A (non-academic) review of The Marriage Question by Clare Carlisle

The Marriage Question by Clare Carlisle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not an academic review, although some of my thoughts are influenced by my PhD research on divorce law reform in the nineteenth century.

This is a wonderfully entertaining, well-written, and thoroughly researched book exploring the issue of marriage as it impacted on the life and works of George Eliot. For those knowing little of Eliot’s romantic life, and the fact that she had the temerity to challenge norms of Victorian respectability by choosing to live with a man who was married to another woman, thereby subverting and challenging expected social norms of how a woman was to behave, much biographical information is provided.

Carlisle spends a lot of time considering the marriage question – and the philosophical thoughts and arguments underpinned what a marriage was – in the context of the life of a woman who was herself very much concerned with question. There is no doubt that Eliot was an extraordinarily intelligent woman, her drive and ambition leading her to undertake work as a translator, editor, and contributor to publications such as the Westminster Review and the Leader. The author links this work, particularly her translation of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity to Eliot’s life choices and her elopement with the married George Henry Lewes. She then explores Eliot’s thinking on marriage, and the marital relationship, within her work as an emerging – and then renowned – novelist.

Frontispiece illustration for the Victorian novel “Scenes of Clerical Life” by George Eliot

I did have a few thoughts on some of the more academic issues, for example, Carlisle somewhat glosses over the development of English marriage law (see p. 59), and what makes a legal marriage, two things that were of vital importance of Eliot’s own conception of marriage and why she was able to make a decision to live with a married man that accorded with this conception of marriage. And I did laugh to see Wilkie Collins described as an ‘editor’ of Household Words (p. 63). There were no editors of that particular publication, only a conductor – one – and his name was Dickens.

It was the issues around Lewes’s inability to divorce his wife Agnes to enable him to marry Eliot that I was the most interested in. Carlisle provides an unusually good summary of divorce law reform (pp. 175-6) and what reforms to divorce law did – and didn’t – do. However, Lewes’s inaction (or inability) to divorce his wife, while in part may have been driven by a desire to protect his wife and children from inevitable scandal, would also have been difficult because of Lewes’s condonation of his wife’s affair. She also states (in the notes, not in the main body of the text) that prior to the 1857 Act that divorce was impossible for Lewes for financial reasons, citing the 1957 Woodhouse article. However, the recent work of Wolfram has gone some way to show that divorce was not as expensive as it was reputed to have been. In my view the two biggest obstacles to divorce for Lewes were firstly the desire to avoid scandal and potential social stigmatisation for all the parties involved, including Lewes’s children. Although divorce, in theory, became more accessible following the 1857 Divorce Act, the number of divorces remained statistically insignificant (Lawrence Stone points to this, as does Roderick Phillips) and remained subject to a high degree of public interest, scrutiny, and societal disapproval. The second issue which may have precluded divorce would have been the ‘condonation’ of Agnes’s affair. For such an important issue, I would have liked to have seen this fleshed out more in the book, rather than hidden away in the notes, which I think insufficient in a book with purports to examine the marriage question, especially when the book postulates that Eliot’s conception of marriage was an intrinsic component of her philosophical viewpoint, which spilled over into her literature (p. 330).

On that note, condonation (remissio injuriæ) means forgiveness and reconciliation, and where the marital injury is deliberately and knowingly condoned by the party injured there is no alternative but to dismiss a petition for divorce. However, as nineteenth-century barrister Macqueen notes, the issue of condonation is one that is very difficult to deal with judicially, and is considered a question of fact, not of law. It would have been interesting for Carlisle to have considered in more depth (and certainly not in a note) why Lewes chose not to test this issue in a court. He seemed to have asked a lot of Eliot – for her to sacrifice her standing in society, to alienate herself from her family, to challenge her friendships – in order for her to live with him as his ‘wife’, while he seemed unprepared to expose himself to the same degree of public censure by allowing his marriage, and his condonation of Agnes’s affair, to be tested judicially.

All of the technical legal points aside, this book is a really interesting account of the life of Eliot and the way in which she wrestled with marriage. I definitely recommend it for those with any interest in Eliot’s life and literature.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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