- Romance's Rivals: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction by Talia Schaffer
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."1 Unlike traditional love sonneteers, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not ask "why do I love thee?" so that she can proceed to a list of her beloved's virtues. Instead, she is interested in examining her own diverse and multiple affective states—how she loves. Romance, if it makes her list at all, is merely one among many ways to love. Talia Schaffer's Romance's Rivals: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction reminds us of this point so that we can appreciate the affective variety of marriage plots in nineteenth-century fiction, including works by Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charlotte Yonge, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In Schaffer's view, several approaches to literary criticism in the past few decades have attempted to narrow the meaning of desire to sexual attraction and thereby limit what constitutes authentic reasons for marriage. This critical strategy undermines narrative advocacy for forms of desire much better suited to women achieving happiness under the legal and economic conditions of the nineteenth century. As relative creatures, women survived by cultivating affective ties with family, friends, and benefactors. Ideally, husbands would be drawn from these networks, both to ensure the men were reliable and to allow women to preserve their support systems. Drawing her evidence from narratives focalized by female characters, Schaffer demonstrates the range of women's marital considerations and desires, as well as agency and constraints. She develops her argument over topical chapters, including "Historicizing Marriage," "Neighbor Marriage," "Cousin Marriage," "Disability Marriage," and "Vocational Marriage."
The most important contribution Romance's Rivals makes to current critical discourse may be to represent the wide array of scholarship from the past two decades that resists master narratives in favor of the variation and nuance in Victorian marriage plots. These critics include Mary Jean Corbett, Claudia L. Johnson, Elsie B. Michie, Kelly Hager, Sharon Marcus, Kathy Psomiades, and Martha Stoddard Holmes, among others who have maintained a healthy skepticism regarding the monolithic tendencies of psychoanalytic and Foucauldian-influenced accounts of desire. [End Page 452]
Schaffer's study returns to two influential 1987 works of criticism: Joseph Allen Boone's Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction and Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. The former Schaffer describes as "the definitive book on the marriage plot in British history" (p. 43). The latter, Schaffer faults for using "'the history of sexuality' to mean 'the history of marriage,'" a conflation of what she considers to be "profoundly different fields" (p. 22). She complains of literary critics who merged an unnuanced version of companionate marriage from Lawrence Stone's 1977 The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 with a Foucauldian-inflected hermeneutics of suspicion in order to produce a teleological narrative of desire that was reductive and anachronistic. This move exacerbated the erasure of women's agency inherent in Ian Watt's equation of the novel's rise with that of an autonomous liberal subject in The Rise of the Novel (1957).
Whereas Boone's interest lay in examining how novels elaborated a new idea of romantic love, Schaffer cautions against any tendency to infer that romantic love is the culmination of a teleological history of the novel. This caveat emerges from more recent historical and anthropological research, feminist scholarship, disability studies, and queer studies. But it is also worth noting that Schaffer is recovering a strain of scholarship that never bought into this reductive thinking, for example, that of Ruth Perry, whose Novel Relations (2004) she often cites. I would suggest that Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract (1988) be acknowledged as well. Published the year after Boone's and Armstrong's books, The Sexual Contract demonstrates that social contract theory depended upon an unacknowledged sexual contract—the marriage contract—with the result that women's inferior legal status became a constitutive feature of...