- Dickens and the Rise of Divorce: The Failed-Marriage Plot and the Novel Tradition
How many ways can a marriage fail? According to Kelly Hager's new book, Dickens's novels offer a compendium of failed-marriage plots that together yield a critique of marriage law at mid-century. Dickens and the Rise of Divorce challenges us to revise our habit of reading domestic novels in expectation of happily-ever-after endings and to read instead for the marital discontent that prompts and pervades the novels' plots. The book contains a compelling observation that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century marriage crisis is not adequately accounted for in our theories of the rise of the novel. Responding to Ian Watt's influential privileging of the courtship plot and the subsequent commonplace [End Page 223] critique that English novels find closure in happy weddings, Hager argues that the origins of the novel might also be found in failed-marriage plots. Taking Dickens as a necessarily canonical example, Hager traces how novels from Oliver Twist to Hard Times educated their readership about the inequities of family and marriage law and anticipated reforms that made wives' positions less miserable and legal forms of marital separation more accessible.
One of the great insights of this book is that the novel began plotting marital separation long before the law did. Before turning her focus to Dickens, Hager provides a succinct but rich taxonomy of failed-marriage plots in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including longer analyses of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and He Knew He Was Right. This broad review of conjugal estrangement in the English novel extends the scope and applicability of Hager's main argument in exciting ways. The first chapter then proceeds with a brief history of English matrimonial legislation. The reader should not expect a detailed historical lesson on the rise of divorce here, however. The legal history provided in the book is shaped by concerns with marital discontent, desertion, and separation as figured in novels prior to the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act.
The chapters that follow trace the evolving ways that Dickens plotted the failure of marriage, ranging from burying miserable marriages deep inside complicated ("messy") plots in the early novels, to making more explicit, even melodramatic, arguments for legal reforms in his mid-career works. Hager demonstrates how in Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, and The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens marginalizes the stories of wretched marriages that drive the novels' plots and provide the basis for a critique of marriage law. Tucked away at the end of Oliver Twist, for example, the tale of Oliver's father's mercenary marriage provides a subtle critique of the 1753 Marriage Act, which effectively enabled parents of minors to force their children into loveless marriages of convenience. While mercenary and clandestine marriages also function as muted warnings in Nicholas Nickelby, The Old Curiosity Shop suggests all marriages are "an unnatural state of affairs," whether unbelievably perfect like the Garlands' or monstrous like the Quilps' (68). The Old Curiosity Shop's skepticism about marriage is reinforced through the thematic of wife abuse and murder: Nell's mother's miserable marriage, Betsy Quilp's cruel (but "irresistible") husband, the Punch and Judy show, and the horribly absurd anecdote of Jasper Packlemerton tickling fourteen wives to death all reiterate how a marriage may fail violently.
If Dickens's early novels act as cautionary tales about mercenary and monstrous marriages, his mid-career novels provide more explicit and, Hager argues, proto-feminist messages about the inequities of marriage law. Throughout the book, Hager strategically encourages us to forget what we thought we knew about our beloved Dickens in order to let new interpretations emerge. We are to attend to a novel's silences, creep about in its margins, and uncover "repressed plots" (135). Such a reading method yields a surprisingly convincing case for Dickens's novels performing the kind of cultural work we might [End Page 224] associate with feminism. Thus Hager's...