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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 193-194

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<Plots and Proposals: American Women’s Fiction, 1850–1890. By Karen Tracey. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. 2000. ix, 206 pp. Cloth, $45.00; paper, $16.95.

Admirers of Marietta Holley’s nineteenth-century sketches will recall how Samantha Allen “rastles” the woman question: “Marryin’ ain’t the only theme to lay holt of.” Hemmed in by class and genre, the heroines of Karen Tracey’s study show no such horse sense. But they do buy time, refusing the suitor’s first proposal and accepting his second. For middle-class Victorian women, the dialogue of the Woman Question and the hegemonic imperatives of wealth meant facing courtship while considering the alternative—a career.

In the double-proposal novels Tracey explores, the struggle toward autonomy and egalitarian marriage appears a painfully mannered dance. Tracey considers plot and character development. In each case the courtship runs against the heroine’s aspirations. In the space between proposals, heroine and suitor grow, but the woman will not finally have it both ways. In Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Story of Avis (1877), for example, marriage closes the career of an artist.

Tracey’s novels also converse intertextually with Jane Austen’s novels, Elizabeth [End Page 193] Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Sometimes explicit and sometimes oblique in response, the American voices are inflected by sectional differences—a useful point of comparison. Double-proposal novels of the South, those of Caroline Hentz and Augusta Evans, differ from novels by Laura J. Curtis Bullard, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and Phelps. Mindful of her market, Hentz creates heroines who “preserve both their personal prerogatives and their class entitlement,” embark on autonomous journeys, and return to slave-holding on something of their own terms when they marry (59). They are not, Tracey argues, reduced to mere objects of exchange because they have enlarged their potential sphere of action. Evans’s St. Elmo (1867) enacts conflicting views of female roles, participates in intertextual dialogue, and attempts to ameliorate social forces while supporting planter-class interests and arguing for women’s intellectual freedom. Yet in the end, Evans’s heroines submit to the second proposal and idealized marriages.

Unencumbered by allegiance to the South, Bullard, Southworth, and Phelps have greater freedom. Bullard uses gothic devices to prompt psychosocial development in her heroines, refuses to let them reform the rejected suitors, and chooses careers that tie them to the domestic realm. Southworth’s postwar serial Britomarte, the Man-Hater (1868–69) pushes boundaries by allowing women to demonstrate strength and complexity in the interproposal space, enlarging on the necessity of women’s work during the war. Paradoxically, Phelps creates the most careerist of the heroines, before returning them to traditional, essentialist unions with weak men.

Tracey argues that the renegotiated marriages produced by the double-proposal plot indicate incremental progress toward women’s rights. While the authors are reluctant to call for change in marriage, they gesture toward egalitarianism by engaging in a conversation sustained over decades. Tracey is stronger on marriage than on authorship. It would be worth discussing the meaning of originality, aesthetics, and individualism in this particular intertextual conversation.

Susan Albertine
Temple University



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pp. 193-194
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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