Dickens and the Rise of Divorce

The Failed-Marriage Plot and the Novel Tradition

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  • Kelly Hager, Simmons College, USA
  • Questioning a literary history that, since Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel, has privileged the courtship plot, Kelly Hager proposes an equally powerful but overlooked narrative focusing on the failed marriage. Hager maps the legal history of marriage and divorce, providing crucial background as she reveals the prevalence of the failed-marriage plot in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels. Dickens's novels emerge as representative case studies in their preoccupations with the disintegration of marriage, the far-reaching and disastrous effects of the doctrine of coverture, and the comic, spectacular, and monstrous possibilities afforded by the failed-marriage plot. Setting his narratives alongside the writings of liberal reformers like John Stuart Mill and the seemingly conservative agendas of Caroline Norton, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Sarah Stickney Ellis, Hager also offers a more contextualized account of the competing strands of the Woman Question. In the course of her revisionist readings of Dickens's novels, Hager uncovers a Dickens who is neither the conservative agent of the patriarchy nor a novelistic Jeremy Bentham, and reveals that tipping the marriage plot on its head forces us to adjust our understanding of the complexities of Victorian proto-feminism.
  • Contents: Introduction; Contextualizing the failed-marriage plot: Ian Watt, the domestic novel, and the law of marriage; Monstrous marriage in early Dickens; Making a spectacle of yourself, or, marriage as melodrama in Dombey and Son; Estranging David Copperfield; Hard Times and the indictment of marriage; How to read the failed-marriage plot: 'leave sunny imaginations hope'?; Bibliography; Index.
  • About the Author: Kelly Hager is Associate Professor of English and Women's & Gender Studies at Simmons College, USA.
  • Reviews: 'Kelly Hager's wonderful new book questions English novel theory, which since Ian Watt has focused upon the courtship plot. Hager suggests another equally powerful framing of the English novel: failed-marriage plots or novels of "marital discontents". Although the chapters on Dickens are splendid in their careful close readings of the novels, Hager's original, well-researched, and beautifully written work compels us to reconsider not only Dickens's work, but also the entire canon of the English novel.'
    Deborah Denenholz Morse, Professor of English, The College of William and Mary, USA

    'What's best about this book is not only the way it calls to mind scenes of lurid domestic discontent more frequent and more suggestive than any reader is likely to remember. More than this, its subtle sense of literary negotiation goes far toward explaining just why we forget them-or just how it is that we assimilate them (uncannily, melodramatically) without letting them altogether sidetrack the monorail of marital closure.'
    Garrett Stewart, James O. Freedman Professor of Letters, The University of Iowa, USA

    ‘This provocative book is worthy because it challenges the reader to reexamine ideas about Dickens and the Victorian novel in general. Highly recommended.’

    '... a fresh look at familiar material...'
    Dickens Quarterly

    'An outstandingly engaging study, Dickens and the Rise of Divorce presents a sequence of fascinating re-readings of broken marriages in Dickens's fiction. Hager's analyses are astute and supported by the most attentive textual analysis, in which she examines even the most fleeting of references. Dickens and the Rise of Divorce is an important work that will change our understanding of Dickens and the family.'
    Review of English Studies

    '... scholars of both Victorian fiction and the history of marriage will profit from consulting Dickens and the Rise of Divorce. Even seasoned Dickens experts will be surprised and delighted by the details Hager's excellent study brings to light and compelled by her reassessment to encounter Dickens - from his minor characters to his major plots - afresh.'
    Journal of British Studies

    '... the main achievement of this book is its richly detailed readings of the significance of failed marriages in Dickens's early and mid-career fiction. ... these richly detailed and historically contextualised close readings stand on their own merits as an original contribution to our understanding of Dickens's novels.'
    New Books on Literature 19

    'Dickens and the Rise of Divorce puts the “vexing” institution of marriage before the reader in all of its messy complexity. In fresh and lively analyses, Hager demonstrates that the Victorians at once applauded and upheld marriage and critiqued and decried it. These tensions get translated into the novels ways that are considerably more complicated and troubled than resort to the courtship plot model allows. While Hager focuses primarily on only one novelist, her book should generate new analyses of both the failed-marriage plot and the novel tradition.'
    Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies