Melissa Ganz, an assistant professor of English, approached the contemporary debate of state regulation of marriage from an unconventional angle when she presented her extensive research of 19th-century novelists and their approaches to marriage last Friday.
The presentation was part of faculty-led discussions sponsored by the Association of English Graduate Students.
Ganz said that the concept of marriage in the 18th century was drastically different from the modern approach. Marriage was commonly viewed as an exchange between men, especially in England, echoing the patriarchal reality of society, she said.
Ganz said she found that while novelists such as Frances Burney, Daniel Defoe and Mary Wollstonecraft saw marriage as a public institution that required regulation by the church and government, they also believed that marriage was an exchange between individuals. Female characters in their novels often went against the societal norm of arranged marriage and selected their future husbands.
Though she researched all three novelists and other historical documents, Ganz specifically presented on the societal nuances of “The Wanderer,” a novel written by Burney in 1814 about a woman who escapes the French Revolution and flees to England, where her past dominates her present.
“My project shows the central role that novels played in debates about marriage in the 18th century and also the ways in which novels can help us think through pressing legal and ethical questions that persist to this day,” Ganz said.
While relationships were different historically, Ganz said, these novels can still be relevant in the current debate about state and church approval of personal relationships.
“We can turn to the novels today to consider the value and limits of different models of marriage as well as the role of the state in making marriage a more equal and just institution,” she said.
Ganz, who has been writing her book manuscript “Public Vows: Fictions of Marriage in the English Enlightenment,” since graduate school, was inspired to write on the topic by her legal background as well as her literary interest.
“What is exciting to me about the project is that it enables me to combine literary analysis with legal and cultural history,” Ganz said. “I bring imaginative writers, in other words, into dialogue with clerics, jurists, philosophers and social thinkers.”
Ganz said that Burney, who wrote her novel over a 14-year period, was troubled by France’s new approach to marriage as a civil contract. Burney supported England’s marriage law, although she disagreed with the requirement of parental permission for women under 21. The differences between the laws in these two countries represented an ongoing legal debate between liberty and restraint.
Ganz’s presentation led to some discussion about the idea of divorce. One attendee said she was surprised that Burney’s heroine needed legal assurance that her “civil marriage” in France was annulled before consenting to marry her English suitor. Ganz said Burney was concerned about the slippery slope of self-divorce and how that delegitimized civil marriages.
Association of English Graduate Students has held four discussions so far this school year on topics such as ecology in science fiction and feminism. Katy Leedy, president of AEGS, said the discussions serve as a place for English professors to discuss their work.
By giving professors an outlet to present this research, the group hopes to spark conversations within the department.
“Our goals are to foster community in the department, to learn more about professors’ current projects and to encourage further scholarly discussion,” Leedy said.