Susan Staves, "British Seduced Maidens,"
Eighteenth-Century Studies 14 (1980-81): 109-34.
available through the electronic library database JSTOR. You can get access
to this through the USF Library website, under
Also read Blackstone's Commentary on the laws of England:
gives you a sense of how marriages were made and dissolved in the eighteenth
century, as well
as some of the legal consequences of marriage. Pay particular attention
to the last paragraphs.
Begin reading Roxana
POST # 1 (Group A)
- To establish what marriage was like in the eighteenth century in England, and why
it is such a significant decision to make.
- To sign up for presentation dates.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. "British Seduced Maidens"
I've asked you to read this article because it provides important historical information on how
people in eighteenth-century British culture understood marriage and family. The article uses
both legal and fictional evidence to suggest three important historical developments over the
course of the period we are studying.
Women are on the way toward equal status (in family, society, law)
The law increasingly moves away from ecclesiastical authority to civil authority
There is a gradual move away from the idea of people being property (daughters, wives, etc.)
Although we won't be reading many of the novels Staves mentions, her article will alert you to
some of the key issues in the novels we do read. Do your best to understand the article, and please
bring any questions you have to discuss in class.
Staves begins her article by questioning how realistic the fictions/novels of the eighteenth
century were with respect to the representation of the pathetic seduced maiden. Her answer is
that they are very realistic in two important ways: by demonstrating the secularization of the
culture around seduction and marriage and by showing fathers as chief victims in seduction of
daughters. Significantly, she writes, "The relationship between law and literature here is not
one of allusion or influence, but rather that the novels and the legal fictions of the seduction
actions are two parallel fictions exemplifying in two different spheres similar kinds of historical
changes" (110). What does this mean? How does this affect your understanding of novels?
She structures the remainder of this article around two other questions:
1) Why is the eighteenth century fascinated by pathetic seduced maidens? (begins p. 114)
2) What exactly is being mourned in these displays of pathos? (begins 121)
How does she answer these questions? Summarize her main points.
After p. 122 she begins a history of the legal institutions and the trend toward secularization.
While this may be dense, it is important information. What questions does it raise for you?
On page 125 Staves makes an argument that Puritan reform of law was not aimed at removing
Christian morality, but rather limiting the legal authority of the churches and
making such morality the basis of civil structure. How does this complicate your understanding
of "secularization"? How is this (or is this) different from notions of separate church and state?
Staves mentions the 1753 Marriage Act, sometimes called the Hardwick act, but she doesn't provide
a thorough explanation of it. You can look this up in this Encyclopedia Brittanica through the
online database or find additional information on your own. You will come across the effects of
this law while reading Blackstone's Commentaries; see in particular the 3rd incapacity to
marriage by municipal law; to wit, the lack of consent of guardians or parents.
We will be discussing this law and
others as they come into importance in our reading.
The cases and novels Staves discusses all demonstrate how the laws on marriage and seduction action
moved from ecclesiastical to secular courts and remedies. What were these remedies or solutions?
What about these recourses strikes you as "strange" or at least different from your own culture?
In the end Staves briefly argues that the changes in laws throughout the period we are studying
(roughly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) signaled a progression from seeing wives and
daughters in terms of family status to considering them as individuals in their own terms. What
evidence for this does she provide? How does this suggest greater consideration of the individual?
2. Blackstone's Commentaries
Blackstone's Commentary on the laws of England:
This website version, provided by the Avalon project at Yale Law School, uses the following
source: Commentaries on the Laws of England by Blackstone, William, Sir, 1723-1780
4 v. : 2 geneal. tables ;27 cm. (4to); First Edition, Oxford : Printed at the
Clarendon Press, 1765-1769.
This popular work condenses the common law of England. It went through 13 editions by 1800.
These other editions, with further notations and commentary, are available in facsimile online
versions through the Eighteenth Century Collection Online available through
USF library from Gale.
Please note that the website version tries to replicate the eighteenth-century font of the "long
S" by using an "f". This leads to some confusion. Please try to substitue the "s" for "f" where
Blackstone comments on "this innovation upon our antient laws and constitution," (i.e. the 1753
Marriage act that requires the marriage banns to be announced, requires a license, and forbids
marriage under the age of 21 without consent of parents or guardians). One of the detriments of this
marriage is the voiding of marriages among the lower classes. Why would this be so? How do you
explain Blackstone's concern here?
Note finally that once the parties are willing and able to contract a marriage, they must do so
in the prescribed manner. What are the conditions necessary to make a valid marriage?
What are the terms of total divorce or "a vinculo matrimonii"?
What are the terms of partial divorce or "a mensa et thoro" or separation from bed and board?
Why is "incontinence" or adultery "the only cause, why a man may put away his wife and marry another?"
Pay particular attention to the section beginning "By marriage, the husband and wife are one
person in law," a concept know as femme couvert. What are the consequences of this law? What are
the legal rationales for this system?
In what sense is the wife inferior to the husband in law?
What does Blackstone mean when he says the law allows the husband to give his wife moderate
The objective for this class is to consider what marriage is like in the eighteenth century and
why it is such a significant decision to make. After reading these documents, how would you answer
Back to Top of Page