Space and the Representation of Marriage in Eighteenth-Century Advice Literature

By Roulston, Chris | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Space and the Representation of Marriage in Eighteenth-Century Advice Literature


Roulston, Chris, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


The eighteenth century is a particularly rich period for analyzing the relationship between gender and social space. On the one hand, this era marks the beginnings of modern urban society, with its coffeehouses, its salons, and the emergence of newspaper and print culture. Over the course of the century, there developed a democracy of the intellect, and a general culture of civility, in which genteel women were key participants.1 On the other hand, alongside this increasingly urban and public culture, advice literature on married life was working hard to erect firm boundaries between public and private and to construct a domestic space that was sealed off from the public sphere.2

Jürgen Habermas has analyzed the distinction between public and private in dialectical terms, arguing that the construction of a civil society in which public opinion could function democratically depended on the simultaneous construction of an autonomous private subject nurtured within the bourgeois family, an institution that "was the scene of a psychological emancipation that corresponded to the political-economic one."3 While Habermas also acknowledges that the bourgeois family's image of itself as emancipated functioned as a fictional construction, since "the family was not exempted from the constraint to which bourgeois society like all societies before it was subject,"4 it is the fictional construction of models of intimacy within advice literature-its sustained impulse to shape and mold the experience of the married couple in terms of a Utopian private sphere-that interests us here.

As the definition of marriage was undergoing an important paradigmatic shift-from the seventeenth-century conception of marriage based on the model of sovereign and subject to one based on mutuality and companionship-the distinction between public and private was becoming more critical. As Michael McKeon has argued in relation to Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), rather than being conceptualized in terms of the state, marriage was now being defined in terms of "the reconciliation of love and marriage, the reconception of marriage as a public ceremony that is taken primarily to confirm the prior and private fact of love."5 This new privileging of the category of private desire as the condition for the public ceremony of marriage made marriage a kind of testing ground for the changing relationship between the two spheres.

In light of the distinction between the spheres, Mark Wigley has argued that at least from the Renaissance onwards the institution of marriage has been conceived of as fundamentally spatial rather than temporal: "Marriage is the reason for building a house. The house appears to make a space for the institution. But marriage is already spatial. It cannot be thought outside the house that is its condition of possibility before its space."6 For Wigley, all buildings are engaged in "a sexuality of space," so that "spaces literally produce the effect of gender."7 While the house has perhaps always been the defining space of marriage, in the eighteenth century the physical space of the home was taking on a new significance, in terms of what John E. Crowley has called "the architectural enhancement of domesticity";8 not only was there a considerable increase in consumer spending that enabled the development of a new consumer-oriented relationship to the domestic sphere, but this also led to a new emphasis on the idea of material comfort within the home.9

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The New Heloise (1761), for example, the architecture of comfort is privileged over the grandiose quality of aristocratic buildings. Upon visiting Clarens, Saint-Preux writes to Milord Edward:

[I]t is no longer a house made to be seen, but to be lived in. [The masters of this house] have walled up long rows of rooms to change doors that were awkwardly situated, they have divided rooms that were too large so as to have lodgings better laid out. They have replaced old-fashioned and sumptuous pieces of furniture with simple and convenient ones. …

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