The sexual codes of the Protestant monogamous marriage were the touchstones of Victorian morality. An unshakable faith in the social convention and legal institution of marriage as a source of morality, informs a wide spectrum of discursive articulations in nineteenth century Britain. Sexual fidelity and emotional compatibility between the married partners determine the nature of the domestic ideal towards whose consummation most English novels orient their plotlines. It is the norm whose violation in society is sought to be carefully tracked, statistically understood and administratively contained by governmental and quasi scientific reports, like Engel’s report, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Acton’s Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (1857).

The success of monogamy as a moral code, which is essentially middle class in character, may be gauged by its persistence in an incipiently Marxist text like that of Engels. Households whose depleted economic resources do not facilitate the practice of the sexual codes of middle class domesticity, evoke a profound moral outrage in Engels. He refers to a report by a government commissioner, J.C. Symons, who talks of “human degradation in some of its worst phases” and quotes the sight of large numbers of people “of both sexes and in all ages” sleeping “promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness” as an example (52). The presence of the conditions of alternative sexual and moral norms is seen not as an incentive to theorize alternative codes from the perspective of the working class, but to subject that class to the corrective intervention of the government, to “treat” them back to “normalcy”. Engels documents the civic problems of the “poorest of the poor” in terms of a parable that relates the tale of their regrettable inability to subscribe to the codes of middle class domesticity: “those who have not yet sunk in the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily more and more of their power to resist the demoralizing influence of want, filth and evil surroundings” (46).

The ideal wasn’t always actualized in the personal lives of the Victorians. Lytton Strachey had traced the four Victorian couples whose conjugality did not follow the model of the ideal Protestant marriage.2 Talking about the enduring concern with morality amongst the subjects of Stratchey’s study, each of whose lives incorporated a certain complication in relation to the norm, Gertrude Himmelfarb elaborates: “if individuals did find themselves, as a result of circumstance, passion, or compulsion, in some illicit or abnormal situation, this was regarded as an unfortunate aberration, to be normalized and legalized if possible, and failing that, to be concealed (as in the case of Charles Dickens) or domesticated (as with George Eliot)” (18). Although Himmelfarb’s study accurately recognizes that the “irregularities and improprieties of their personal lives” revealed their anxiety about morality and not their transcendence of it, her work does not exhaust the implications of the adherence to the norm, in the novels of men and women like Charles Dickens and Caroline Norton, who had to face the consequences of finding the code inadequate and restrictive. What do the writings of these novelists say about such complications? How does the English novel, whose denouements move towards the attainment of marital bliss, register these challenges, and the increasing political representation that they gathered in the wake of the legalization of divorce by the parliament in 1857? Did the divorce laws contest the sanctity of marriage at all? Through the study of two novelists, Dickens and Norton, whose lives were irremediably scarred by the moral norms of a monogamous, Protestant marriage, I shall seek to explore the above questions. The discrepancy between the employment of the norm in their fictional and biographical writings, letters etc, provides vital insights into the manner in which the norm functioned. This paper does not seek to “find them out” in moments of indecisive tension, or to constitute the varying enactments of the norm (in their novels and personal lives) as exemplifying the deplorable hypocrisies of Victorian culture. Instead it examines those tensions as fault lines that complicate one’s understanding of the effectivity of this model of domesticity. The novel as a form of public discourse was particularly well equipped to change the terms on which to articulate the problem of bad marriages and divorce in the realm of legal debate. In this sense, it could question the putative desirability of the idea of marital indissolubility in ways entirely ignored by discussions that treated it as a strictly administrative and legal issue. However, the novel simultaneously functioned as the prime mode through which the ideological force of marriage was re-enshrined into unbreakable sanctity. In this sense, it became one of the principle vehicles through which the norm was disseminated in the public sphere. The essay explores how their own splintered relation to the mores of ideal Victorian conjugality energized the works of these two novelists.

Dickens’ marriage was solemnized in 1836 and terminated by a legal separation twenty two years later. Most of his biographers find it difficult to trace the reasons that led to its breakup.3 The assumed success of the marriage, aided by Dickens’ efforts at maintaining a public façade of domestic normality, reveals something about the criteria considered most essential to a marriage. Having produced ten children, the Dickens’ marriage fulfilled the objectives of Protestant marriage doctrines which, as Roderick Phillips points out “directly linked the ends of marriage to sexuality — the obligations of procreation and chaste (i.e., marital) sexual intercourse” (87). The granting of divorce, on the exclusive grounds of punishing adultery, worked to reinforce the sexual codes of the marriage doctrine, which privileged chaste procreation within marriage as the its main objective. This precluded the possibility of engaging with the complex web of issues that lead to marital breakdown. Tracing this attitude to divorce to the sixteenth century, Phillips points out that “divorce was not a response to the state of a particular marriage, in this respect, but rather to a matrimonial offence” (90). In the Dickens’ marriage, one finds an example of a relationship that became increasingly complicated because its cracks and fissures couldn’t be articulated without inviting the full force of social censure against the individual’s incapacity to uphold one of its most sacred conventions.

As one traces the course of this marriage through Peter Ackroyd’s biography, one notices a recurring pattern. There is a sustained tension between two divergent currents of opinion that Dickens himself holds. On the one hand, he was acutely aware of the emotional and intellectual incompatibility between Catherine and himself that severely compromised the value of the marriage as a means of personal support. His absolute inability to come to terms with the physical and emotional strains that Catherine underwent in the course of several pregnancies accentuated his discontentment.4 At several points in his correspondence to his friends, Dickens evinces a marked contempt for Catherine's intellect. Ackroyd mentions that at the time when Catherine “was convalescing [her fourth delivery], she requested books to read, and Dickens told Forster, ‘If you have any literary rubbish on hand, please shoot it here’, and remarking on a mistake Catherine made, he refers sarcastically to ‘Kate’s accustomed cleverness’” (309).5 Many of the twenty two years that he remained married to Catherine — because divorce was unavailable as both a legal option and a socially acceptable practice — exacted a huge price from him, intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically.6

He describes his early attraction to Ellen Ternan, in the 1850s as occasioning a severely traumatic mental state. In a letter to Wilkie Collins, he confesses to have “never known a moment’s peace since the last night”.7 By 1857, the tension between his incarceration in a marriage he did not cherish and his socially unacceptable attraction to Ellen reached a state, where the “mere physical effort and change of the readings”, were seen as a relief from the “his misery at home, his unsatisfied longings for Ellen Ternan” (Ackroyd 850). The power of the ideal of confinement within marriage is his suggestion of an arrangement that continues the pretence of domestic “normalcy”. As Ackroyd notes,

He wanted the actual process of separation to be handled as informally and discreetly as possible . . . He proposed to his wife that they should lead separate lives while remaining to all outward appearances the same married couple as before. At first he suggested that she should have her own apartment in Tavistock House, and should appear at parties in her old role; a neat and agreeable solution for him. [855]

His violent outbursts and hysteric reactions at the time of his legal separation reveal the anxiety of a man who felt impelled to prove at all costs his moral “righteousness” in the very terms in which it was defined by the norm. He brooked no opposition to his actions towards his wife, and treated anyone whom he suspected of having supported his wife with unsparing bitterness. He snapped an eighteenth-year-old tie with his publishers Mark Lemon and Frederich Mullet Evans when they refuse to print his ‘personal statement’ regarding his separation with Catherine in the magazine, Punch.8 The publishing of the “personal statement” to defend his actions is symptomatic of his tremendous fear of potential loss of social acceptance.9 As Ackroyd explains, “ Dickens simply couldn’t bear it; he, the celebrant of the domestic hearth, was even now being whispered against, accused of hypocrisy, condemned of putting away his wife, disparaged even for preferring his wife’s sister — an accusation that the Hogarths tried to level against him. He believed himself to be a good man who had been wronged, and this was the truth which he had to convey to the public” (865). It was this onus on respectability and the tremendous sway of the marital ideal that forced Dickens to continue to be clandestine about his relation to Ellen Ternan, right unto his death.10 In Dickens one sees a deep awareness of the insufficiency of the contemporary laws of divorce to free people like him from marriages that became impossible to abide. This sensitivity leads him to articulate the problem of divorce in Hard Times, which he penned even as his own marriage was disintegrating.

The publication of Hard Times in 1854 coincided with first introduction of the divorce bill into the House of Lords by Lord Chancellor Cranworth. The propositions of the bill, at this stage, were limited to reorganizing the legal mechanism that administered divorce.11 While the terms of the Bill did not exhaust the discussions around the issue of divorce at the time, the document and the debates that surrounded it indicate the kind of arguments that the conditions of legal debate permit. The very form of legal debate, “the adversarial structure of the litigation process”, as Stone points out,

effects what is said, what is left unsaid, and the way the evidence is produced and interpreted. . . . Marital litigation has always been a theatrical display in which actors have been striving to win the case, not to investigate and reveal the full truth of the causes of marital breakdown. [29-30]

As much as one may locate in Hard Times a response to the divorce laws of the nineteenth century, one must also recognize that it uses expressive tools exclusive to the form of the novel. Although one cannot claim that the novel (or any discourse, for that matter) renders the “full truth of the causes of martial breakdown” whose absence in legal records Phillips regrets, one needs to discern the different — and wider — parameters of the novel when compard to the language of legal debate.

Hard Times, a novel that presents bad marriages at length, creates the best possible case for divorce. It does so by showing the how the couples’ emotional and intellectual incompatibility produces a narrative of marital breakdown: trajectories that neither Parliament or the legal courts of the nineteenth century could articulate. Dickens uses the device of narrative juxtaposition to display Stephen Blackpool’s wife in unrelieved degeneracy while idealizing Rachael — to compare the tormented partnership with a woman he can’t bear to the prospect of true companionship denied by the class bias inherent to the high cost of divorce in the nineteenth century:

Quiet and peace were there. Rachael was there, sitting by the bed. She turned her head, and the light of her face shone in upon the midnight of his mind. She sat by the bed, watching and tending his wife. That is to say, he saw that some one lay there, and he knew too well it must be she; but Rachael's hands had put a curtain up, so that she was screened from his eyes. Her disgraceful garments were removed, and some of Rachael's were in the room. Everything was in its place and order as he had always kept it, the little fire was newly trimmed, and the hearth was freshly swept. It appeared to him that he saw all this in Rachael's face, and looked at nothing besides. While looking at it, it was shut out from his view by the softened tears that filled his eyes; but not before he had seen how earnestly she looked at him, and how her own eyes were filled too. [64]

In a chapter tellingly entitled “No Way Out” this contrast becomes a direct critique of the divorce laws. There had been several complaints since 1830s, about how the rising expenses of a Parliamentary divorce created separate divorce and marriage laws for the poor and the rich. This concern was highlighted by Justice Maule's well-known judgment upon a poor man who had been convicted for bigamy in 1845: Satirizing the key elements of the divorce laws, the judge said:

Prisoner at the bar, you have been convicted before me of what the law regards as a very grave and serious offence: that of going through the marriage alliance a second time while your wife is still alive. You plead in mitigation of your conduct that she was given to dissipation and drunkenness, that she proved herself a curse to your household while she remained mistress of it, and that she had latterly deserted you. . . .The law in its wisdom points out a means by which you might rid yourself of further association from a woman who had dishonored you; but you did not think it proper to adopt it. . . .It would cost you perhaps five or six hinder pounds, and you do not seem to be worth as many pence. But it is the boast of the law that it impartial, and makes no difference between rich and poor. The wealthiest man in the kingdom would have to pay no less that sum for the same luxury; so that you would have no reason to complain. [Stone 368-369]12

Stone and other historians document the wide circulation of the above sentence in nineteenth-century print literature. A close look at some of the key phrases of the sentence reveals something of the mood of the critique that Dickens borrows from and intensifies in Hard Times.

The novel intensifies the critique of these aspects of contemporary divorce laws, by using formal apparatuses specific to the novel such as characterization. Dickens uses two extremely different techniques to create the two characters central to his discussion of divorce: Stephen and Bounderby. Bounderby’s aggressive assertion of the ubiquity and effectiveness of the law, his suspicion of the poor classes, and his smug acceptance of the exclusion of the lower classes from the privilege of divorce, has a direct resonance in some of the parliamentary speeches of the period.13

The form of any critique, the mode in which it is articulated, has a defining influence on the message that the critique conveys. Being responsive to the formal differences between a legal judgment like the one quoted above and the case that Stephen tries to make in his discussion with Bounderby helps one to move beyond a mere recognition of the thematic links between a historical ‘background’ (in which divorce was being actively discussed) and its ‘echo’ in the literature of its day. An awareness of these differences helps one understand the effects of a specific discourse and its peculiar engagement with the circulating current of opinion. Unlike the critique of the system offered by Judge Maule in court, the laws themselves do not appear in Dickens’s novel as a abstract, perplexing system which the poor encounter only at the point when they unwittingly transgress its norms. In making the caricatured figure of Bounderby defend the spirit and logic of the divorce laws of the time, Dickens exposes their innermost hypocrisies. This mode of demystification differs from the forms of critique that highlight the partiality of the legal system towards the rich through a language that primarily seeks to expose them by educating the victims of the system. The legal sentence noted above, for instance, seeks to expose to the poor man in question, the complexity of the legal system and its “boasts” of impartiality, by citing extensively the minute details of the legal process that seeks to exclude him from availing the benefits of divorce. It represents the lower classes as unknowing masses whose ignorance of the law, makes them inevitable and trapped victims. In the sentence passed by Judge Maule, all that one sees of the victim, whose entrapment is seen as being unfair because of it being a result of his economic position, is the figure of what Stone calls a the “hapless bigamist” (368). He is, evidently, a member of the lower classes who pleads (unsuccessfully) against the enforcement of the law in terms of the accusations he charges against his wife. His own attitudes to divorce, and marriage and the moral codes embedded in the same, which may have emerged in the course of the court case, are absent from the judgment that propels it into becoming a case that underlines the need for legal reform. The novel, which prevents such silencing of the victim’s perspective, employs the form of a dialogue, which allows the victim to articulate how his case represents the needs of everyone in his economic class. He can also explain the specific problems a marries couple experience when even the prospect of a mere physical separation from an estranged partner is an unaffordable luxury:

I ha' read i' th' papers that great folk (fair faw 'em a'! I wishes 'em no hurt!) are not bonded together for better for worst so fast, but that they can be set free fro' their misfortnet marriages, an' marry ower agen. When they dunnot agree, for that their tempers is ill-sorted, they has rooms o' one kind an' another in their houses, above a bit, and they can live asunders. We fok ha' only one room, and we can't. When that won't do, they ha' gowd an' other cash, an' they can say "This for yo' an' that for me," an' they can go their separate ways. We can't. Spite o' all that,they can be set free for smaller wrongs than mine. [58]

The novel’s account of the lower classes is not so much a project in pedagogy but an exercise in ridiculing the systems of power, which employs the techniques and language of its victims. Stephen’s query about the presence of a law that might relieve him is not the illustration of an ignorance that can be remedied through enlightened pronouncements from the heights of a judgment box, but a representation of the problems inherent to his economic condition and a trigger that sets off a reactionary upper class backlash that is represented by Bounderby’s response.

As Sambudha Sen points out, Dickens’ representation of Bounderby draws upon the vocabulary and tools of a radical journalistic tradition, which was amassing a huge popular readership for itself, even as it was being fundamentally excised from active politics. In this tradition,“ the represented discourse is wrenched out of its oppressiveness to a knowing, taunting, angry audience; associated with the most destabilizing imagery and in this process made to reveal the inner mechanism of its exploitativeness as well as the contradictions within its self righteous assertions” (xiii). Sen points out that to render Bounderby, Dickens transforms the techniques of political cartooning used by Cruickshank into tools of verbal caricature. The claims of the law, its self contented “boasts” are housed in the figure of Bounderby, “a man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon and ready to start” (13). Bounderby’s suspicion of the lower classes and his smug reinforcement of an exclusionary system of power, is not sought to be exposed to an unknowing audience that needs to be educated, but is offered as an object of ridicule and entertainment, to “a knowing, taunting audience” (Sen xvii).

In its capacity to trace personal histories across time (as against a pictorial caricature that ridicules divorce laws), the form of the novel is specially equipped to trace the etiology of a marriage. In making a case for the legitimacy of his need to be separated from his wife, Stephen traces the history of his marital breakdown from the time he married, “on Eas’r Monday nineteen year sin, long and dree” (56). The reasons he finds his marriage unbearable traverse a wide range of concerns, which move beyond a mere moral issue of his wife having “gone bad” and having “disgraced herseln everyways, bitter and bad” to being robbed of every bit of property he has at home”(56). Every visit of the wife is seen as a recrudescence of financial, moral and emotional depletion, which makes the marital home impossible to inhabit, pushes him into the streets, and even leads him to contemplate suicide: “ from bad to worse, from worse to worsen. She left me. She disgraced herseln everyways, bitter and bad. She coom back, she coom back, she coom back. What could I do t’ hinder her? I ha’ walked the streets nights long, ere ever I’d go home. I ha’ gone t’ th’ brigg, minded to fling myseln ower, and ha’ no more on’t” (56). His narrative appeals for divorce, not as a contest of the given marital ideology of Victorian moral code, but on the terms of rescuing the very site of the sanctified, Protestant domesticity: the marital home, from being defiled by bad marriages.14

The device of interiority allows one to follow Stephen’s inner musings as he wanders in the “chill rain, thinking and thinking, and brooding and brooding” (63).15 In a single train of thought, it connects and compares the ideal home that he pines for and the prison-like room that he is destined to call a home, due to the indissolubility of a marriage like his:

Better to have no home in which to lay his head, than to have a home and dread to go to it, through such a cause . . . He thought of the home he might at the moment have been seeking with pleasure and pride; of the different man he might have been that night . . . He thought of the waste of the best part of his life . . . of the dreadful nature of his existence, bound hand and foot, to a dead woman, and tormented by a demon in her shape. (63)

The device of representing and tracking a character’s innermost thoughts, sparingly used to delineate the distress of Stephen, is elaborated into an extended representation of a repressed inner life, in the case of the Louisa. As Sambuddha Sen points out, her disastrous marriage to Bounderby, “arranged by her father on ‘the strong dispassionate ground of calculation and reason’ — intertwines, of course, with the novel’s criticism of the factory system to constitute its central nervous system” (xxii). Her early dislike for Bounderby and his imposition of his affection onto her is evident from the incident when she tries to rub the sensation of his kiss from her cheek, till Tom fears that she might “rub a hole” in her face (18). While indifference, underpinned by revulsion is the main mode through which Louisa deals with her marriage externally, a deeper understanding of her situation, a keen awareness of Bounderby’s shortcomings and a determined effort at not succumbing to the stultifying effects of her marriage are articulated through the inner life that she resolutely sustains. This is the aspect of her character that James Harthouse remarks upon when he first meets her:

In the drawing-room of which mansion, there presently entered to them the most remarkable girl Mr. James Harthouse had ever seen. She was so constrained, and yet so careless; so reserved, and yet so watchful; so cold and proud, and yet so sensitively ashamed of her husband's braggart humility — from which she shrunk as if every example of it were a cut or a blow; that it was quite a new sensation to observe her. In face she was no less remarkable than in manner. Her features were handsome; but their natural play was so locked up, that it seemed impossible to guess at their genuine expression. Utterly indifferent, perfectly self-reliant, never at a loss, and yet never at her ease, with her figure in company with them there, and her mind apparently quite alone — it was of no use 'going in' yet awhile to comprehend this girl, for she baffled all penetration (98).

Harthouse’s capacity to respond to this part of Louisa and her own response to his sensitivity seem to mark the beginnings of a compatible love relationship that might become an alternative to a disastrously incompatible marriage. As Sen points out, the novel links the disintegration of her marriage to its critique of the system of facts that is hardened against the intrusion of any emotion of fancy, through chapter titles like ‘sowing’, ‘reaping’ and ‘garnering’. Therefore, it would have been within the scheme of the novel’s indictment of such systems to extend its discussion of marital problems into the championing of a possible relation between Harthouse and Louisa. However, this is exactly the kind of alternative from which Dickens backtracks in both the marriages whose dysfunctionality he himself had so carefully outlined. The force of the social imperative, the very norm of Victorian domesticity whose demeaning effects he had so closely experienced in his own life, weighs upon him and determines the course of his representation of both the marriages.

The viability of the Louisa-Harthouse relationship is compromised in its nascence by the demonisation of the character of Harthouse. His response to her inner life is couched in a larger character stretch drawn across a history of wastefulness, disinterestedness, and morally condemnable irresponsibility. Louisa’s confession of her love for Harthouse, is only articulated after she has forsaken the relationship. As Sen points out, the “Victorian consensus on sexual morality” which constitutes an extramarital relationship as a-social “necessitates a complex novelistic maneuver by which the Victorian reader’s apprehension of Louisa’s elopement could be recontained in, and neutralized by his/her interest in the sensational plot that Mrs. Sparsit builds in anticipation of that event” (xxiv). Mrs. Sparsit, who pitches her stake in the Louisa Harthouse affair by aspiring to be promoted to the status of Bounderby’s mistress, peers through keyholes and spies on the lovers when she stays as a guest at the Bounderby residence. She imagines an allegory of Louisa’s fall form social grace, through the image of her descent from a dark, gothic staircase:

Now, Mrs. Sparsit was not a poetical woman; but she took an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. Much watching of Louisa, and much consequent observation of her impenetrable demeanour, which keenly whetted and sharpened Mrs. Sparsit's edge, must have given her as it were a lift, in the way of inspiration. She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming. [154]

The attention of the reader is therefore, carefully distracted from the transgressive potential of the Louisa- Harthouse relationship, which in itself is neutralized. The moral force of the marital norm, which finally makes the relationship unsustainable, takes on the force of an incriminating conscience in the case of Stephen. The Stephen-Rachael relationship, which holds the promise of the ideal Victorian marriage, would have transgressed the sexual norms of respectability. Stephen’s desire for separation from his wife, which had been so sensitivity articulated, and which has such deep resonance with Dickens’ own condition at this very point of time, is distended into what Sen calls “an allegory of crime and punishment” in the course of a “long troubled dream”(Sen, xxii):

He thought that he, and some one on whom his heart had long been set — but she was not Rachael, and that surprised him, even in the midst of his imaginary happiness — stood in the church being married. While the ceremony was performing, and while he recognized among the witnesses some whom he knew to be living, and many whom he knew to be dead, darkness came on, succeeded by the shining of a tremendous light. It broke from one line in the table of commandments at the altar, and illuminated the building with the words. They were sounded through the church, too, as if there were voices in the fiery letters. Upon this, the whole appearance before him and around him changed, and nothing was left as it had been, but himself and the clergyman. They stood in the daylight before a crowd so vast, that if all the people in the world could have been brought together into one space, they could not have looked, he thought, more numerous; and they all abhorred him, and there was not one pitying or friendly eye among the millions that were fastened on his face. He stood on a raised stage, under his own loom; and, looking up at the shape the loom took, and hearing the burial service distinctly read, he knew that he was there to suffer death. In an instant what he stood on fell below him, and he was gone. [67]

The desire for separation is transformed into an intention to murder, and the case for freedom, which he had so convincingly fought for in his discussion with Bounderby, is dealt with death penalty, in the tribunal of his innermost and subconscious mind. At the formal level, the code penetrates, not only Stephen’s conscience, but also the ideology of the novel, and has the final word in the direction of the plot’s resolution of bad marriages. In that, it sustains active tension between the novel’s sympathy for and phobia of relations that do not subscribe to the norm of Victorian domesticity.

Before moving on to Caroline Norton, I must make a more explicit statement of the gender politics implicit in the moral code of Victorian domesticity and its influence on the concept of divorce. In the first instance, this would allow one to reflect upon the politics of the code which forestalled any form of divorce that did not fit the model of remedying a marital offence (like adultery). Such a grasp of the assumptions that underlay the code, would facilitate my enquiries into the highly wrought negotiations that Caroline Norton makes with the terms of the code in her pamphlets and her novels.

The ideal of blissful domesticity, where the doors of the home (within which the women are confined) are bolted against the mercenary and aggressive politics of the outside world (into which the man ventures to fend for its inhabitants), is authenticated by a fundamental assumption about the dispositions of men and women. It derives its force from the idea that the natures of men and women can be essentialised into a binary framework which can be traced back to, and explained by their biological, genital difference.16 One aspect of this assumption, the idea that men deserve public legal rights, while women need only “protection” under the eye of the law, relies upon the separation of the realm of the home from the busy traffic of the outside world. The feasibility of this idea of demarcation depends upon the idea that women are by nature, unsuited for (and non desirous of) the management of monetary resources and administrative, public politics. Another aspect of this assumption is the economic feature of the marriage doctrine, which denied married women the right to hold property of their own, and be separate legal subjects. Both these aspects relied upon the association of each sex with a highly specific set of features. As Poovey says,

In nineteenth-century Britain, the fundamental criterion of subject status — the individual's capacity to recognize and act upon his own interests — was underwritten by another capacity, the ability to possess himself. . . . This amounted to every individual male being constituted as a divided subject. This internal division was the basis for the "free" exchange of labor and therefore the production of surplus value, but it was also the basis for the alienation every man experienced in the market economy. What is important here is the role that gender played in making this structural alienation tolerable. For the (spurious) opposition between property owners (men) and representatives of property (women and children) was legitimated and explained by what seemed to be its biological basis. Female nature, which was theoretically determined by maternal instinct, was supposedly noncompetitive, nonaggressive, and self-sacrificing (that is, internally consistent and not alienated); as such, it was the perfect complement to the competitive, aggressive, acquisitive nature of man. [477]

The divorce laws of the early nineteenth century kept these assumptions so pivotal to the Protestant marriage doctrine intact by allowing the husband to end the marriage contract when the incidence of adultery threatened the idea of the woman’s innate need to remain with her husband. It is thereby crucial to understand that the demand for greater gender parity in divorce laws, and the call for property rights of women, shared common ground in the threat that they posed to the logic of Victorian marriage. However, these demands were marked by several vacillations and compromises — an irresolution indicative of the effect the ideology of Victorian domesticity had on the very voices that fought for change. A representative example is the case of Caroline Norton.

Caroline Norton’s efforts at legal reform had already succeeded once in 1839, when she helped to bring into effect the Infant Custody Act.18 The immediate context of her efforts to remedy the legal position of women was a highly publicized court trial held in 1853.18 When the jury ruled in favour of George citing certain technicalities of the law, Caroline voiced her outrage at the legal position of married and separated women, initially in The Times and later in two pamphlets on divorce. In both the pamphlets, Caroline Norton's Defense: English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century19 (1854) and A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill20 (1855), she attacked the double standards that underlay the denial of a separate legal identity for women. Repeating the arguments that she makes in English Laws against the sexual double standards of Victorian marriages, she explains:

As her husband, he has a right to all that is hers; as his wife, she has no right to anything that is his. As her husband, he may divorce her (if truth or false swearing can do it); as his wife, the utmost "divorce" she could obtain, is permission to reside alone, — married to his name. The marriage ceremony is a civil bond for him, — and an indissoluble sacrament for her; and the rights of mutual property which that ceremony is ignorantly supposed to confer, are made absolute for him, and null for her. (A Letter 13)

Passages like the above reveal the injustice of not allowing all married women the right to hold property.21 Norton herself suffered the consequences of legal discrimination against women, since she had witnessed the extremely painful circumstance of being trapped in an incompatible marriage. Her biographer, Jane Parkins, records that it “seemed as if all the differences of the two opposing races and temperaments, the inherent misunderstanding of the Celt and the Saxon law between them, and held them apart from any real union” (14). She suffered not only mental discomfort and social disgrace but also physical abuse at the hands of her husband, which as Perkins says, had been “no easier to bear because the custom and spirit of the time offered no hope of any future escape from it” (15). In English Laws, she recounts incidents of her being burnt and manhandled by her husband, when she was pregnant with her youngest son (33).

Norton was equally familiar with the sexual double standards that placed exclusive onus on female chastity and fidelity. When George accused her of adultery in 1836, she had suffered the social opprobrium that a woman had to necessarily bear if a divorce case was pushed into action, since female adultery was the only means of obtaining permanent separation with the right to remarry.22 Norton uses her awareness of such a problem to argue for the need to allow women to defend themselves in court. In that, she asks for them to be recognized as subjects that can’t merely be traded between the supposed lover and the husband.23

However, the very ideology whose assumptions she exposes in her demand for legal change pervades her discourse, severely impeding the radical potential of her pamphlets. Distancing herself from women who demand gender parity in law, she says : “Petitioning does not imply assertion of equality. The wild and stupid theories advanced by a few women, of "equal rights" and "equal intelligence" are not the opinions of their sex. I, for one (I, with millions more), believe in the natural superiority of man, as I do in the existence of a God” (166). She accepts the idea of the essential difference between the sexes, admitting that women can and should ask only to be protected within the sphere of the home, only to continue to live as selfless beings: “Women have one right (perhaps only that one). They have a right — founded on nature, equity, and religion — to the protection of man. Power is on the side of men — power of body, power of mind, power of position. With that power should come, not only the fact, but the instinct of protection” (English Laws, 167). In a crucial passage that manifests the charge of the ideology, Norton is careful to state that she upholds the ideal of Victorian domesticity, and its underpinned logic, and that her demands are limited to the cases wherein the separated woman’s right to “protection” is being violated:

Now, that married persons should be One, in the holy and blessed bond which unites them under a common roof, with common interests, and in the common position of protection on the one side, and affection and womanly allegiance on the other — is just, fit, and natural; consistent with social order and religious belief. But that married persons should be still considered One, without the possibility of interference on the part of justice, when living alienated and in a state of separation — is unjust, unfit, and unnatural . . . . In the first and more happy position, of things, the husband is the administrator and exponent of the law, for he stands in his natural capacity of protector of his wife. . . . In the other miserable position, he stands in the natural capacity of oppressor of his wife. . . . he is no longer the administrator and exponent of the law, but its direct opponent; (for the intention of the law certainly is, that the woman shall be protected; and that he shall be her protector). [English Laws 162]

This passage leaves intact and accepts as “fit” the economic dependence and legal nonexistence of women within “happy marriages”, thereby foreclosing the idea of equitable marriages: a concept which was available in Norton’s own time, though supported only by a minority.24 The success of Norton’s efforts at gaining economic autonomy for separated women does not signal a radical overhaul of the domestic ideology but a conciliatory admission of reform by the Parliament, which carefully ensured the persistence of sexual double standards in all marriages that were not estranged by a legal deal.25

However, the very act of writing, the persona she assumes and the ways that she transforms certain dominant literary tropes of the nineteenth century in order to voice her pleas for “protection”, generate an active critique of the gender binaries that were the cornerstones of the Victorian domestic ideal. Both the pamphlets mark the emergence of Norton from the role of a wronged, silent, and enduring wife into the role of a public commentator on the legal and political issue of divorce and property rights. In English Laws, she traces in minute detail the process by which she assumes the role of the public defender of her rights. This act of self affirmation disproves the very idea that women are essentially domestic and self denying. Secondly, as Poovey notes, the culminating point in her relation of her necessary transformation is her account of how she was “unsexed” in the law court, by the response of her husband, and how she consequently adopted the role of the valiant, public defender. She says, “I felt, as I looked for an instant towards him, that he saw in me neither a woman to be spared public insult, nor a mother to be spared shameful sorrow-but simply a claimant to be non-suited; a creditor to be evaded; a pecuniary incumbrance he was determined to be rid of”(82). In the course of the cross examination, she is dogged by confusion and incoherence, her sentences become “a confused alternation of angry loudness, and husky attempts to speak” and she sees nothing but “the husband of whose mercenary nature Lord Melbourne himself had warned me I judged too leniently; nothing but the Gnome, — proceeding again to dig away, for the sake of money, what remnant of peace, happiness, and reputation, might have rested on the future years of my life”(87).

It is only when she characterizes George as a gnome that she starts making her arguments connectedly and coherently. The relation of how she responds to being thrust into public light by her husband, not only employs the trope of interiority, (which was often employed and highly developed in the novels of the nineteenth century) but it also effects a subtle improvisation in a dominant literary trope of her time to make herself emerge in the role of the active defender of her honor. As Mary Poovey points out,

The roles in the melodramatic script were as conventional as its underlying values. The trio of an innocent lady-in-distress, a gnomelike villain, and a selfless defender appears repeatedly in both stage melodramas and in Norton's pamphlet . . . .But if George is the villain here, and Caroline is the lady-in-distress, who, now that Melbourne is dead, is to be the lady's defender? In the current, lamentable state of society, there is no one to play that role but Caroline Norton herself. [471]

Norton uses the persona of the defender, to rhetorically nullify the validity of the earlier legal vindication of George in the 1838 trial, made on the basis of the “skill of his Tory lawyer's suggestion to a Tory judge” (136). The evidence used by Norton rhetorically to override the judgment of Lord Abinger and to command him to be “known” includes certain letters written by George between 1836 and 1841, when he was trying to convince her to agree to reconciliation. However, the citing of this evidence reveals that the ‘domestic’ quarrels of the Norton household had a serious political dimension, and directly implicated players in the Parliament.26

She attributes George’s victory in the earlier case to a deep political intrigue, in which she sees a Tory plot to ensure that George’s character was not besmirched by accepting any witness to the contrary. When she had wanted to vindicate herself by publishing her own perspective on the case, she had been restrained by Lord Melbourne who was then the Prime Minister, and feared the cost that a public scandal might exact from his political career. And in exposing this history, she demolishes, almost unwittingly, the very binaries that are integral to her limited demands. As Poovey notes, “Norton's melodramatic usurpation of the defender's role, her revelation of the role politics and money had played in her domestic woes, and her entry into political discourse had already collapsed the very differences she wanted to support” (473). In referring to her role in providing economic sustenance to the family,27 in citing the details of the case against adultery which had strong political overtones,28 and in writing a political pamphlet through a mode that was deeply personal and autobiographical, she poses a fundamental challenge to “the Victorian ideology of the two spheres — the one the warm, domestic world of women, represented by the wife at the fireside, and the other the harsh outside world of men, struggling daily in the market place under the banners of economic competition and possessive individualism” (Stone, 375). The boundary between the home and the world, which she envisions as lending much needed protection to the female sex, is shown to be only an interface between spaces saturated with the politics of power and money. The ideological norm of domesticity, which stands actively contested in her pamphlets, is naturalized by a consistent and relentless avowal of its values in her novel, The Wife and Woman’s Reward, published in 1835.

The novel’s heroine, Mary Dupre, is gradually propelled into a position of centrality, by the force of her moral principles. This morality consists of qualities that the ideology of Victorian marriages constituted as being ‘natural’ and desirable to women: submission, obedience and self-sacrifice. She is brought into relief by the occasional or constant failure of other characters to stand by this code of conduct. The deviation of the majority of the characters from the norm, is not developed to question the preconception of it being inherent to female nature, but is narrated as a regrettable trait, and as understandably leading to disastrous consequences in the personal lives of those characters. Most of the moral judgments are made, not by Mary, (who is represented as being too accommodative to critique anyone) but by characters who have themselves deviated in the past, or by the omniscient narrator. Old Mrs Boulton reviews her own days of public popularity and pronounces that “the less brilliant a woman's qualities and talents are, the better for her peace of mind and respectability through life” (Volume 1, 150). She looks back with bitter regret on the moral culpability of her own actions as a woman who charmed society by her wit, a quality which now appears to her, with the advantage of hindsight, as requiring “ merely, high spirits, a desire to shine, and a moderate share of intellect in its possessor” (Volume 1, 153).

Unlike the pamphlets, the novel employs a naturalizing mode to pronounce the truth of the essential superiority of men and the protection of women as being necessary to a happy and desirable household:

One of the most simple associations in the mind of a man who loves, is that of being strong to defend and protect the loved one. He feels instinctively that she is indeed the “weaker vessel;” and the woman who carries into her home the consciousness (real or fancied) of her superiority, carries with her a poison which will embitter the cup for life. [339]

Within this scheme of affairs, it becomes crucial for women to ensure that their activities within the home do not take on the colour of monetary concerns. Even their effort at domestic savings, in trying to “bake their husband's bread, or mend their husband's coat, by way of economy”, are dismissed as impractical, and as leading only to reproach “by the very man for whom all this economical discomfort was incurred” (212). Marrying a man who can ensure that the wife remains “protected” from monetary concerns, is a prerequisite of the domestic ideal held up for emulation.

The novel firmly reinstates a binary opposition between the public and the private world, which appears in the different spaces inhabited by Mary and the men in her life. Whereas Mary, who remains confined to the home, takes no stand on political issues, her brother Lionel and her lover William Clavering, engage in long and often aggressive debates as antagonists in the Parliament. The binary opposition of the two worlds seems to become blurred when Lionel’s hatred of Clavering makes him exact from Mary a promise to not marry him. However, this crucial point of imbalance is attributed strictly to Lionel’s immaturity and contrasted to Clavering’s willingness to separate the two realms and treat Lionel with all the affection due to a brother in the privacy of their home. Moreover, the novel emphasises that this boundary is indispensable for the state of a happy marriage.

As a representative of ideal womanhood, Mary is not allowed to have any desires or demands whatsoever. There is a moment in the novel when it seems to question women's supposed lack of public ambition. Saying that women can only love men and that lack “by nature” the capacity to stand by abstract ideas like patriotism, he asserts, “as much idea of public ambition as my Neapolitan greyhound” (Volume 2, 99). Mary contests this idea by citing examples of public ambition in Roman and Spartan women and the commendable religious and charitable efforts of Madame de Maintenon. She argues that the decline in political ambition of women owes itself to the decline in the ethical principles of the men who influence women, and that men have as much a love for popularity as women. In that, the notion of essential, ‘natural’ differences between the sexes seems to get challenged. However, this entire argument is overwhelmed by Mary’s sisterly patience with Lionel’s ideas and by Clavering’s efforts at remedying the tense situation by stating that “arguing with a brother never succeeds with any woman” (volume 2, 102). Mary’s voice is thus silenced and Clavering and Lionel carry on the rest of the debate (something which the framework of the novel makes seem natural and befitting their gender).

Even Mary’s love for Clavering becomes taboo, when it is opposed by her brother. Moral sanction of any female desire is made into the prerogative of the man in the house. When her desire for Clavering creeps into her subconscious mind in the form of a dream, it turns into a nightmarish spectacle of murder and guilt for not attending to her duties as the woman of the house:

She fell asleep and dreamed: dreamed that by some strange concatenation of circumstances, her brother was condemned to be beheaded; but that after days of agony, the king had entrusted her with his signet in token of pardon, and bid her hasten with it to the place of execution. As she advanced through the crowd, she beheld Clavering, and paused to gaze on him. That pause, though but of a minute's duration, sealed the fate of young Lionel, and she woke with a start and exclamation, fancying she held the signet ring high in the air in vain, that the headsman's stroke had just severed those auburn curls from the white neck, and that the long black lashes were sinking over the eye whose glance had been so full of fire. (Volume 1, 145)

As noted above, Norton herself had suffered the slanderous consequences of a divorce trial. In her pamphlets, this painful experience translates not into an advocacy against divorce, but a plea for women’s access to it on the same terms as men. However, in her novel, she rewrites the dominant suspicion of female sexuality into her novel by making seduction by a lover the only alternative to a bad marriage. Lionel’s wife Clarice, who is physically abused by Lionel, and who feels she is trapped in a marriage that she cannot endure any longer, is seen to elope with her lover, “seducer Sopsy” (Volume 2, 250). In the tale appended to the third part of the novel, called “The Wife”, the responsibility for Susan’s attraction (the central character) to a man outside of her marriage is checked in time, before her marriage is ruined. She is made to realize that she was led onto an erroneous path by a false lover and a treacherous friend, from whose company she proceeds to resolutely remove herself.

As Nancy Armstrong has argued, the domestic ideology of the monogamous, Protestant marriage pervades the novelistic universe of nineteenth-century Britain.29 Aided by the effects of Realism, this situation has often occasioned the naïve assumption that all Victorians were driven by this belief. However, as several historians and social scientists have pointed out, such was hardly the case. The norm was played out, thwarted, and muted by several individuals who experienced it as highly inadequate and constrictive. However, there is a deeper lesson to be learnt from the above error. Literary criticism must refrain from assuming an unmediated relation between an age and is texts, even as it recognizes that they are produced by the conditions of the age. While the radical opinion evoked by the discussion of divorce laws in Parliament did inform the way in which the divorce question was articulated in the novel, their terms and conditions were transformed by the demands of the novel as a form of public discourse. As I have tried to delineate in the course of my essay, the British novel was riven between its formal capacity to articulate the problem of divorce and its ideological commitment to the marriage ideology. Considering that the domestic ideal has practically no moral charge in novels outside Britain, such as those of nineteenth-century France, there is a need to probe the question of how the dominant ideological norm of nineteenth-century Britain coopts the form of the novel, making it serve as one of the most effective carriers of its message.

Last modified 11 April 2010