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.