- Shame, Subjectivity, and Self-Expression in Cora Sandel and Jean Rhys
This article reads the fiction of Cora Sandel and Jean Rhys through recent work on shame and affect. In doing so, I hope to accomplish several aims. First, I want to raise awareness of Sandel’s relevance to modernist studies generally and to feminist modernist studies specifically: the Norwegian writer Sandel remains virtually unknown to English-speaking scholars, despite the fact that English translations of her novels and short stories have been available for fifty years.1 Second, in bringing Sandel’s work—specifically the Alberta trilogy—into dialogue with Jean Rhys’s fiction, I want not only to illuminate their shared interest in female development and female subjectivity, but also to show how their depiction of the developmental process inflects their representations of female artistry and self-expression.2 To that end, this essay traces the links between, one the one hand, female development and early interpersonal dynamics, and on the other, later depictions of female voice. Without empathic responsiveness to support their needs for affirmation and assertion of self, protagonists in these fictions develop a searing sense of shame, and the story they tell is the story of how this sense of self came to be. Rhys and Sandel position shame as a primary affect that cripples their protagonists’ desire to form meaningful, intimate relationships in adulthood; only gradually and in early middle age do their protagonists find ways to articulate shame’s shadowy yet pervasive role both in undermining their relational needs and in muting their ability to narrate their life stories. Artistic self-expression in Rhys and Sandel involves, then, not only the renunciation of human connection and the repression of desire [End Page 713] for it, but also the need to chart a female developmental process that has the shame experience as its core narrative.
Shame, Female Development, and the Novel of Development
For women writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, the novel of development—and specifically the novel of artistic development—reflected both increased opportunities for women and increased conflicts about those opportunities.3 As Penny Brown observes,
Although the increase in options moved the female novel of self-development closer to the criteria of the male novel, the results are still most commonly depressing, even tragic. Life was still seen to be “poisoned at the source” for many women and the quest for identity and fulfilment a fraught and often fruitless one. By tracing the formative influences in the protagonist’s life from birth or early childhood, the authors were attempting to identify the most damaging factors and the process by which the promise of a young life could be irretrievably contaminated or suppressed.(Brown, 6)4
While social, cultural, and familial pressures played an important part in creating impediments to female development in such novels, Brown argues that women writers of this period portrayed internalized notions of women’s passivity, dependence, and childishness as far more damaging and profound barriers to self-expression (Brown, 6, 8). She describes this internal self-stunting as “the poison within that withers and destroys,” resulting in fictions that portray female maturation as halted and incomplete, female ambitions and intellect as diminished by a combination of social constraints and patriarchal norms, and “the harmonious cultivation of the whole personality” as “far more likely to be fragmented or stunted by compromise, frustration or betrayal” (Brown, 9). Her findings accord with those of Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, who identify relational issues as key to understanding the gendered nature of obstacles facing the woman artist in these fictions: the separation from family and autonomy that are often read as hallmarks of adult maturity conflict with traditional female values of relationality and the conviction that “identity resides in intimate relationships, especially those of early childhood.”5 This emphasis on relationality accounts in part for the structural pattern they define as the novel of awakening, which depicts its protagonist “waking up” to the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between artistry, autonomy, and self-expression on the one hand, and marriage and family responsibilities on the other.
The role that shame plays in women’s...