Female Celibacy in the Fiction of Gissing and Dixon: The Silent Strike of the Suburbanites
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Female Celibacy in the Fiction of Gissing and Dixon: The Silent Strike of the Suburbanites Erin Williams UCLA AT FIRST GLANCE, it may seem ironic that, in the midst of what George Gissing first dubbed the "sexual anarchy"offin-de-siècle Britain, one of the most hotly debated subjects should be celibacy. ' Nevertheless, the concept of celibacy—female celibacy, to be exact—attained the level of social menace in the mid-1890s, a period when women activists and New Women novelists not only enumerated the injustices of marriage but also employed socialist rhetoric in calling women to organize themselves in the manner of a trades union in order to abstain from marital union altogether. In "Celibacy and the Struggle to Get On" ( 1894), Hugh Stutfield—a figure whose reactionary polemic against sexual insubordination appeared with frequency in the period press of the time—opens with the declaration: "The end-of-the-century young man is on his trial." Sardonically taking up the cause of the berated fin-de-siècle male, Stutfield defends men against women's "heavy indictment" which he says is primarily to be found in the novels of the "new female school of physiologico-psychological fiction." This condemnation, he says, has grave consequences: since women are determining not to marry, they are "rebelling against their natural instincts" by remaining single and celibate . In a characterization that underscores the political nature of this revolt, he does not hesitate to recognize that women are going "on strike."2 The rhetoric aligning the rebellious women with fractious industrial workers was hardly unique to Stutfield. In early 1894, Ouida had drawn the link between the "two unmitigated bores: the Workingman and the New Woman," both of whom, in her eyes, were making excessive demands for concessions they did not deserve.3 Likewise, B. A. Cracken259 ELT 45 : 3 2002 thorpe in "The Revolt of the Daughters" (January 1894) had named "the latest strike" wherein she called "the mothers the employers, and the daughters the operatives."4 Stutfield, however, frames the issue in such a way as to give it an entirely new tenor: here the daughters are not rebelling against their mothers but rather striking against would-be suitors by withholding "intercourse." Their strike is a refusal of the "natural duties" of wife and mother in favor of celibacy as a bid to control the means of reproduction. Lucy Re-Bartlett put it most plainly when she said: "In the hearts of many women today is rising a cry somewhat like this___/ will know no man, and bear no child until this apathy is broken through—these wrongs be rights___It is the 'silent strike' and it is going on all over the world."5 Tellingly, Stutfield berates not only feminists but also the "lady novelists " of the day for choosing celibacy as an act of female solidarity. The "silent strike" had been explicitly portrayed in a number of novels in that fruitful year. Ella Hepworth Dixon said of her The Story of a Modern Woman ( 1894) that it was "a plea for a kind of moral and social tradesunionism among women."6 The novel's female protagonist, Mary Erie, refuses to run away with the man she loves out of a binding sense of female solidarity. Likewise, Rhoda Nunn in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) chooses not to marry in order to serve the burgeoning community of independent women that she has fostered. Moreover, Gissing's negative appraisal of marital union as a form of bondage foregrounds economic precariousness and disempowerment in a manner that takes the debate about female celibacy out of the realm of "nature" and into the economic system of production and reproduction. Gissing repeatedly aligns the working-class male and the independent female as forces of "vulgarism," crass commercialism, and social upheaval. In fact, he explicitly intended his novel to be "a study in vulgarism—that all but triumphant force of our time."7 While the female protagonists of these novels make putative claims for solidarity between women, all of them in fact restrict their allegiances to the "ladies" of their own bourgeois class. Both novels are located in the dull uniformity of London...


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