Melissa J. Ganz
Public vows: fictions of marriage in the English Enlightenment
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019, 308
eighteenth-century England, the institution of marriage became the subject of
heated debates, as clerics, jurists, legislators, philosophers, and social
observers began rethinking its contractual foundation. Public Vows
argues that these debates shaped English fiction in crucial and previously
unrecognized ways and that novels played a central role in the debates.
many legal and social thinkers of their day, novelists such as Daniel Defoe,
Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Eliza Fenwick, and Amelia Opie imagine
marriage as a public institution subject to regulation by church and state
rather than a private agreement between two free individuals. Through recurring
scenes of infidelity, fraud, and coercion as well as experiments with narrative
form, these writers show the practical and ethical problems that result when
couples attempt to establish and dissolve unions simply by exchanging consent.
Even as novelists seek to shore up the state’s control over marriage, however,
they contest the specific forms that its regulations take.
recovering novelists’ engagements with the nuptial controversies of the
Enlightenment, Public Vows challenges traditional readings of domestic
fiction as contributing to sharp divisions between public and private life. At
the same time, the book counters received views of law and literature,
highlighting fiction’s often simultaneous affirmations and critiques of legal
Introduction: marriage, law, and the novel
— Conjugal bonds: freedom and wedlock in Daniel Defoe
— Nuptial plots: private unions and public pledges in
— «Ah! stop! I consent to what you please!»:
secret matches and coerced unions in Frances Burney
— «‘Tis our hearts alone that can bind the
vow»: love and law from Fenwick to Wollstonecraft.
Melissa J. Ganz is Assistant Professor of English at
John Collet (1725.1780), The Courtship, c. 1764. British Museum