Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Husband's Jealousy: Antebellum Murder Trials and Caroline Lee Hentz's 'Ernest Linwood.'(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Husband's Jealousy: Antebellum Murder Trials and Caroline Lee Hentz's 'Ernest Linwood.'(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Contemporary evolutionary psychology seems worlds away from the antebellum woman's novel that is the main subject of this essay. But I want to begin my discussion of Caroline Lee Hentz's Ernest Linwood (1856) with David Buss's controversial The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex (2000). According to Buss, jealousy is an integral part of heterosexual relationships, serving the function of policing women's sexuality and ensuring a husband's paternity. Moreover, even while Buss recognizes that much domestic violence is rooted in jealousy, he argues that the smarter evolutionary move for men is to suspect their wives rather than naively spend time and money raising another man's child, thus also losing the chance to extend their own genes. (1) My principal disagreements with Buss's thesis are, first, that he claims even violent jealousy to be a functional part of sexual relationships, and, second, that he ignores any sociocultural influences on jealousy and ensuing violence. His book encourages us to look no further than the heterosexual couple for the violence that erupts within it.

One of the reasons I believe Hentz's Ernest Linwood is an important novel is precisely because it intervenes in the evolution of a concept of jealousy that has culminated in Buss's book but that emerged in antebellum America. Hentz's alternate genealogy of jealousy is not narrowly confined to heterosexual and romantic love but is instead rooted in broken bonds between men and a consequent melancholy. Before I turn to Hentz, however, I want to suggest how the claims of evolutionary psychologists such as Buss find their precedents in the nineteenth century.

Buss's evolutionary argument depends on two important shifts in the meaning of jealousy that occurred between the 1830s and 1870s. First, jealousy became inextricably bound to romantic love and confined almost exclusively to heterosexual relations. (While this may seem quite unexceptional to us, in fact in the late eighteenth century the dominant meaning of jealousy was of a civic-minded suspicion that served to secure national boundaries.) Second, after 1860 jealousy came to be described as an instinct, specifically a man's instinct to hold on to the object of his love. Both of these meanings of jealousy were regularly and publicly enacted in murder trials; more particularly, they became central to defenses of insanity proposed by the lawyers of purportedly delusional men who killed their wives, believing them to be unfaithful. In case after case, the argument was made that such men should be excused because jealousy was so powerful an emotion, and so intrinsic to a husband's sacred love for his wife, that i t could easily unbalance him. (2) The point I want to make about these trials is in part simply to note their increasing frequency; but I also argue that such trials began to define jealousy as exclusively romantic jealousy, thus limiting the source of a man's madness and murderous impulses to the heterosexual couple itself and to the love that purportedly bound husband and wife. This constricting definition came at the cost of not looking beyond the husband and wife relationship to broader causes that may have simply been manifest in love and marriage, as opposed to being caused by them.

It was not until the 1840s that the meaning of jealousy narrowed to denote almost exclusively sexual jealousy. In the first two trials, in 1828 and 1829 respectively, the defendant's imputed jealousy of his wife was bound up with a larger paranoia that reflected a sense of an entire familiar world (not just a wife) turned sinister and threatening. John Birdsell, for instance, who killed his wife in Ohio in 1829, suffered from the "prevailing maniacal conception" that his wife was enjoying a "criminal intimacy" with a neighbor and was conspiring with him and two others (one of whom was his son) to take his life (Drake 45). …

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