- Écrire le mariage en France au xixe siècle [Marriage in nineteenth-century French literature] ed. by Stéphane Gougelmann, Anne Verjus
With its many contributions and disciplinary intersections (literature, art, history), this work edited by Stéphane Gougelmann and Anne Verjus manages to transform a nineteenth-century literary topic–marriage–into a research subject that offers considerable possibilities for analysis. The authors deftly demonstrate that throughout the nineteenth century the facts of "getting married" and "being married" were both social and moral issues for the protagonists (the spouses but also their respective families) and a continual source of rhetorical, stylistic and aesthetic inspiration for writers and artists. Drawing on a wide range of sources and perspectives, the book's 25 articles show how literary and artistic handling of the theme of marriage changed over the nineteenth century, change that predictably reflects just how important this event and condition were in the society of the time. Proceeding chronologically, the work clarifies how the moral and political debates around marriage changed and the many ways writers drew on those debates. The book also works to deconstruct the idea that nineteenth-century representations of marriage were unequivocal and static. On the contrary, the conjugal norm seems to have declined in prestige over the century, in favour of individualism and a representation of marriage as a conflictual rather than harmonious relationship.
Part I ("Forming the knots of marriage") focuses on the first quarter of the century, discussing the effects of the French Revolution on representations of marriage and how it was portrayed in literature. As divorce was legal in France from 1792 to 1816, the number of divorce cases multiplied during that period, demonstrating literature's ability to diffuse militant discourses that undermined marriage as an institution. Meanwhile, female sexual transgression (illegitimate births, the peril of adultery) was treated in the form of caricatures that reveal what the society was reluctant to see at a time when women's conjugal status was very clearly defined. Codes and marriage manuals laid down the rules of the game, with a deliberately prescriptive objective in mind: it was important to give future spouses clear instructions for maintaining their happiness. Generally speaking, these writings reflect fully developed visions of marriage at just the time it was beginning to occur to people that marriage could be something other than a contract by means of which parents established their children in society. Anne Verjus's article on the negotiations surrounding three arranged marriages clearly shows how the norms of the time led to gender-specific expectations of marriage and, paradoxically, gave women more manoeuvring room than men in some ways. For young girls and their parents, marriage was understood as the means to ensure a happy life. This meant that parents were often relatively attentive to the sensibility and affinities of daughters when choosing who they would marry. After reading this first part, we understand how strong the social constraint exerted by the marriage institution was early in the century, a fact that in turn explains the heavy preponderance of homogamous marriages in [End Page 718] novels ("Their fortunes, so it was said, agreed as well as their persons", wrote Balzac in Chapter 2 of The Marriage Contract). Nonetheless, the theme of reconciling passion and marital duty began to appear in literature, and there was now greater readiness to expose the turbulence and unhappiness that arranged marriages could cause.
Part II (Untying the knots of marriage) confirms this trend, focusing more narrowly on novels that probe the importance to be granted feelings in "the marriage equation" (p. 263). Literature of the mid-nineteenth century offered quite a range of judgments on marriage, so the authors are concerned in this part to show how novels and plays explored and worked out these ambiguities. Whereas the French novelistic equivalent of Romantic Sturm und Drang drew on a highly particular system of characters (a young girl, the hero...