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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“So Here is a Plot to Ruin Me”: Legal and Literary Forms of Female Consent in the Marriage Plots of Pamela and Mansfield Park

  • Author(s): Jordan, Caitlyn
  • et al.

Much has been written about the literary conventions of the marriage plot, a common narrative in literature that originated in the mid-eighteenth century and focuses on the courtship between a heroine and her suitor. However less has been written about this plot’s relationship to the law—specifically to eighteenth and nineteenth-century legal notions of consent and marital autonomy. My project attempts to bridge this gap. I turn to legal doctrines and court cases about marriage and sexual assault to examine representations of consent in eighteenth and nineteenth-century British literature, specifically in the marriage plot of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814). A legal analysis reveals that legal frameworks of the time positioned consent in exclusive and negative terms; everything but a verbal, witnessed expression of refusal became consensual. Meanwhile, literature provided a more imaginative landscape in which authorship and plot complicated the notion of a refusal and gestured instead toward a vision of affirmative consent. Pamela reveals that consent and refusal can be constructed in silence—and that the absence of verbal refusal does not constitute consent. Mansfield Park demonstrates that marriage can be both a state of desire and a condition in which a woman’s consent becomes incorporated into her husband. Ultimately, a legal and literary analysis of consent highlights the importance of authorship—questions of consent can be viewed as investigations of who controls the “plot,” whether that is the plot of a work of literature or the plot of a courtroom.

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