Spectacular moves : nineteenth-century women writers and the rhetoric of dissent

Cordell, Sigrid Anderson, Department of English, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Milbank, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lane, Ann J., Department of History, University of Virginia

This project links the rhetorical and political poetics of late nineteenth-century British and American women writers. While almost hysterical antagonism was directed toward expressions of overt social rebellion during this period, texts which eschewed polemic, but nevertheless documented the inequities of women's experience, largely passed beneath the radar. This critical oversight continues to this day and applies equally to studies of texts by British female aesthetes and American regionalists whose work does not fit into traditional rubrics of feminist subversion. These writers engaged in the debate over women's autonomy by breaking down the romantic mythologies surrounding Victorian social and cultural institutions and uncovering the hierarchical structures that maintained these institutions at the expense of women's interests. My project examines how these authors used narrative voice and plot to lay bare the gendered power negotiations determining the course of women's lives.

The first chapter investigates how British female aesthetes undermined the ascendancy of male arbiters of culture and beauty by revealing the negotiations over self-representation that underpin the creation of "high art." Using a narratological approach, I sketch out the rhetorical and literal power struggles between competing "authors"/narrators in British women's short stories. Next, I examine how American regionalists rejected the New England tradition of silence that perpetuated women's oppression. In their stories, marginalized characters, such as old maids and abused wives, refuse to remain silent about the injustices shielded by the sentimental ideology of the domestic sphere. By appropriating the puritan tradition of spectacle and breaking down the secrecy of the private sphere, these stories reveal that women's interests are embedded in commerce, politics, and law. Last, I examine how race complicates this strategy in the work of Pauline Hopkins. Vividly illustrating the repercussions of oppression, Hopkins negotiates the minefield of racial and gender politics through a multiply-embedded narrative structure that distances the reader from the threat of imminent social upheaval while uncovering the history of violence against black women.

Ultimately, this project establishes a critical methodology for discussing the common rhetorical and political poetics of British and American women's writing.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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