End of Summer Research: Findings on Marriage and Proposals in Victorian Novels

We are the end, folks. Or, well, the end of the summer at least. For me I will still be sending the next eight months on this project. And I am so happy I got a head start in the last three months.

To summarize what I learned this summer I’m going to have to divide it up somehow. So mainly I was focused on proposals of marriage in my three novels: Jane Eyre, North and South, and Far from the Madding Crowd.

The first thing I looked at in these novels and these proposal scenes was how they related to Victorian sexuality. Both in terms of what we think of marriage and sexuality in the Victorian era, but also what society thought back then. I learned, according to Foucault, that these two are slightly different. According to Foucault, our view of the Victorian era as prudish is not entirely accurate; the era was more defined by a desire to survey and regulate sex. One major development that connected to this was the idea of confession. Sexuality became tied to confessing and created a shifting power balance between the confessor and the confidant. This idea of confession ties directly into viewing these marriage proposals as expressions of desire and have been helping me examine the balance of power in those scenes. The primary reading I did about marriage and sexuality in the Victorian era at the British Library also led me to look at these proposal scenes in light of what would actually be expected in the Victorian era.

I also have been looking at how these proposals and their acceptances/denial reflect social changes in the Victorian era. While this idea is secondary to my focus on sexuality in the Victorian era, looking at the era as a whole has proved to be helpful in tracking the changes from Jane Eyre to North and South and Far from the Madding Crowd. In Jane Eyre, we see a kind of lessening of the Church’s influence in favor of individualism and personal spirituality (Jane’s refusal of St. John Rivers and following the “voice” of Rochester). In North and South, we see the conflicts of domesticity and industrialism (Margaret’s rejection of John at first seems tied to her inability to reconcile his behavior with her and his behavior as a mill owner). In Far from the Madding Crowd, we see more freedom for women as a consequence of social reform but also how this complicates male and female relationships (Bathsheba says no to her first marriage proposal, saying she wants someone to “tame” her, but later ends up marrying that first proposer).

Finally, I’m also hoping to add into my thesis what changes literature itself underwent in the Victorian Era and how these proposal scenes reflect that. Romanticism gave way for Realism, and this is definitely reflected in the differences between these novels. The nature metaphors in the proposal in Jane Eyre vs the more straightforward and conventional proposals in Far from the Madding Crowd is one example. By looking at these proposal scenes I can hopefully also analyze the evolution of literature itself in the Victorian era.

So those are three major threads I’ll be exploring in my thesis. Without my summer research, I would have a much less clear idea of what I wanted to focus on and how many different aspects of the Victorian era I can relate to these scenes. It was a great way to spend the summer, and I get to go into the fall semester with strong start on my thesis that I will be thankful for throughout the year.