Reader, I married him: How Romantic were Victorian marriages?


​​​Valentine's Day largely appears to be an exercise in marketing: ads online and offline prompting us to prove our love and devotion and buy anything from ready meals to teddy bears, flowers and romantic cards. Of course, this trend is nothing completely new: in the Victorian period, Valentines flourished and were popular for the sincere expression of emotion as well as satire and ridicule. 

Viewers of the BBCs 2008 adaptation of Cranford will remember how a forged Valentine, sent to the widowed landlady of Frank Harrison, the new doctor, leads her to suppose herself engaged to him – ruining his reputation and his chances with the vicar's daughter. But while the viewer laughs at her misinterpretations, Gaskell's Miss Rose is certainly not the only woman to expect a Valentine to be the first step towards marriage: given the ubiquity of courtship plots and marriages in Victorian novels, she should be forgiven for figuring herself the heroine of this romance. 

Among the most iconic quotes from the era is Jane Eyre's confession that "Reader, I married him", while Dickens' novels propagate romantic notions of domesticity: the Meagles, Micawbers and Bagnets provide a background of marital happiness in less than ideal circumstances to the courtship of Little Dorrit, David Copperfield and Esther (of Bleak House). However, not all Victorian writers were such unabashed supporters of marriage:  there are many novels in which marriages go wrong, and others in which they little more than a perfunctory ending demanded by the plot.

Marriage as Profession: the sensation novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Among the more radical examples of such a shift in attitude are the sensation novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon: her heroines range from outright destroyers of marital harmony to disillusioned girls who marry a provider. Her most famous novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1862), begins by questioning the feasibility of love in cottage: Helen Talboys is deserted by her husband (with the best intentions, of course – he merely wants to make his fortune in Australia). Braddon's novel highlights the fact that marriage means little more than having an income when there are few other professions open to women: after working as a governess for several years, Helen, now known as Lucy Graham, marries her aristocratic employer and becomes Lady Audley. When her first husband returns, she attempts to kill him by pushing him into a well – attempted murder to cover up her bigamy, or well deserved revenge for desertion? Lady Audley ends her days in an asylum, but the cultural impact of her character was immense: she provided a nightmare version of marriage to a young, childlike blond angel so popular in other novels.

In other works, Braddon questions marriage more subtly. The Doctor's Wife (1864), inspired by Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), is a female bildungsroman: Isabel Sleaford's life as governess seems intolerably boring to her, and her dreams of running away to become an actress unlikely even to her. Braddon draws on the discourse surrounding female reading to suggest that it is novels and poetry which have corrupted Isabel's mind with unrealistic expectations. When the utterly prosaic country doctor George Gilbert proposes, Isabel accepts: the novelty of the situation momentarily adds romance to her life, and anything seems better than being a governess. Unsurprisingly, the marriage is a disaster: Isabel escapes into a world of fiction and her disinterest for her husband turns into almost-adultery with the aristocratic poet Roland Lansdell. Braddon, however, condemns both parties in this marriage: neither shows enough interest in their partner, both fail to make an effort to connect and build a life together; and she blames Gilbert for his superficiality in such serious matters:

But then, if a man chooses to marry a girl because her eyes are black and large and beautiful, he must be contented with the supreme advantage he derives from the special attribute for which he has chosen her: and so long as she does not become a victim to cataract, or aggravated inflammation of the eyelids, or chronic ophthalmia, he has no right to complain of his bargain. If he selects his wife from amongst other women because she is true-hearted and high-minded and trustworthy, he has ample right to be angry with her whenever she ceases to be any one of these things. [1]

Ultimately, Braddon grants Isabel the character growth which Flaubert denied Emma Bovary: she loses husband and lover through a series of dramatic accidents, but inherits Lansdell's estate and fortune. Liberated from men's claims upon her, and with a serious library and travel to educate her, Isabel turns into a wise philanthropist: Braddon is evidently confident that women can find fulfilment on their own, and her early novels confidently reject marriage as a profession.

Marriage as Inevitability: Margaret Oliphant's domestic novels

A slightly different approach was pursued by Margaret Oliphant: where Braddon stands for sensation, crime and exposure of the middle class's secrets, Oliphant opted for the more mundane genre of the domestic novel. Focussing on the coming of age of a young girl, courtship and the choice of the right suitor from a range of potential options tend to be at the centre of the narrative. Many of Oliphant's over ninety novels conform to this trend, but some feature a resolution which is little more than a nod to narrative conventions.

Thus, in Oliphant's arguably best known novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), the heroine Lucilla pragmatically decides to put off romance and marriage for ten years until "I shall be going off a little" [2]. The novel is driven by the force of Lucilla's character and her impact on the small town society of Carlingford, and does not naturally develop towards a marriage resolution. At the end of Lucilla's ten years' pause, her father's death and loss of fortune seem to point her to a new adventure: surviving as a single woman, or pragmatic marriage to the local MP. Instead, Oliphant resolves the novel with a deus ex machina: Lucilla's cousin Tom conveniently returns from India with a fortune and in need of a wife, and installs Lucilla as the new mistress of Marchbank manor. "After all, I shall never be anything but Lucilla Marjoribanks" reflects Lucilla [3], allowing this ending to be interpreted in two contrasting ways: did Oliphant want to reassure her readers that Lucilla is inalterably herself and marriage will not change her? Or does it point to a fundamental sense of stagnation in women's lives, with the realization that there is no career, public vocation or wider sphere to which Lucilla could direct her enormous energy?

In contrast, Phoebe Beecham of the novel Phoebe, Junior (1876) not only accepts the inevitability of marriage as a career, she consciously makes the most of it. She is another of Oliphant's self-reliant heroines and confidently navigates women's duties, which take her from London society to her grandparent's household in Carlingford. Phoebe is torn between her genuine romantic affection for Reginald May, intelligent and penniless, and the tellingly named Clarence Copperhead, stupid but rich. While many novels would have Phoebe be true to her heart, Oliphant has her go with her head: Phoebe chooses Clarence, who relies on her and needs her to manage his life and career; in return, Phoebe gets a wider sphere of influence, and the satisfaction of knowing that his parliamentary speeches are really hers.

​But where Phoebe and Lucilla marry largely to provide a conventional ending for the narrative, Oliphant goes a step further in the novel Hester (1883): Hester is the daughter of a fraudulent bank director who almost ruined an entire town; and is now living on the charity of her aunt Catherine who singlehandedly saved the institution from ruin. As Hester learns about her past and, in true domestic novel fashion, is presented with three different suitors, history repeats itself, and her cousin Edward, one of her suitors, flees the country after ruining the bank by speculation. Oliphant cursorily wraps up the courtship plot with little more than a nod to conventions: Hester, although ambitious and willing, is denied her aunt's career in banking. "And as for Hester, all that can be said for her is that there are two men whom she may choose between, and marry either if she pleases – good men both, who will never wring her heart. … What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice?" What indeed, other than the freedom to pursue a career that is not marriage?

[1] Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. The Doctor's Wife. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. P. 160.

[2] Oliphant, Margaret. Miss Marjoribanks. London: Penguin, 1998. P. 48.

[3] Ibid, p. 496.

Image: "May our affections ripen into joy, And disappointments ne'er our hopes destroy" (hand coloured wood engraving, ca. 1860s), via the Victoria and Albert Museum.

​Anne Reus is was a PhD student at Leeds Trinity. Her thesis examines the representation of Victorian women writers in Virginia Woolf's essays. She edited a volume of selected papers from the 26th international conference on Virginia Woolf and Heritage with Jane de Gay and Tom Breckin, as well as organizing a conference on Water in the Long Nineteenth Century for the NNCN.