- Inconvenient Husbands and Superfluous Wives
Let us begin with a family scene from Tennyson’s narrative poem “Enoch Arden” (1864): a fire crackles in a snug cottage, where a husband, “Stout, rosy, with his babe across his knees,” and his loving wife, her beauty replicated in her “fair-hair’d” daughter and son, pass their evening amid a cozy setting, including “cups and silver on the burnish’d board” (lines 768, 771, 764). The scene readily summons the Victorian ideal of domestic harmony, [End Page 35] defined and metonymically produced by countless hearthside family portraits just like this one.
But a supernumerary lurks on the edge of this familial bliss: Enoch Arden himself gazes longingly on the “genial … hearth” through the window (765). He is looking at his own wife, who has remarried, believing him lost at sea, and two of the three children are his. This framed scene (the window is as central to its iconography as the fire) enshrines the nuclear family at the moment of its greatest narrative threat, when bigamy might replace monogamy and illegitimacy devour patrimony. This is the crisis of a story that poses the question of who is inside and who is outside the social and narrative institution of marriage.
Enoch, though structurally poised to attack, does not expose the couple; he manages to prevent himself from emitting “a shrill and terrible cry, / Which in one moment, like the blast of doom, / Would shatter all the happiness of the hearth” (790–93). On the one hand, Enoch’s decision to refrain from destroying “all the warmth, the peace, the happiness” of this nuclear family underscores the power of its ideal, trebly rehearsed in Tennyson’s threadbare phrase (783). But on the other hand, the proximity of one wife and two husbands opens up the possibility—part fantasy, part nightmare—of multiple marital partners. As Enoch’s wife, Annie Lee, first hoped and then feared, her seafaring husband was alive when she married his rival. All three had long been friends, and both men had loved her as boys, when they had “play’d at keeping house. / Enoch was host one day, Philip the next, / While Annie still was mistress” (24–26). In the moment at the window, Annie has fulfilled her childhood promise that “she would be little wife to both” (36).
The monogamous couple at the heart of Victorian literature is shadowed on all sides by alternates for the husband or wife, in the shape of parents, wards, governesses, or sisters-in-law, among others. Setting aside these more indirect challengers for the moment, I would like to consider here the many rivals to the married pair that are institutionally confirmed through bigamous marriages. In numerous novels, plays, and poems published in Great Britain throughout the nineteenth century, but especially in the 1860s, a husband or wife remarries bigamously, believing (or merely wishing) that his or her first spouse is dead. The resulting melodrama often includes bribery, arson, and murder, as the story struggles to find places for what the reviewer Alfred Austin derided as “an inconvenient number of husbands, and a most perplexing superfluity of wives” (413). These plots develop a variety of narrative solutions to this crisis, all of which demand the elimination of one of the inconvenient spouses: Bertha Mason is burned in the Thornfield fire; Lady Audley pushes George Talboys down a well; and Enoch Arden quietly expires after his rough decade at sea. Only one husband and one wife can sit by the fire; any extras must be left out in the cold, murdered by either a fellow character or the author. [End Page 36]
Many critics argue that these reprisals effectively police the conservative social order. Nancy Armstrong, for instance, writes that Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) “slowly but surely exiles or kills off those characters who dare to exist in alternative living arrangements, … [universalizing] a radically restricted notion of kinship based on the married couple and their biological offspring” (144). Armstrong reiterates the logic of some Victorian reviewers, who interpreted the bigamy plot, commonly associated with the fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and other sensation novelists, as counterintuitively reinforcing marriage. For...