Troubling women: American fictions of marriage and property, 1848-1867 Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Stockton, Elizabeth
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This study connects the domestic novel's period of extraordinary success, from approximately 1845 to 1865, to the legal developments of the early nineteenth century. During this period, both discourses responded to the volatile antebellum economy by endorsing women's removal from the marketplace. In order to limit speculation and create stability, legal rhetoric and literary narratives alike idealized marriage as a status, or hierarchical, relationship, even as other relationships were rewritten in contractual terms. Within the context of the project, then, fiction takes on a double meaning. While legal discourse circulated "legal fictions"-rhetorical structures that shaped people's discussions of marriage-domestic novels envisioned the range of possibilities for women even within the confines of an inferior legal status. "Troubling Women" traces the domestic novel's development in tandem with legislative debates and judicial decisions, elucidating why these discourses resisted domestic contracts and promoted status and protectionism. It begins with a historical overview, followed by an examination of James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers-a prototypical domestic plot in which an heiress's right marriage restores the "natural aristocracy." Focusing on narratives of the 1850s and 1860s by a range of authors-including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Caroline Lee Hentz, Frank J. Webb, and Harriet Jacobs-the project illustrates how, in the intervening decades of increasing market dominance, Cooper's proposed solution had become untenable. Like Cooper's novel, these texts endorse women's inferior legal status, but they also illustrate that women's relationship to property had become an unsettled and contested question. The project concludes with an exploration of Elizabeth Stoddard's novels from the 1860s, which highlight the profound costs of idealizing women's legal inferiority, an increasingly indefensible construction in the wake of emancipation. Grounded in historical detail, this project demonstrates how the domestic novel defused the culture's fear of the market by reimagining women's relationship to property. By detailing domestic novels' complex engagements with legal discourse, "Troubling Women" rejects the persistent claims that these texts either unconsciously reflected or actively subverted conservative ideologies; instead it underscores the range of the genre's political commitments.
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  • In Copyright
  • Richards, Eliza
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Open access

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