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research in brief

Literature as lens into the law What does 18th-century British fiction say about that period’s dramatic changes in marriage law?

Dr. Melissa Ganz

Despite flourishing as an undergraduate literature major, Dr. Melissa Ganz hedged her career bets by attending law school. There, Ganz found herself drawn to an intriguing academic mini-movement focusing on the intersections of law and literature. Tackling a major law school project on a celebrated 1870 New York murder trial, she pored over “the trial transcripts as if they were literature.” Realizing “where my heart really lay,” she followed law school with graduate study at Yale University, where she earned her M.A. in American studies and a Ph.D. in English literature. An assistant professor of English at Marquette since 2012, Ganz continues to push her interest in law and literature through teaching and research, including a book project on the role of marriage and marriage law in 18th-century British fiction to which she devoted a 2015 Way Klingler Young Scholar sabbatical.


Assistant Professor, English


Pamela marries in secret, a scene from Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela (1740). Engraved by L. Tuchy, 1745.

Although little explored by legal-minded literary scholars, “the Enlightenment was an important period of change in marriage law,” Ganz says. English fiction from the first half of the century shows the dangers of the minimally documented system of marriage that prevailed under the canon law. Exposing the opportunities for fraud, coercion

and infidelity that abounded, the eponymous protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), for example, is abandoned by one husband before forming a series of bigamous unions. Novelists later in the century support the growing authority the state came to exert over marriage with the passage of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753. Women had new protections from nefarious suitors, unless forced to elope to Scotland where a more lax approach to marriage still prevailed, as happens at gunpoint to a heroine in Frances Burney’s Camilla (1796). At the same time, a novel such as Burney’s Cecilia (1782) reveals a downside to the exclusive authority the law granted fathers and male guardians in consenting to marriages involving those under 21, portraying Cecilia’s male guardians as heartless mercenaries. Like those of many contemporaries, says Ganz, “Burney’s novels attempt to shore up aspects of the Marriage Act while showing that it isn’t perfect.” Next up on Ganz’s research docket: literary treatment of crime and criminal law, a subject she has enjoyed exploring in a pulse-quickening course, Legal Fictions of the Enlightenment. MEGAN KNOWLES

Read about a humanities colloquia series initiated by Ganz and supported by Marquette’s strategic innovation fund:

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