In their debates preceding the 1857 Divorce Act, legislators unwittingly aligned abused wives and priests in ways that brought into focus both groups' economic dependence upon their superiors. I contend that Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel (1863) employs the very alignment Parliament had overlooked to condemn the law's insufficient protection of mistreated wives. Salem Chapel censures the Divorce Act by provocatively juxtaposing the sensational and realistic plots of two characters—an emotionally abused mother and a vocationally dissatisfied minister—and thereby opposes moral and legal authority within a domestic framework. However, Oliphant's ambivalence regarding both the sensation novel and the writing woman impels her to create a “sanitized” sensational plot capable of accommodating her sense of propriety as well as her understanding of women's legal and social limitations. As the novel delineates its characters' attempts to dissolve their clerical and marital contracts, Salem Chapel transforms a dissenting minister straining against his lack of autonomy into an acceptable novelistic surrogate for abused wives mired in marital conflict. In doing so, Salem Chapel's generic combination highlights a conflict between domestic and religious ideologies, which expected women and ministers to cultivate the morality of others, and English law, which denied them the legal authority and autonomy necessary to fulfill this obligation. Oliphant's novel thus demonstrates that women writers could protest legal inequities indirectly by judiciously exploiting the flexibility of disparaged genres within the confines of the respected mode of realism.
Leslie Bruce; Strange Connections: Sensation, Morality, and the Law in Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel. Novel 1 May 2011; 44 (1): 67–87. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1164410
Download citation file: