The Law and the Lady: Consent and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Heather Nelson, Purdue University


While many scholars have written on women and marriage in nineteenth-century British history and fiction, this dissertation, The Law and the Lady: Consent and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, is the first to apply consent theory to those unions. Modern consent theory dictates that for individuals to consent, they must be autonomous, capable, educated, mature, and volunteering, and they must express consent with opportunities to retract those expressions. This dissertation asserts that because nineteenth-century British women usually lacked these components, their marital consent was partial, illegitimate, or absent. Fiction frequently equivocated about this social problem of contemporary female marital consent. Conservative novelists trained female readers to accept their "consent" to marital patriarchy, but progressive novelists enabled readers to live vicariously through freer heroines, in order to provoke grassroots consent reform. Thus, contemporary scholars in cultural and psychological studies should more frequently question those women's behaviors and motivations. Surface and close readings of fiction primarily inform this dissertation, aided by feminist historicism, legal studies, political science, philosophy, nonfiction studies, and biography. After an opening theoretical and historical chapter on women, consent, and marriage, three chapters and three literary case studies in the body expose laws dictating female marital consent. When taken together in this trajectory, these chapters and literary case studies form a meta-narrative about a heroine's consent dilemmas throughout childhood and adulthood: 1) courtships and the social law of female modesty in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, 2) engagements, the social law of female acquiescence, actions for breach of promise of marriage, and marriage settlements in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, 3) weddings, Lord Hardwicke's Act, and the Marriage Act 1823 in Susannah Frances Reynolds's Gretna Green, 4) marriages and William Blackstone, Matthew Bacon, and Matthew Hales' legal theories of coverture and abuse in George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" and Daniel Deronda, George Egerton's "Virgin Soil," and John Galsworthy's The Man of Property and In Chancery, 5) separations and restitution of conjugal rights in Anthony Trollope's Phineas Fin n and Phineas Redux, and 6) divorces and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 in Ellen Price Wood's East Lynne, George Moore's A Mummer's Wife, and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.




Allen, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Womens studies|History|British and Irish literature

Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server