- A State of Discontent and Dismay:E. Nesbit Dissects Victorian Marriage
The intense conversation about Victorian marriage that marked the fin de siècle included among its most profound, significant, and powerful voices the prolific E. Nesbit (1858–1924), whose poetry insightfully explores the dark side of wedded life.1 In her verse collections appearing in the century's final decades, Nesbit resolutely addressed controversial marital issues that permeated contemporaneous nonfiction and fiction as well in stark terms. Her work appeared at a seminal cultural moment, when marriage became a paramount concern of New Women writers in the late 1880s and 1890s.2 Nesbit's provocative poetry made a vital contribution to the societal debate in indicting the deep-rooted injustices and deleterious effects of the institution, drawing a compelling picture of the angst experienced by Victorian wives. Moreover, Nesbit's complex oeuvre delineating marital distress is an unusually expansive one that enables an unflinching exploration of the multifarious facets characterizing female discontent, with three crucial aspects of special interest: constraint, estrangement, and infidelity. Despite the importance of this poetry, it has received little scholarly attention,3 an undeserved neglect of work that so strikingly illuminates the Marriage Question in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
By this time, marriage laws had undergone changes, with some of the most egregious limitations discarded. Under the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, wives, like single women, gained control over their own possessions. Four years later, the Married Women Act gave greater access to means of support for wives who had been deserted. Also, in 1886, the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts, with their grossly inappropriate treatment of women suspected of being prostitutes, were repealed. In 1891, the Infant Custody Act expanded mothers' rights over their children. The same year, the law that enabled a husband to force an unwilling wife into conjugal activity was overturned. The cessation of burdensome legalities improved women's position, but the emotional and intellectual harm resulting from the vagaries of Victorian marriage continued its course. [End Page 475]
Even though concerns about the marital state had surfaced in the past, the issue gained dramatic prominence with the 1888 publication of Mona Caird's acerbic essay, "Marriage," which famously drew 27,000 letters. Among its contentions, the essay decried the influence of "current notions regarding the proper conduct of married people."4 Indeed, Caird asserted, "modern 'Respectability' draws its life-blood from the degradation of womanhood in marriage" (p. 197). In a model marriage, Caird insisted, "a wife has an obvious right . . . to possess herself body and soul, to give or withhold herself body and soul exactly as she wills" (p. 198).
In also assailing contemporary marriage and in other respects, Nesbit seemed an advanced woman of the time. Margaret D. Stetz identifies Nesbit as a New Woman, "by contemporary definitions of the term," whose "work forges links between poetry of the 1880s and 1890s and the fictional projects of the 'New Women.' "5 Nesbit was a founder of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization with the objective, she explained, "to improve the social system—or rather to spread its news as the possible improvement of the said S.S." Nesbit also befriended progressive women in the society—among them Olive Schreiner, Annie Besant, and Eleanor Marx, says biographer Julia Briggs.6 A zealous reader of varied texts, including John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women, Nesbit advised that she was "doing a good bit of serious reading," adding that "I seem to want to read all sorts of things at once." At the same time, Nesbit bemoaned the dearth of reading opportunities that allowed women to receive only "a smattering" of material.7 A 1907 piece claimed that Nesbit proved herself "very apt at giving voice to many of the indefinite yearnings of womanhood towards higher ideals, a fuller development, a wider sphere."8 In 1899, the Quarterly Review declared that "the chief value of her work" resided with her lyrical poetry, "which bear[s] the burden of what she has to say." Through these poems, the reviewer maintained, Nesbit "sounds repeatedly the modern note of independence, the woman's desire for freedom" as...