Marriage was a very important part of Victorian society—much like the role of women. Again, like gender roles, writers turned to their pens to express their views and explore the topic of marriage. From William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, we know marriage was valued by society. The poem explains the trial of Queen Guenevere for committing adultery with her husband’s chief knight Launcelot. Clearly, if Guenevere had to undergo a trial, adultery was a serious offence in the Victorian era. While Guenevere holds to her innocence throughout the poem, she often explains her loveless marriage to her husband Arthur. She talks about the clock ticking “to her unhappy pulse, that beat right through [her] eager body” as she began to be less careful about hiding her affair (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 562). The “unhappy pulse” refers to her feelings in her marriage to Arthur, while her “eager body” refers to her feelings about Launcelot during their affair. Her loveless, unhappy marriage is contrasted with her exciting, new, and happy affair. So, if her marriage was so awful, why didn’t Guenevere simply file for a divorce and start a public relationship with Launcelot? Look at the trial for her adultery. Her affair caused massive uproar, enough to put her on trial. Therefore, the response to divorce during this time was likely similar, perhaps even more than for adultery. Tying back to gender roles, a woman asking for a divorce would have been extremely unacceptable, even aside from the divorce itself. Women were expected to be morally right and submissive to men, so asking for a divorce would have gone directly against their social role and the norms of the time. This left Guenevere and women like her trapped in fruitless marriages, burdened by unhappiness and longing for love and happiness.
Supporting this idea of unhappy marriages trapping couples during this time is George Meredith’s Modern Love. In Sonnet One, he paints the picture of a failing, miserable marriage, punctuated by “strange low sobs that shook their common bed,” “dead black years,” and “wishing for the sword that severs all” (Meredith, 1862). The sobs show the despair of the couple. The “dead black years” show both the length of their marriage and their feelings during the union. The “wishing for the sword” shows their huge desire for the marriage to end, even wishing for death as an alternative to being trapped in the marriage. These again tie to the view of divorce during the Victorian age. If divorce were accepted, the marriage would have ended much before the couple had stayed together long enough to look back on “dead black years” and unhappy couples would have ended their marriage before wishing for death because they could not.
Sonnet Seventeen also illustrates a couple stuck in their dismal marriage, as Meredith explains the two of them “hiding the skeleton” of their true feelings during a dinner party (Meredith, 1862). Couples had to act happy, even if their marriage was failing, as they longed for true love and happy marriages. Again, the social norms of the time prohibited divorce, forcing many couples to become actors playing happy spouses to avoid creating waves in their community. It must have been horribly difficult and defeating to have to put on a happy face for every encounter with others, only to strip away the mask and reveal sadness and despair behind closed doors. Like the roles of men and women in Victorian society, we can pull information about Victorian marriages and social norms from the works of authors lamenting about loveless unions, fear of the social reaction of getting a divorce, and the stifling trap of unhappy marriages for each spouse.
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2019). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton & Company.
Meredith, G. (1862). Modern Love. Retrieved from ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/modern-love.