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Victorian culture encouraged the identification of women readers with male narrators and characters as a vehicle for female submission to male representation through marriage. This chapter argues that wayward women readers were not appeased by masculine identification, but rather inspired by it to act beyond the domestic sphere. In contrast with women authors such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, who were criticized for adopting conventionally masculine styles or subject matter, women readers were exhorted from girlhood in conduct guides and John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies lectures to prepare for absorption into their husbands’ legal identities through identification with male characters and activities. Written during the debates on the reform of marriage law that would continue through the end of the century, and published on the eve of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh promotes a distinctively literary rather than marital mode of identification with masculinity. Instead of identifying herself with her future husband, an action she associates with self-erasure, Aurora models a wayward identification with male poetic muses that allows her to maintain her integrity as an artistic subject.
This chapter examines the genre of sensation fiction, which flourished alongside efforts to introduce British women’s suffrage into the Ballot Act of 1872. Sensation and suffrage were both seen as alarming, unnatural, and immoral attempts for women to gain representation. Sensation novels inspired much critical hand-wringing through their depiction of antiheroines and villainesses that supposedly imperiled the virtue and femininity of the female reader, who identified with them against her will. Modern critics tend to accept sensation’s self-advertisement according to which it elicits a reflexive, psychosomatic response from female readers. This chapter, however, asserts that Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s narrative techniques in her popular sensation novels prompt readers’ awareness of and resistance to the affinities ostensibly endorsed by the novels, soliciting the reader’s choices among multiple possible perspectives. At issue in the arguments for and against women’s enfranchisement were notions of women’s ethical integrity and susceptibility to affective influence. The chapter contends that sensation fiction fomented scandal not because it corrupted impressionable female readers with its content, but because it challenged the automatized emotionalism ascribed to women and promoted, instead, their rational and ethical autonomy – in direct opposition to the premises held by the anti-suffragists.
The final chapter moves beyond historical examples of wayward reading to current pedagogical praxis. It examines recent psychological studies of how modern readers self-report their identificatory experiences, and how interpretation of these experiences remains conditioned by Victorian rhetoric and assumptions. The discourse of anxiety that surrounded women’s reading in the nineteenth century has shifted direction in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Now cultural consternation is leveled at boys’ deficiency in reading engagement. The chapter closes with examples and suggestions of ways in which we might counter these embedded expectations of identification and lack thereof, especially by surmounting essentialist gender stereotypes. Considering the implications of current research on the cognitive dynamics of reading, the chapter argues that students can learn to interrogate their supposedly “natural” or spontaneous identification with texts or resistance to them. Pedagogical techniques are recommended that prompt readers to control and shift their identifications in order to navigate their own way through a text. Although no longer “wayward” outside of the Victorian context, these techniques of identification equip students for the consciously active mode of reading to which women were, and boys now are, thought to be essentially averse.
In the nineteenth century, no assumption about female reading generated more ambivalence than the supposedly feminine facility for identifying with fictional characters. The belief that women were more impressionable than men inspired a continuous stream of anxious rhetoric about “female quixotes”: women who would imitate inappropriate characters or apply incongruous frames of reference from literature to their own lives. While the overt cultural discourse portrayed female literary identification as passive and delusional, Palacios Knox reveals increasing accounts of Victorian women wielding literary identification as a deliberate strategy. Wayward women readers challenged dominant assumptions about “feminine reading” and, by extension, femininity itself. Victorian Women and Wayward Reading contextualizes crises about female identification as reactions to decisive changes in the legal, political, educational, and professional status of women over the course of the nineteenth century: changes that wayward reading helped women first to imagine and then to enact.
This chapter locates a new cultural anxiety in the late nineteenth century about the woman who under-identifies, that is, refuses or is simply incapable of a feminine standard of emotional identification with literature. The expression of this anxiety, in New Woman novels of the fin de siècle and George Gissing’s New Grub Street and The Odd Women, reveals the ways in which identification can both reinforce and subvert gender categories. In these novels, and in sources ranging from proceedings of the British Medical Association to humor magazines, Victorian commentators blamed women’s apparent detachment from literary identification on the professionalization of their reading, and attributed its symptoms to a kind of sickness or blighted fertility. Women’s emotional disinvestment from literature was depicted as not merely wayward but pathological. More than a century of overt crises about the management of female identification culminated in the fear that women might not emotionally identify with literature at all, validating the book’s larger argument that irrational identification had come to define femininity itself.
This chapter analyzes the Victorian figure of the female medium as another embodiment of wayward reading. In both nonfictional and fictional portrayals of telepathy, or “brain-reading,” female mediums represent a model of identification that is neither passive nor manipulative but defensive. This model also provides a corrective to recent popular accounts of scientific studies that conflate enhanced Theory of Mind (the ability to recognize and interpret the beliefs and emotional states of other people) with actual compassion as an effect of reading literature. Though mediums sometimes represented their ability to communicate with dead and distant minds as an unwanted gift, accounts of spiritualism depict telepathy as directed and purposeful, and not always sympathetic. In her memoir novelist and actress Florence Marryat recounts using clairvoyance in order to understand the disposition and plans of both declared and secret enemies. Mina, the heroine of Dracula (1897), can reverse the direction of mind-reading between herself and the villainous Count, and use her access to his perspective to help defeat him. The feminized type of the Victorian medium deploys her stereotypical sensitivity not always as an effusion of beneficent feeling but as a social strategy to protect herself from predatory and intrusive others.
The introduction to Victorian Women and Wayward Reading traces the vexed literary and philosophical history of identification as a feminized reading response and uncovers a concurrent history of wayward reading in the Victorian era. The eponymous heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) embodied identification as a feminine mode of delusional and egoistic reading, in contrast to the philosophically valorized response of sympathy. Through her fictional heroine, Lennox created a convenient archetype for female susceptibility that would recur over the next 150 years in criticism, cartoons, and novels, from Northanger Abbey to Madame Bovary and beyond. The introduction explicates how various modern conceptions and critiques of literary identification possess nineteenth-century forebears in explicit disapproval and tacit endorsement of stereotypically feminine reading practices. While Victorian critics and modern scholars alike have concentrated on sympathy and empathy as redemptive readerly affects, the introduction shifts focus to Victorian women’s intentional identification, beyond the stereotypically feminine arenas of emotion and interpersonal relationships. This introduction refines and clarifies an active definition of literary identification based in cognitive psychology, to demonstrate how identification can be intentionally directed by the reader and illuminate possibilities for wayward reading in the past and present.
This chapter continues the book’s analysis of sensation fiction to consider Wilkie Collins’s No Name (1862), with its actress antiheroine Magdalen, together with the memoirs of actresses as focal texts for examining wayward identification in a theatrical context. The figure of the actress dramatized the Victorian conception of female psychology as naturally fluid, apt to identify with and conform to the shapes of others’ personalities. While this supposedly made women better actresses, it also seemed to threaten the stability of the actress’s own “authentic” self. Charlotte Brontë’s immortalization of the actress Rachel as Vashti in Villette exemplifies this paradoxical perception of the era’s most prominent and powerful actresses as fragile vessels. While No Name spotlights the physical and psychic repercussions of Magdalen’s various dramatic roles, it never represents acting as the uncontrolled effluence of passion or even as self-forgetfulness. No Name casts its actress anti-heroine as a subject who is indestructible because of her imaginative mobility. She thus aligns with accounts of Victorian professional actresses who represent their identification with characters as a deliberate and habitual exercise instead of subjection through relinquishing agency.