Marriage and Divorce
During this period, marriage determined many a woman’s future happiness. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote of middle-class girls of marriageable age,
...all that she may wish to have, all that she may wish to do, must come through a single channel and a single choice. Wealth, power, social distinction, fame, – not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter, – all must come to her through a small gold ring.In addition to books offering advice on achieving a happy marriage, this case contains works by two prominent writers, Gilman and E.D.E.N. Southworth, for whom divorce was transformative, and in many respects, career-launching.
The American Spectator, or Matrimonial Preceptor. A Collection (with Additions and Variations) of Essays, Epistles, Precepts and Examples, Related to the Married State, from the Most Celebrated Writers, Ancient and Modern. Adapted to the State of Society in the American Republic.
Boston: Manning and Loring for David West, 1797.
This early manual culls advice from revered writers of different eras on how couples might attain marital bliss.
“The Elopement Prevented.”
Mezzotint, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. XXV, October, 1842.
This plate, accompanying a story of the same name by Virginia DeForest, shows a young girl disguised as a page, whose attempted elopement with her suitor is foiled by a family servant, Pompeii, entrusted with the keys that would permit the girl to exit the locked gate. The elopement plan was hatched because the girl and her suitor feared that her father disapproved of the match. DeForest attributes the girl’s rashness to her taste in books and penchant for “the gay imagery and dangerous sentiments of romance.” Those who didn’t take the time to read the accompanying story might be led to assume from the illustration that “the elopement prevented” was between a white woman and a black servant.
“If the young wife anticipates that her duties will all be of an interesting and pleasing nature, and that she can easily and readily discharge them, she greatly mistakes.”
John Mather Austin, 1805-1880.A Voice to the Married: Being a Compendium of Social, Moral, and Religious Duties Addressed to Husbands and Wives.
New York: J. Bolles, 1847.
The majority of the advice offered in this manual is addressed to wives, providing a snapshot of expectations for married women in the mid-1800s.
E.D.E.N. (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte) Southworth, 1819-1899.The Deserted Wife.
New York: Federal Book Co., c1889.
The Unloved Wife.
New York: A. L. Burt Co., c1909.
Southworth herself was a “deserted wife”: her husband abandoned her after four years of marriage, leaving Southworth pregnant and responsible for the care of the couple’s sickly firstborn. Finding herself destitute and alone in Washington, D.C., Southworth began writing fiction, eventually becoming one of the most popular novelists of her day. After her first novel’s publication, Southworth wrote:
“I, who six months before had been poor, ill, forsaken, slandered, killed by sorrow, privation, toil, and friendliness [sic], found myself born as it were into a new life; found independence, sympathy, friendship, and honour, and an occupation in which I could delight.”
The Deserted Wife tells the loosely fictionalized story of this transformation. The following year, Southworth published The Unloved Wife, which revisits a similar theme. A sequel to The Unloved Wife appearing later that same year proves the extent to which Southworth, like other writers, mined her own life for literary themes.
“And some have Love’s full cup as he doth give it—
Have it, and drink of it, and ah,--outlive it!”
Charlotte Perkins Stetson [Gilman], 1860-1935.“Too Much.”
In In This Our World.
Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1898.
When news of Gilman’s divorce case leaked to the press, several papers quoted liberally from this poem in order to explain the break-up.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.“Alimony.”
In The Forerunner, Vol. III, March 1912, p. 82.
Here Gilman expresses her disapproval of alimony in no uncertain terms. To her way of thinking, “It is bad enough to marry for money; it is bad enough to maintain an immoral marriage for money; but to give up this mercenary commerce and then take money when no longer delivering the goods-----!”
Julia C. R. Dorr, 1825-1913.
Bride and Bridegroom: a Series of Letters to a Young Married Couple.
Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden; New York: Nelson and Phillips, 1873.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Dorr, a poet and novelist, lived most of her life in Vermont. Her essays on the ingredients for a good marriage, serialized in a New England journal under the titles “Letters to a Young Wife” and “Letters to a Young Husband,” were collected in this volume and published without her approval.