he Victorian age saw extensive changes in attitudes to divorce as well as in divorce laws, which also began to figure differently in the literature of the time. The separation of husband and wife occurs regularly in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novel, though when a divorce is obtained it is usually an event consigned to the margins of the narrative. When cuckolded Mr Rushworth gets his divorce at the end of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), for instance, it is simply a plot-device in order to dispose of a minor character. A wife’s adultery was sufficient grounds for a divorce at the time, though not vice versa, but this double-standard never becomes a controversial topic in Austen’s fiction, even while the victims of unhappy marriages, adulterous relationships, and separations populate the world of her novels, undercutting the marriage-endings to which her courtship plots eagerly proceed. By contrast, in the Victorian novel and specifically the Victorian sensation novel, a genre that flourished from the 1860s onwards, divorce laws become a central theme. The most famous Victorian novel about a custody quarrel is without doubt Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897), and Maisie the first literary child-heroine victimised by the end of her parents’ marriage. Divorce and custody laws, however, are the subject of various little-known Victorian novels, reflecting a pervasive concern with the changing attitudes at the time. Wilkie Collins’s The Evil Genius (1886) is of particular interest as it combines a sensational plot involving a custody quarrel with intriguing insight into the reconfiguration of fatherhood at the time.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a notable change in the legal status of child custody, while it also saw a transformation of domestic masculinity and the creation of a new ideal of fatherhood in the contexts of the emerging nuclear family and the idealisation of the home. In Road To Divorce, Lawrence Stone speaks of a revolution in attitudes towards child custody in cases of separation and divorce. In 1857, the new “Matrimonial Causes Court” was empowered to allocate custody of children in divorce cases. In 1873 another act enabled Chancery to award custody as it saw fit, and by 1886 “it had become morally accepted that it was only right to grant custody of young children to their mother” (390). The same decades that issued these legal changes ironically saw far-reaching reconfigurations of domesticity, the family, and the role of the father. Emphasising that domesticity “was essentially a nineteenth-century invention” (1), John Tosh highlights its significance for the creation of a domestic masculinity in his study A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England:
Never before or since has domesticity been held to be so central to masculinity. For most of the nineteenth century home was widely held to be a man’s place, not only in the sense of being his possession or fiefdom, but also as the place where his deepest needs were met. Questions to do with domestic affections and domestic authority permeated the advice books read by men, as they did the novels of Charles Dickens. (1)
This alignment of domesticity with a specifically familial masculinity engenders a paternal love that is decisively different from a patriarch’s interest in the continuation of the male line. Seen in the context of Wilkie Collins’s deeply ambiguous and often contradictory diatribes against Victorian laws, Heart and Science and The Evil Genius sheds a revealing light on the representation of changing laws as well as of homes, children, and fathers in the Victorian novel.
- Love and Law in Wilkie Collins's Fictional Families
- "The Law of Abduction": Marriage and Divorce in Victorian Sensation and “Mission” Novels
- The Law of the Father: Victorian Sentimentality and the New Fatherhood
- The Victorian Custody Novel: Deceived and Deserted Daughters in The Evil Genius
- “Poor Lost Papa”: Old and New Fathers in Mid- and Late-Victorian Fiction
Last modified 16 November 2002