Msnowe's Blog

Truth, the Nineteenth Century Novel, and Women

Posted in 19th Century Novel, Androgyny, Brontes, Fiction, History, Jane Austen, men, women by m.snowe on March 26, 2008

Jill Lepore wrote a piece on all three topics, (and memoir, historians, etc.) in last week’s new yorker.
Her ability to weave in the scholarship with insightful quotes from some of the best novels ever (pardon the rather ungracious nod to favorite authors such as Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft) was exceptional.

The article, tracks the patterns of presentation of three distinct, yet intersecting genres: the novel, the memoir, and the historical treatise. Lepore explains how in the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries, “histories” were often what we would today consider fictitious novels, and memoirs were a mere twinkle in a historian’s eye. The intellectuals of the day, especially during the 19th century, were of the prevailing notion that “history” as a concept was flawed–there was no way to completely and accurately report historical facts without the skewing of perspective by the author, and the reliance on the accuracy of second-source texts. In a sense, history became a memoir or portrait of the one who was writing it. Lepore quotes Jane Austen’s juvenilia, The History of England, to prove her assertion. Austen wrote that the history was in fact written by “a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian.” Of course, this was Austen, and her acuity for an acerbic pen was spot on at all times–she is here flexing her sarcastic muscle.

Lepore is correct in explaining the nineteenth century novel. In many novels, the readers are asked to believe the stories presented are “based in fact” or “histories” of people’s lives–and often the lives of the “ordinary” or “lesser.” Pick up many a book written during that longish time span, and you will see not a fiction outright, but frames. For example: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The entire story is told by a ship captain’s letters, writing at sea, who is retelling the story of Dr. Frankenstein. Charlotte Bronte’s stories are often told as if the life histories had already occurred, and the “dear reader” is learning of them at the end of the writer’s life. The same goes for Dickens, most notably in David Copperfield. One doesn’t even have to look too far back to find these interesting frames or layers that synthesize reality–take Jame’s Turn of the Screw. It is told by a man to a group of others, relying the story from an observer. Wuthering Heights is a collection of historical artifacts that a visitor to the Moors learns piecemeal from maids and Heathcliff himself–the story is already over, and in fact–in the past.

Lepore then goes on to make the distinction that although people realized that novels were essentially “made up,” they had a higher claim of “truth” which rose above the mere pittance of “historical fact.” The nineteenth century was obsessed with getting to the essential truths, and the people of the age weren’t so easily deluded to believe that the history books, or the newspapers would provide them. The 19th century novel, unlike any other time, was a philosophical and symbolic journey. Philosophy also pivots on the same messy ground between fact and truth. The prove-ability of novels? Slim. The disprove-ability of the truth novels and philosophy supplies? Also very difficult. Like psychoanalysis (but much more enjoyable and enriching), the structure of novels have a system built into them that does not allow the reader to deny its influence–there is an explanation for everything.

Lepore explains that novels in the 19th century were primarily written for women, about women, and many times, by women–whereas, in supposedly direct opposition history was written in the majority by men, for men, and about great men. History was seen as the “serious” work of literature, whereas fiction and novels was seen as the softer, frivolous type. To some extent–this is still “true” (or perhaps a better word would be “fact”) today. Although, it’s surprising that 19th century novels, even some written by women, have hit the mainstream in college syllabi. But ask anyone today, and they will tell you history is a more serious subject than novels. Yet it remains that novels allow the reader a wonderful historical perspective into the lives of the “average” (though that depends on your definition of average) people living during the 19th century. That’s why novels were so much more popular and enjoyable–they functioned as both familiar (in the fashioning of everyday lives of everyday people) and extraordinary (in the expressive ways that novels transmuted the mundane into the dramatic). Was Maggie Tulliver depicted all that different in The Mill on the Floss from the other farm people–running about as a child, snipping off her hair and toiling for her family?

What is bothersome about Lepore’s qualification of these nineteenth century realities is that she posits the feminine with “truth” and the historical fact with the masculine. Yes, this is probably a correct estimation of how people felt in the 19th century, as shown by such essays and writings that denounced fiction and asked women to read history instead. But today, history is still targeted towards men, and novels and fiction are largely assumed to be read by women. This is simple the promulgation of 19th century myth. William Goodwin once said that when men wrote novels, it was “a symptom of effeminacy.” If genres are indeed “gendered” it is probably more a mistake of verbal aphasia or dyslexic tick with the similarity of the words “genre” and “gender” than it is based in any hard facts. (and why are “facts” hard? and “truths” soft?) Why do they have to coincide with the “appropriate gender”. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a brilliant historian among many other female historians, and there are many popular male fiction writers–Stephen King, etc. Why do we still give in to this notion that women deal in ideals and men in historical certainty? I think its the critics that need to get their heads out of the clouds. Luckily, the tide is turning, and more histories are coming out about women and influential female figures, and likewise, men are writing fiction about ordinary men. Again–we should look to the androgynous ideals of Virginia Woolf, when it comes to fiction.