Sisters and saviors : women crossing class lines in American fiction, 1850-1875

Gigante, Suzanne, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nudelman, Franny, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia
McInnis, Maurie, University of Virginia

This project re-examines American women's popular fiction from the midnineteenth century. Critics have generally limited their attention in the genre to particular decades and thematic concerns: novels from the 1850s usually attract interest for their treatment of gender alone; fiction from the 1860s and 70s has often been ignored altogether. I contend that this is a crucial period for women's literature; these novels are obsessed not only with gender but with the intersection of gender and class and with the connections between middle-class and working-class women in particular. I examine a range of texts—from literary fiction by Augusta Jane Evans to a sensational newspaper serial by E. D. E. N. Southworth to children's books by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and A. D. T. Whitney, from bestselling authors Susan Warner and Maria Cummins as well as the relatively obscure writer Marie Howland—and find in them recurring patterns of puzzlement, longing, and identification across class lines. Authors who have little else in common, politically or aesthetically, consistently describe alliances between middle-class and working-class women who educate and liberate one another. At a time when Americans of different classes seemed increasingly alienated from each other, these novels imagine a sisterhood that transcends class.

I investigate three sites of contact between middle-class and working-class women—adoption, charity, and work—in fiction as well as in fact, and find that the literary representations of these interactions are considerably more sanguine than the history they reflect and reconfigure. The novels in this project do acknowledge class differences. They identify distinctly working-class challenges and virtues and thematize iv middle-class women's confusion and condescension even as they insist on coalitions between the classes. In fact, the movement between classes and the emphatically incomplete successes of class assimilation are the keys to rethinking gender in the novels. Gender does not entirely eclipse class in these novels; instead, women's lives are complicated and enriched by class differences. This project aims to expand our appreciation of these novels, to reinstate them within the timeline ofwomen's writing, and to illuminate mid-nineteenth-century conversations about class and gender.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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