By reading the early English novel in conjunction with contemporary legal texts on marriage—parliamentary acts and debates, case law, marriage settlements, and private separation deeds—I demonstrate that eighteenth-century English marriage law and practice was constituted through a variety of conflicting legal fictions.
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I further demonstrate that the early novel was preoccupied with how those fictions shaped the lived experience of domesticity, particularly for women. The fictional precepts and presumptions underwriting emerging contract theory and traditional marriage doctrine at once directed and circumscribed proto modern developments in marriage, property, and divorce law.
Moreover, the novel, in its mimetic and ideological capacities, variously worked to expose, advance, and revise those fictions, thereby amplifying and altering their historical force. Examining the dialectical relationship between legal texts and the novels of Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jane Austen, this project challenges traditional conceptions of the law as stable, objective, and truth-bearing, and it demonstrates the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to historical inquiry.
Each chapter explores the legal fictions implicated at a particular stage in the marriage contracting process.
Wolfram Schmidgen | Department of English
Chapter one, on marriage formation, focuses on the principles of the then-emerging theory of contract development. Collectively, these chapters chart the entire trajectory of marriage, from start to finish. Parents: This work has no parents.
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The origins of this striking appreciation of mixture can be found in the political and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century. By retrieving early modern arguments for the civilizing effects of mixture, Schmidgen helps us confront the political and ethical limits of our current fascination with the idea of hybridity.
Professor Schmidgen is working on an intellectual history of literary innovation in early eighteenth-century culture. This history seeks to situate the emergence of the novel—for literary historians still the dominant symptom of innovation in the period—in a broader narrative about literary change in an anti-essentialist age. The culture of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain is rarely credited with tolerance of diversity; this period saw a rising pride in national identity, the expansion of colonialism, and glorification of the Anglo-Saxon roots of the country.
Yet at the same time, Wolfram Schmidgen observes, the concept of mixture became a critical element of Britons' belief in their own superiority. While the scientific, political, and religious establishment of the early s could not imagine that anything truly formed, virtuous, or durable could be produced by mixing unlike kinds or merging absolute forms, intellectuals at the end of the century asserted that mixture could produce superior languages, new species, flawless ideas, and resilient civil societies.
In Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property, Wolfram Schmidgen draws on legal and economic writings to analyze the description of houses, landscapes, and commodities in eighteenth-century fiction.
His study argues that such descriptions are important to the British imagination of community. By making visible what it means to own something, they illuminate how competing concepts of property define the boundaries of the individual, of social community, and of political systems. In this way, Schmidgen recovers description as a major feature of eighteenth-century prose, and he makes his case across a wide range of authors, including Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, William Blackstone, Adam Smith, and Ann Radcliffe.
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