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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 69-91
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The Politics of Cliche: Sex, Class, and Abortion in Australian Realism
It is [. . .] a misleading commonsense that finds the necessity of secrecy in the "special" nature of the contents concealed, when all that revelation usually reveals is a widely diffused cultural prescription, a cliché.
--D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police
Everything on the order of culture and cultural objects has a prohibition on it, which causes class positions in relation to culture.
--Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman
In 1912, the maternity allowance was introduced in Australia, offering welfare payments to women on the birth of a child. It scandalously included unmarried mothers, although only white mothers. Six years later, a minor short story was published in the Bulletin by an author listed only as A. W., titled "Biddable Selina." Selina, its main character, is a maid for a squatter family in the small town of New South Wales. She is passively and unwillingly seduced by a flashy visitor from the city and becomes pregnant. This unwanted pregnancy takes her to the city looking [End Page 69] for an abortion, where she finds a dirty, nonmedical midwife, who, with her accomplice, proves mercenary and unscrupulous. The botched abortion is fatal, but her death is uninvestigated and her life termed, in the moral to the cautionary tale, "unimportant" (39). Biddable Selina's story may seem very familiar, even clichéd. It contains many of the elements used by the 1903 Beale Royal Commission into the Decline of the Birth Rate to identify a "typical" abortion. 1 Selina's story also exhibits its late Victorian values and social structure in very stable narrative and plot conventions. But is the abortion itself a cliché? Is there no trace of the contingent reality of rural working-class women's sexual experience to be found in it?
Sex in fiction, particularly women's heterosexual and reproductive misadventure, attracts a complex of reading modes, including accusations of cliché. Instead of accepting this accusation as a diagnosis of limits, however, cliché can be considered as a narrative moment at which a variety of functions coalesce and can be revealed. The narrative value of sex is transparency, revelation: women and sex, as a plot, are and have been one of fiction's most reliable truth effects. They are gritty reality come to romance, forming a tragic, excessive, improper, corporeal challenge to moral strictures and fantasies. Their taboo import is protected by euphemism and periphrasis; their moment is also the cynosure for reading attention. And yet the fate of women after illegitimate sex is also a plot layered with mythic investment and overiteration. From Jemima's story in Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, of the pregnant young working girl who drowns herself in a horse-trough, to the many abortion narratives featured prominently in Australian realist novels from the 1930s and 1940s, women's sexual misadventure can potently represent social suffering and injustice. At the same time, it seems difficult for our culture to read that embodied experience as itself, beyond its conventions or cliché, as something felt by individuated, often working-class women. Illegitimate and unwanted pregnancy, then, as well as abortion as an inevitable consequence, are fictional plots that situate themselves within a set of opposing rhetorical values, and have been read as such--as simultaneously clichéd and taboo. And indeed, both cliché and taboo can be seen as highly opaque narrative devices that work against a realist or revelatory premise in narrative, even as it employs them as tropes of the real, or reads them as evidence of the [End Page 70] real. As a textual node in which some constitutive ideological functions of narrative reveal themselves, cliché seems able to act as a site for the coarticulation of sex and class, prescribing what Carolyn Steedman calls "female insignificance" (164), or an inability to mean meaningfulness.
Social realism forms something of a dominant genre in Australian writing between the wars, and women...