"A Barrier of Dreams" or "The Possibility of Choice": Imagining Alternatives to the Marriage Plot in Victorian Novels

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0001-6291-1473
Newman, Rachel, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia

In Margaret Oliphant’s The Rector, there is a metafictional aside in which the narrator addresses the reader, remarking “have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? And is it not certain that, whether it may be to their advantage or disadvantage, every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody?” (The Rector, 22). This ironic moment not only challenges who holds the “pen with sufficient command of words,” but also at once reaffirms and undermines the socio-political system of Victorian womanhood and domestic marriage. It does so by calling into question the “advantage[s] or disadvantage[s]” of such “plot[s]” while simultaneously reminding the reader of their generic predictability within the Victorian marriage novel. Novelists like Margaret Oliphant and George Eliot strive to complicate this “incomprehensib[ility]” by writing heroines who rebel and submit in equal measure to Victorian social and narrative conventions and expectations. In Oliphant’s Hester, the heroine expresses a “want” for “something to do,” and this “want” of vocation or occupation beyond the boundaries of marriage is articulated throughout Oliphant’s novel and others written by female authors as an expression of their own discontent and restlessness with the socially and politically stipulated lot of the Victorian woman. Such a “want” or lack is expressed consistently by heroines throughout Victorian novels written by women, and it frequently clashes against societal expectations of marriage and domestic confinement prescribed for middle and upper-class Victorian women. The heroines I will focus on in Oliphant’s Hester and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede question the idea of what constitutes ‘respectable’ work for women whilst delaying marriage and attempting to write their own futures and possibilities in a unique avowal of female agency and rebellion. As such, these female narratives of dissatisfaction stand as a threat to the Victorian social and political framework. In this thesis, I intend to explore both the possibilities and lack thereof that women envision for themselves within these novels, and how they see themselves and their futures as both historically and socially rooted but also rife with nonconformist possibilities.

MA (Master of Arts)
Victorian female novelists
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