Unmasking the Bourgeoise

Behind the Vows

A Love Story




Real Life

When one thinks of nineteenth century France from a strictly legal perspective it is clear that women had little to no rights in the marriage exchange.

This is illustrated in the following excerpts from The French Civil Code of 1804: Of the Respective Rights and Duties of Husband and Wife:

  • Husband and wife owe each other fidelity, support, and assistance;
  • A husband owes protection to his wife; a wife obedience to her husband; and
  • A wife is bound to live and to follow her husband wherever he deems proper to reside. The husband is bound to receive her, and to supply her with whatever is necessary for the wants of life, according to his means and conditions (Hellerstein, 162).

"Women embarked on marriage in a welter of prescriptive contradiction. Told in song and prayer that they were entering a heaven in which they might expect worship, power and adoration, women were consigned through to a civil purgatory, an indeterminate status in which they were virtual non-persons in the law" (Hellerstein, 161). To add further confusion, marriage, or in the ideal sense of romanticism, evoked the "image of a loving partnership and mutual trust, yet the woman entered a "partnership" in which she had none of the legal and economic rights enjoyed by her spouse" (Hellerstein, 122).

Despite traditional thoughts on marriage as a voluntary commitment between two individuals to live together, and to share life's pleasures, risks and children, marriage was a negotiation between two families. Furthermore, consent was not expressed by a woman accepting a man's proposal of marriage. Rather the choice of marriage was decided by the parents, using their own criteria. It was typical for bourgeois families to concern themselves with issues of class. After all, the marriage of their children was considered a public valuation of the parent's position within society, and it was also a method of improving their status.

For women, especially that of young girls, the thought of going against one's parents wishes was not considered. One must bear in mind the extreme youth at which young girls were married at this time, "an age without will or mind of its own," and the dread of returning to solitude in the convent can provide some explanation as to why they were so submissive to their husbands (Goncourt, 19). Moreover, it was marriage, not necessarily the man that fascinated them. They accepted a husband for the position he could assure them, the life he could offer them, and the luxuries he would allow them.

The theme so pervasive in popular literature at the time was the "learning to love after marriage" theme. This became a reality for most young women and a means of rationalizing their subordination in marriage. "In most cases it was the woman who had to learn to love her husband, and who had to undergo various crises in the process" (Calder, 57).

Such expectations about marriage sometimes led women to commit crimes such as the murder of their own husband....