All the world believed that she did really love her black-haired, florid, big-fisted Plutus, who was not a gentleman for all his acres; and that he in turn loved his faded, elderly, ultra-refined wife; and the belief counted as a medal of gold and a chain of silver in their honour.
This cynical comment from Eliza Lynn Linton's novel Patricia Kemball describes the marriage of Jabez Hamley, a self-made businessman and bully in the Bounderby mould, with the ladylike Rosina Kemball, twenty years his senior. In many respects it represents the low watermark reached by marriage in the English middle-class novel three quarters of the way through the century, when images of early Dickensian dimpling girl-brides and rosy-cheeked children were looking outmoded, even to Dickens himself. Of course the unequal marriage – whether in terms of age or status – had long been the staple material of comedy; but in the later Victorian novel, it becomes a new source of tragic social concern, as, for instance, in the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch. Moreover, it was not just the unequal marriage that novelists explored, but the failed marriage of all kinds. It was as if the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which recognized a more widespread need for divorce, gave novelists fresh license to query the state their writing traditionally celebrated as the desirable norm.
The novelists one might have expected to correct the picture are the antifeminists: novelists such as Charlotte M. Yonge, Eliza Lynn Linton, Mary (Mrs. Humphry) Ward, and Margaret Oliphant, who agreed that women essentially belonged at home – ideally as wives, but failing that, as dutiful single daughters or sisters.