withholds a treasured letter written to Ellen by her mother and, in doing so, reveals Aunt Fortune's arbitrary disciplinary regime (which is ultimately reversed by Alice Humphreys's intercession). Likewise, much of the plot of Caroline Lee Hentz's Ernest Linwood hinges on a misreading of a "marriage certificate" in which "the difference between the names of Henry Gabriel and Gabriel Henry St. James" goes unnoticed (440). E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Unloved Wife depends upon Lilith Wyvil's reading a "fatal letter" that first helps to destroy her marriage and then requires hundreds of pages to reconstitute it (91).

As conventional as these devices of miscommunication are in sentimental novels of the period, I would submit that the works of E. D. E. N. Southworth reveal a complexity, indeed an urgency, about verbal exchanges.1 Thus, I shall explore how conversation itself, especially in the context of marriage, where the stakes, particularly for a woman, could not be higher, is the site where language becomes particularly destabilized, putting women in a constant and vulnerable state of misunderstanding. This is why the phrase "what did you mean?" appears so often in Southworth's works. "What did you mean?" is, of course, a question that produces potentially more unclear language, which is why many of the heroines are intent on keeping a close eye on the material documents—that is, marriage certificates—that (seem to) make absolutely clear what was meant when they spoke the words "I do."

But because Southworth's female protagonists are perpetually not understanding what is being said to them and, further, are not being understood themselves, by the time they say "I do" to the individual who either innocently or purposefully misunderstands them, it is too late. Thus, she devotes [End Page 43] her entire career either to imagining women who are on the brink of becoming femes coverts (hidden women) and trying to make sure that they are, at the very least, "hidden" by a kind man or to situating her female protagonists within the limitations of being femes coverts and finding ways for them to act as full, even autonomous individuals within those constraints. She does this by scrutinizing the marriage relation and, more specifically, by interrogating the speech acts—and here I am purposefully invoking the theory of philosopher J. L. Austin, whose study of language surprisingly intersects with Southworth's concerns—leading up to and including the words "I do." Southworth examines the pledges (indeed, one of her novels is titled Broken Pledges), the promises, and the vows made before the wedding and even at the ceremony itself, in the process discovering a discursive site both of coercion and consent.


Very real economic motives drove Southworth to write long and numerous books. She was the sole supporter of two children and had been abandoned by her husband, who occasionally showed up to try to take a cut of her profits based on his rights as her spouse. But her frenzied compositional pace, voluminous output, and incredible plot complications are usefully viewed in terms of her vexed relation to a literary tradition that demanded an ending about which she was deeply suspicious. Simply put, she did not want her novels to end in marriage, which they had to, given the conventional requirements of sentimental fiction, and so her narratives keep their distance from that ending as long as possible. Indeed, in novels with titles such as Family Doom, The Fatal Marriage, The Maiden Widow, The Unloved Wife, and The Missing Bride, it is hard to believe that marriage is the relation to which women ought to aspire and the one in which women will be emotionally and economically cared for. Southworth certainly has her doubts, and she is not alone. Marriage, as virtually every sentimental writer notes, makes a woman vulnerable to physical and mental abuse, and, legally speaking, she becomes...


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