In the church chapel of Thornfield manor, the wedding ceremony of the engaged Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester is interrupted by a voice crying out that Rochester is already married. What follows is a twisted narrative of a woman gone mad and a manor consumed by fire.
The “bigamy plot” that exists in this particular novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and in countless other works of Victorian literature, is the complex subject of Maia McAleavey’s new book, The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel. McAleavey, an assistant professor within Boston College’s English department, released her new book this past May through Cambridge University Press. The book explores the prominence of the bigamy plot in 19th century British literature, examining the rise and fall of this literary trend through a historical and formalist approach.
Essentially, the bigamy plot is the recurring narrative of a husband or wife remarrying because he or she either pretends or genuinely believes that the first spouse is deceased. What usually follows is a set of exciting, scandalous events. For example, in Jane Eyre, Thornfield manor is destroyed and Mr. Rochester is left blind.
The idea for the book began with McAleavey’s graduate dissertation at Harvard University. After obtaining a position as assistant professor at BC, McAleavey continued to revise her work, turning the dissertation into a book by finalizing her research and polishing the prose.
“One of the things I try to do in my book is think about how there could be historical causes for a certain story to be told at a certain time,” McAleavey explained. “The research I was trying to do was combing those two things—trying to think about how forms themselves have their own history and how those two ideas interrelate … how history colors what we think of as form.”
McAleavey explained the process of conducting this research, saying, “Part of my research required reading pretty obscure 19th-century novels, and some of those were hard to find,” she said. “Some of the ones I read weren’t yet digitalized, so I had a couple of research trips to the British library.
“In one case, there was a novel in the British library that was the only novel I could locate,” she said. “I went to go read it, and it actually had never been read before. You could tell, because in the 19th-century you had to cut the pages open before you could read it, and the pages of this book were still sealed.” Other exciting moments of McAleavey’s research involved finding great writers and novels she did not know previously.
“I definitely discovered a lot of writers and novels whose work I thought other people would like to know about, so that was probably one of the more fun aspects of doing the research and bringing it to other people,” she said. The culmination of all of this research has led McAleavey to her next project: “Eventful Plotlessness and the Boredom of Realism.”
“It is related in some ways to my research, but it’s almost the opposite at the same time, because the bigamy plot is obviously about a plot and a specific exciting story—the story of a spouse thought dead that returns. They usually involve things like bribery and murder, and that’s very exciting,” McAleavey explained. “So I became interested in a really different kind of a novel—which is a novel that is essentially plotless.”
This type of novel is usually associated with 20th-century writing of the avant-garde style. According to McAleavey, “It’s literature where not a lot happens, but that’s the point of it—it’s about the daily instances of life.”
Her mission in this new project is to figure out how these novels are structured if they are not structured by plot. While continuing to work on this new project, McAleavey will be teaching an elective class in the spring entitled 19th-Century British Fiction.
BC students interested in the subject of her new book as well as Victorian literature in general can also take McAleavey’s other course, Victorian Marriage / Victorian Sex. “I’ve taught that class a number of times, and that’s been a lot of fun—that’s probably the class that’s been the closest to the research of my book,” she said.
BC students can find The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel in the library and learn more about McAleavey’s interpretation of the bigamy plot’s history and form.
Featured Image courtesy of Maia McAleavey