"Business for the Lovers of Business": Sir Charles Grandison, Hardwicke's Marriage Act and the Specter of Bigamy

Article excerpt

   ... in the minutiae lie often the unfoldings of the Story, as well
   as of the heart ... (1)

As Samuel Richardson was publishing The History of Sir Charles Grandison, his third and final novel, in 1753 and 1754, Parliament was engaged in the reform of English marriage law. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753) represented the culmination of more than a century of debate among civil and ecclesiastical authorities over how best to eliminate illicit clandestine marriages, among other perceived abuses, and to resolve the inconsistencies that bedeviled England's archaic marriage laws. The Marriage Act standardized English matrimonial practice and, in the process, asserted Parliament's competence to regulate a social practice that had long been governed by ecclesiastical law and folk tradition. As a deliberate attempt to demystify and rationalize matrimony, the Marriage Act expressed a widespread cultural desire to impose order on norms and behaviors that appeared to self-consciously "enlightened" observers to be both chaotic and incoherent. In Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson, whose hero is a paradigmatic embodiment of "enlightened" virtuosity, reveals his support for marriage reform by contrasting depictions of abuses typical under the old marriage laws to scenes that demonstrate the rational pleasures associated with well-regulated marriage.

At the same time, however, Richardson acknowledges the limitations inherent in any attempt to rationalize human behavior or regulate human desire. Sir Charles Grandison, which divides its hero's affections between two different but equally deserving women, dramatizes an emotional dilemma that not even the most enlightened marriage code can fully resolve. While Sir Charles's wedding to Harriet Byron fulfills the demands of the marriage plot and the marriage code, it fails to account for the depth of his attachment both to Harriet and to her rival, Clementina della Poretta. Richardson resolves Sir Charles's matrimonial dilemma by marrying his hero to Harriet in a public ceremony that fulfills the requirements of the Marriage Act, and in doing so he affirms the value of the new law's systematic approach to the rationalization of marriage practices. In the final scenes of the novel, however, Richardson symbolically recuperates "bigamy," one of the more notorious abuses to which the old marriage laws were subject, as a means of responding to the concerns of readers who have taken Clementina's claims to heart. By presenting his readers with an imaginatively "bigamous" conclusion to the novel, even as he celebrates the accomplishment of marriage reform, Richardson reminds his readers of the inadequacy of any law--or any narrative--to do justice to the complex and contradictory needs, desires, and affective bonds that characterize the human experience of love.

Richardson had explored the diffculties posed by intense and often wayward human desires in both of his previous novels and, in Pamela, he directly acknowledges the possibility of "bigamous" or "polygamous" relationships. In the first part of the novel (1740), Mrs. Jewkes menaces Pamela with the prospect of a bigamous marriage to Mr. B.'s Swiss retainer Colbrand and suggests that Colbrand would happily sell his bride to Mr. B. in order "to go home again, with the Money, to his former Wife and Children, for she says, it is the Custom of those People to have a Wife in every Nation." (2) In the novel's continuation (1741), Richardson evokes the specter of bigamy again in his account of Mr. B.'s flirtation, following his marriage to Pamela, with the Countess Dowager of--, a beautiful widow with whom he playfully argues "in favour of that foolish topic polygamy," prompting the Countess to inform her uncle, in an act of deliberate provocation, that "she had rather be a certain gentleman's second wife, than the first to the greatest man in England." (3) In both situations, bigamy (or "polygamy") is marked as culpable and risible. …