Re-familiarizing Victorian Marriage

Re-familiarizing Victorian Marriage

Talia Schaffer

Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 15, No 2 (2010)


This article will define the familiar marriage model, discuss its historical evolution, and explore its presence in Victorian fiction. What I want to suggest here is that the central plot of the Victorian novel, the marriage plot, is about love only inasmuch as love is a problem. As Victorian novels obsessively rehearse the clash between romantic and familiar marriage, we see a culture struggling to come to terms with the event that defined its subjects’ – above all, its female subjects’ – lives.

In Jane Eyre (1847), Jane hears a particularly memorable proposal from her cousin St John Rivers:

God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service. (428)

As we might expect, St John’s “claim” repels Jane. The cousins do agree that they feel familiar affection for one another. However, for Jane, this sibling relation means they ought not to wed. “You have hitherto been my adopted brother – I, your adopted sister: let us continue as such: you and I had better not marry,” she warns (430). For St John, however, their adoptive fraternity necessitates marriage. “We must be married – I repeat it: there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes” (433). Jane tries to explain that she does not harbor romantic love for St John. Rather, she feels what she calls, “only a comrade’s constancy: a fellow-soldier’s frankness, fidelity, fraternity if you like; a neophyte’s respect and submission to his hierophant.” Unfortunately, the emotions Jane has listed are exactly what her cousin was hoping for. “‘It is what I want,’ he said, speaking to himself; ‘it is just what I want.’” (433).

What has happened in that exchange? How could the words that Jane thinks rule out marriage, be precisely the terms that St John thinks qualify her for marriage?

Click here to read this article from the Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies

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