Date of Award

5-2006

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Misty Anderson

Committee Members

Nancy Goslee, Richard Kelly, Frederick Moffatt

Abstract

In Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 Jane Eyre, Rochester’s housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax responds to Jane with certain dismay at the thought of her forty-year-old master marrying the twenty-five-year-old Blanche Ingram: “I should scarcely fancy Mr. Rochester would entertain an idea of the sort” (163). Yet to Mrs. Fairfax’s great surprise,Rochester later makes an “unequal match” with an even greater disparity in age to Jane, ultimately bringing the novel to a sentimental close. Marriages with large age differences form an important narrative frame in nineteenth-century British literature, and they conveniently merge disruptive and conservative forces. Although they play with normative codes of sexual propriety and gender identity, they find legitimacy and acceptance through their allegiances to literary, social, and legal conventions.

This study examines the literature of the nineteenth century that engages the theme of an older husband and a younger wife—what I call the theme of the January-May marriage. The focus of my study spans the long nineteenth century, from Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 A Simple Story to Bernard Shaw’s 1898 Mrs. Warren’s Profession, covering some of the most canonical works of the period such as Byron’s Don Juan, Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Eliot’s Middlemarch, as well as lesser known texts like Browning’s Pippa Passes, Geraldine Ensor Jewsbury’s Zoe, and Trollope’s An Old Man’s Love. While this project includes works from a variety of genres (novels, poetry, plays, paintings), evaluates marriages with varied age differences (the difference in Emma is sixteen years, but in Nicholas Nickleby, the difference is over fifty years), and discusses the works of authors who wrote from assorted gender, economic, sexual and historical perspectives, the dissertation offers nuanced readings of how intergenerational marriages negotiate exchanges between gender and power.

January-May marriages have thus far served as pat examples of women’s victimization and oppression within a patriarchal society, though some literary critics have begun to investigate the intricate connections between age, gender and power more fully. James Kincaid’s work on the eroticized child and Catherine Robson’s study on girlhood are important precursors to my own work. However, whereas their investigations probe the image of the child and issues of pedophilia, my query moves the sexual “deviancy” of child-loving into the culturally sanctified and seemingly normative marriage union and expands notions of childhood, sometimes reading the babyish younger wife as the child and sometimes the infantilized older husband. Moreover, though this theme appears grounded in a fundamentally heterosexual rubric, my work theorizes a complex relationship between age and gender that rejects such conventional restrictions on identity. Building upon the works of gender theorists like Thomas Laqueur and Michel Foucault, my project finds that literary January-May marriages respond to peculiarly nineteenth-century anxieties regarding gender roles and, organized into thematic chapters, the dissertation analyzes the theme as parody, as incest, as aesthetics, as horror, as economics, and as love.

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