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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Identification Crises: Victorian Women and Wayward Reading

  • Author(s): Knox, Marisa
  • Advisor(s): Duncan, Ian
  • et al.

In the Victorian period, no assumption about female reading generated more ambivalence and anxiety than the supposedly feminine facility for identifying with fictional characters and plots. Simultaneously, no assumption about women's reading seemed to be more axiomatic. Conservatives and radicals, feminists and anti-feminists, artists and scientists, and novelists and critics throughout the long nineteenth century believed implicitly in women's essential tendency to internalize textual perspectives to their detriment. My dissertation re-thinks the discourse of "crisis" over women's literary identification in opposition to increasing representation of what I call "wayward reading," in which women approached identification as a flexible capacity instead of an emotional compulsion. I argue that the constant anxiety expressed by Victorian writers about women's absorption in literature helped to reify irrational and involuntary identification as the feminine norm, even while accounts of women's elective reading response defied this narrative.

This study analyzes and contextualizes three major types of deliberately wayward reading in the Victorian era, which challenge the premises of gendered identification that often obtain in criticism and pedagogy today. The first chapter explores the imaginative license granted to women readers, as opposed to women writers, to identify with male subjects. While such literary identification with men was believed to bolster women's marital and relational sympathies, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh depicts an artistic form of masculine identification that, unlike marriage, preserves the integrity of female subjectivity. The second chapter examines the multiple crises prompted by the sensation genre about the representation of female characters, which mirror contemporary concerns about the representation of women sought by the burgeoning women's suffrage movement. I contend that the sensation novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon do not exploit the reader's "feminine" nerves, but rather facilitate morally conscious, elective identification. By the fin de siècle, a new crisis emerged over the possibility of women's under-identification with literature as a result of their increased access to higher education and professionalization. George Gissing's New Grub Street and The Odd Women, as well as the New Woman novels of Charlotte Riddell, Mary Cholmondeley, and George Paston, all engage with the concept of female literary detachment as a kind of morbid pathology: a trope that demonstrates how necessary emotional identification was and is for defining femininity.

The concluding chapter of the dissertation applies these examples of wayward reading and the empirical research of recent cognitive poetics and psychology studies to pedagogy, in order to recuperate identification as a learning technology in the modern classroom. I argue that understanding these historical contexts of reading response provides students with awareness of the flexibility of their own interpretive skills--their own capacity for wayward identifications--as well as a new way of examining the representation of reading in nineteenth-century literature.

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