Public Vows: Fictions of Marriage in the English Enlightenment


Public Vows: Fictions of Marriage in the English Enlightenment



In eighteenth-century England, the institution of marriage became the subject of heated debates, as clerics, jurists, legislators, philosophers, and social observers began rethinking its contractual foundation. Public Vows argues that these debates shaped English fiction in crucial and previously unrecognized ways and that novels, in turn, played a central role in the debates.

Like many legal and social thinkers of their day, novelists such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Eliza Fenwick, and Amelia Opie imagine marriage as a public institution subject to regulation by church and state rather than a private agreement between two free individuals. Through recurring scenes of infidelity, fraud, and coercion as well as experiments with narrative form, these writers show the practical and ethical problems that result when couples attempt to establish and dissolve unions simply by exchanging consent. Even as novelists seek to shore up the legal regulation of marriage, however, they contest the specific forms that these regulations take.

In recovering novelists’ engagements with the nuptial controversies of the Enlightenment, Public Vows challenges longstanding accounts of domestic fiction as contributing to sharp divisions between public and private life and as supporting the traditional, patriarchal family. At the same time, the book counters received views of law and literature, highlighting fiction’s often simultaneous affirmations and critiques of legal authority.



Publication Date



University of Virginia Press


Charlottesville VA


English Language and Literature


Melissa Ganz adds a crucial new dimension to our understanding of fictional marriage plots and to the legal debates with which they are intertwined. Engagingly written and impeccably researched, Public Vows makes a new case for the importance of fiction as a testing ground for the status of marriage law as a feminist concern.

-Susan S. Lanser, Brandeis University, author of The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830

Ganz provocatively reimagines the relations between consent and coercion, law and equity, and public and private, showing how eighteenth-century writings offer startlingly prescient anticipations of contemporary problems.

-Simon Stern, University of Toronto, editor of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book II: Of the Rights of Things



Introduction: Marriage, Law, and the Novel

1. Conjugal Bonds: Freedom and Wedlock in Daniel Defoe

2. Nuptial Plots: Private Unions and Public Pledges in Samuel Richardson

3. "Ah! Stop! I Consent to What You Please!": Secret Matches and Coerced Unions in Frances Burney

4. "'Tis Our Hearts Alone That Can Bind the Vow": Love and Law from Fenwick to Wollstonecraft





Public Vows: Fictions of Marriage in the English Enlightenment