- Romance's Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fictionby Talia Schaffer
For literary scholars interested in the Victorian marriage plot and cultural studies scholars interested in nineteenth-century attitudes toward romance, domesticity, and woman's place in society, Talia Schaffer's Romance's Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fictionis essential reading. Well-written, wide-ranging, sensitive to Victorian preoccupations, and constructed around illuminating paradigms illustrated with examples from important canonical and noncanonical texts, this study is a standout among the good examinations of Victorian marriage to have appeared in recent years.
Schaffer's starting point is the perception that the partnership founded on desire is by no means a given in Victorian fiction. Rather, she traces a pervasive pattern in which the "nondesiring relationship" competes, often successfully, with passion, in the process exposing the advantages and disadvantages of each (ix): "The two-suitor plot, with each suitor embodying a different marital ideal," she argues, "helped Victorians work through different ways of thinking about a subject's future" (7–8). That romantic love won the struggle for marriage's soul does not invalidate the nineteenth-century cultural importance of companionate love or, to use Schaffer's term, "familiar marriage," but it does, as she observes, make it harder for the reader acculturated to the romantic ideal to see and value "romance's rival." Her book thus serves a valuable corrective function by asking not how nineteenth-century writers should have approached marriage but how they did approach it. [End Page 371]
Schaffer's study is divided into six chapters: "Theorizing Victorian Marriage," "Historicizing Marriage, Developing the Marriage Plot," "Neighbor Marriage: Loving the Squire," "Cousin Marriage: Reading on the Contrary," "Disability Marriage: Communities of Care in the Victorian Novel," and "Vocational Marriage, or, Why Marriage Doesn't Work." Chapter 1 defines familiar marriage and explores why it became fundamental to the Victorian novel, illustrating the argument by using Jane Eyre(1847) as its core text. While today's reader is likely to see Charlotte Brontë's novel as offering Jane a choice between an unpalatable familiar marriage to St. John and an appealing romantic marriage to Rochester, Schaffer complicates this reading by suggesting that St. John's offense is not that he sees Jane as "formed for labour, not for love" but that he insists that passion must form part of their union, whereas Rochester's ultimate attractiveness is that he comes to see Jane not as plaything but as helpmeet and nurse ( Jane Eyre, edited byQ. D. Leavis [Penguin Books, 1988], 428). In other words: "The romantic marriage with Rochester must be flattened and filed and notched until it resembles the supposedly counterfeit model of marriage that St. John had originally offered." Familiar and romantic marriage thus "reshape each other" to provide the happy ending, a pattern fundamental to Schaffer's insightful vision of the nineteenthcentury marriage plot (16).
While all chapters of this book invoke multiple texts, each also takes a central novel to serve as touchstone. For chapter 2, this novel is Clarissa(1748), a choice illustrating Schaffer's interest in placing the Victorian novel in the context of its roots. Clarissa's distrust of the rake, and Samuel Richardson's approval of the rational and balanced suitor whom he would later portray as Sir Charles Grandison, are tempered by Evangelicalism and Romanticism in ways that permit these figures to emerge as legitimate rivals in mid-nineteenth-century fiction. Chapter 3 traces this rivalry through the "neighbor marriage" plot, in which the heroine contemplates marriage to what the opening of Pride and Prejudice(1813) describes as "a single man in possession of a good fortune" and living nearby ( Pride and Prejudice, intro. Tony Tanner [Penguin Books, 2003], 5). Here the core texts by Jane Austen— Pride and Prejudiceand Sense and Sensibility(1811)—give way to successors such as Rhoda Broughton's Cometh Up as a Flower(1867), Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton(1870), and even E. M. Forster's Howards End(1910), each iteration...