Reflection on Annotated Bib

Upon the first read and with limited knowledge of the political and social context, I sensed, like most, that the story was much bigger than a single character or situation, and the preface also attempts to communicate this idea. However, having never read much on the socio-political works of the eighteenth-century considering women and their societal position, these three sources all help to frame Maria in the same circumstances as Wollstonecraft and other female contemporaries. Maria certainly is unique from other novels of the same time, as it is much more direct in its confrontation with social injustices, and even goes as far as mentioning Rousseau by name as the work Maria reads while in the asylum, which is what truly caught my attention. To what extent does the concept of motherhood in Maria leave the domestic sphere to occupy the political, and what is the significance of this overlap?

Field’s article, focused primarily on The Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas on women and Rousseau’s justifications for their inferiority, speaks to the novel as a socio-political text under influence of the French Revolution. This brings into question Wollstonecraft’s argument for female equality and independence, as it appears counter to feminism, at least to modern feminism. However, whether Vindication is or is not a solid argument is not the point of my search. Rather, I thought to translate the ideas of Vindication over to Maria and assess if and how Maria serves as a literary vehicle for the same beliefs.

Literature also seems, based on the articles, a means in which maternity entered a larger cultural sphere outside the home. “The Maternal Ailment” touches on the developing literary discourse relating to such things as pregnancy and breastfeeding, along with highly influential and popular handbooks circulating the public with instructions on what constitutes a good pregnancy and a good mother. Obviously, this is helpful in the examination of changes in cultural approaches to maternity, but, I thought, the infiltration of motherhood and the injustices done to female subjects into fiction by Wollstonecraft and others, seems like a counter move to the cultural turn.

In examining Maria as both resistance and reformation literature with hefty and serious interests in political and cultural emphases, I began to wonder why other text we had read this semester (besides maybe Clarissa’s center on spiritual growth) seems to match this novel in weight. The early amatory fiction, for example, although claiming moral guidance as a main purpose, is nowhere near matching Maria’s treatment of the female condition. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of (or just less) realism, whereas Maria at least has psychological realism? Either way, issues of maternity, while a cultural commodity in the popular cultural literature, takes on a new socio-political gravity in Maria and is now in discourse with texts outside a purely domestic concern. Of course, much more research is still necessary for this inquiry.

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Reflections on the Annotated Bibliography

            When reading Clarissa, I became interested in the way the protagonist interacted with the public sphere, the way reputation and public perception influenced the actions and reactions of the characters in the novel, especially for those women operating in the space between childhood and marriage.  Though this initially caught my attention because it is thematically related to a creative project of mine, as the semester had progressed I’ve been attentive to the way this has been addressed in the other eighteenth-century novels we’ve read. All of the female protagonists’ actions in these books have been explicitly limited, and at times determined, by the “eye” of the larger society, and so for the annotated bibliography I sought out articles that addressed this facet of Frances Burney’s Evelina.

            The first article I read was Timothy Dykstal’s “‘Evelina’ and the Culture Industry,” which was a good starting place as it talked about a change in the middle class’s (and think the characters we’ve been concerned with so far would all fall into this social category) interaction with the public sphere in the eighteenth century, something that I was previously vaguely aware of but hadn’t connected with the books we’ve been reading in this class. While I found the framework of dividing the “benefits” of art into three categories to be somewhat reductive, it was instructive to read his analysis of how women in the eighteenth century were and were not allowed to engage critically with art. I’d been considering the ways in which behavior was proscribed but not thought. Dykstal also asserts that culture (with the exception of literature) in Evelina has been reduced to spectacle—e.g., balls and frivolous entertainments—and I would say that this pressure to see and be seen, in a certain light, of course, is one of the limitations placed on Evelina (and other women) as well as a critique of popular culture overall.

            Kristina Straub’s and Julie Parks’ essays are more tightly focused on the period of courtship, a time during which both authors assert that women have the most personal power and social importance. In essence, it is the time in which they most operate in the public sphere.Straub in particular is interested in the devaluation that follows this period, whether via marriage or old maidhood, and the tension between that truth and ideals of romantic love. She points out the way Burney embodies this in mature female characters; being so focused on Evelina herself, I confess that this is something I didn’t attend to on my own. Parks explores similar topics, but with an emphasis on the idea of the automaton (which I’m still wrapping my head around) and the chasm between a private sense of self-consciousness and being continually scrutinized in the public sphere.

            Everything about my final project still feels nebulous, but its direction might be something of a synthesis of aspects of these three articles. I’m interested in the idea of the coming out period as being one of unprecedented social clout but also one filled with peril and scrutiny. In particular, I’m thinking about the way this effects women’s private and social senses of self. In terms of texts, I’m undecided as so far it feels like there could be a fruitful analysis along these lines for all of the novels we’ve read so far. As far as a complementary text goes, half of me wants to find a contemporaneous novel that handles this tension in somewhat different manner, though I’m also interested in the idea of looking at the same topic in a later piece of literature. Suggestions/thoughts welcome!

Annie’s Reflection

My main thoughts after reading three sources about the growing dominance of realism in the 18th century are that these sources can be used to deconstruct the idea of the realism mode being the most expert at describing the “real.” McKeon points out squabbling of the time about what form was the most realistic, and that the novel form that developed out of these squabbles wasn’t just one easily classifiable type, but a series of competing forms that influenced each other in their race to become more realistic. The competition he outlines—Fielding criticizing someone who was criticizing someone else—is to me a sign that no one form by itself is ever going to be perfect at expressing the “real,” not to mention a sign that there’s no universal understanding of exactly the “real” is.

Ross and Carnell stir similar thoughts because both of their works expose possible motivations behind the rise of the realism mode—motivations that were other than simply wanting to express what is most real; much traditional scholarship and definitions of realism, Ross argues, suspiciously fall along lines that remove women from the equation, and Carnell argues similarly that “those writers handed down to us as serious, ‘realistic’ novelists have frequently been either Whig or anti-Jacobite Tory” (9-10).

Of course, my task now is to take these ideas and connect them somehow to one of the novels we have read for class, and I am hoping that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey might help me do that, since its content deals at least somewhat with the way that romance novels of the day influence the heroine.

Other ways I could see narrowing this topic would be to compare Richardson’s Clarissa with an 18th century romance we did not read for class (but one that is similar to the style of Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina or Mary Davys’ Coquet) and examine the romance for the ways that it achieves a kind of poetic truth even if it does not achieve the kind of literally real experience that Clarissa conveys. Or, I could examine the romance for elements of the real that both Ross and Bowers argue they contain, while also examining Clarissa for elements of romance that Ross argues some of the realist novels—despite their authors criticizing the romance—also contain.

I question myself, however, even as I write these things, because this exploration is starting to sound somewhat like a witch hunt—I’m not sure what’s at stake that’s really valuable, in other words. Perhaps I have somewhat of a chip on my shoulder for the ways in which fiction workshops—in my experience—have more often tended to emphasize the telling of literal truth over the telling of poetic truth, and maybe there is a part of me that wants to reclaim the value of poetic truth? I think of an essay by Tim O’Brien called “Telling Tales,” in which he writes that while the questions of verisimilitude we frequently bring to stories and novel excerpts in fiction workshops are important, the problem he often sees with fiction in progress is not that it’s unrealistic, but that it’s boring. His essay makes me think, simply, that those of us who write in the realist tradition (myself included), can get too hung up on trying to present something that feels realistic instead of something that feels moving, important, poetically resonant somehow. Why do so many of us so highly value a work feeling realistic and believable over a work achieving these other—I would argue equally valuable—aspects?  

Reflection

I have finally discovered the source of my previous inability to post to the blog. Hurrah!

I went into the research process knowing that I wanted to look into conceptions of maternity and motherhood, as Maria is so focused on this role. It’s likely, too, that I was particularly affected by the trauma of having one’s newborn torn from them and then likely killed via neglect or malice; as a mother myself, stories in which a child is lost or taken have a profound impact on me. It was interesting, too, that Maria was so focused on re-uniting with her child—not because it’s unusual for a mother to want to be with their child but because, in much of literature, children are somewhat of a trap for women characters. Literary children limit their mother’s autonomy even more than it already is, foreclose on avenues of freedom and self-sufficiency, and generally seem to represent a terrible burden that, ironically or paradoxically, also seem capable of exciting deep attachment and love.

As I researched Maria, however, I found that many of the articles were returning to this conversation about breastfeeding and Wollstonecraft’s general feminist philosophy. It was for this reason that I selected three texts, spanning roughly the last quarter-century, that sought to critique or redeem Wollstonecraft’s apparent focus on breast-feeding as something that could somehow grant women both the benefits of gendered femininity and the benefits of a less gendered citizenship or companionship. As my future research plans heavily incorporate women writers’ depictions of female relationships—motherhood, sisterhood, daughter…hood?—I am intrigued by the notion of seeing how the expectations and performance of motherhood evolved from its 18th century roots into the present. I may, then, attempt to build on this research by seeking to read more texts that discuss woman as a maternal figure; I’m not sure yet if this research should perform comparative work between Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries or if I should move further into the future to trace an evolution. At least three of the texts that I’m considering for my dissertation are contemporary women’s literature that prominently feature a mother/daughter relationship and some discuss the myth of the maternal rather explicitly.

Beyond this insight about the direction my research should take, I found the cultural context in these articles to be very interesting. One of the reasons I experience somewhat more difficulty in coming up with and making strong claims about historical fiction is my anxiety about the need for cultural context. I’m not particularly comfortable drawing conclusions about the significance or implications of a text when I know little-to-nothing about the issues it was addressing, the climate into which it was released, and the probable and actual responses of its audience. The research process did what I usually most want a research process to do: educate me about some of the things I didn’t know that the author and her readers would have. Perhaps this is because I’ve been teaching some version of Freshman Comp I & II for the last 5 years of my life, but I think the audience shapes the text. Obviously, we can see and argue that these types of classic literary texts remain relevant and are, in their way, timeless—but I still struggle to see how I can prove some difference or similarity to other texts if I have no concept of how that text would have been conceived and received.