1With its many contributions and disciplinary intersections (literature, art, history), this work edited by Stéphane Gougelmann and Anne Verjus manages to transform a nineteenth-century literary topic – marriage – into a research subject that offers considerable possibilities for analysis. The authors deftly demonstrate that throughout the nineteenth century the facts of “getting married” and “being married” were both social and moral issues for the protagonists (the spouses but also their respective families) and a continual source of rhetorical, stylistic and aesthetic inspiration for writers and artists. Drawing on a wide range of sources and perspectives, the book’s 25 articles show how literary and artistic handling of the theme of marriage changed over the nineteenth century, change that predictably reflects just how important this event and condition were in the society of the time. Proceeding chronologically, the work clarifies how the moral and political debates around marriage changed and the many ways writers drew on those debates. The book also works to deconstruct the idea that nineteenth-century representations of marriage were unequivocal and static. On the contrary, the conjugal norm seems to have declined in prestige over the century, in favour of individualism and a representation of marriage as a conflictual rather than harmonious relationship.
2Part I (“Forming the knots of marriage”) focuses on the first quarter of the century, discussing the effects of the French Revolution on representations of marriage and how it was portrayed in literature. As divorce was legal in France from 1792 to 1816, the number of divorce cases multiplied during that period, demonstrating literature’s ability to diffuse militant discourses that undermined marriage as an institution. Meanwhile, female sexual transgression (illegitimate births, the peril of adultery) was treated in the form of caricatures that reveal what the society was reluctant to see at a time when women’s conjugal status was very clearly defined. Codes and marriage manuals laid down the rules of the game, with a deliberately prescriptive objective in mind: it was important to give future spouses clear instructions for maintaining their happiness. Generally speaking, these writings reflect fully developed visions of marriage at just the time it was beginning to occur to people that marriage could be something other than a contract by means of which parents established their children in society. Anne Verjus’s article on the negotiations surrounding three arranged marriages clearly shows how the norms of the time led to gender-specific expectations of marriage and, paradoxically, gave women more manoeuvring room than men in some ways. For young girls and their parents, marriage was understood as the means to ensure a happy life. This meant that parents were often relatively attentive to the sensibility and affinities of daughters when choosing who they would marry. After reading this first part, we understand how strong the social constraint exerted by the marriage institution was early in the century, a fact that in turn explains the heavy preponderance of homogamous marriages in novels (“Their fortunes, so it was said, agreed as well as their persons”, wrote Balzac in Chapter 2 of The Marriage Contract). Nonetheless, the theme of reconciling passion and marital duty began to appear in literature, and there was now greater readiness to expose the turbulence and unhappiness that arranged marriages could cause.
3Part II (Untying the knots of marriage) confirms this trend, focusing more narrowly on novels that probe the importance to be granted feelings in “the marriage equation” (p. 263). Literature of the mid-nineteenth century offered quite a range of judgments on marriage, so the authors are concerned in this part to show how novels and plays explored and worked out these ambiguities. Whereas the French novelistic equivalent of Romantic Sturm und Drang drew on a highly particular system of characters (a young girl, the hero she is supposed to marry, and the scoundrel who opposes the marriage), Musset’s theatrical works play on the duality of that script: they are both conservative in that marriage always triumphs, and subversive in that the individual takes priority over all moral, religious or social considerations. Marriage was therefore omnipresent in the literature of the time, which continued to rely on existing marriage codes to propel the narrative (cf. the writings of Stendhal and Balzac). However, writing marriage became a privileged means of criticizing it as well. At precisely the time the Saint-Simonians were theorizing free love, scenes of daily married life in literature became courtrooms for exposing and denouncing the dysfunctions of the institution. Daumier’s plates for Les Mœurs conjugales (published at the time in the satirical daily Le Charivari) creatively show marriage’s inaptitude for ensuring partners’ happiness (despite Article 213 of the Civil Code stipulating that spouses were now equal as parents and when it came to conjugal duties). Whereas the diaries of young girls of the time are precious historical sources for showing that marriage still had strong prescriptive power over individuals, nineteenth-century novels often portray marriage as a fiasco full of disappointments and potentially disastrous scenarios. In literature as in life, then, marriage remained the “most important [imperative] of all those that society requires us to follow” (Balzac), but the “conjugalist” paradigm gradually yielded to the idea of a more “sexualist” understanding of marriage.
4Part III (Breaking the knots of marriage?) focuses on the third quarter of the nineteenth century and the particular social context in which marriage was further called into question. Divorce was re-legalized in France in 1884; feminist demands became more pointed and angry, and individualism became not only a political ideal but also a desirable – and attainable – goal within the conjugal relationship. Maupassant’s factual (rather than fairy) tales investigate the impasses and disillusions of married life, namely in cases where the spouses have come together across a social divide. By attending to the material dimension of marriage, late nineteenth-century writers actually worked to disenchant it. Labiche and Feydeau’s “vaudevillesque impertinences” also work this way, drawing as they do on borderline cases and grotesque scenarios to undermine marriage’s usual solemnity. Their contributions offer an eclectic panorama of thoughts on the “underside of marriage” and the alternatives available to women for freeing themselves from the marital yoke. Marion Mas’s article on Paul Kock’s Madame Pantalon, for example, shows how this type of novel renewed the place of women in literature without completely transforming it. Women here are center-stage characters expressing unprecedented demands for freedom. However, the narrator’s discourse tends to “attenuate those demands by interpreting them psychologically: the desire for freedom is skilfully reduced to disgruntled ‘rumbling’” (p. 400). In the late nineteenth century, the idea that marriage was a social convention that could be legitimately called into question was therefore quite widespread (“Marriage is a social convention, love a natural law”, wrote Madeleine de Vernet) but had as yet no firm political support, and the portrayal of marriage in literature was still hedged about with ambiguities.
5This book offers us a rich, clear and nuanced vision of French literary and artistic work around the theme of marriage in the nineteenth century in France. Its density and colour accurately reflect the diversity of viewpoints on marriage at the time and the many ways it was handled in novels. We may regret that the editors did not see fit to include critical overviews at the end of each part, as the reader may not be fully equipped to understand the issues at stake or what it is that unifies such differently conceived and constructed articles. The excellent introduction cannot entirely make up for the surprising lack of a conclusion, a conclusion that might have enabled the reader to gain perspective on the various contributions. However, these reservations are minimal compared to the strengths of the work, and should be thought of as a call to social scientists to make greater use of the material here assembled by specialists of literature, art and history in our thinking on marriage and how marriage norms and representations have evolved.