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Victorian Studies 47.2 (2005) 215-229

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Toward a Victorianist's Theory of Androgynous Experiment

University of Illinois

In "The Feminine Note in Literature," a lecture he delivered in 1910, the novelist E. M. Forster suggested that the key distinction between masculine and feminine writing concerns "ethical standards." "Men have an unembodied ideal," Forster opined, whereas women "embody their ideal in some human being." Female authors such as George Eliot prescribe standards of "personal worthiness," while male authors such as Joseph Conrad hew to "some shadowy ideal of conduct beyond the grave" (32–33). Although Forster's debatable literary assessments derive from sexist clichés, it is important to note that he fashioned them not long after Howards End (1910) had been lauded as a novel written with "a feminine brilliance of perception" (Monkhouse 123). Through his reading of Edward Carpenter, moreover, Forster knew that so-called "Urning" men, which is to say homosexuals, could be described as "feminine soul[s]" enclosed in "male bod[ies]" (19).1 Hence, though his lecture straightforwardly aligns gender with anatomical sex, the author of Howards End had various reasons for contrasting his own perceptions to those of Conrad or Rudyard Kipling.

Since Lionel Trilling's inaugural linkage between Forster and "the liberal imagination," perhaps no novelist has been more regarded as liberalism's literary standard-bearer. It is significant, then, that Forster's rumination on gender and ethics can be seen to anticipate the postcolonial and feminist critiques of liberalism of our own day. In Liberalism and Empire, Uday Mehta argues that liberal thought played a key role in justifying British imperialism. Discounting human emotion (as opposed to reason), the local and particular (as opposed to the general), and concrete experience (as opposed to abstract human nature), liberalism, Mehta contends, constitutively lacks the ability to encounter difference without lapsing into judgment, exclusion, and ultimately the will to dominate. In offering this postcolonial critique, [End Page 215] Mehta echoes a view of liberal modernity that feminists have propounded for decades. As Seyla Benhabib has explained, the liberalism of the Enlightenment inserted a rift between male and female domains, masculinizing a public world of civilization and culture and feminizing a private world of nurture and reproduction. Moral and political theorists since that time have tended to adopt the standpoint of the generalized other (a universalized abstraction of the rational and rights-bearing individual) at the expense of the concrete other (a particularized understanding of the individual based on his or her life history, personal views, and emotional constitution). Thus, from a feminist stance such as Benhabib's, the history of liberalism and empire can be seen as the story of the ways in which an ideology of incommensurable sexual difference helped to produce what readers of Forster might call a philosophy without a view.

It is all the more significant, therefore, that in his 1910 lecture Forster associates a disembodied, decontextualized, and allegedly universal point of view with masculinity, while characterizing femininity in terms of the concrete differences that attend personal relations of care. As the gendered marker of an attention to embodiment and particularity, the "feminine note" thus becomes a potential ethical corrective to Britain's imperialistic viewlessness. In novels such as Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Passage to India (1924), Forster, as though enacting the terms of Mehta's critique, illustrates the British tendency to encounter difference by lapsing into judgment, exclusion, and domination. Like Benhabib, Forster demonstrates the pernicious privileging of generalized over concrete standpoints and the relative undervaluing of an ethic of care. But whereas Benhabib sees care as relegated to women and the domestic sphere, in Where Angels Fear to Tread, a text that foregrounds national difference, Forster depicts allegedly feminine practices of care as Southern characteristics, frequently developed in Italians but stunted in the English.

In emphasizing Forster's investments in a feminized ethic of care I am attempting to link his fiction to a vision of androgynous ethical competence. My critical project seeks to complicate conventional readings of Forster's novels...