Marriage in women's short fiction

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Abstract

This chapter proposes that it was often short fiction that gave women writers greatest freedom to explore the marriage question. Throughout the nineteenth century female authors turned to the short story for reasons that were practical and financial as well as artistic. Often considered a less serious form than the novel, the short story was not subject to the same degree of policing from male editors or publishers, and was also less convention-bound. Current scholarship describes the short story as a form that is able to forego the logical requirements of narrative cause-and-effect; to work impressionistically by foregrounding image, feeling, and tone; to eschew conventional narrative closure in favour of ambiguous or unsettling endings. Women writers of the nineteenth century exploited these qualities to offer visions of married life that often differed radically from idealised representations, presenting marriage as a condition of entrapment, powerlessness, and alienation of self. The chapter considers how short fiction treating married relations evolved across the course of the century, making reference to narratives by Maria Edgeworth, Laetitia E. Landon, Rhoda Broughton, Charlotte Riddell, Margaret Oliphant, Rosa Mulholland, Edith Nesbit, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and George Egerton. It identifies recurring themes including: women’s status as commodities on the marriage market; economic powerlessness; sex and adultery; vulnerability to violence.

The breadth of this discussion is balanced by in-depth analysis of two narratives: Rhoda Broughton’s ‘The Man With the Nose’ (1872), and Margaret Oliphant’s ‘Story of a Wedding Tour’ (1894). Broughton’s story strikes a distinctly modern note, told as it is in the present tense by an unreliable male narrator and with its ambiguous ending. It is clear, however, that the story mounts a sustained critique of the marriage relation as one in which women are systematically infantilised and have their judgement overridden. Oliphant’s tale, more conventional in narrative form, nonetheless tells the exceedingly unconventional story of a new bride’s rejection of her marriage and flight from her husband, hinting heavily at something difficult to express even at the more liberated fin de siècle – a wife’s horror at her sexual subjection to her husband. Both these narratives of disenchantment and failure are stories of honeymoons. Where marriage conventionally brought closure to the full-length novel - as if with the fulfilment of the woman’s destiny through marriage there was nothing left to relate - it often fell to short fiction to tell what happened next.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFor Better, For Worse
Subtitle of host publicationMarriage in Victorian Novels by Women
EditorsCarolyn Lambert, Marion Shaw
Place of PublicationAbingdon, Oxon
PublisherRoutledge
Chapter13
Pages175-190
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9781138285644
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2017

Keywords

  • Victorian period
  • Victorian literature
  • short story
  • marriage
  • Margaret Oliphant
  • Rhoda Broughton
  • New Woman

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