Sunday, February 23, 2014

Feminism in novels

Recuperating over these last several months I've done a lot of reading and very little writing. Wanting to get a fresh view of the novel form, particularly how it's evolved, I began with Richardson's Pamela, that astonishing epistolary novel of the mid-18th century in which a very beautiful (as we are told over and over again) 15 year old housemaid fends of her master's efforts at seduction and rape. The novel oozes sugar and piety but, if you can bear with it, compared to the picaresque novel and its other predecessors, it's a stunning piece of work. And the advice given is insightful and could help any female in distress. It was the most popular book of its time.

What Richardson set in motion, most strikingly, is the form of writing that deals not with adventure, but with how people ought to behave, especially women. The refined social environment that Jane Austen so magnificently explores has its grass-roots in Pamela.

My next reading of course had to be Fielding's Tom Jones, which deliberately was written the following year as a take-off of Richardson's wildly successful  work. Hence we get all the gushings about Tom's beauty. And though he goes from one reckless activity to another, comitting murder, being a kept man, etc. etc.,we are always assured of his fundamental virtue.

I'll skip over my readings after Jones to the late 19th century -- because Austen, the Brontes, etc. hardly need discussing -- to Edith Wharton's work the subtlety of which might be considered the magnificent fruit of the Pamela bud.

I recommend above all Wharton's The House of Mirth in which the career of an impeccable young woman comes to ruin through the most subtle leverages of social disapproval motivated by unfounded suspicions.

It is Wharton's particular genius to keep such tension on the minute turnings of the screw of public opinion that it's difficult to set the book aside, while the objective part of the reader's mind is blessing women's demands for a free life that have brought an end to that very mirthless world. Wharton is rightly seen as a great champion of women's liberation.

Those who've found the better known The Age of Innocence, in book or film, fascinating, will find The House of Mirth even more so.

Sex is a matter of avoidance for women from the works of Richardson through those of Wharton, excepting of course married sex which then appears as a catalog of births. But even in Austen's books, where it's shrouded in layers of polite or impolite repartee, it is the central motivating principal -- unlike the picaresque novel in which it may figure only in an incident here and there.

Here is Pamela's trace in the evolution of the novel --not merely how to behave, but how to behave vis a vis sex.

Isn't it a measure of the freedom women have won that so many books now published deal with the open expression of women's sexual desire and the means found to fulfill it? The evolution is completed with Pamela ceasing to be the endangered maiden to being at least the happy participant in even the most arcane of sexual practices, and often is the aggressor and contriver of seduction. We've come full circle: Pamela has metamorphosed into Tom -- and gone a few leagues further.

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