Outlandish fictions: The eighteenth-century French novel and marriage on women's terms
Focusing on plots that depict life after marriage, this dissertation studies the novel as a medium for imagining a spousal relationship transformed to promote new positive social, political, and familial roles and possibilities for women. I re-establish these fictions’ thrust as primarily concerned with individual freedom and fulfillment, rather than with affection in marriage. I begin by exploring the relationship between the rising appeal of conjugal sentiment and the novel, situating the genre within the general context of social and political shift in eighteenth-century France. Viewing emergent subversive marriage plots in light of the founding seventeenth-century tradition tying the novel genre to women’s interests, I suggest that attempts to contain fictions deemed “outlandish” may have warped our present vision of the “heroine’s plot,” or the range of roles and experiences imagined for women by Enlightenment novelists.
Chapter 1 examines how specific changes in marital legislation wrought by the centralizing French state progressively limited women’s legal and social prerogatives, showing that the novel of marriage engaged with these concerns from the outset through a study of Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678). Subsequent chapters consider novels that envision marriage as a platform for societal transformation. In Chapter 2, I compare fictional utopian communities created through the heroine’s conjugal union: the contained patriarchal autarky of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and the expanding matriarchy of Le Prince de Beaumont’s La Nouvelle Clarice (1767). Chapter 3 analyzes Riccoboni’s portrayal of the platonic marriage of M. and Mme de Monglas in Lettres de Vallière (1772), an explicitly aristocratic vision of the ideal matrimonial relationship that insists on the fundamental importance of women’s control of their body and their sexuality by privileging friendship and arranged marriage over the destructive forces of romantic passion. Finally, the mise-en-abîme of reading’s effect on the conjugal relationship of the heroines of Charrière’s Lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784) and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield (1786), interrogates the genre’s potential influence on marriage.
The dissertation draws attention to eighteenth-century novels that have to date been understudied, and proposes new readings of prominent Enlightenment fictions that foreground questions of authority, the evolution of family relations, and women’s roles in the private and public sphere.
0440: European Studies
0453: Womens studies