Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"So Ended a Marriage"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"So Ended a Marriage"

Article excerpt

BECAUSE "UNCOUPLING"--TO QUOTE ACTRESS GWYNETH PALTROW--is so common in the twenty-first century, the characters in Mansfield Park appear to modern sensibilities to be overreacting to Maria Rushworth's divorce. When confronted with a family member's adultery today, we tend to follow Mary Crawford's advice to say nothing and '"let things take their course'" (457). Like Mary Crawford, we assume that an ex-wife will marry again, but in Regency England a divorced woman's legal right to remarry was by no means guaranteed. Today, we read all about the indiscretions of celebrities in the tabloids, but we do not expect every divorce "to draw the notice of the world" (MP438) in the mainstream press. Such publicity, however, is exactly what Jane Austen's first readers would have anticipated. Since the 1814 publication of Mansfield Park, divorce has been decriminalized, no-faulted, democratized, and socially accepted, which means that we no longer read the novel as Jane Austen's first readers did or as Jane Austen intended us to. We are not shocked by Maria Rushworth's immorality, surprised by her lack of remorse, or particularly worried about her future, but we were meant to be.

At the time Mansfield Park was written, divorce cases, like Rushworth v. Rushworth, were the subjects of an ongoing and politically charged national debate. Backed by the House of Lords, evangelical Whigs in the House of Commons were attempting to change England's divorce laws with the controversial Divorce Bill, also known as the Adultery Prevention Bill. The Whigs who wrote the bill claimed that it would discourage adultery, which was, as Edmund Bertram correctly defines it, a '"dreadful crime'" (457), or at least a crime with dreadful consequences for women. Husbands could not be divorced for adultery, no matter how flagrant their behavior (Stone, Road to Divorce 7). The Divorce Bill proposed that women would be legally "the perpetual property" of their husbands, which meant that ex-wives would not be allowed to remarry and that any money they earned or inherited--for the rest of their lives--would belong to their ex-husbands. According to the Divorce Bill's shameless double standard, the ex-husband would be free to remarry. The Divorce Bill was opposed by Tories and by a small contingency of radical Whigs, but it seemed, at times, as though there might be enough reactionary extremists and evangelicals among the Tories to vote with the Whigs on this particular issue, and the Divorce Bill could then become the law of the land (Wilson, Decency and Disorder 106). Predictably, most women were opposed to the bill, but women could not vote, so their fates were in the hands of all-male judges and juries and men holding seats in Parliament, like Sir Thomas Bertram.

Thus, when Maria Rushworth elopes with Henry Crawford, and James Rushworth subsequently divorces her, the characters' actions and reactions are more than convenient plot twists. Jane Austen created a "matrimonial fracas" (MP 440) that allowed her characters to express differing political opinions to her attentive listener, Fanny Price. In Portsmouth Fanny's father argues the extreme position of reactionary Tories; at the other end of the political spectrum, Mary Crawford's matter-of-fact attitude was the minority position of radical Whigs. Edmund Bertram and Sir Thomas may appear prudish and puritanical to us, but they would have been considered liberal, mainstream, pro-woman Tories by Jane Austen's original readers, and Fanny accepts their opinions as reasonable and rational conclusions, given the situation. Additionally, at the end of the novel, Austen's omniscient narrator directly addresses the reader in order to state the Tory position on the subject of divorce. So Mansfield Park can be read as a novel articulating a political position in favor of women's rights.

What constituted a marriage was, in England, traditionally a matter for the Church to decide. Requirements for marriage and grounds for annulment were published in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,; still in use in Jane Austen's lifetime, but there were no provisions for divorce, as what God had "joined together" no man was permitted to "put asunder" (314). …

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