Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot and the British Novel, 1747-1880

by Leah Grisham

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Grisham’s “Heroic Disobedience” is a timely, incisive, and well-researched work on the British marriage plot, so universally infused in nineteenth-century reading and writing novelistic practices. As a whole, it considers how women, as either victims or actors within a larger patriarchal, capital-driven social system, have been integrated in our larger narrative history. Though Grisham writes of novels shaped by, and published within, a more transparently oppressive social context, it is easy to see how the experiences of the discussed fictional heroines are translatable to the lived experiences of many women today. Grisham’s adroit ability to discuss how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors were able to depict the nuanced networks designed against women in the period, is a very useful guide in the literary classroom. Though this monograph is quite specialized and speaks to the conventions of one novel genre, it has a long scope that details, even implicitly, how the genre evolved over the period.

Dr. Victoria Barnett-Woods
Associate Director of Experiential Learning and Programming
The Starr Center

“Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot and the British Novel, 1747-1880” by Leah Grisham is an illuminating and original exploration of the rise of capitalism and its effect on gender relations and women’s rights in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. Through her skillful examination of the “forced marriage plot” in novels by Samuel Richardson, Charlotte Lennox, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Stone, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, Grisham shows how patriarchal and capitalist notions about women as objects of exchange were portrayed and subverted in these texts. Grisham highlights the ways in which the disobedient heroines of the novels display agency and resist patriarchal control, and pays attention to how these novels are able to arouse empathy for the rebellious women. Grisham’s generative and compelling analysis makes “Heroic Disobedience” a unique and valuable contribution to the field of literary studies. Written in an accessible and engaging way, “Heroic Disobedience” will be a particularly useful addition to undergraduate and graduate syllabi of courses that deal with questions of gender, capitalism, class, resistance, and the British novel.

Prof. Dr. Turni Chakrabarti
Jindal School of Languages and Literature
O. P. Jindal Global University, India

'Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot and the British Novel, 1747-1880' shows the ways in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels used what the author terms the forced marriage plot - a plot arc in which a greedy father tries to force his daughter into a marriage she does not want but that would be financially expedient to himself - to explore capitalism’s detrimental impacts on women’s right to autonomy. As capitalist economic practices replaced mercantilism, a woman’s value was seen primarily in the economic sense. That is, men came to recognize that women – especially young, marriageable women – could be used as objects of exchange between men. Recognizing this phenomenon, the novelists considered in 'Heroic Disobedience' – Samuel Richardson, Charlotte Lennox, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Stone, and Anthony Trollope – depict the very specific ways in which women were raised to become willing pawns in this system. Religious discourse, conduct guides, marriage and property laws, wages, lack of meaningful education, and inheritance practices combined to leave women with no other options besides dependence on their patriarchs. Importantly, authors who use the forced marriage plot go beyond exposing women’s subjugation by creating – and celebrating – heroically disobedient heroines who believe, above all else, that they have the right to determine their own futures: futures in which they are autonomous agents, not subjected objects.

A Note on the Text
The importance of plot
On autonomy
Forced marriages in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society
Money and the novel
Chapter overview

Chapter One
“Such Terms, Such Settlements!”: Early capitalism and the family in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote
“A plan that captivates us all”: Clarissa Harlowe’s forced marriage
The rise of capitalism and the Harlowes
Clarissa’s “discovery of female self”
“To comply is impossible”: Clarissa’s heroic disobedience
Is Clarissa a protofeminist novel?
Charlotte Lennox and Heroic Disobedience
Forced marriage and the Clandestine Marriages Act
Arabella’s heroic disobedience
Arabella’s conversion
Glanville’s growth

Chapter Two
“Will there not be virtue in my resistance?”: resisting tyranny in Charlotte Smith’s “The Story of Henrietta” and Mary Robinson’s Angelina; A Novel
The slave trade and wealth accumulation
Smith’s “The Story of Henrietta” and the slave economy
Slave owners as Gothic monsters
“The raging multitude”: models for resisting the patriarch
“The Story of Henrietta” and colonial unrest
Smith and slavery: a complicated tale
Fighting against the “proud Lords of Traffic”: Mary Robinson’s Angelina
Sir Edward’s gothic consumption
Robinson and the slave trade

Chapter Three
“Young Ladies that have no Money are to be pitied”: Jane Austen and the Forced Marriage Plot
Pride and Prejudice reconsidered: or, why readers should give Mrs. Bennet a break
“The pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”: a case study of Charlotte Lucas
Fanny Price’s refusal: forced marriage in Mansfield Park
Sir Thomas’ debts
Mansfield Park’s multiple forced marriages
Fanny Price: an unlikely heroine
The Sanditon fragment and unfettered capitalism

Chapter Four
“Selling a girl”: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Stone, and Post-Industrial Patriarchy
Money, masculinity, and the Victorian family
Speculation and joint stock corporations in Victorian England
Ralph Nickleby, “the Capitalist”
“Lets…take care of each other”: extended kinship networks as anti-patriarchy
Dombey and daughter
Urania Cottage
Dickens’ mercenary mothers
The Dombey disaster
The Cotton Lord’s coercion
Redemptive friendship

Chapter Five
“Of course I have to think of myself”: Trollope’s Non-Conforming Heroines
Dueling ideas of modernity and progress
Trollope’s take on modernity and progress
“Fitting company only for the devils”: Trollope’s flirtations with forced marriage
The Way We Live Now: new money, old patriarchy
Trollope’s outspoken women
“I want to pick and choose”: women who stand up for themselves
Marie’s rebellion
The land of the free: Trollope’s America

“I do not repent”: Heroic Disobedience Beyond 1880

Leah Grisham, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, scholar, and educator whose work focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, women’s writing, and the history of women’s rights. She earned her doctorate in literature from George Washington University in 2020, where she also taught classes on nineteenth-century horror stories, British colonialism, and twentieth-century sci-fi novels, among others. Her essays appear in peer-reviewed journals including 'Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Victorian Periodicals Review, Women’s Writing', and 'ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830'. She is also a freelance writer and book critic for Publisher’s Weekly, the Jewish Book Council, and 'Kveller'.

British literature, Victorian, Regency, eighteenth-century literature, Enlightenment, capitalism, women’s writing, British women writers, rebellion, gender, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Lennox, Wollstonecraft