Haggerty, George E. 1998. Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. ISBN 0-253-21183-2
This book turned out to be significantly less interesting -- or perhaps I should say, less relevant -- than I expected given the title and cover copy. It was interesting to read it in conjunction with last month's book, Danterous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel, as they cover much of the same era and content, but often with rather different interpretations.
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In the second half of the 18th century, women established themselves as writers of novels in dramatic numbers, thus the genre is imbued with a diverse array of women’s concerns. The novels discussed in this book tell stories often at odds with the official cultural narrative. Within that diversity, they contribute to a common tale of women’s options and how they negotiate them.
An emergent theme is that of transgressive desire – desire that operates against cultural values and the boundaries of what was considered “natural”. This includes themes that can be considered feminist or lesbian, but does not align with them universally (although this is a particular interest of the author). More generally, the themes emerge in a variety of forms of resistance to heteronormative values that can also include incest, cross-class relationships, and interracial relationships. The author also investigates how these transgressive stories were pushed out of the dominant fiction of the era in favor of ideals of feminine domesticity.
Haggerty discusses a theory involving “fracture points” that reveal the underpinnings of cultural motifs. For the later 18th century, a major theme was excess female sensibility. With women confined into the realm of sensibility and emotion, the fracture points in the narrative become hysteria and psychosomatic illness. Sensibility was coded as feminine but also as degenerate. But that coding gave women license to use sensibility to explore and express the desires they were otherwise denied. In this context, women’s exploration of male characters in their fiction sheds additional light on female explorations of gender and desire. Between women, sensibility becomes the vehicle for expressing emotions that carry an inherent erotic charge, when erotica itself is denied a place on stage. Thus friendships and familial bonds between women become a stand-in for sexual activity.
The remainder of this introduction covers a general theoretical background and a discussion of the scope of female authorship in the 18th century, in particular, the ways in which fictional transgression can support, rather than undermine the social structures it transgresses against. Even when fit into the “marriage plot” in overall structure, these novels resisted by a focus on what comes before – on the heroine’s struggles and journeys – that fall outside the skeletal narrative of the normative female life. The stories are often about the avoidance of marriage even when marriage is the conclusion. The “family” is more often a problem than a solution. Romantic tropes undermine realism and emphasize possibility. Fictional heroines have more freedom and agency than their female readers.
The book is structured in thematic sections: family values, love and friendship, and erotic isolation. Within each section, Haggerty considers a few specific works in detail. [Note: I will probably be skimming the material from a high level, focusing on the more overtly sapphic themes.]
Part 1: Family Values
Chapter 1: Brotherly Love in David Simple
This chapter is not of interest to the Project.
Chapter 2: Female Abjection in A Simple Story
This chapter is also not of interest to the Project.
Chapter 3: Female Gothic (1): Friends and Mothers
The “Female Gothic” genre concerns women’s fears around intimacy and the claustrophobic nature of their lives, in particular fears about husbands and fathers. Real anxieties generate a literary genre that then can be used to manipulate and manage the concepts. However this framing works better for 20th-century genre works than 18th-century gothics that arose in a context of female silencing.
18th century female authored Gothic depicted men as the “other” and expanded women’s pleasure and experience beyond what society allow them. Women writers adapted and helped codify the conventions of the Gothic novel – a genre that broke free of “realism” even when mimicking its literary conventions.
Gothic tropes are full of terrifying secrets: empty rooms, locked containers, hidden manuscripts. But the sensible heroine finds the natural explanations behind the apparently unnatural terrors. The mysterious and supernatural is invoked to create a frisson of terror and possibility, which is then managed back into the knowable and rational. The vulnerable isolated heroin, cast into a mysterious and terrifying environment, is simply an exaggeration of women’s vulnerability in the real world. It is her education and rationality that enable her to resolve her fate.
But besides that, the “suffering heroine“ becomes a means for authors to express extremes of emotion. Landscape and setting are another key feature of the Gothic and are used to create the emotional tone via the heroine’s experience and perception of them. Heroines are allowed to dread their situation – because the situation is removed from the everyday – in a way they would not be permitted to express toward everyday threats and suffering.
While the heroine endures via rationality, the motif of destructive female emotionality may be assigned to a secondary, antagonistic character. The Gothic heroine may be victimized, but she can escape becoming a victim by grounding herself in her relationship to, and understanding of, the natural environment. The suffering at the center of the Gothic acknowledges the realities of women’s experience and promises the possibility of escape.
Part 2: Love and Friendship
Chapter 4: Sisterly Love in Sense and Sensibility
Haggerty looks at the entanglement of homo-social bonds with heterosexual relations, and the asymmetry of how that entanglement plays out for men and women in Western culture. Male–male relations are “public, visible, and … congruent with the dynamics of patriarchal power” while female–female bonds are “private, invisible, and structurally opposed … to the sex-gender system itself.”
This public-private contrast, he argues, is why women’s most intense same-sex relations emerged within the family. But when sisterly or mother-daughter love is confined to the family, it is assimilated into the structure of the family. To ascribe eroticism to such relations evokes accusations of perversity (either on the part of the literary critic or on the part of the subject). But as an invisible force within the family, such female-female bonds can act to resist the “exchange of women” economy that is the heart of heterosexual marriage.
Bus (taking us back to Sense and Sensibility) Elinor’s love for Marianne undermines and challenges Marianne’s for Willoughby. More widely, by structuring female-female bonds as analogues of familial bonds, any eroticism they contain becomes invisible. If one is forbidden to imagine sisterly affection as erotic (even in contexts where brother-sister incest can be imagined) then all possible evidence for eroticism can be denied.
This section brings in Terry Castle’s interpretations of the correspondence of Jane and Cassandra Austen as reflecting erotic attachment. This is the context in which Haggerty analyzes the relationship between the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, and how it pushes the boundaries of “sisterly” affection. But that sisterly love is positive, healthy, and nurturing in contrast to Marianne’s excessive emotional response to Willoughby, which leads to a near fatal emotional and physical decline.
In exploring the nature of the sisters’ relationship, Haggerty discusses the various ways in which the contrast in their personalities plays out. Marianne is all sensibility while Eleanor is sense, Marianne spontaneity and sincerity while Eleanor provides the “social lies” and management of the public-private interface necessary to succeed in society.
The medicalization of “sensibility” and its relationship (in excess) to hysteria and madness are noted. And although Freud had yet to describe such excess sensibility and hysteria to sexual frustration, the erotic context of Marianne’s affliction is overt. Although Eleanor’s care and love brings Marianne through her crisis, it is Marianne’s own shift to “sense” – to identifying her own personality and reactions is the source of her problems – that allows a productive resolution of her recovery.
Marianne’s reconnection and realignment with Eleanor is the heart of her recovery. The shift in the sisterly bond from one of conflict and contrast to one of mutual connection is the central emotional resolution of the novel. The subsequent marriages of the sisters to the rather passive and largely absent male suitors are inevitable, but anti-climactic. Marianne’s sensibility has not been the only force driving a wedge between the sisters. Eleanor regularly tries to manage and criticize Marianne’s public behavior toward a more socially acceptable form, rather than embracing her individuality.
Chapter 5: “Romantic Friendship” in Millenium Hall
Like Sense and Sensibility, Millenium Hall addresses the not-so-clear boundaries between female self-control and female hysteria, and how both can resist the constraints of patriarchy and the false dichotomy of de-/hyper-sexualization. By presenting narratives outside the normative family structure, Millenium Hall offers alternatives to male models of female power and sexuality. Even the structure of the novel – a male-voiced framing narrative containing female-voiced personal narratives – subverts the literary expectations as does the successful resistance to a marriage plot resolution.
Haggerty reviews a number of interpretations of the (potential) intersections of romantic friendship with eroticism. These framings run the whole range from an assumption that F/F relations could only be non-sexual to an assumption that they were always sexual. This gamut exists not only in modern scholarly analysis but in contemporary depictions, such as the contrast between the non-sexual Millenium Hall and the hypersexual Satan’s Harvest Home, which reads “criminality” into all F/F personal displays of affection.
There is an exploration of the language and imagery in Satan’s Harvest Home and how it indicates that F/F eroticism was quite visible in the 18th century imagination. Satan’s Harvest Home sexualizes the same behaviors that romantic friendship apologists proclaim inherently non-sexual.
The various narratives in Millenium Hall depict the hazards for women in patriarchal society and how the resolution can be achieved through F/F romantic friendship. These romantic friendships can be framed as standing in for female relationships absent in the narrator’s life (such as the death of a mother) where that absence made the woman vulnerable. A female friend standing in for the absent maternal role is inherently desexualized. Or, conversely, she eroticizes maternal-type relations. Within Millenium Hall, such maternal-model friendships create the context for personal merger, including merging of economic resources, distinct from the forms of marriage.
Male figures are introduced into the scenario representing traditional social roles – father, guardian, suitor, friend – in order to expose the assumptions and failures of the traditional narrative. The guardian crosses the line from father to suitor, forcing the narrator into a position of unacceptable sexual awareness if she is to articulate her resistance. The self-serving paternal figure becomes a staple of Gothic fiction, but Millenium Hall demonstrates the “Gothic” character of women’s ordinary experiences. In Millenium Hall, this abuse does not drive the woman into hysteria, but makes her defiant and moves her to rely exclusively on women for support.
Subversive presentation of the other male figures in this narrative is further explored.
The “evil stepmother” in the narrative sides with patriarchy to maintain her own domestic power, and she is the one who raises suspicions about the narrator’s romantic friendship as a “strange intrigue” likely to lead to a “sullied character”. Again – as with the erotic advances of one woman’s guardian – there is no way to refute the insinuations of the stepmother except by betraying a degree of sexual knowledge that itself sullies her character. The bond between the women must be broken lest it prove stronger than the intended marriage. Marriage temporally parts the two, but when freed of that state, they reunite with an intent to retire to country life (a romantic friendship trope), a plan that then develops into the founding of Millenium Hall.
Haggerty argues that Millenium Hall exemplifies the (positive) lesbian plot. [Note: This is in contrast to other analyses of the work that see it as smotheringly anti-sexual.] The narrative of the founders is only one of the sub-stories making up the novel. Haggerty more briefly reviews the other stories of patriarchal hazard and escape to Millenium Hall.
Chapter 6: Wollstonecraft and the Law of Desire
Wallstonecraft’s novels, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, explore a range of transgressive possibility, if relegating them to fiction. Haggerty uses these works and Wallstonecraft’s life to explore the gender politics of novel-writing. He suggests that neither of Wallstonecraft’s fictions or “a novel” but in this he seems to mean they diverge from the narrative conventions attached to novels at that time. Those conventions constrain what a female character is allowed to do, whereas Wallstonecraft uses her characters to make political arguments.
In Mary the narrative requirement for the early death of a sentimental friend undermine the protagonist search for a successful romantic friendship, resulting in an underlying message that female friendship is illusory and impermanent. [Note: This conclusion seems to ignore the autobiographical aspects of the novel and the fact that the woman on whom the protagonist’s friend is based did die young. So I don’t know that you can draw conclusions about a prescriptive philosophical position from it.]
Part 3: Erotic Isolation
Chapter 7: Self-Love in The Female Quixote: Romancing the Ego
The general topic of this section is how romance novels were felt to give readers unrealistic expectations for the romantic lives, thus spoiling them for relations with real men. [Note: A charge still often made against the genre!] This deflecting of desire onto a product of fantasy is depicted as a type of self-love. But if the actual men in a woman’s life represent danger, then isn’t it a means of safety to reject them in favor of an unattainable fictional ideal?
The protagonist of The Female Quixote is isolated both geographically and due to family circumstances, but her reading of novels gives her a larger world and models for evaluating the (un)acceptability of the options she is offered.
[Note: This chapter doesn’t intersect much with same-sex issues, so I’m stopping there.]
Chapter 8: “Defects and Deformity” in Camilla
The novel Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, concerns a group of young-ish women of comfortable circumstances, but within which the title character is unexpectedly isolated, due to the well-meaning but wrong-headed actions of those around her. Camilla is told to doubt her own feelings and desires in order to align with paternal authority. The men in the circle, will striving to make the women happy, only cause misery, due to being fixated on their own understanding of the world.
[Note: Again, not much of relevant interest in this chapter.]
Chapter 9: The Pleasures of Victimization in The Romance of the Forest
Radcliffe, while a major figure in the Gothic novel in her own day, is taking less seriously by later academics than her more literary contemporaries such as Austen. Haggerty approaches this well-known work of hers as “an extreme statement about the limits on female expression and the ruthlessness of paternal concern.”
Gothic novels were able to explore different types of desire than the realistic novel. In this way they are able to cross the limits placed on ordinary experience. Gothic novels often revolve around a dead or spectral mother, but The Romance of the Forest fixates on a fantasy of conflicting paternal models, as the heroine fleas from the sphere of one man to another. The heroin status as victim is not simply a convention of the genre, but in some ways her primary defining feature as a character. The core “sensibility” of her experience is suffering and vulnerability. The familial structures she encounters are closed to herm and the women with whom she might make alliance fail to create those connections.
Potential father figures overlap with the “demon lover” motif and a sense of sexual dread. The terrors and anxieties provoked by the heroine’s situation are not a displaced erotic titillation, but a manifestation of realistic and genuine fears surrounding the situation of an isolated woman in a world of male predators. The “safe” hero – the prospective lover that the heroine must win through to, is absent, feminized, and envisioned by the heroine as being in similar peril to her own. In this way, and entirely different alternative is offered to capitulation to male threat in order to obtain safety. [Note: There follows a great deal of semi-Freudian analysis.]
Afterword: Female Gothic (2): Demonic Love
This chapter looks at two women’s novels from the early 19th century that take the themes of the Gothic and push them to extremes. Manfroné or the One-Handed Monk combines the common tropes of the motherless heroine, the sinister and aggressive suitor, a castle riddled with secret passages in dungeons, mysterious monk, and a controlling father. The heroines eventual lover, rather than being heroic, must suffer injury and near death to earn the right to rescue her in the end. In this story the heroines grim determination to resist is her defining features, rather than the experience of the perils she is resisting.
The second book, Zofloya, or The Moor, takes a different path to conclusion. Here it is the heroine’s desire that leads her into degradation. [Note: Also, the story structure is build around serious racism.] Rather than the “demon lover“ pursuing her, she does the pursuing. That desire gives the “demon lover” character the hook to lead her into increasingly depraved actions, destroying all around her, and putting herself into the power of a man who eventually destroys her.
The chapter concludes with a thematic summary of the book – the ways in which transgressive desire in various forms shapes the development of the Gothic novel across the 18th century.