I Do?

Women, Consent, and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England

University of Toronto Press

2024 (advance contract)

This book applies contemporary general consent theory to middle- and upper-class girls and women during their marital life cycles in nineteenth-century England. Due to law and custom, girls and women’s consent was partial, illegitimate, or absent from courtship through widowhood. Female consent restrictions blanketed the nation. Many of the issues termed “The Woman Question” revolved around consent, so consent problems helped drive national politics. Some novelists trained female readers to consent to this status quo. Other novelists enabled female readers to experience consent vicariously in fiction. Further, activist authors tried to push those readers to advocate for legal consent reform, albeit with limited success. Going forward, I Do? encourages scholars to interrogate more strongly girls and women’s motivations and behaviors vis-à-vis marriage in nineteenth-century England.

Elizabeth Bennet’s Proposal Scenes and Nonconsensual Consent

Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


Nineteenth-century British domestic fiction commonly uses varieties of the same model of consent: single women receive proposals from their first serious male suitors, resolve some conflicts, and marry those suitors. Novelists rarely depict a world in which women have, say, three viable options—singleness and two desirable suitors. Indeed, in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has three nonviable options—singleness and two undesirable suitors. Elizabeth and William Collins’s debate about consent is the most famously misguided proposal in nineteenth-century British novels, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s proposals to Elizabeth helped Austen and Pride and Prejudice become the century’s most famous novelist and novel, respectively, of courtship and marriage. While unable to do more for her beloved Elizabeth than provide the conventional choice between singleness and marriage, Austen at least protests that women’s consent was socio-legally perceived as just that: women’s consent. Austen both skewers the contemporary view of women’s consent to an engagement as immaterial and warns of the ramifications of a society that does not take seriously women’s thoughts and speech. Further, Austen shows that nonconsensual consent only becomes legitimate consent when men progressively reform on gender equality and women initiate more consent opportunities. Pride and Prejudice at least presents the tantalizing possibility to female readers that they could consent or dissent and (eventually) arise victoriously, custom be damned. In that way, Austen anticipated modern consent theory.

“Nothing That She Could Allege Against Him in Judicious or Judicial Ears”:

“Consensual” Marital Abuse in Victorian Literature

George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies


This article expands scholarship by Kate Lawson and Lynn Shakinovsky, Suzanne Rintoul, Lisa Surridge, and Marlene Tromp on marital abuse in nineteenth-century British fiction. Due to William Blackstone’s theory of coverture, wives allegedly consented on their wedding days to future abuse. Further, Matthew Bacon legalized physical and emotional marital abuse, and Matthew Hale established the marital rape exemption. The public, including nonfiction writers, erroneously asserted that marital abuse existed almost entirely in the lower classes, but fiction writers countered that myth by showing “consensual” abuse in middle- and upper-class marriages. With middle-class physical and emotional marital abuse in “Janet’s Repentance” and upper-class sexual marital abuse in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot shows all marital abuse as nonconsensual and enabled more overt condemnations of upper-class sexual marital abuse from George Egerton’s “Virgin Soil” and John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property and In Chancery.

“She Sins While She Remains Away”:

Marital Consent, Restitution of Conjugal Rights, and Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Novels

Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature


This article shows how Matthew Bacon’s A New Abridgment of the Law (1736) and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) enabled restitution of conjugal rights, which forced deserting spouses to reenter their homes in nineteenth-century England. If husbands had legally abused their wives physically, emotionally, and/or sexually and wives fled the home because they lacked other options, husbands’ suits almost certainly indicated their determination to continue abuse. Just as wives allegedly consented to abuse in the first place, then, they would have to “consent” to its renewal. While this legal phenomenon was otherwise ignored in nineteenth-century British literature, this article reveals Anthony Trollope as the only Victorian to plot restitution in his novels—specifically, Phineas Finn: The Irish Member (1869) and Phineas Redux (1873). After Lady Laura Kennedy attempts to retract her marital consent through desertion, her emotionally abusive husband ponders a suit for restitution, which provokes Lady Laura to flee England and its consent laws rather than commit suicide, in turn rousing her husband’s smear campaign of her in the complicit British press. Trollope argues that since Lady Laura did not anticipate the marital abuse to which she allegedly consented as a bride, her consent should be rendered null and void. Since consent and restitution have permanently ruined the heroine by the end of Phineas Redux, Trollope advises female readers to think long and hard before proffering their marital consent. Once given, it was nearly impossible to retract, regardless of the condition of the marital home. Trollope asserts that “consenting” wives who had been subject to abuse and then restitution cases were caught between a rock and a hard place—tortured if they remained in the home but outcast if they fled it. Tragically, this remained the case until England ended restitution of conjugal rights in 1891.

“When a Daughter Elopes to Gretna, Generally It Is a Wicked Thing”:

Female Consent, Clandestine Marriage, and Susannah Frances Reynolds’s Gretna Green; Or, All for Love

ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews


This article begins from Lord Hardwicke’s Act and the Marriage Act 1823, which required plenty of nineteenth-century English grooms to obtain the consent of prospective fathers-in-law before marrying their under-21-year-old daughters. Young women who wanted to consent independently could choose to flee the country for “clandestine weddings,” customarily in Gretna Green, Scotland. These brides were sometimes perceived as un-English for breaking English law and unfeminine for spurning The Angel in the House ideal. By marrying men of their choice on their terms in their chosen location, they acted adult instead of infantile, assertive instead of passive, controlling instead of controlled, disobedient instead of obedient, independent instead of chaperoned, self-interested instead of selfless, and sexual instead of asexual—all viewed as undesirable. Excepting Lisa O’Connell, critics have overlooked Scottish clandestine marriage novels, although they almost always supported the English patriarchal way of life against young women’s independent marital consent. Notably, all of these novelists were female, and their criticism of other women shows the extent to which Britons—even women oppressed by Lord Hardwicke’s Act and the Marriage Act—nearly uniformly supported those laws, enabling those laws to continue infantilizing young women. Susannah Frances Reynolds addresses these clandestine weddings the most conservatively and didactically in her novel Gretna Green (1848). Because Lady Arabella Faulkner refuses to request her father’s consent, Reynolds banishes her and her fiancé into a clandestine wedding in Gretna Green, later souring the marriage with estrangement, poverty, and death. Eventually, Reynolds shames this formerly headstrong fiancée into a sober wife who regrets her independent marital consent. Reynolds’s support of the Marriage Act and warning to female readers applied until England removed male consent control over minors’ weddings in 1925.

“You Could Be Judas”

Pudd’nhead Wilson‘s Black Slaveowner

Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South


Taking an interdisciplinary approach from literary studies, history, and Critical Race Theory, this article first presents the little-known historical phenomenon of black slaveowners in the Antebellum South, and then this article reveals Tom Driscoll, the central character in Mark Twain’s 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, as a black slaveowner. These racial and class conflicts allowed Twain to explore the notions of a divided self and internalized racism before asserting, amidst the nineteenth century’s debate about race and character, that environmental training, not biological determinism, causes moral flaws.