Darlene Joy Fisher’s Resisting the Marriage Plot analyzes the works of Jane Austen, Anne Brontë, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Elizabeth Gaskell to see how each had features that actively went against societal expectations for women. Specifically, the authors Fisher examines used the novel to create dialogues and put forward frameworks for women to have agency within their faith life and society.
Fisher sets these novels within their contemporary context. She notes the pushback many, including pastors, had against novels. This included calling those who read novels “prostitutes” who committed “treason against Virture” (17). However, the novel’s popularity had already been solidified, and some women saw it as a way to expand the way women could influence and interact in society. After an introduction and a chapter that shows how women authors began to “leverage the novel form” (ibid), Fisher turns to examination of individual works by the authors listed. The first chapter is essential reading, though, as Fisher shows how novels can be used for ideology, how women authors challenged coverture, analyzes the authors she looks at for their different faith lives (including questions of orthodoxy, etc.), and shows a preliminary look at the examinations to follow.
Each chapter has an inset providing crucial information about the novel being examined, such as major characters and a summary. This means that readers who have no familiarity with the texts can still easily read along with the book. And Fisher presents quite a bit of analysis on each work. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is the one I was familiar with, and my understanding of that novel was reshaped in many ways by Fisher’s astute analysis. What Fisher focuses on in each chapter is focused on how each woman resisted the marriage plot–the notion that women needed to get married and stay under their husbands’ protection in unquestioning subservience and obedience. What’s fascinating is how each author challenged this “marriage plot” in different ways. Whether it’s resisting the pressure to marry someone who had abused them in the past or through prioritizing one’s faith, the authors present different ways to challenge their cultural understandings of marriage.
The chapter on Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel shows how the author valued freedom of agency in order to follow God in an unmediated fashion (61-63). Wollstonecraft also resisted the “romantic delusions” novelists often created, instead using her characters to pursue true virtue instead of simply conforming to romantic expectations (71ff). Austen’s Mansfield Park shows how Fanny, often reviled as a simple or foolish character, is actually using her faith to have resistance to societal expectations (155-156). Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall features questions of abuse, women’s need to be able to leave, and the question of romance and obligations to reform partners. Not only does Brontë connect women’s capacity for moral reform with their intellect, she also showed how faith can be liberative rather than constrictive (182-187). Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth would be a challenging read for many to this day, as it rejects a kind of “fallen woman” narrative while also using her faith to persevere.
Fisher ultimately shows that the authors she examines presented a challenge to societal norms that remained faithful to a Christian life. While there are questions of the orthodoxy of some of these authors, Fisher’s point is that they showed one need not abandon Christianity as an oppressive religion. Instead, these authors show that Christianity can instead empower and bring freedom to women through countercultural choices (246-247).
Resisting the Marriage Plot is a fascinating read. Fisher thoroughly examines the authors she presents and puts forth a vision of their works that can bring not just new enjoyment to them but also lead readers to living better and more fulfilling lives. Highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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