- Fictions of Dissent: Reclaiming Authority in Transatlantic Women's Writing of the Late Nineteenth Century
In her excellent contribution to Pickering & Chatto's Gender and Genre series (edited by Ann Heilmann), Sigrid Anderson Cordell lays out a compelling rationale for resisting departmental divisions between British and American literature: "Given the [End Page 721] robust exchange of texts and ideas across the Atlantic during this period, this division overlooks the lines of influence that emerged within a transatlantic reading public" (2).
Bringing them into dialogue, Cordell nonetheless remains attentive to national and regional differences among the women writers she studies, respecting the specific influence on each of history, context, and social mores. By so doing, Cordell creates a literary conversation among women writers of the late nineteenth century that reflects the social issues of the time—art, aestheticism, and the Woman Question—without reducing or ignoring the society in which they were formed.
Another major strength of Cordell's theoretical framework is her attention to genre. Focusing only on the short story allows Cordell to explore it "as a form that could transcend traditional plot structures" (5), largely due to its material history. She records a brief comparative history of the rise of the short story genre in Britain and the United States and explains the structural changes that increased demand for stories in the late nineteenth century. Finally, Cordell notes that the short story was "seen as both a popular and cutting edge literary form" (6), which "makes the short story both a crucial and an ideal focus for understanding the ways in which women writers of the period took advantage of the genre's flexibility to describe, revise and imagine possibilities for women's lives" as well as "cultural narratives" (6, 7).
Bringing genre and gender together, Cordell argues that late-century transatlantic women's short stories enact a literary conflict between aestheticism and gender equity: these stories "dramatized the period's anxieties about women's artistic and political autonomy" (2), primarily through what Cordell terms the "Muse's Revenge" (1). This trope features a woman who "interrupts and rejects the artist's vision" by refusing to be passively interpreted and incorporated into his work of art (2), thus asserting the woman's autonomy and revising the dominant aesthetic mode of creation.
Cordell defines this mode by noting the shift that occured when Walter Pater personalized Matthew Arnold's critical dictum to know a work of art as it actually is, a move that "transforms the art object into an object of consumption whose function is to provoke an effect on the critic" (9). This shift, she claims, is emblematic of the cultural shift represented by major male writers of the late century, who stressed "the process of interpretation, rather than an adherence to the original object" as the primary mode of artistic creation (9). Cordell quotes Henry James and Oscar Wilde at length to demonstrate her thesis that male writers created an artistic vision that depended on the male artist translating his perceptions of the wider world into art. Women writers were compelled to comment on this because the "elevation of the artist and the artistic sensibility c[ame] at the expense of the original subject, who [wa]s almost forgotten except as a jumping off point for the artist's creativity" (13).
The stories that demonstrate this thesis—Sarah Grand's "The Undefinable" (1894), Kate Chopin's local-color story "A Gentleman of Bayou Têche" (1894), and Edith Wharton's "The Muse's Tragedy" (1899)—provide excellent examples of rebellious muses and compellingly illustrate Cordell's claims. Although the stories are widely different in setting, tone, and plot, each features a model who disrupts and corrects the artist's vision, thus asserting the model's autonomy from the artist's rendering. Instead of being objectified by the artist, the muses reclaim their subjectivity, much like the female characters in New Woman fiction who wish to break free from...