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The Female Gothic Connoisseur: Reading, Subjectivity, and the Feminist Uses of Gothic Fiction


In my dissertation I argue for a new history of female Romanticism in which the romance - and particularly the Gothic romance - comes to represent the transformative power of the aesthetic for the female reader. The literary figure in which this formulation inheres is the Female Quixote - an eighteenth-century amalgamation of Cervantes's reading idealist and the satirized figure of the learned woman - who embodies both aesthetic enthusiasm and a feminist claim on the world of knowledge. While the Female Quixote has generally been understood as a satirical figure, I show that she is actually at the forefront of a development in British aesthetics in which art comes to be newly valued as a bulwark against worldliness. Such a development arises as part of mid-eighteenth-century sensibility culture and changes the meaning of an aesthetic practice that had been to that point criticized and satirized - that of over-investment in the arts, associated, as I show, with both the figure of the connoisseur and of the Female Quixote. Connoisseurship emerges in this period as a revolutionary aesthetic practice and has the most significant implications for its female representative, the Female Quixote, who mobilizes it against traditional femininity. I draw upon Matt Hills's theorization of connoisseurship, as a mode of aesthetic reception which is both passionately invested and sophisticatedly detached, to argue that this is why such a stance has historically been denied to women, rooted in the "real" and the domestic, and emerges as a feminist and idealist practice in Female Quixotism. The Gothic romance emerged as a vehicle for the new female connoisseur because of its generically conventional form, which enables connoisseurial mastery, and its anti-realist content, which renders it an emblem for the aesthetic more broadly and a counter to the domestic more particularly.

My introduction and my first chapter map out a new history of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Female Quixotism in conjunction with eighteenth-century theories of connoisseurship in order to trace the rise of a feminist investment in aesthetics and define what I call the female connoisseur. After this macro-reading, I focus in my second chapter on what I identify as a particularly radical and important manifestation of the female connoisseur: Germaine de Staël's Corinne, heroine of her 1807 eponymous novel. Staël develops the figure of the aesthetic woman to what she aspires to be in the British tradition: female artist and genius. In my third chapter, I look at an actual historical instance of female connoisseurship: the female reader-writers of The Lady's Magazine (1770-1832). The Lady's was the first periodical to publish tales and serialized novels in the newly invented mode of the Gothic romance, rendering their female readers the first experts in this new aesthetic mode. Further, the Lady's solicited Gothic romances from its female readers, encouraging them to become connoisseurs of the Gothic. The importance of the Gothic to the new female aestheticism I am tracing is rendered most powerfully in Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), the focus of my fourth chapter. Brontë's novel instantiates the logic of female connoisseurship in that its reliance on romance conventions constitutes its female readers, who recognize these conventions, as aesthetic subjects. I close with a chapter that looks at the state of female connoisseurship today and its relationship to the Gothic. I posit that the horror film is the cultural site in which the feminist implications of connoisseurship are most salient. Like its Gothic novel predecessor, the woman's horror film relies on the Romantic formula in which the Gothic stands in for the aesthetic, a realm only partially open to women and so aspired to by a questing female figure; the Female Quixote has become Carol Clover's Final Girl.

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