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New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Compassionate Marriage, by Melissa Adams-Campbell.

August 28, 2015

New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Compassionate Marriage, by Melissa Adams-Campbell. University Press of New England. 2015.  Dartmouth Series Remapping the Transnational.

3 stars

Scholars generally agree that around 1800 courtship and marriage patterns were changing among the literate classes in England and America. Instead of wedding for economic or familial reasons, young couples were choosing each other on the basis of emotional or romantic attraction. In this “new world” of relationships, compassionate marriage” became the norm. Compassionate marriage was part of a larger social ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women. Disagreement exists over whether or not the changes helped or hurt for women. Because wives gave up any previous power in the economic and political realms, they were increasingly dependent on husbands. These ideals undergirded the newly popular novels of the time, many of which we still consider the “classics.”

Melissa Adams-Campbell agrees that the ideas of courtship and compassionate marriage formed the basis of the novels being written, even if not always practiced. Her own research, however, suggests that they were not as universal, even among the reading classes, as we have assumed. She has studied novels from around the Atlantic world which do not follow the romantic script of courtship. Her account provides the details of these books which sometimes included non-Europe settings and characters.

Enlightenment attempts to understand non-European cultures were grounded in the assumption that Anglo-American practices were superior to all others. In fact, they used ideals of compassionate marriage to support their claims that their own people were the best and happiest ever to live. They knew little of the actual practices and ideas of Native Americans. For example, Iroquois, whom they were observing in North America, were not sufficiently “romantic” and their women had less choice in the selection of a mate than a British woman did. Adams-Campbell turned to the oral history and what is known today to test that assumption. She discovered that while Iroquois women may have had less choice in whom they married, they retained economic and political power both within and without their extended families far beyond that of British wives. Looking at courtship and marriage patterns in Haiti, Adams-Campbell found a disparagement of alternative patterns that actual could provide women with a measure of control over their own lives. A few novels hinted at the attraction for Anglo American women of Native American and Caribbean gender understanding. Despite their factual errors and racial bias, the inclusion of alternatives to compassionate marriage offer evidence that the ideal was not as universal as usually depicted today.

Adams-Campbell has a recent Ph.D. from Indiana University and teaches English and Gender Studies at Northern Illinois University. She seeks to broaden definitions of what it means to be an American in her teaching and research. In New World Courtship, she accomplishes that goal by showing the seldom recognized diversity of courtship and marriage that appears in novels. This is an important recognition and one which can help as realize the fluidity of family patterns as we again debate these issues today. Her book, however, is written primarily for other scholars. It is full of abstract terms and arguments that general readers will find confusing.

Writing in the 1970s, feminist literary critic, Carolyn Heilburn suggested that novels followed one of two patterns. Those mainly about men were heroic quests and those featuring women were romance in which women found true security in marriage to a good man. She urged women to challenge these forms. Thankfully, in the decades since her writing, novelists are doing just that.

I recommend this book primarily to scholars of literature and women’s studies, although the alternatives she presents are fascinating to many readers.  The book is well done, but too detailed and theoretical for many readers.

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