For Better, For Worse: Marriage in Victorian Novels by Women

About this book

For Better, For Worse: Marriage in Victorian Novels by Women (edited by Carolyn Lambert and Marion Shaw) is a multi-authored edited collection of chapters on the theme of marriage in fiction by 19th century women writers.  The range of authors covered is quite broad, from the well-known such as George Eliot, through sensation writers like Ellen Wood and Florence Marryat to writers entirely new to me, such as Mary Eliza Haweis.  There is also quite a lot of breadth in terms of historical context (the 19th century is long) and literary form.  The book has just over 200 indexable pages and I was asked to provide an index that would fit, in two columns, on eight pages.

Approaching the index

After my first read of the text, and drawing on Margie Towery’s article “Metatopic and structure” in The Indexer 35: 2 June 2017, pp72-4, I made a mind map of the themes of the book. This helped me sort out the metatopic – representations of marriage in key concepts and types of information held within the book, and the links between them.  I then made a list of the main keywords for the book to keep in mind as I worked through the text.  I also found Kate Mertes’ discussion of the Ur-topic helpful, mainly to remind me that in a library, this book would be shelved with critical work on English literature of the 19th century.  There’s a lot of useful and interesting sociohistorical content in the book, but the index needed to reflect its literary meaning too.  I did a chapter edit and check of locators at the end of each chapter.


Given the large number of authors, I anticipated some difficulties with terminology, but actually key terms in the text – marriages, wives, husbands, infidelity – were fairly consistently applied.  I had some difficulty with indexing terms relating to violence and abuse.  There was much less consistency here, partly I think due to stylistic choices: an author who had used the dryer legal term “marital violence” might change to “wife-beating” in order to heighten the impact of a sentence.  To manage this, I made extensive use of double entry and some see cross-references.

I also came across a few topics where we don’t have a good and likely sought term.  For example, a number of chapters discussed the options for women who chose not to marry.  Some of these references could be included under the heading “spinsters”, but not all were appropriate. There isn’t really an antonym for marriage in English that works as a search term:  I used “alternatives to marriage” as a heading, and also included “alternatives” as a subheading to the main heading on “marriage”.

Names, as ever, needed work.  A lot of nineteenth-century women published under pseudonyms, or are now known, at least in critical works, but a name they did not publish under.  George Eliot is well-known and was easily dealt with.  The writer now usually called Ellen Wood published under the name Mrs Henry Wood.  Margaret Oliphant normally published as Mrs Oliphant, and her full name was actually Margaret Oliphant Oliphant.  All of this needed thinking about so index users (who might not be familiar with modernised forms of names) could find the writers they wanted to read about.

Names of parliamentary Acts were also a challenge.  For example, there were various Acts of Parliament relating to infant custody during the 19th century, with various names, but none was actually called the Infant Custody Act.  However, that was the shorthand form used by various authors in this collection.  Again, this was dealt with by double entry and cross references.  I did consider having a main heading for legislation relating to marriage, but decided not to in the end, as I wasn’t sure a reader would look for it.

Avoiding long strings was tricky in some areas. There were a lot of references to infidelity, for example, that didn’t have obvious conceptual subheadings.  I broke these up in the end by introducing subheadings relating to the book and author discussed at the locator, where relevant.


Well-structured chapters were easier to index. One particular chapter had, as its epigraph, the definitions of two key concepts dealt with in the chapter.  It was very clear what the main topics were in that chapter, aside from the name of the author and books discussed.  Discursive, less focused chapters were just as interesting to read, but harder to index as the structure didn’t present the topics and subtopics so clearly.  I also found it fascinating to watch a concept that wasn’t really foregrounded in the text – the commodification of women – emerge from a collection of essays all composed separately by different authors in various countries.

Lessons learned

The mind-map was immensely helpful as a tool to help keep the structure of the index in my mind while I was working.  Some topics seemed too thin at the editing stage, and I had to go back over the text to check for additional references. One or two were simply unexpected absences (only one author referred explicitly to engagements, for example, although there was a lot of discussion of courtship; engagements went into the index, with a see also reference to courtship) but for others I had been too stingy during the term selection phase.  I would hope to anticipate likely long strings better on future texts, and break these down as I go.