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"What's a Woman to Do?": Managing Money and Manipulating Fictions in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? and The Eustace Diamonds Dagni Bredesen In perhaps the best-known Uterary critique of the law in general and the common law doctrine of coverture in particular, Oliver Twisfs (1837-9) Mr. Bumble expresses outrage when told that "the law supposes that his wife acts under his direction." Mr. Bumble erupts, "If the law supposes that . . . the law is a ass - a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law's a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience, by experience" (461-2). Married to a former "widder," who refuses to submit to his dictates and issues many of her own, Mr. Bumble finds that he bears legal responsibility for her. Here, the comedy depends upon the discrepancy between that which the law "supposes" and Mr. Bumble's hen-pecked existence . This joke on Mr. Bumble, however, points to the serious rupture between social reaUty and the legal ideal of coverture. InstitutionaUzed in British common law, the doctrine of coverture placed a married woman under the covering, or "the guardianship" of her husband. To be sous couverture meant that a wife effectively lost a civil identity apart from as a spouse. Based on the notion that in marriage a husband and wife become one person, this doctrine of marital unity deemed a wife incapable of managing her own property or of having a wiU of her own, poUtical or otherwise, distinct from her husband's. Furthermore, according to Peregrine Bingham, coverture placed married women at a financial disadvantage or, in legal terms, "under a disabiUty" in that any contract she made in her own name was "void Victorian Review (2005)99 D. Bredesen at the outset" (180). In this paper, I begin by briefly tracing the term "legal fiction" from Bentham's pointed but general critique to its later appropriation, first by his disciples and then by advocates of female suffrage, to describe the doctrine of marital unity. I then look at two of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels - Can You Forgive Her?(\865) and The Eustace Diamonds (1873) - to show how Trollope exploits the narrative trajectories and contradictions produced by the intersection of money, property, and female marital status and how the figure of the widow is the lever he uses to do this, even as he tries to assimilate this figure in the end. In Can You Forgive Her? the three prominent female characters provide a representative sampling of women - those subject to coverture and those out from under that legal covering - each of whose financial status receives extensive narrative scrutiny and generates competing claims concerning its management.1 In The Eustace Diamonds, the narrative tracks the legal, marital, and monetary maneuverings of the female protagonist, whose contest over possession of the eponymous necklace, calls into question Victorian verities of law and gender. In both these novels, Trollope's compelUng representations, not only of womanhood in general, but of widowhood in particular, demonstrate the problems posed to a society predicated on gendered binaries by an autonomous woman, who makes her own monetary and matrimonial decisions, while retaining the patina of respectabiUty. Trollope attempts to resolve the contradictions the widow exposes in accordance with the legal notion that "under the law, women are either married or are going to be married" (Treatise of Feme Covert, preface v); that is, he marries her off. Nevertheless, although Trollope recovers the "uncovered" woman once more within the bonds of matrimony , while she moves in the world asfeme discoverte (and even in the marriages that ultimately follow), the widow demonstrates a financial and social intelUgence that reveals the way gender constructions Umit, even hamper, other women - whether spinster or married; indeed, the widow exposes these constructions as fictions in and of themselves. 100volume 31 number 2 "What's a Woman to Do?" I. The focus on the fiction of marital oneness, that is, coverture, is part of a larger debate concerning the uses and abuses of fictions of law. According to Black's Law Dictionary, a "fiction of law," arises when "[sjomething...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 99-122
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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