Feminizing the History of the Novel

Helen Thompson
Northwestern University

Helene Moglen’s The Trauma of Gender: A Feminist Theory of the English Novel (University of California, 2001) leaves me engrossed by a question that no other history of the novel as insistently prompts its reader to ponder: Did the eighteenth-century person have an unconscious? By recombining a materialist strand of literary history dedicated to tracing the novel’s newly humanized fictions of economic agency and a psychoanalytic etiology of heterosexuality that, as Sigmund Freud states in Three Essays on Sexuality, takes “the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women [as] also a problem that needs elucidating and not a self-evident fact,”[1] Moglen’s study compels us to reconsider the eighteenth-century individual as a straight individual, alienated from himself by “the ambivalent yearning that lies at the heart of misogyny: a yearning that originates not in hatred, but in love and loss. It is the unacknowledged nature of that loss that is inscribed, as melancholia, in the texts” (14). These texts include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson CrusoeMoll Flanders, and Roxana (subjects of Chapter One); Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (Chapter Two); Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Chapter Three); and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (Chapter Four).

Moglen sutures together the figures of the sovereign individual and a resolutely post-humanist, melancholic subject constituted by loves whose prohibition he or she cannot mourn as follows: “the socially self-possessed individual was psychologically riven” (5). We can appreciate the novelty and implications of Moglen’s claim by briefly sticking at its literal impossibility. In An Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke predicates “the Dominion of Man, in this little World of his own Understanding” upon the equivalence of consciousness and thought: “thinking consists in being conscious that one thinks.”[2] What disqualifies this equation from tautology is, of course, the event of sleep:

Wake a man out of a sound sleep, and ask him, What he was that moment thinking on. If he himself be conscious of nothing he then thought on, he must be a notable Diviner of Thoughts, that can assure him, he was not asleep? This is something beyond Philosophy; and it cannot be less than Revelation, that discovers to another, Thoughts in my mind, when I can find none there my self: And they must needs have a penetrating sight, who can certainly see, that I think, when I cannot perceive it my self.[3]

Who will be Locke’s “Diviner of Thoughts,” if not Freud? And how does Freud topple the dominion of man in the little world of his own understanding, if not by claiming the power to “certainly see, that I think, when I cannot perceive it my self?” Through the medium of the dream, Die Traumdeutung makes the correction of Locke that defines us today as simultaneously subjects and readers:

It is essential to abandon the overvaluation of the property of being conscious before it becomes possible to form any correct view of the origin of what is mental. . . . The unconscious is the true psychical reality: in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs.[4]

While it would defeat the scope of a book review to marvel at the magnitude of Freud’s correction of Locke, my more topical point is that Moglen herself might have paused to marvel at it longer. The Trauma of Gender asserts the historical, formal, and generic interrelation of psychoanalytic gender and the category of the representative individual—an interrelation that invaluably reorients a literary historiography in which these two entities have tended, lamentably, to occupy parallel tracks. But by recognizing in eighteenth-century people an “inexpressible resistance to social interdiction [that] signaled the existence of the unconscious mind” (5), surely Moglen takes on some burden of elaborating how—to qualify these positions short-handedly—the opposition of Lockean and Freudian valuations of the property of being conscious might have assumed historical legibility. In other words, Moglen’s ingenious specification of “the dark side of possessive individualism” as “psychic costs” (8) would seem to posit the Freudian subject as itself the unconscious of an already installed and working model of Lockean individualism. This individual’s susceptibility to the logic of psychoanalysis is thus “experienced symptomatically” (14) but not, in Locke’s words, “thought on.”

In a similar move, Moglen defines for the novel “two narrative modes” (5), the realistic and the fantastic: “While realism takes the individual’s accommodation to society as its subject, then, the fantastic reveals the psychic costs of social deformation” (9). Moglen’s distinction would take realism as the manifest content of literary history (assigning it the task of purveying “hegemonic order,” 5) and the fantastic as its latent content: “I make use of Freud’s interpretive method to bring fantastic narratives to the surface of realistic texts and to locate the deep layers of meaning that fantastic narratives contain” (13). To expose the “entombment” (14) of fantastic within realistic narrative, Moglen deploys the interpretive strategy with which Freud rejects the old understanding, again stated by Locke, that “[t]he Dreams of sleeping Men, are, as I take it, all made up of the waking Man’s Ideas, though, for the most part, oddly put together”[5]; Moglen’s realistic texts would, like Freudian dreams, be the censored and coded apparition of desires whose banishment from the realm of “waking Man’s Ideas” defines that man as a coherent social subject (and, for Freud and Judith Butler—the latter relegated, oddly, to footnotes—as a heterosexual melancholic).

A fascinating and productive question to be asked here concerns the amenability of this model of the subject to an alternative epistemology, one indebted to the rigorously materialized circuitry of nerves and animal spirits visible in such somatic signs as tears and blushes. Here repressed desire does not hollow out an unconscious but instead triggers acts of hydraulic backlash like venting, raging, tearing out of the hair, and swooning. A body that cannot sustain repression poorly approximates a body (hetero)normalized as a function of repression; Moglen’s theory of a novel that “charts the development of gendered subjectivities in the face of traumatic deprivation” (14) might thus claim as the rise of the novel its complex reconciliation of extra-Freudian physiologies and a hermeneutic that implicates the hidden depths of the subject in the hidden depths of his or her texts.

Attending to the local content of those depths illuminates the feminist stakes of an unconscious assigned to even the least auspicious of the eighteenth-century novel’s persons. Moglen’s celebration of Defoe’s last novel Roxana (1724) for “achiev[ing], for the first time in the English literary tradition, the full potential of the bimodal form” (21) hinges upon her reading of the scene in which Roxana, as a virtuous Quaker, watches her estranged daughter Susan recounting her experience as a witness to Roxana’s performance in oriental costume:

Objectified by Susan, Roxana experiences the full horror of self-knowledge as the rejecting sexualized mother. It is this that makes her hate her daughter and wish for her destruction. Unable to resolve Roxana’s dilemma, the narrative is trapped between the intensity of Susan’s desire to complete herself by discovering her mother’s identity and Roxana’s desire to avoid self-shattering shame by evading her daughter’s discovery. (50)

Yet must it be maternal feeling that threatens to prevent Roxana, in the name of preserving her identity as a new wife, from concealing her identity as a former mother? Might refraining from finding inside Roxana “self-shattering shame” permit us to read for something other than “selfishness,” “vanity,” and, sometimes, “protofemin[ism]” (44–45)—a familiar list, indeed—while perhaps instead revealing a “Man-Woman[6] whose motherly feeling cannot be recuperated? Moglen’s powerful insight “that while the novel has functioned to produce the gendered subject, it has also revealed that subject’s radically ungendered and complexly sexual nature” (12) might finally locate this “radically ungendered” novelistic possibility in the antagonism of Roxana’s person to the addition of compensatory maternal depths.

Chapter Three’s reading of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67) launches perhaps the most successful demonstration of this study’s methodological force. Moglen moves Tristram Shandy from the margins of “origin stories told about the English novel” (87) to their center—or, perhaps, their navel—by deeming “Tristram a writer in the fantastic mode: one who unwillingly turns the realistic narrative inside out in order to interrogate psychic integration, rationality, and social order” (102). Inarguably a text which obsessively worries or even “renounces phallicism” (102), Sterne affords Moglen the eighteenth-century novel’s most explicit proximity to both the Lacanian Symbolic and the Kristevan semiotic (“an affective dimension of human experience that disrupts the Symbolic,” 103) as well as the genre’s most incontrovertible—to this reviewer, at least—testimony to Moglen’s overarching claim for “the intransigence of the misogynistic construction of modern subjectivity” (104). While Moglen’s ultimate assessment of Sterne remains hard to process—“he embraces a form of gendered subjectivity that seeks to obliterate the oppositions of sexual difference while paradoxically remaining male” (102–3)—her projected reorientation of the history of the novel around Tristram’s “symbolic relation to the maternal figure” (106) offers feminist literary historians an almost incredibly rich provocation.

In The Domestic Revolution: Enlightenment Feminisms and the Novel (Johns Hopkins, 2000), Eve Tavor Bannet refines the term “feminism” to diverge from the premise that Enlightenment feminism can only resemble an appeal to the category of the rights-bearing individual. Bannet splits British feminists from the 1750s until Jane Austen into two groups, Matriarchs and Egalitarians, a split which proceeds from an important redirection of attention:

For Enlightenment feminists, patriarchal ideology’s dangerous line of fracture fell, not between the public and the private spheres as we long assumed, but between the fundamentally incommensurate presumptions of hierarchy and equality which were precariously joined together in Locke. (39)

Here Bannet crucially engages ongoing feminist reassessments of patriarchal power, reassessments indebted to Mary Astell’s characterization of a Lockean political genealogy in which wives might resemble slaves. According to Bannet, the persistence of “hierarchy” into the Enlightenment political moment thus propels not only the Egalitarian response (Egalitarians were “democrats,” 42),but a Matriarchal inversion of terms (Matriarchs “were female supremacists,” 43). While Egalitarians “preached independence from all subordination,” Matriarchs “taught ladies how to obtain and deploy . . . ascendancy over men” (3); whereas Matriarchs “imagined a family in which hierarchy and due subordination prevailed,” Egalitarians “imagined a family based on consensual relations” (195). Both camps, Bannet argues in her first chapter, “The Question of Domestic Government,” contributed to a new valuation of women’s labor—the revolution at issue in her book’s title—that “precluded ladies from continuing to figure as ‘upper servants to their husbands’ and gave them culturally prized domestic and national roles” (2). Bannet’s insistence upon the contribution of both tendencies to Enlightenment domestic critique constitutes an invaluable revision of feminism’s eighteenth-century genealogy.

In the face of a classificatory scheme buttressed by such asides as “Matriarchs—who often disliked or despised men—” (9), I will not belabor the most unfortunate outcome of Bannet’s approach, which is the reader’s impulse to disagree with how eighteenth-century women’s novels can be “fastened into groups” (73) based on two- or three-page synopses that sometimes cannot accommodate the very contradictions that Bannet’s finer resolution of feminism promises to bring into focus. To cite one example, Bannet designates Frances Burney an Egalitarian: in Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), “Fanny Burney exemplifies an alternative to authoritarian relations between the generations in which paternal power plays no part and voluntary relationship is all” (76). This comment will bemuse Burney’s readers; in making it, Bannet sidesteps a decades-long feminist reconsideration of Burney centrally devoted to the complexity of her relation to paternal authority. As is most apparent in Bannet’s second chapter, “Domestic Fictions and the Pedagogy of Example,” this urge to triage threatens to divert the analytic energies of both her text and its readers.

The Domestic Revolution’s Chapter Three, “Sexual Revolution and the Hardwicke Marriage Act,” provides immensely illuminating context for Bannet’s decision to focus upon the novel after 1750: “women’s novels and tracts diverge according to whether they were written before or after the Marriage Act [of 1753]” (94). In the name of marital and reproductive transparency before the law, the Act “meant, in effect, that the couple’s private verbal promises to live together as man and wife no longer had any force in law” (96); as a result, “[i]llegitimate births more than doubled between the 1750s and 1800” (106). The Egalitarianism of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays can thus be articulated as “‘a cause of virtue’ [that] still lay on the side of conscience and morality rather than on that of legality,” while for Matriarchs like Hannah More, Jane West, and Maria Edgeworth, that same cause “now lay on the side of legality” (108). The transformation of the substance of masculine amorous commitment from “troth” to legal discourse leverages Bannet’s important re-reading of, among other novels, Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761): whereas Sidney’s suitor Falkland must, according to her mother, marry the woman whom he has previously ruined, Sidney is torn by a newly juridical understanding of masculine obligation that would define the same man as “perfectly free” (113). Bannet’s Chapter Five, “Governing Utopias and the Feminist Rousseau,” also richly focalizes the Matriarch–Egalitarian split by taking the “benevolent patriarchal family” (177) envisioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse and Emile, ou Traité de l’Education as “a topos where women’s differences from each other and from their male counterparts could be inscribed, explored and debated” (164). Matriarchs imagined “domestic sanctuaries” (174) governed by such enlightened fathers as Sarah Scott’s Sir George Ellison (who also, as Bannet notes in a fascinating gloss, accommodates a Lockean-Russeauian ideal of unforced obedience to plantation slavery), whereas Egalitarian novel like Mary Hays’s The Victim of Prejudice(1799) show, in the figure of a raped heroine who unlike Clarissa retains a will to live, that for such women there was “as yet no doctrine of ‘individualism,’ no political, ideological, social, or economic provision, and no hope” (186).

The question of methodological pay-off which runs through the experience of Bannet’s book is crystallized in Bannet’s claim to supersede “the binary topography created by the division of Enlightenment women writers into conservatives and liberals or radicals” (4) with the suggestion that “the relation between these two Enlightenment feminisms was not so much one of mutual opposition as one of intertranslation and mutual articulation” (9). Yet Bannet offers the following evocation of the futility of the Egalitarian critique here exemplified by the death of Hays’s victim of prejudice:

As in the representation of a vase which from a different optical perspective yields two facial profiles, these Egalitarian novels brought to the fore what patriarchal and Matriarchal constructions of the proper and propertied family rendered invisible: the profiles of outcast daughters and subjected mothers, of disempowered nursing fathers and dispossessed families, and of divided kin and exiled breadwinners. (194)

Bannet’s analogy shows the difficulty of an approach to the novelistic implication of hierarchy and equality that can render one visible only as the negative of the other. As a result, Bannet’s feminisms threaten to boil down to a Matriarchal advocacy of feminine conformity (“silence, modesty, unwillingness to attract notice, complaisance, dutifulness, and obedience to God,” 210) reminiscent of Mary Poovey’s proper lady; squarely opposed to this is an Egalitarianism whose intractable radicality “offered [women] no way forward . . . no immediately practicable program of action,” an uncompromising call “to scrap society and start again” (158) typified, for Bannet, by Wollstonecraft.

The confidence with which Bannet identifies novels as either Matriarchal or Egalitarian derives from adjudicators of literary virtue like Samuel Johnson and Clara Reeve, who define books “as a model for readers’ imitation” (61); Bannet thus ascribes to Enlightenment women writers the intention “to change the books that women were imitating in order to change their very lives” (57). One can contrast the apparent accessibility of these women’s authorial intention with Moglen’s vision of the disruptive “narrative fragments” (109) “buried” (110), “encrypted” (127), and “entombed” (127) in novelistic texts to produce “diverse bimodal patterns [that] reveal the complexities of modern consciousness in the process of definition” (109). I conclude by savoring the richly generative difference between these critical visions. Both Bannet and Moglen vitally forward the ongoing feminist reconfiguration of an eighteenth century whose novels represent not simply feminism but also feminisms, not simply individuals but also subjects of gender.



[1] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1975), 12. This sentence is in a footnote added to the 1915 edition; the first edition was published in 1905.

[2] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford, 1975), Bk. II, Chap. II, Sect. 2; Bk. I, Chap. I, Sect. 19.

[3] Locke, Essay, Bk. II, Chap. I, Sect. 19.

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1965), 651. Emphasis Freud’s.

[5] Locke, Essay, Bk. I, Chap. I, Sect. 17.

[6] Daniel Defoe, Roxana: or, The Fortunate Mistress, ed. John Mullan (Oxford, 1996), 171. Emphasis Defoe’s.