Monstrous Marriage: Re-Evaluating Consent, Coverture, and Divorce in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Gothic Fiction
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This dissertation demonstrates that a study of nineteenth-century Gothic fiction can broaden our understanding of the ways in which women were imprisoned by period marriage laws. These novelists perpetuated women’s blossoming dissatisfaction with marriage and with ideals of gender encoded by law. My examination offers insight into how nineteenth-century authors of Gothic fiction used their literature as a feminist discourse to shift accepted social views of women’s position in marriage. This study concentrates on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I examine these works in light of consent and the law of coverture, as well as social expectations that create false narratives about ideal marriages. The intersection of matrimonial laws and Gothic conventions allowed women writers to imagine frightening scenarios in which consent is questioned, in which coverture is exposed as inhumane, and in which abuse, both physical and emotional, is detailed. Readers act as witnesses to abuse that the law does not acknowledge. Sometimes, the wedded ideal contradicts reality in these novels, portraying scenarios that the law needs to address. These novels transform the Gothic Romance into the Domestic Gothic, substituting Gothic monsters with cruel husbands, haunted castles with the home, and the horror, dread, and suspense, of living in an abusive marriage. They challenge the cultural belief that the institution is a haven for women and that self-sacrifice and submission are women’s most valued attributes. These novels disrupt the middle class domestic ideal that is so prevalent in women’s fiction and they challenge the logic behind the law of coverture. The authors used Gothic conventions because they offered a method to express those frustrations. The Gothic genre is also important because its popularity allowed the women’s social discourse to reach a wider audience and to capture the very real fear and horror and danger that marriage placed on women. I concentrate on their scenarios that reference matrimonial laws and their uses of Gothic devices to expose the limitations of consent laws, and the imprisonment of coverture. Ultimately, I argue that these novelists expose marriage as an institution that often fosters and perpetuates abuse, and that they showcase the legal foundation that enables such abuse. These novels become a highly effective means of addressing the need for women to maintain their legal status in marriage because the narratives spotlight the issues for those who either are not aware of these laws or do not fully understand their consequences. An examination of courtship and matrimony in these Gothic novels demonstrates their challenge to existing laws governing marriage and coverture. Reform begins, these novels insist, with an audience that is aware of the impact of social institutions on the individual. Through these texts, readers learn that women must be socially and legally valued as human beings and that marriage should not condemn women to a lifetime with a monster.