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  • Slipping into Marriage:How Heroines Create Desire by Risking Their Reputations
  • Catherine England (bio)

Novel reading teaches women to skirt the edges of good behaviour without ever crossing the line. However, the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable is often invisible until after it is breached. Like the river in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), the line is fluid. Under the influence of Stephen Guest’s “delicious rhythmic dip of the oars,” Maggie Tulliver notices nothing to warn her of her impending indiscretion as all “way-marks pass unnoticed” (426). Only once her fate is sealed does Maggie discover that she has floated past the point from which she could return home to St. Ogg’s before nightfall and, thereby, keep her reputation relatively intact.1 Readers, too, may not be certain if a heroine has crossed the unforgivable line until the end of a novel. The only sure indication of a heroine having stayed within the limits of propriety is a happy marriage. In “The Rise of Fictionality,” Catherine Gallagher argues that fiction encourages speculation about characters and events and that this “imaginative play” allows readers to practise the sort of predictions necessary in modern life, predictions helpful in both imagining married life and encouraging that blessed event to take place (346). In particular, marriage-plot novels instruct their female readers to place themselves in positions of just enough danger to elicit male affections and proposals, but not to drift too far down disreputable rivers; these novels allow opportunities for guessing and predicting, which are especially useful when the standards of propriety are fluid as river water.

I argue that many of the most innocent heroines speculate that sacrificing good assets can produce the best rewards. Specifically, nineteenth-century marriage-plot heroines take risks with their social capital,2 as they wager that a damaged reputation may be worth more on the marriage market than a pristine one. Oftentimes flirtation, which always jeopardizes a nineteenth-century woman’s reputation, slightly spoils heroines’ social capital or reveals that their social standing is already damaged. While the heroines of marriage plots suffer social depreciation before they receive their rewards, it seems surprising that marriage plots, which are so often touted for their moral lessons, would reveal the advantages of a less-than-perfect reputation. Nevertheless, a depreciated—but not ruined—reputation is one of the most valuable and [End Page 109] erotic assets a heroine can possess. As heroines spend their social capital in order to appear attractively imperfect, they become important risk-takers in the social economy.

By the nineteenth century, “every woman was, like Louisa Gradgrind, a little bit fallen,” according to Nancy Armstrong, and “what mattered was that she never gave into her own desire but waged an unrelenting battle against it” (Desire and Domestic Fiction 252). In “Captivity and Cultural Capital in the English Novel,” Armstrong claims that late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture assumed that women might fall into dangers from which they could be rescued (382), and, certainly, novels reflect this assumption. By this period, she argues, English fiction was more likely to depict dangers that threatened a woman’s social identity than those that attacked her physical body; despite the seeming triviality of social perils, the former could do as much damage as the latter (391). If earlier romances and Gothic fiction commonly depict women who are saved before they are physically harmed, marriage plots throughout the nineteenth century present stories of women who are saved after being socially damaged; thus, as I argue here, it is not a threat of harm but an actual social taint that triggers a rescuing project, which takes the form of a marriage proposal.

Although depreciated reputations become eroticized in early marriage plots such as Pamela (1740–41) and Northanger Abbey (1818), those works often assume that a man who proposes to a woman of diminished social capital possesses a selfless love, and I will briefly discuss Northanger Abbey as a text that supports this belief. However, by the Victorian period, novels such as Daniel Deronda (1876), Bleak House (1852–53), and Jane Eyre (1847), the latter of which will serve as...


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pp. 109-124
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