- “The Mesmeric Power”: Sarah Grand and the Novel of the Female Orator
The “feminist trilogy” novels of the English New Woman author Sarah Grand culminate, after a long and tortuous course, in a vision of the female public speaker, described by the narrator as “one of the first swallows of the woman’s summer” (Beth Book 527). Surprisingly, Grand’s works have not yet been placed into conversation with other novels portraying female orators. Her trilogy directly intervenes in this strain of fiction, which unfolds approximately from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to the propaganda novels of the militant suffragette era. By her own account, Grand’s first novel portrays a heroine typifying “not a perfect, but a transitional state . . . , a state which may have its repulsive features” (Ideala 5). By the trilogy’s final entry, Grand reframes a pejoratively cast “mesmeric power” for charismatic speech in the far more positive terms of what she calls “genius.” In the process, she successfully transforms the female public speaker from a curious anomaly to the harbinger of feminist triumph. In this essay, I consider the roughly half-century lineage of the novel of the female orator, which includes contributions by Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Eliot, followed by even more explicit treatments in Henry James, Grand, and Elizabeth Robins. What emerges from this consideration is a view of a contested strain of the nineteenth-century novel, within which the female orator was the object of satire and scrutiny before her successful emergence in the suffragette novel. Across the nineteenth century, iterations of this figure are alternately condemned or apotheosized through the use of the rhetoric of the mesmeric and the supernatural.
The story of what I call the novel of the female orator—there was never a discrete genre for the female orator—begins with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), and ends with the sudden evaporation of the suffragette novel at the outset of the First World War. Its development is intertwined with the “debate about female publicity” (Harman 2), chronicled in such studies as Barbara Leah Harman’s The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England. Harman argues that the [End Page 452] sudden emergence in fiction of the suffragette public speaker in Robins’s The Convert (1907) marks the culminating point of a decades-long struggle for the right to public appearance. However, Harman overlooks The Convert’s predecessors, which include The Blithedale Romance, Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), James’s The Bostonians (1886), and Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897). While literary critics have tended to describe the debate over women’s public speech as unfolding indirectly—for instance, with Margaret Hale’s chance confrontation with a mob of angry factory hands in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855)—the novel of the female orator constitutes a sequence of direct confrontations with the question of whether women ought to be able to address mixed audiences in public.
Even book-length studies of fictional female public speech have overlooked this strain of the novel. For example, Caroline Levander, in Voices of the Nation: Women and Public Speech in Nineteenth-Century American Culture and Literature, argues that “[w]omen began attempting to intervene in [the] historically male arena of U.S. politics in the 1830s” (13), and that as late as the turn of the century writers such as James continue to “warn that the cacophonous speech resulting from women’s interest in politics poses a direct threat to the future of the nation”(18). In the female orator novels, though, which more directly confront the problem of female public speaking than most novels previously considered in this regard, we encounter the rhetoric of mesmerism instead of images of either cacophony or harmonious femininity. The double-edged terms of mesmeric discourse are much more equivocal and yet more effective than the stark ones that we associate with the nineteenth-century polarization of the “feminine” and “un-feminine.” In employing such rhetoric, authors gambled on either readers’ hostility or their “open-mindedness” toward supernaturalism; by the turn of the century, the latter disposition sufficiently held sway to permit the portrayal of female public speakers...