Kelly Hager's title and subtitle point towards two different books: the first is the fascinating and illuminating study of Dickens's representation of failed marriages that she has begun to write in chapters two to five. The second, which she gestures towards in her opening chapter, is a revisionist literary history that would place the failed-marriage plot rather than the courtship plot at the center of the novel tradition. Such a study would involve a wide range of eighteenth and nineteenth-century writers. But Hager's opening chapter merely sketches in the contours of this second book. Tracing the surprising persistence of Ian Watt's thesis about the dominance of the courtship plot in the realist novel (as outlined in The Rise of The Novel, 1957) in the work of critics as different from Watt as Mary Poovey, D.A. Miller, and Nancy Armstrong, Hager offers a counter-narrative: rather than simply using marriage as a conventional device of fictional closure, she argues, the nineteenth-century novel chiefly explores the territory beyond the "door-sill of marriage" (as George Eliot puts it in Chapter 20 of Middlemarch). Although this counter-narrative is perhaps not as novel as Hager claims, her brief discussions of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, and Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda are an effective and timely reminder of its importance and will stimulate further work in this area.
However, 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. Of course, Dickens's cover as the idealizer of hearth and home has long been blown. As Catherine Waters (among others) has pointed out, his novels are full of "fractured families" which are "made memorable by their grotesque failure to exemplify the domestic ideal" (Dickens and the Politics of the Family, 1997, 37 and 27). But this important new study shines fresh light on Dickens's portrayal of marriage. Reading some of his early and mid-career novels alongside legislative changes such as the 1836 Marriage Act and the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act (or Divorce Act), as well as the fiction and polemical writings of Caroline Norton (one of the most famous victims of and campaigners against the unreformed marriage and divorce laws), articles on marriage and divorce in his own journal Household Words, and what he wrote about his own separation from his wife in the late 1850s, Hager shows how contemporary debates about marriage and divorce permeated Dickens's writings from the outset, pre-dating his own marital travails.
Hager begins with the monstrous, ill-matched marriages which serve, she argues, as a warning (to the central characters and readers alike) about the nature of matrimony and which also set in motion the plots of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Focusing on marriages that seem at first to be glossed over or mentioned only in passing while some other narrative event takes center stage, Hager's attentive and acute close readings certainly make us look at these early novels in a new way. Regarding Oliver Twist, for example, she persuasively argues that "the convoluted and elliptical way in which the novel is plotted" (59) invites readers to see that Oliver's illegitimacy, the circumstances of his birth, and his upbringing all spring not from his parents' failure to marry, but from the failure of marriage itself, exemplified by that of his own father Edwin Leeford, whose marriage was doomed to disaster because of family pride and ambition. More generally, the failure of this marriage is also used to indict the conventions and codification of marriage (represented by the 1753 Marriage Act), which allowed parents to force their children into loveless marriages and prevented those children from escaping from the bonds of matrimony.
Another failed mercenary marriage shapes the plot of Nicholas Nickleby. Indeed, Ralph Nickleby's concealed marriage, which cruelly warps his nature and shapes his treatment of Nicholas and Kate Nickleby, is just one of a series of failed mercenary marriages exhibited in this novel. Similarly, it is the wretched marriage of Nell's parents that propels the plot of The Old Curiosity Shop by distorting her grandfather's mind and behaviour, thus putting him at the mercy of Quilp. With some verve, Hager shows how this novel exhibits monstrous marriages such as Quilp's and idealized marriages such as the Garlands' as if they were in a freak show or a cabinet of curiosities. She clinches this point by citing the novel's references to Victorian Punch and Judy shows and the case of Jasper Packlemerton (one of the exhibits in Mrs Jarley's waxworks display), who tickled to death each of his fourteen wives.
Turning from popular exhibits to melodrama, Hager shows how Dickens used the latter in his portrayal of Edith Dombey, particularly her refusal to behave like the piece of property that a married woman is legally declared to be. For Hager, Dickens's depiction of Edith's situation is proto-feminist insofar it represents the plight of the Victorian wife in general. But David Copperfield takes a step further. While Dombey and Son treats adultery and divorce as mere possibilities -- roads either not taken by Edith or unavailable to her --Hager argues that they become central to David Copperfield, which first appeared complete in the same year (1850) as the formation of a Royal Commission on the state of marriage and divorce law. Indeed, the many plots of Dickens's most autobiographical novel are shaped, Hager contends, by a contemporary panic about divorce, evidenced in an easily overlooked reference to the divorce suit of Thomas Benjamin, which David observes during his period at Doctor's Commons. Divorce is everywhere: Betsey Trotwood is portrayed as a "bitter divorcée" (143); Mrs. Micawber frequently consults her marriage vows and protests (too much) that she will never desert her husband; and to release David from a marriage that she knows he regrets, Dora gives herself up to death. Insofar as it thus serves to reveal the woeful state of the law respecting women and marriage, Hager argues, this novel of divorce is feminist in its effects.
Hard Times also "puts divorce at the forefront of its concerns and exposes the social systems that make divorce so shameful, so expensive, and virtually impossible to obtain" (173). Hager reads Stephen Harthouse's story alongside the parliamentary debates on the first Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill, which were taking place as Dickens's novel was being written and published in 1854. Louisa Gradgrind's story, on the other hand, is read in the context of Eliza Lynn Linton's essays, "The Rights and Wrongs of Women" and "One of Our Legal Fictions," which appeared in Household Words alongside the weekly installments of Hard Times. But this novel, Hager argues, is more interested in Stephen's plight and in the divorce law's double standard of class than it is in exploring Louisa's right to a divorce. In Hager's opinion, the "false assumption" that the stories of Louisa and Stephen are analogous leads critics to extrapolate from the novel's ending a false moral "about marriage and the society it is supposed to shore up" (166). In fact, she argues, Hard Times-- like any novel that "questions the courtship model"--is profoundly skeptical of "marriage's ability to shore up society" and also of the idea that rupturing marriage threatens "the social structure" (166).
Hager uses the novels of Dickens as case studies of the failed-marriage plot: studies that help advance her claim for the centrality of this plot in Victorian fiction as a whole. "If," she contends, "we can find instances of the failed-marriage plot" in the novelist who "perhaps best embodies stereotypical notions of the age," then "we have fairly conclusive evidence that the failed-marriage plot is one of the Victorian novel's favourite stories" (23). Breaking free of their case study function, however, these richly detailed and historically contextualised close readings stand on their own merits as an original contribution to our understanding of Dickens's novels.
Lyn Pykett is Professor of English Emerita at Aberystwyth University, Wales.