The controversial Victorian novel that advocated the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act

It was once illegal in Britain for a woman to marry her dead sister’s husband. Legally, they were viewed as brother and sister, making such marriages incestuous. While it may seem strange now, this was a hot topic for Victorians and many argued that it should be legal.

William Gladstone, Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, was one of many Victorians who advocated the repeal of the Act on the grounds that the ecclesiastical law on which it was based was open to interpretation. He argued that on this basis these marriages were already legal in the colonies and that the law that declared the union illegal confirmed that political marriages performed before 1835 were sanctioned, putting a disparity within the law. He also highlighted how the rich could circumvent the law by marrying on the mainland, while the poor had no such recourse, creating an inherent inequality within society.

However, the law was not finally repealed until 1907, 72 years after the Marriage Act of 1835 first put it into effect. Part of the scandal inherent in this law was the suggestion that female desire might exist before marriage, that a woman might sexually desire her sister’s husband. This, combined with the implication of incest, meant that the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act became far more controversial and divisive than anyone had anticipated when it was first passed.

Dinah Craik was one of many authors intrigued by this controversy and writing on the subject. Craik was a popular author of domestic fiction, which were books centered on women’s home lives, written by and for women. Craik had cultivated a reputation as a respectable, middle-class author and even a matron. Although her writing was sometimes considered old-fashioned, this reputation enabled her to write on controversial topics without appearing too controversial herself.

One of the ways Craik did this was through his novel, Hannah. The book was first published as a series in Saint Pauls magazine in 1871 in order to “[catch] the session” in parliament when this issue was being debated. The novel was then collected into a complete book by Harper and Brothers in 1872, making 2022 its 150th anniversary.

She is not a typical heroine

In Hannah, Craik focused on the person-based narrative of this issue rather than the facts and statistics being spread in parliament. She drew attention to the effect the act had on women of all classes. One such woman is the namesake Hannah, a 30-year-old governess. She is not particularly young or attractive and, more importantly, she is not your typical romantic heroine.

Her beautiful younger sister has just died in childbirth and her brother-in-law, Bernard, whom Hannah has only seen once, invites her into his home as a “dear sister” to help raise the baby. However, two single people of the opposite sex living together were considered scandalous in society, despite their apparent sibling status, a fact referenced by several characters.

By the end of the novel, Hannah and Bernard have fallen in love, in part due to their shared love for the baby, positioning it as nurturing rather than sexual love. They leave England forever for France, where such marriages were legal.

An illustration from an edition of Hannah published in 1872.

Two unlucky women from different classes.

The novel also has two separate subplots. The first follows Hannah’s maid, who was tricked into marriage by her brother-in-law, James Dixon, after her sister’s death.

Grace, the maid, is a virtuous but ill-educated woman who is ignorant of the ins and outs of the law. When her brother-in-law convinces her to marry him to raise her sister’s children, Grace agrees for the sake of the children not knowing that it makes her own later child illegitimate. she. Her argument, that such marriages are common among the working class who cannot pay anyone to raise their children except a wife, blinds her to the fact that, while common, such marriages are technically illegal. When Dixon gets tired of her, he leaves Grace and her child, and Grace has no legal recourse to protest it. She is left as a disgraced woman.

The other subplot features Adeline, a lady, who watches her sister flirt with her husband. Due to the restrictions of the law, such flirtations cannot go any further and are therefore considered “harmless”. She worries that if she were to report this behavior, she would be “mocked” as a “sick-minded, jealous fool.”

Although Adeline acknowledges that neither her husband nor her sister would actively break the law, “there are many bad things that break a wife’s heart.” Watching this unfold before her and knowing that she may not have any recourse to protest, Adeline is consumed with jealousy of her and dies. As she pitifully cries “no one will blame you for anything; and yet they have killed me.”

So, this law referred to more than just the deceased. It was mainly about the impact on those left behind, specifically women of all classes, at the mercy of men and the laws they make.

Black and white photograph of an older woman.
Dinah Maria Craik was known for writing domestic fiction that gave her a level of respectability when exploring more controversial topics.
National Portrait Gallery, London., CC BY-NC

By using the poignant stories of these three women, Craik was able to remove some of the controversial stigmas around the issue and also engage women in political debate in a way that they might otherwise have been excluded.

Contemporary reaction to Hannah was not overwhelmingly positive. It is always difficult to precisely quantify the effect that individual works have in shaping public opinion, but literary scholar Elisabeth Rose Gruner argues that Hannah influenced every pro-reform pamphlet published after her publication. Craik’s work is arguably the most famous pro-repeal story and sets the template for the sexless middle-aged couple, who would effectively become the central figures used by the champions of the repeal movement to ultimately win the day.

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