Divorce in Hard Times

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“No Escape to be Had, No Absolution to be Got”1: Divorce in the Lives and Novels of Charles Dickens and Caroline Norton Teja Varma, B.A., M.A., M.Phil Candidate, University Of Delhi. Acknowledgements

This essay was written in May 2009 for the seminar “The Construction of Social Space in the Nineteenth Century English Novel” supervised by Dr. Sambudha Sen. It draws its central idea from a suggestion made by Dr. Sen. The seminar has been instrumental in developing my interest in the novels of nineteenth-century England. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The sexual codes of the Protestant monogamous marriage were the touchstones of Victorian morality. An unshakable faith in the social convention and legal institution of marriage as a source of morality, informs a wide spectrum of discursive articulations in nineteenth century Britain. Sexual fidelity and emotional compatibility between the married partners determine the nature of the domestic ideal towards whose consummation most English novels orient their plotlines. It is the norm whose violation in society is sought to be carefully tracked, statistically understood and administratively contained by governmental and quasi scientific reports, like Engel’s report, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Acton’s Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (1857). The success of monogamy as a moral code, which is essentially middle class in character, may be gauged by its persistence in an incipiently Marxist text like that of Engels. Households whose depleted economic resources do not facilitate the practice of the sexual codes of middle class domesticity, evoke a profound moral outrage in Engels. He refers to a report by a government commissioner, J.C. Symons, who talks of “human degradation in some of its worst phases” and quotes the sight of large numbers of people “of both sexes and in all ages” sleeping “promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness” as an example (52). The presence of the conditions of alternative sexual and moral norms is seen not as an incentive to theorize alternative codes from the perspective of the working class, but to subject that class to the corrective intervention of the government, to “treat” them back to “normalcy”. Engels documents the civic problems of the “poorest of the poor” in terms of a parable that relates the tale of their regrettable inability to subscribe to the codes of middle class domesticity: “those who have not yet sunk in the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily more and more of their power to resist the demoralizing influence of want, filth and evil surroundings” (46). The ideal wasn’t always actualized in the personal lives of the Victorians. Lytton Strachey had traced the four Victorian couples whose conjugality did not follow the model of the ideal Protestant marriage.2 Talking about the enduring concern with morality amongst the subjects of Stratchey’s study, each of whose lives incorporated a certain complication in relation to the norm, Gertrude Himmelfarb elaborates: “if individuals did find themselves, as a result of circumstance, passion, or compulsion, in some illicit or abnormal situation, this was regarded as an unfortunate aberration, to be normalized and legalized if possible, and failing that, to be concealed (as in the case of Charles Dickens) or domesticated (as with George Eliot)” (18). Although Himmelfarb’s study accurately recognizes that the “irregularities and improprieties of their personal lives” revealed their anxiety about morality and not their transcendence of it, her work does not exhaust the implications of the adherence to the norm, in the novels of men and women like Charles Dickens and Caroline Norton, who had to face the consequences of finding the code inadequate and...
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