- Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction by Talia Schaffer
Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction is a meticulously researched, consummately assembled book that offers a revelatory argument about marriage in the Victorian era. Schaffer’s thesis that an alternative model of “familiar marriage” privileging “trust, comradeship, practical needs, and larger social organization” coexisted with the “newly popular notion of romantic marriage” in the nineteenth-century novel complicates an array of existing critical conceptions of marriage, especially those that have emphasized erotic desire, progressivism, or individualism (2-3). In demonstrating how familiar marriage emerged as a literary convention both to cope with changing ideas about marriage and “to work through different ways of thinking about a subject’s future,” Schaffer’s book opens up new vistas for our understanding of marriage and formulations of female subjectivity in the many novels she discusses and beyond (7-8).
Not least among the many delights of Romance’s Rival are the seamless structure of the book and crystalline clarity of Schaffer’s prose. Her style is everywhere engaging and the book just as unfailingly engages, accounting at every turn for the many discourses that have informed and are now meaningfully altered by her work. Seeking to “provide a larger historical context in which to connect” the varied findings of previous scholarship on marriage and the novel, Schaffer situates her project among the foundational studies of Stone, Watt, and Armstrong as well as amid more recent enlargements of the field by Perry, Corbett, Davidoff, Ablow, Marcus, Hager, Michie, and McAleavey (26). Over the course of this comprehensive book, Schaffer likewise intervenes in research on class, anthropology, disability, and women’s work.
Schaffer’s first chapter defines familiar marriage against its long-studied counterpart, the “romantic marriage,” an approach mirrored by nineteenth-century fiction itself as “Victorian marriage plots very often stage a rivalry between a familiar and romantic suitor” (7). Analyzing Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as her principal introductory case study, Schaffer explains that her term refers in particular to a female character’s marriage with “someone familiar,” such as a neighbor or extended family member (4). Although there are many, the most significant distinction Schaffer formulates between romantic and familiar marriage is the way in which the latter enables a female character access to and agency in a social network, rather than ensconcing her within “the private conjugal dyad” (4). The import of this claim is reflected in Schaffer’s method of “giving special attention to four of the main formulations” of familiar marriage: “neighbor marriage, cousin marriage, disabled marriage, and vocational marriage” (8-9). As she goes on to show in chapters three through six, each organized around one of these categories, these types of connubial arrangements allowed female characters to secure, respectively, “social empowerment, familial benefit, caretaking networks, or career access” in ways that romantic marriage often foreclosed (9).
Although she pinpoints her focus on texts written between the 1850s-1870s, Schaffer’s book provides an expansive view, detecting the germination of the familiar marriage plot in both history and literary tradition from the early modern period onward (15). Her second chapter examines an at first surprising composite of disparate texts—Romeo & Juliet, Clarissa, and Northanger Abbey—but as she traces “the changing means of marriage during the two centuries preceding the Victorian era, stressing the cultural expectations and legal changes that gradually accumulated” to create these [End Page 397] rival suitor types, her treatment of these works is illuminating and convincing (41-42). Having established this developmental history, Schaffer turns in her third chapter to an exploration of the nineteenth-century novel’s familiar suitor, charting his emergence in socio-economic shifts and his transformations in the specific narrative form of “Neighbor Marriage” across the work of Austen, Broughton, Trollope, Eliot, and Forster to illustrate how, while romantic marriage signified dislocation and isolation, familiar marriage to a neighbor (often a country squire) represented opportunities for female characters to remain in their original communities and become more socially empowered there (77).