Book Review Maia McAleavey’s The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel (Cambridge UP, 2015)

Book Review by Ashton Foley
Maia McAleavey’s The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel (Cambridge UP, 2015)

Published as part of the Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture series

Maia McAleavey’s The Bigamy Plot (2015) offers a fresh perspective on Victorian canonical and popular literature. Cutting across plot rather than genre lines, McAleavey explores the bigamy plot and its various iterations across a variety of texts, including Dickens in David Copperfield and Braddon in Lady Audley’s Secret, as well as non-prose works like ballads. Unlike its standard nineteenth-century counterpart the courtship plot, the bigamy plot allows for “a wide range of variations” in how plot is executed, while also opening up a richer understanding of Victorian culture (2). For contemporary Victorian readers, the presence of bigamy within a plot became a familiar trope after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, showing what McAleavey calls “reactionary nostalgia prompted by divorce” (6). McAleavey organizes her text around various classifications of the bigamy plot, offering ample historical background and literary analysis within each classification.

Part I explores the effects of the bigamy plot across both time and space within the story. According to McAleavey, “bigamy compresses the appropriate transition central to the ancestral home (which houses multiple spouses over time) into a dangerous overlap (multiple spouses cohabiting in one space)” (49). Transitional time, in this instance, is the time needed between marriages if one were to remarry legally after the demise of a first spouse. This temporal and spatial compression is accomplished by two variations on what McAleavey calls the “spouse in the house,” where either an old spouse is locked within the house while a new one is installed; or, an old spouse returns disguised as someone else (the governess, for example, in East Lynne). Jane Eyre, as McAleavey points out, is an often-cited work featuring a “spouse in the house” with Bertha Mason locked in the attic. In addition to the dual occupation of the house, the recurrence of events in the same places also creates this collapse between time and space, McAleavey argues. The settings where “certain plot events recur…–bedrooms, drawing rooms, locked wings—generate and regenerate narrative” as the new spouse performs the same actions as the previous one did in these same spaces (61).

Part II turns to McAleavey’s classification of the “dead, yet not dead” iteration of the bigamy plot. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Aurora Floyd both rely on this iteration of the bigamy plot. In some texts, such as Dickens’s David Copperfield, the second spouse is foreshadowed while the first one still lives. This dynamic is complicated by religious tones in such texts that espouse a “Victorian religious worldview that imagines a heavenly reunion with a beloved family and, especially, with a beloved spouse” (71). Not only are the earthly limits of time and space compounded by the existence of dual spouses, but the reunion of husband and wife in the afterlife muddied by having husbands and/or wives. David Copperfield, as McAleavey’s analysis reveals, offers a congenial and cooperative view of this triad as the first wife names her successor prior to her demise, and the three may live in both earthly and heavenly harmony. McAleavey references the popular “angel in the house” image of a Victorian wife from Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House as made literal through the on looking of the dead spouse from heaven (87). George Eliot’s Middlemarch, on the other hand, reveals a similar simultaneity of current and future spouses, but without a religious tone. Unlike the congenial acknowledgement of succession in David Copperfield, the first spouse in Middlemarch recognizes his possible successor, and takes legal action to prevent such a union from occurring. McAleavey argues that “[a]though Dorothea does not commit bigamy in Middlemarch, Eliot’s complex narrative structure…underscore[es] the simultaneous relationships [Dorothea] develops with [first husband] Casaubon and [second husband] Will” (95). Both texts offer a double or repeated plot, where the “second love story is born out of the first, and shares the stage for an uncomfortable period with its predecessor” (97).

In the final chapters of the text, Part III offers some of the many cultural and textual implications of the bigamy plot. A common trope in Victorian literature, the spouse who travels to “the Colonies” in a bigamy plot comes to complicate contemporary conceptions of colonial rule, McAleavey argues. Goods and people were thought to flow from the metropole outward to the colonies, and the “return of these bigamous subjects militates against the expectations of imperial space set by the powerful metropole-periphery model of colonial relations” (116). McAleavey also returns to an interrogation of the effects of the bigamy plot on the courtship narrative. McAleavey posits that “[b]igamy foregrounds and transforms two elements central to the narrative portrayal of courtship and marriage: courtship’s association with personal choice and the formal use of marriage as an ending” (142). If the point of a courtship novel is to end up married, then the bigamy plot disrupts this by showing that the first marriage was not the end. The various avenues open to characters through the bigamy plot’s various recurrences mark a “radical divergence from courtship’s norms” (142). This use of the bigamy plot’s techniques “confound[s] the Victorian novel’s tendency to depict personal identity as a single, coherent narrative, concluding in marriage or death” (4).

McAleavey’s reading of the bigamy plot offers a contemporary model for scholars interested in working outside of the confines of genre. Her literary analyses likewise show the rich analytic possibilities that open when canonical and popular fiction is put into conversation with their similarities, rather than differences, as the focal point.

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