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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

3 - Breaking apart: the early Victorian divorce novel


In 1881 Emile Zola complained that legalized divorce would be the ruin of literature because it would make marital misery solvable and thus rob the novelist of his subject matter. But despite Zola's anxieties, when expanded access to divorce came to France and England, literature was not ruined, but instead new subjects and new structures developed to integrate marital breakdown and remarriage into the plot. In fact, the introduction of divorce into the conventional marriage plot resulted in a disruption of form that made the novel more multi-voiced, more diffuse, more open-ended – divorce, in other words, is a factor in the development of the modernist and postmodernist experiments in narrative form.

Naturally, since divorce was practically impossible before the mid nineteenth century, only a handful of novels talked about it in the first half of the century. But the debates about divorce reform in the decade leading up to the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 (known popularly as the Divorce Reform Act) were coupled with a small flurry of narratives which were at least partially about divorce, the most well known though not necessarily the most interesting being Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens.

After the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, there was a slow but steady increase in the number of novels that featured divorce – as an action thought about, or sometimes attempted, or less frequently, achieved. Not until the 1880s, however, did divorced characters figure in significant ways in the novel.