Mocking the Misreader: The Un-typable Bodies of Marian Halcombe and Lucilla Marjoribanks

Franklin, Grace, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia

At the turn of the eighteenth century female inferiority was nothing new, but the egalitarian impulses of the French Revolution had incited the most aggressive attacks on gender inequality to date and compelled an unprecedented justification of this age-old hierarchy. Thanks to the budding field of biological science, newly in-depth research into female anatomy provided sociopolitical discourses with authoritative evidence to support continued subordination of women (not to mention other races). In addition to framing anatomy as the foundation for women’s social and political dependence upon men, nineteenth-century discourses employed female physique to define and maintain hierarchical categories among women, thereby reducing women to generalizations in theory and practice.

This thesis traces the scientific discourses that effectively rendered Woman as a generic physical type and refused to acknowledge the individual, evolving natures of actual women. After exploring the political motivations behind and social implications of this state of suspended generalization, I consider the relationship between socio-scientific imperatives and concurrent literary practices of representation. Finally, I examine two texts, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60) and Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks (1866), that employed categorical conventions in order to challenge them and exposed their artifice in doing so. Ample attention has been paid to the rhetoric that renders some female bodies monstrous and relegates them to the narrative margins, and to the coded turns of phrase that single out other females for the angelic spotlight of the master narrative. My project considers, instead, female bodies that broke these divisive rhetorical and narrative codes.

MA (Master of Arts)
British literature, the sensation novel, The Woman in White, feminist studies, physiognomy, phrenology, Margaret Oliphant, Wilkie Collins, Miss Marjoribanks, Victorian, the domestic novel, Darwin
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