Catharine Maria Sedgwick was, Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements remind us at the outset of their indispensable Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives, “one of the most popular and highly respected American writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century” (xxi). Even so, the majority of Sedgwick’s writings have yet to receive sufficient engagement from critics and historians of American literature. Especially neglected has been Sedgwick’s final novel, Married or Single?, which was well received when it was first published in 1857. The recent republication by the University of Nebraska Press of Married or Single?—the first republication of this novel since the nineteenth century—thus represents a contribution to further exploration of both Sedgwick’s writing and the larger field of antebellum women’s fiction. As Deborah [End Page 435] Gussman persuasively argues in her introduction to Married or Single?, the “recovery of Sedgwick’s oeuvre and our understanding of U.S. literary history are incomplete without the consideration of this novel” (x). Any study of the cultural work performed by the antebellum novel vis-à-vis marriage needs to reckon with this text.
Gussman’s explanatory notes document the rangy, learned allusiveness of Married or Single?, which quotes and gestures to texts such as Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Gussman’s introduction situates Married or Single? within the arc of Sedgwick’s literary career, relates the novel to Sedgwick’s lifelong deliberations on the importance of fiction to US public and private life, and identifies the wide-ranging set of political issues to which Married or Single? speaks. As its title indicates, Married or Single? weighs in on marriage and what Sedgwick calls “a woman’s single life” (6). More broadly, the novel stands as a meditation on the roles that women do and might perform within the US polity. Yet the novel also touches, if only briefly, on abolitionism. And, in many respects, what the novel ultimately says about marriage and about the role women might play in the antebellum US turns on issues of socioeconomic class. “While the question Sedgwick asks in the novel’s title may appear to refer to a narrow, private, and domestic subject of interest primarily to women readers and writers,” Gussman explains, “Married or Single? is equally concerned with the larger cultural milieu in which marriage occurs” (xviii).
Gussman contends that Married or Single? should be recognized as unconventional in its moment because its defense of “a woman’s single life” challenged dominant antebellum gender ideology (xiv). In her preface to the novel, Sedgwick tells us that “we raise our voice with all our might against the miserable cant that matrimony is essential to the feebler sex—that a woman’s single life must be useless or undignified—that she is but an adjunct of man—in her best estate a helm merely to guide the nobler vessel” (6). This pronouncement is echoed toward the close of the novel, when the protagonist, Grace Herbert, has (albeit temporarily) decided she will not marry. According to Grace, women
must be educated for usefulness, independence and contentment in single life. They must look forward to it, not quite as I do, perhaps, as the only alternative to the happiest married life . . . but as a mode of life in which one many serve God and humanity, and thus educate the soul, the great purpose of this short life. So considered, single life would not long be regarded as either “helpless, joyless, or ridiculous,” and that dreaded stigma, “old maid,” would soon cease to be a stigma, and in the lapse of ages possibly become obsolete.(393–94) [End Page 436]
Grace’s sister, Eleanor, confirms Grace’s view of the possibilities of single life:
One noble single woman, who devotes her faculties (her ten or her one talent) to the service of God and humanity—it matters not whether it be by maintaining hospitals, reforming prisons, succoring and educating outcast children...