Looking Backward: Edwardians, Moderns, and the 19th Century (II)
Session Organizer: Kevin R. Swafford
Bradley University
Department of English, Peoria, IL 61625
swafford@bradley.edu

 

Equating One’s Chosen Predicates with One’s Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian “Self”

The Victorian era privileged the idea of the subject as autonomous, stable, whole, and unified. This tradition of conceiving of the subject as self-contained, as independent of social structure, used terms such as “identity,” “character,” and “self” to indicate the aggregate and monolithic nature of the subject. The subject of the Victorian era was seen not as a dynamic, unstable process, but rather as some entity constituted once and for all. This notion of the subject as stable, aggregate, and monolithic, however, is a curious one fraught with ambiguity if one conceives of identity as performative. Judith Butler, in “Imitation and Gender Subordination,” states that “the prospect of being anything, even for pay, has always produced in me a certain anxiety” because “to claim that this is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this “I.” Butler believes, however, that meaning arises and is constituted through performance; the predicates, in other words, precede the subject so that one’s sense of self is the constituted effect of one’s performance. The connection, I believe, between the meaning constituted through performance and the meaning constituted through a role one chooses to enact is important when analyzing _Mrs. Dalloway.

It is helpful, because the issue of identity within Mrs. Dalloway is so complex, to distinguish between the role Clarissa enacts and her split, fragmented self. Clarissa longs to possess the stable, aggregate, monolithic Victorian conception of the self, but she realizes that doing so is impossible. She therefore grasps onto the role she has chosen to enact—that of the perfect hostess—in hopes that enacting this role will substitute for her lack of the unified Victorian sense of self. The consequences of Clarissa’s decision to define her life in terms of her chosen role are tragic. Clarissa grasps onto this role to the extent that she cannot be defined or define herself outside of her chosen role. Clarissa’s identity, therefore, aside from the role she enacts, is not only split, but also comprised of a self that is empty and absent though desperately longing to be unified. Moreover, the role of the perfect hostess proves to be an unfulfilling substitute for Clarissa’s desire for the stable self associated with the Victorian era.

Shannon Forbes
University of St. Thomas
forbess@stthom.edu

 

Modernity in the Looking Glass: Mirrored Doubles in Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

When Jean Rhys appropriates Charlotte Brontë’s marginalized character, Bertha Mason, she engages post colonialism and psychoanalysis to comment on the Victorian disregard for peripheral individuals. She conceives this text as a late modernist in 1945, even though final publication was in 1966, and her modern perspective on the Victorian Jane Eyre pervades the work. Connecting Antoinette/Bertha Cosway Mason with the Jamican ex-slave community, Rhys portrays social and racial difference in Antoinettte’s “otherness.” Enslaved to the Jane Eyre narrative, Rhys gives the oppressed character voice in the face of Victorian discrimination. Parallels with “coloured”, Jamaican Tia and English Jane Eyre play out through mirrored doubling in both novels. Psychoanalytical theorist Jacque Lacan’s mirror stage self formation identifies a psychological split with an interior self and exterior mirror image of the self that literally occurs in both novels (Rhys 147 and Brontë 10). Rhys sees these ideas unconsciously present in Jane Eyre and consciously mirrors them in Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette experiences a rift with Tia: “it was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.” (38). Jane Eyre observes Bertha’s reflection rather than the stranger’s actual face, which suggests Jane viewing her own image. The “shape” makes a grotesque figure in Jane’s wedding veil ironically adorning the only woman who can rightfully wear it. Predestined for suicide, Rhys offers Antoinette’s death jump as an attempt to reconcile her lack of self unity with her mirror double, Tia. At the same time, the madwoman’s end shatters her role as Jane Eyre’s double. Ultimately, Rhys’s conscious manipulation of post colonial and psychoanalytical theories through mirrored doubles forever alters readers’ perceptions of the Victorian novel, Jane Eyre.

Max Despain
University of Delaware
despain@udel.edu

 

A Struggle Between Two Temperaments”: Victorian Will, Edwardian Imagination, and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907)

Critical response to Edmund Gosse’s biography Father and Son (1907) typically discusses the ways his text occupies a borderline between ideas and attitudes, practices and forms. In this essay, I explore Gosse’s re-inflection for twentieth-century audiences of the Victorian use of the last will and testament in a way that places him on the borderline between novel and biography and between Realism and Modernism as well. Where Victorian novels focus on the testator and the creation of a will, Edwardian novels in contrast tend to focus on the beneficiary and inheritance in the abstract. And where Victorian biographies glossed over “what any conventional person might think not quite becoming” (qtd. in Abbs 12), Gosse’s biography seeks to present an “unbiased” "document," "record," and "study" (Gosse 33) of his eminent Victorian father Phillip. But Phillip’s biography becomes Edmund’s own subjective account of "a human being's right to fashion his inner life for himself" (251). He describes his parents’ numbing literalness in the language of the legal will imposed on his external identity, against which frequent literary allusions serve both to accentuate the importance of imagination in “fashioning” his internal identity and to mark his move away from the empirical foundations of their thinking. Oscillating between biography and autobiography, between non-fiction and fiction, and between the Victorian and Modernist literary periods, Father and Son depicts the Edwardian split through Edmund’s outward adherence to the past and his internalized desire for a self-determining future.

Looking backward to the nineteenth century, one finds a Victorian novel fixated on wills. Whether as a novel’s central trope or incidental plot point, the will’s combination of empiricist values and metaphysical volition provided a concrete vehicle for framing literary discussion both of individual and cultural identity formation. Following the Wills Act of 1837, the last will and testament became an empirical register of its writer’s social identity. This identity, however, depended upon the legal regulation of individual desire. Thus, a contest between testator and law ensues in the novel that gives comparatively little regard to a beneficiary expected to accept the father’s will in exchange for receiving his goods. In the Edwardian novel, however, the beneficiary responds. And just as the testator had to be guided by law, the novelist, or in Gosse’s case the biographer, had to be guided by literary convention.

In the Edwardian move away from Victorian ideology, the conceptual basis of identity shifts from property in the external, literal sense to the more abstract one of consciousness. Early twentieth-century novels, especially those by Butler, Galsworthy, and Bennett, embodied this shift through stories that begin with fathers and literal wills but revise these rhetorical strategies in favor of stylistically more modern treatments of interiority. Father and Son's dialogic form reveals that, like the last will and testament, the biography’s primary concern remained the issue of ownership and control of that consciousness. By positioning the non-fictional debate specifically between the vertically related parent and child, moreover, Gosse casts the role of identity in the terms of inheritance that match his contemporaries’ fictional treatment of the relationship to their Victorian literary forbears. Thus, Father and Son’s "struggle between two temperaments" (35), which Edmund ultimately allows himself to win, becomes a struggle between definitions of the real, which in turn evokes the much broader debate between "two epochs" and the merits of their respective modes of formulating literary and cultural identity.

Cathrine O. Frank
University of New England
frankco@email.uc.edu

Works Cited:
Abbs, Peter, ed. “Introduction.” Father and Son. By Edmund Gosse. New York: Penguin, 1989. 9-31.
Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son. 1907. New York: Penguin, 1989.

 

Jubilee Redux: Modern Memory and the Post-War World in Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria

This essay will place Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921), the sequel to his Eminent Victorians (1918), in its contemporary context of cultural remembrance after the First World War. It will argue that Strachey’s sympathetic account of Victoria – coming after his sardonic accounts of Manning, Nightingale, Arnold, and Gordon – marks a further step in post-war grieving, as modernist aversion to Victorian culture made room for sympathetic recognition of a common bond of loss. Published contemporaneously with the dedication to fallen soldiers of Edwin Lutyen’s Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, Strachey’s Queen Victoria can be read as among the most “Victorian” of modernist works, not only in its subject, but also in the commemorative shape it gave to the feelings of a mass of readers with ambivalent hindsight on the pre-war world – one reflective of values both new and old. In the effort at remembrance of her dead Prince Albert, Strachey’s Queen can be seen anachronistically as a “modernist” Victorian – someone shoring up the fragments of her ruin in the aftermath of catastrophic loss. As imagined by Strachey, Victoria’s widowhood prefigures the abjection of millions in the post-war world; it bears an uncanny likeness to the mourning of someone like the nurse-memoirist Vera Brittain, who turned to history after the war in which she lost her fiancée. A redemptive sense of “jubilee” can be found in Strachey’s book in the indulgence it grants to the figurehead of a former time, who suddenly seemed more familiar.

John Murphy
University of Virginia
jbm9d@virginia.edu