Essay: Gender in the 19Th Century Novel

Pages: 5 (2349 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] Similarly too Emily Bronte's Heathcliff "forgets" or is made to forget who and what he was; Mary Shelley's monster is "born" without either a memory or a family history…what all these characters and their authors really fear they have forgotten is precisely that aspect of their lives which has been kept from them by patriarchal poetics: their matrilineal heritage of literary strength, their "female power" which…is important to them because of (not in spite of) their mothers. (Gilbert and Gubar 59)

Gilbert and Gubar are certainly right here, that to a certain extent what is central in a feminist conception of the "matrilineal heritage" of literary genealogies is the prospect of identifying with one's precursor. (It might be worth noting that Mary Shelley conducted her courtship with Percy Shelley mainly by meeting at the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft.) But there is also a crucial way in which this must be understood as role-playing, the deliberately performative adoption of an identity. By way of conclusion, it might be worth noting that even in one of the least literary nineteenth-century novels, East Lynne by Ellen Wood, manages to include all of these tropes in its ludicrous sensation novel plot. While not the worst English female novelist of the nineteenth century (a title that should probably be reserved for Marie Corelli), Wood's scarcely-credible bundle of ludicrous cliches nonetheless manages to combine to give us all of these same tropes seen in far more elevated and literary works by the Brontes and Mary Shelley: indeed motherhood, amnesia and role-playing all combine at the climax of East Lynne, when the sexually-transgressive Lady Isabel Carlyle is revealed to be posing as a governess simply for the opportunity to get close to her illegitimate child:

Look at the governess, reader, and see whether you know her. You will say "No." But you do, for it is Lady Isabel Vane. But how strangely she is altered! Yes, the railway accident did that for her, and what the accident left undone, grief and remorse accomplished. She limps as she walks, and slightly stoops, taken from her former height. A scar extends from her chin above her mouth, completely changing the character of the lower part of her face; some of her teeth are missing, so that she speaks with a lisp, and the sober bands of her gray hair -- it is nearly silver -- are confined under a large and close cap. She herself tries to make the change greater, so that all chance of being recognized may be at an end, and for that reason she wears disfiguring spectacles, and a broad band of gray velvet, coming down low upon her forehead. Her dress, too, is equally disfiguring. Never is she seen in one that fits her person, but in those frightful "loose jackets," which must surely have been invented by somebody envious of a pretty shape. (Wood XXXI)

While no critic would ever want to make claims for the feminism of Mrs. Henry Wood, what is interesting here is that -- even in this subliterary melodrama -- all of the same tropes are recapitulated. Lady Isabel is playing a role -- and her creator is indeed dressing her up even further (with scars and grey hair) to prove a highly moral point about suffering for one's transgressions. The crucial difference, perhaps, is that Lady Isabel's performativity -- unlike that of Victor Frankenstein playing mother, or Catherine Earnshaw imagining herself as Heathcliff, or Jane Eyre suddenly playing the strong protector to a radically diminished Rochester -- is configured here explicitly across class lines. Lady Isabel is playing at being working-class, so as to vicariously experience some of the joys of motherhood behind the dignified silence of her repentance. Yet in some sense, all of these characters are expressing, metaphorically, their authors' sense of the fundamental difference of women in the nineteenth century -- whether understood as different social class (in East Lynne), or even as a different class of created being (as Frankenstein seems to hint), the basic idea of gender as a problem and a performative opportunity is maintained.

Works Cited

Basch, Francoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel. New York: Schocken, 1974. Print.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Web. Accessed 22 April 2014 at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1260/1260-h/1260-h.htm

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Web. Accessed 22 April 2014 at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/768/768-h/768-h.htm

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Web. Accessed 22 April 2014 at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm

Wood, Ellen. East Lynne. 1861. Web. Accessed 22 April 2014 at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3322/3322-h/3322-h.htm [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Gender in the 19Th Century Novel."  Essaytown.com.  April 24, 2014.  Accessed April 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/gender-19th-century-novel/4249640.