Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction (2016) by Talia Schaffer

In Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2011), Talia Schaffer recovered an alternative world of aesthetics in which ephemeral, thrifty, speedy and disposable handicrafts held real value. In Romance’s Rival (2016), Schaffer recuperates an alternative world of marriage, finding that the dominant model that we know and take for granted is actually in dialogue with another older model. Her thesis is clear and compelling. Romantic marriage coexisted in the Victorian era with “familiar marriage”, a partnership that aimed to answer the social problems of the period rather than simply to unite lovers, and “to provide participants with certain kinds of life choices that the romantic marriage failed to offer” (3) such as a local extended family, a community of care, and perhaps a vocation. Schaffer asks us to reconsider not only marriage and romance but also some of the wider issues surrounding family and social relations, disability, and women’s work.

In two introductory survey chapters, which theorise and historicise Victorian marriage, Schaffer revisits existing histories of marriage and the family and explains how familiar marriage developed out of the eighteenth-century marriage of rational esteem, sometimes referred to as “companionate marriage” (2). It is crucial to understand that, while this kind of marriage doesn’t do away with sexual love, its grounding is completely different from romantic marriage. It is not about the attraction between two people but about their mutual trust, practical needs, and wider social organisation (3). Unlike the eighteenth-century marriage of esteem, Victorian familiar marriage did rely on some existing affection, but there was also a clearer social or vocational drive, an opportunity to answer the wants of a community rather than the desires of individuals: “It foregrounded relationships, not individuality; security, not sexuality; communities, not couples” (x).

The word “familiar”, Schaffer reminds us, registers the possibility that this suitor may be “familial”, perhaps a cousin, but stresses that, above biological ties, this relationship is based on a close knowledge of one another, sometimes with affectionate intimacy, but always with a sense of comfort and ease (4). The familiar suitor is, however, a fictional being, created to serve narrative needs rather than historical verisimilitude (3). Familiar suitors may not be wholly imaginary and divorced from cultural history, but they are stock characters of a sort and the familiar marriage itself is a literary device (3). Indeed, Schaffer notes that the conditions offered by the familiar suitor had been the goals of marriage for centuries, but that it was only when facing some competing model, such as the rake, that these qualities were articulated in writing (42). The romantic suitor is one such competitor that the Victorian novel conjures up, a potentially dangerous mobile outsider pitted against the safe, static familiar suitor (6).

Modern readers tend to side with the romantic suitor, who offers qualities we have come to prize—erotic love, passion, escape, a new family or social circle—, and can feel discontented with the heroines of novels by Margaret Oliphant and Charlotte Yonge for their familiar, and thereby unexciting, marital choices. A revulsion towards cousin marriage or the (typically middle-aged and far less attractive than his estate) neighbour or squire suitor only compounds this (88). But if we begin to assess the risks presented by the romantic suitor versus the certainties of the familiar one, the choice, Schaffer suggests, may not seem so bad after all. The familiar suitor draws on a known past and projects into an extended future (2). Their prior and anticipated financial situation, career trajectory, inheritance, family circumstances, as well as their character and temperament are far more known and knowable than those of their romantic counterpart. They offer the chance to remain close to family and friends, to care for and be cared for by a community of people, and may sometimes facilitate a vocation. If the familiar marriage plot was, as Schaffer argues, “largely driven by women’s desperate need to make a viable life for themselves—a need that men could fulfill outside the marriage state in a way that was precluded for middle-class women” (14), then it should not be surprising that the familiar suitor was an attractive choice, even if decidedly unattractive by romantic standards. “For too long literary critics have assumed that all relationships are predicated on desire, so that if a character contracted a marriage without obvious sexual attraction, his or her story must be a hidden, problematic one” (9). In brief, Schaffer finds that reading early- and mid-Victorian novels in terms of incestuous pathologies simply does not work. The familial unions that come with endogamous (i.e. familiar) marriage may derive from a sibling model of love and from a closed network of partnerships, but the desires they encode speak of social harmony rather than misplaced eroticism (148).

Asking how we might understand Victorian marriage without erotic desire as its core motivation leads Schaffer to consider some forms of partnership which, while still very much affectionate, do not fit neatly into prevailing discourses of marriage based on sexual love. Disability marriage in the Victorian novel allows marriage to centre on other ties composed around the carer and the cared for (166). This form of partnership may not be one of explicit erotic desire but neither, argues Schaffer, should it be seen as one of deprivation, sacrifice, and (at its real or metaphoric extreme) castration. Rather, it suggests a rich range of possibilities about love. Whether sexual or not, there is bodily intimacy in giving and receiving care, and with this sensuality. It is not that disabled partners are desexualised in the familiar marriage, but rather our assumptions about what such a partnership might offer must be rethought. Just as other familiar marriages have clear utility (e.g. securing a vocation, an estate, an extended or deliberately closed family circle), disability marriage offers a community of care (166). Ultimately, disability marriage prizes the same things that other forms of familiar marriage value: community and extended social networks, sympathy and helpfulness, unselfishness and mutual care (196).

A final chapter on vocational marriage considers the kinds of work (and, as a consequence, power) that might be open to women within familiar marriage, picking up on a point made earlier in relation to neighbour marriage that while the role of angelic influencer of the home may be a nice idea, “money and the vote are better” (119). Some writers, such as Oliphant, represent familiar marriage as a means of gaining a vocation, if only in shadow form, such as when a wife writes those speeches that see her husband through a career in Parliament, as for Phoebe Marks. In terms of historical precedent, however, Schaffer explains that the rhetoric and legal reforms surrounding women and work in the nineteenth century were geared towards procuring an income for single women rather than occupying or empowering the married. Consequently, the closing section of the book (only a few short paragraphs at the end of this chapter) feels rather abrupt given the stumbling blocks that arise with the issue of Victorian women and work, though Schaffer’s conclusions are clearly articulated throughout earlier chapters.

Romance’s Rival is brilliantly written and includes some fascinating cross-disciplinary sections, for instance, disability marriage in relation to “Ethics of Care”, and “Inventing Primitive Marriage: The Anthropological Anti-Novel” which investigates the emergence of the taboo surrounding cousin marriage. The range and detail of the book is impressive, as it goes into depth on some under-studied authors and texts (e.g. Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family) and offers new, rich readings of canonical texts as well (e.g. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and George Eliot’s Middlemarch). While the work of Wilkie Collins barely features—The Law and the Lady’s Miserrimus Dexter is briefly mentioned in relation to the role of disabled characters in social networks—Schaffer’s insistence on the prevalence of familiar marriage in Victorian fiction certainly rings true for his novels; the cousin marriage of Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone, the engagement of neighbours Frank Clare and Magdalen Vanstone in No Name, and the affectionate care of Valentine Blyth for his disabled wife, Lavinia, in Hide and Seek, to name a few. Given the importance of these partnerships and the wider concerns they raise, Romance’s Rival will be of great use to Collins scholars with interests in marriage and the family, women and gender, romance plots, middle-class culture and disability studies.