The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Divorce Court it created were hailed by some contemporary observers as "one of the greatest social revolutions of our time." Among the many "revolutionary" consequences of this new Court was an increased legal and social recognition of psychological cruelty in marriage and, through the journalistic reportage of its proceedings, the creation of a new reading public that had become fascinated with tales of marital strife. This essay suggests and examines a correlation between these legal and social changes and the emphasis found in George Eliot's fiction on silence as a sign of matrimonial conflict. Throughout Eliot's fiction, from "Janet's Repentance" in Scenes of Clerical Life, through to Felix Holt and Middlemarch, and culminating in the portrayal of Henleigh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda, there is a progressive emphasis on the nonphysical signs of matrimonial conflict and, in particular, on the oppressive power of silence in sexual relationships. Eliot's use of silence to evoke this experience reflects a new social awareness of psychological cruelty in marriage, one that was being formally recognized in the law courts at this time. But by hinting at a form of matrimonial cruelty so terrible that it must remain veiled, Eliot's use of silence also functions as a rhetorical device that whets a new public appetite for tales of matrimonial conflict.
- Copyright 1995 The Regents of the University of California