"The Little Mistress": Chivalry, Autonomy, and Domestic Relations in E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand
- J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2018
- pp. 147-165
- Additional Information
This article reads E.D.E.N. Southworth's popular novel The Hidden Hand (1854) as a reflection of nineteenth-century feminism's ongoing confrontations with marriage law and women's place in the political economy of the early republic. It begins by pointing to a contradiction at the forefront of the rhetoric of the Seneca Falls Generation: namely, that nineteenth-century women were held in a semi-feudal bondage by marriage codes, even as the nation moved toward greater liberalization of law and social life. Medieval literature and chivalric tropes were deployed to make this untenable relationship palatable to women; by promising women the partial protection of coverture, patriarchal marriage codes hoped to stay calls for greater gender parity. This discussion leads into a close reading of Southworth's novel, which attempts to problematize the role its heroine, Capitola, is asked to occupy in the novel's hierarchy. Capitola's embrace of chivalric trope and rejection of debased male authority is taken as both a bold declaration of women's rights to self-determination and as an impartial liberation, a modulation of masculine hierarchy into a feminine key that fails to call for dismantling patriarchal hierarchies as such.