Review: Resisting the Marriage Plot

Resisting the Marriage Plot (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Dalene Joy Fisher. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Contrary to prevailing ideas of Christianity being an oppressive force in women’s lives in Victorian literature, looks at four instances in this literature where women resist cultural expectations around marriage due to the liberating and empowering quality of their faith.

It’s fairly common in Victorian literary studies to show the oppression of women in the conventions of marriage. And it was indeed the case that marriage could be oppressive. Under coverture, discussed in this book, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed under her husband and she had no independent legal existence. She had no property rights of her own and so was economically dependent or “covered” by her husband. Even in a beneficent situation, the deprivation of these tokens of personhood, of agency, were a form of oppression. In an abusive situation it could be much worse. And many critics point to ways the church supported this understanding of marriage and the place of women.

Dalene Joy Fisher offers us a counterfactual in this study of four novelists whose characters resist the “marriage plot” in different ways, often at great cost to themselves, but sustained by convictions of their Christian faith that led them not to submit to marriage where this would compromise their human dignity. They are:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria in The Wrongs of Woman. Maria marries George Venables, only to discover he is libertine. He even pays a friend to seduce her. She decides to flee with her daughter, an unlawful act, and is confined to an asylum, guarded by Jemima who eventually helps her escape.

Jane Austen, Fanny in Mansfield Park. Fanny is an impoverished girl who is sent to live with her wealthy Aunt and Uncle, who attempt to marry her off to Henry Crawford, an impressive man of questionable morals. She resists the pressure to do so because of her faith and understanding that the power to “transform” him is beyond her. Eventually she marries a clergyman, Edmund, who has counselled and befriended her.

Anne Brontë, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen discovers her husband Arthur is both alcoholic and adulterous and flees with her young son Arthur, living under an assumed name and supporting them by selling paintings. Her faith will not allow her and her son to live in a state of moral degradation, despite society’s expectation. She falls in love with Gilbert Markham but cannot marry. When Arthur suffers what will be a fatal accident, She returns to for one final attempt at his reform, then marries Gilbert after Arthur’s death.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth in Ruth. Ruth is a teenage orphan seduced by Henry Bellingham, then abandoned when she becomes pregnant. A reform minded minister takes her in, they label her a “widow,” and under this identity, she becomes a highly respected governess. Later, Bellingham, using the name Donne, shows up and insists she marry him, but she refuses because of her faith. But her true background is discovered, and she has to turn to nursing the most impoverished, gaining a name for herself. Donne falls ill and comes under her care, and, while caring for him, she contracts his disease and dies.

One of the key themes running through these novels is women refusing or leaving unworthy marriages due to their understanding of the Christian faith, that gives them a sense of agency to stand against the pressures to conform to societal norms. It is also the case that they resist the pressure to adopt the approach that a good woman can reform a bad man. They recognize that only God can transform hearts. In two instances, their resistance is rewarded with loving marriages. Two others end sadly, reflecting the consequences of oppressive structures.

The novelists considered were powerful voices. They reveal a more complex narrative of both ways Christianity has been used to oppress and Christian faith as liberative, of characters empowered by their understanding of Christian faithfulness to resist the “marriage plot” when not to so would implicate them in immoral behavior and subject them to abuse. Victorians spoke of marriage as “he for God only, she for God in him.” Fisher shows the power of Christian faith to lead both men and women to say, “they for God only, he and she for God,” a message which seems as needed today as in the Nineteenth century.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elizabeth Hartman

Elizabeth Hartman, From a publicity still, 1966. Photographer unknown. Public Domain.

The recent passing of renowned actor Sidney Poitier on January 6 of this year reminded many of us from Youngstown of Elizabeth Hartman who played opposite him in A Patch of Blue. In 1966, she received a Best Actress Nomination in the Academy Awards for her role, the youngest actress to do so. I remember how proud all of us were. We’d point to her on the screen or in a news story and say, “She’s from Youngstown!” And she was a slender, freckled redhead with all-American good looks that turned all our heads.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Hartman on December 23, 1943 to Claire (Mullaly) and Bill C. Hartman, a local building contractor. Even while in Boardman High School, she already was gaining notice for her acting, playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie as well as having roles in productions of A Clearing in the Woods and Our Town at the Youngstown Playhouse. She won a statewide award for her role in The Glass Menagerie.

After graduation in 1961, she attended Carnegie Mellon University, known for its theatre program. During summers, she acted with the Kenley Players and at the Cleveland Playhouse, where she had roles in The Mad Woman of Chaillot and Bus Stop. During her time in Pittsburgh, she met her husband Gill Dennis, a future director and screenwriter. They married in 1968.

In 1964, she moved to New York, auditioning for plays, and winning the leading role in Everybody Out, the Castle is Sinking. The play was not a success, but she received recognition and screen tests with MGM and Warner Brothers. That fall, she was offered the role in A Patch of Blue. Sadly, her father died at this time. In addition to her Academy nomination in 1966, she won a Golden Globe award as well as an achievement award from the National Association of Theater Owners.

She played in several major films between 1966 and 1973: The Group, You’re A Big Boy Now, The Beguiled, and the blockbuster Walking Tall in 1973, portraying Pauline Mullins, the wife of Sheriff Bufford Pusser. In 1975, she starred in the Tom Rickman play, Balaam, and played various TV roles over the next years. She began in a touring role of Morning’s at Seven in 1981, but left due to declining mental health. Her last on-screen performance was in a horror spoof, Full Moon High, playing Miss Montgomery. She also did acclaimed voiceovers for Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH in 1982. It was her last role.

Elizabeth Hartman had always struggled with depression. In 1978, she spent a year at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. She separated from her husband in 1979 and they divorced in 1984. She moved back to Pittsburgh, continuing to receive treatment for her depression from the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, while working at a local museum. On the morning of June 10, 1987, she called her psychiatrist saying she was very despondent. Later that day, she fell from her fifth floor apartment window to her death. No note was found. She lies at rest back in Youngstown, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

She was a brilliant actor, who could “become” a variety of roles. Her brother-in-law, Robert H. Shoop, Jr said of her, ″She had an unbelievable talent. She was able to portray so many people on the stage and yet, she wasn’t like any of them.″ In her New York Times obituary, Elizabeth Hartman is quoted from a 1969 interview, saying, ”That initial success beat me down. It spiraled me into a position where I didn’t belong. I was not ready for that. I suddenly found myself failing.” She rose meteorically, and then the roles slowed down as fickle Hollywood turned to others.

Given her early, meteoric rise, one wonders whether she ever had a chance to figure out who she was beyond her roles. Her struggle throughout her life suggests a physiological condition that the talk therapies of the day could not greatly help. The most effective anti-depressant medications only came online after her death.

One can never answer the questions of “what if?” All we can do is remember Elizabeth Hartman’s artistic excellence and honor her memory. We also can take pride in the local institutions, from high school theatre programs to the Youngstown Playhouse and the Kenley Players, that gave her the opportunity to develop her craft. Seeing those images of her with Sidney Poitier once again reminded me, “she was from Youngstown” but also that we lost her too soon.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Youngstown Playhouse

Do your remember going on field trips to the Youngstown Playhouse as a kid? I do. I can’t remember the plays we watched but I remember the Cat Lady who came out to welcome us and talked to us before the plays.

The Youngstown Playhouse has a long history in Youngstown. In the 1920’s, Youngstown was a stopover place for national stars like the Barrymores, Al Jolson, and Walter Hampden. Area residents wanted a more ongoing opportunity for live theatre based in and open for community participation. The Youngstown Playhouse website says “In the early 1920’s, four ladies from Rodef Sholom began reading plays for their own enjoyment.”  In 1927, several drama organizations came together and formed the Youngstown Players.

Originally, they performed in a converted barn at Arlington Street and Lincoln Avenue. People from every walk of life participated. The key ingredient was hard work, which people in Youngstown knew how to do. Talent followed.

In 1942, the Playhouse moved to an abandoned theatre on Market Street. Then, in 1959 they moved to their new (and current) home on 600 Playhouse Lane off Glenwood Avenue.

Over the years, the Playhouse has been the starting point for a number of artists. Two of the better known are actress Elizabeth Hartman, who starred with Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue, and John DeMain, a Grammy award winning symphony conductor, who I wrote about recently in a post on the Youngstown Symphony, where he served as acting director during the 1980’s. He currently is the music director for the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony Orchestra.

The Playhouse is still going strong, offering a season of nine productions in 2019-2020. They offer a Summer Theatre Intensive for aspiring actors under 18 as well, other children’s educational programming, as well as opportunities for community involvement as volunteers, as actors in productions and patrons. The Playhouse receives no taxpayer funding and relies exclusively on revenues from grants, donations, and ticket sales–no small feat. James McClellan is the current operations manager and Johnny Peccano the technical coordinator.