What marriage meant to the Victorians–and by “the Victorians,” I mean three novels by Gissing and Trollope

Oh, I am remiss. I know this. I keep breezing through delightful books and then not blogging about them. This must change, if only because I don’t want all my book posts to be jerk-faced complaint-fests.

A couple of years ago, over at Bookphilia, I began a very serious Victorian Literature Project; I was to read approximately 50 novels from the period to try to patch some of the gaping holes in my literary education. It’s taking longer than I thought, but I also don’t want it to end. Reading a fat Victorian novel every third book or so has made me tremendously happy for over two years now. It will end some day, I know; Dickens and Trollope aren’t writing much these days. But I will enjoy it while it lasts and look forward to being a withered husk full only of disappointment and broken dreams the day I realize there’s no Trollope left to read.

But I’m getting maudlin, and ahead of myself to boot.

Last week, I finished Trollope’s fifth Chronicle of Barset, The Small House at Allington (1864); a few weeks before that, I finished the fourth, Framley Parsonage (1861). And sometime before that, in the distant and blurry past that was the summer of 2012, I read and adored George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893).

I profoundly enjoyed all these books; not enough, perhaps, to inspire or justify the wordy equivalent of unabashed, fan girl-ish shrieking. I just really, really liked them. All three (especially The Odd Women) ask some hard questions about the central expression of and metaphor for Victorian social stability–marriage; but they’re all also the reading equivalent of being wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket and being fed bonbons and hot chocolate by someone adoring, attentive, and quietly unobtrusive.

But I have been thinking a lot about these three novels on a slightly more intellectual plane than “Ah, that’s nice. Good! More please.” Rohan Maitzen rightly points out (although I’m not sure where) that it makes no sense to begin any sentence like this: “In the Victorian novel…” or “The Victorian novel is/does/is concerned with/etc”–there’s too much diversity in the period’s myriad and rich literary offerings to make such broad and fuzzy claims.

But…marriage does come up a lot. It does; I can’t, at this moment, think of a Victorian novel that I’ve read in which the marriage of some character(s) or other(s) isn’t central to the plot. And what I like about these three novels is that they take direct aim at teasing out what marriage means during the period. (Spoiler: I think the conclusion is, marriage means a lot of things and it’s complicated.)

In Framley Parsonage, Trollope flirts with the fantasy of the marital impulse being strong enough to topple hitherto unbreachable class barriers (maybe it’s not fantasy; I’m not a historian and don’t know what was actually happening, with real people, when he was writing. This is the sort of thing I would like footnoted in a book. Mind, if everything I thought should be footnoted was footnoted, it’s likely novels would disappear in a nightmarish infinity of editorial commentary, and no one would read ever again.) But he also looks at the arguably unreasonable amount of power just the engagement can hold over a person’s life; and also the problem of it holding no power whatsoever.

Indeed, the story of “Apollo” Crosbie and Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington is a tragedy of misunderstanding (it’s a tragedy of a number of things, actually, but we’ll stick with this today). What an engagement to marry means to Lily is entirely different than what it means to Adolphus, and not simply because of their very different social statuses and gendered expectations in life. No, it’s a misunderstanding about the reason for, and therefore the value of, marriage at all. The value of marriage is not universally or consistently held in Trollope’s tales; indeed, his concern with it through all the novels of his I’ve read is to show that it’s so personal, in spite of it being a profoundly social contract, that speaking about it as a cultural object of importance is meaningless–or meaningless in terms of negotiating successful marriages between actual individuals. The only generalities that can be made is that marriage is 1) difficult to effect, 2) a lot of work to maintain.

And then there’s The Odd Women, which bravely tackles not only the validity of viewing marriage as a social contract but also the terrible consequences for those who don’t hold the balance of social and economic power in the relationship: women. This is not a subtle novel; the economic vulnerability that led so many women to marry just for security is exposed and continually revisited. But then so are the complications of class prejudice among women, sexual desire, and how men and women who actually really like each other are supposed to form any connection that isn’t adversarial in such a maelstrom of mucky human complication and confusion. The book looks at the context of the late nineteenth century as a deeply confused one; and it’s not just confused, it’s urgent: the novel is simply teeming with unmarried women taxed with the problem of survival in a society that’s just becoming cognizant of the notion of a working woman who isn’t working class.

And Gissing makes more explicit another problem, one which Trollope implicitly considers but has no answer for: amid all this chaos of social change and misunderstanding, how does one distinguish between being the victim of an inherently unfair formulation of marriage and the fallout for just falling in love with the wrong person? Because Lily’s Adolphus and Rhoda’s Evarard are not worthy of the women who come to love them. I think Trollope might conclude that if they were worthy men, there would be no problem; Gissing would not come to such a conclusion, I think. He doesn’t have many answers either, you see, but I believe he sees the problem as a systemic one impinging upon the personal, a problem in which “doing the right thing”, whatever that might mean!, isn’t always possible.

In some ways, Evarard is worthy of Rhoda–he’s smart and quick and unafraid of her chutzpah. He’s as passionate as she is. He’s as interested in casting off the slough of social expectation to find his own happiness as she is–but only to a point. Rhoda sees the struggle to change her society’s conception of marriage, and therefore women, as a personal struggle; Evarard sees her very serious struggle as another way of testing her to see if she’s worthy of him–which sort of test, and which sort of self-conception, of course make him unworthy of her. She’s a woman on the cusp of feminist modernity, first bravely becoming self-supporting and then helping other women to do the same; he’s a throwback to a medieval literary nightmare in which he thinks Rhoda might properly be subject to the sort of vicious test of submissive fidelity first practiced on Patient Griselda!

Or, to abandon all talk of moral or emotional worth here–Rhoda’s narrative and Evarard’s are too separated by time and gender concerns to ever be made to tell one story, together. It’s a social problem that Gissing brings up, but it’s a tragedy of feisty and rebellious individuals who aren’t fighting the same set of social constraints and therefore can’t come together no matter how much they want to. They get along like Benedick and Beatrice but theirs is not a merry war, in the end; they cannot help but fail to understand one another and so part ways.

Perhaps there are common concerns to be found in the literature of the Victorian period; but its authors certainly don’t come to any consensus, at least not within the still relatively small (thank goodness–still so much to read!) sampling I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years. And how could they? What marriage means remains a hot button political/religious/moral/economic topic now and maybe always will. Hell, the only generalization I really subscribe to about marriage–“You can’t have no fly zones in a marriage”, i.e., You’d better be able to talk about EVERYTHING or you’re fucked–got me into a huge argument with my dad one day. See, personal.

Next up (after I finish Mieville and Wang, and read Doctor Zhivago): either Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge or Gaskell’s Cranford.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    Maybe you should try an insanely ridiculous and horrible Victorian novel like Varney the Vampire! 🙂

  2. Your premise is absolutely right. Victorian fiction writers were disproportionately interested in The Marriage Plot, to the extent that Jeffrey Eugenides just wrote a novel about that very topic.

    Cranford actually has amazingly little marriage stuff in it. Maybe not so amazing, actually, given the premise, which the narrator states in the first sentence or two of the book. And the marriage stuff in Barnaby Rudge is a long way from the center of the novel, thank goodness. So you are already on a track that will provide an antidote to Trolllope’s succession of proposal scenes.

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