The Clitheroe Abduction Case and the Late-Victorian Marriage Question

How do narratives about the 1891 Clitheroe Abduction case converge with New Women essays to redefine the sides and stakes in the Victorian "marriage question"?

Project Abstract

Feminist legal historians have characterized the 1891 Clitheroe Abduction case as a landmark in the emancipation of Victorian women. This law and literature project reconstructs and analyzes narratives about the case. Our goal is to explore how one sensational episode converged with New Women essays to bring debates about the Victorian “marriage question” to life. In March 1891, Emily Jackson’s estranged husband, Haughton Jackson, abducted her as she left church in the town of Clitheroe. He forced her into a carriage and confined her to his home in nearby Blackburn. Emily’s sisters and brother-in-law went to the police to ask officers to “break into the house and rescue the lady.” When, however, the police learned that Haughton had successfully petitioned the court for the restitution of his conjugal rights, the officers declined to act. Two weeks later, the Court rejected Emily’s application for habeas corpus, upholding Haughton’s common-law right to custody of his wife. The Appeals Court ultimately overturned the decision; meanwhile, crowds staked out Haughton’s home, an armed guard stood watch at the doors, and the press issued updates about Emily. What fascinates us about this case was how it became a focal point for many of the same debates inspired by New Woman essays. These writings by Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, and others critiqued the social and economic forces that constrained women to marry as well as the many ways the law subordinated Victorian women to their husbands. But whereas the essays offered philosophical pronouncements about the way marriage laws disadvantaged women, the case featured characters and a plot. Many commentators sided with Haughton, but some sympathized with Emily and represented her abduction according to tropes of Gothic literature. On the one hand, the case offered commentators the chance to tut-tut over the feminine folly of Emily or the masculine villainy of Haughton, and the result was a reassertion of a conservative morality about gender roles and family values. On the other hand, though, the dramatic details of the case gave the lie to conventional wisdom about marriage. In this way, writing about Emily and Haughton forced Victorian platitudes about marriage into the open and created the conceptual space for dissent.

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