- Feminist Metafiction and the Evolution of the British Novel
This book by Joan Douglas Peters joins the conversation about narrative self-reflexivity that has been stimulated by works such as Robert Alter's Partial Magic, Linda Hutcheon's Narcissistic Narratives, and Patricia Waugh's Metafiction. The latter study characterizes meta-ficional novels as novels that "tend to be constructed on the principle of a fundamental and sustained opposition: the construction of a fictional illusion (as in traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion."1 The novels that Peters chooses to discuss do make statements about the novel as genre but in most cases subtly undercut rather than "lay bare" the fictional illusion. In so far as metafiction is a tendency inherent in all novels,2 it seems that the metafictional aspect of these novels is not the most prominent feature.
In the same vein, calling these works "feminist" does not necessarily posit the dominance of the female voice in them. Joan Douglas Peters maintains that women's metafictional discourse is not just a reaction to the British canon in the late twentieth century but has been part of the definition of genre from the inception of the novel. The novels she analyzes have, she claims, "underarguments," generic theory worked into the discourse of the fiction. The women's narrations play off the patriarchal ones, creating a dialogue about narration. Peters draws on Bakhtin to support the idea that the writers she discusses parody conventional forms of narration in order to introduce new ideas while staying grounded in the established ones. She uses Kristeva's definition of the "other" as whatever challenges the accepted male voice, independent of gender, adding that this voice is "identifiable not by its essential female qualities but by its difference from the language of established patriarchal systems" (3).
Peters addresses the question of the legitimacy of feminist narratology in the light of the supposedly autonomous nature of narrative structures but concludes that a feminist narratology can enrich existing readings of texts as well as open those texts to new interpretations. Her stated goals are to incorporate feminist narratology into a methodological [End Page 166] approach and to show the centrality of the woman's place in the canon. Peters dismisses the belief that, because women were powerless in economic terms when the British novel was developing, they were powerless in literary terms as well. Although women did not wield economic or social power, they did possess authority as narrative voices within a text. Peters discusses the following texts in order to support her claim of a privileged female narration: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.
In her study of Moll Flanders, Peters challenges Ian Watt's opinion that this narrative is not realistic enough to qualify as a novel. She dismisses his position as "transparently and flexibly male" (24), arguing that the narration is consistent with the narrator, which she defines as the genetic requirement for a novel in the first-person narrative mode. Peters feels that Moll's dual role of storyteller and satiric persona reflexively questions narrative in general and parodies its own narrative genre and its conventions. The preface to the novel highlights the parodical rather than classical nature of the text. By satirizing rather than conforming to the standard literary preface, Defoe problematizes genre. The distinction between the editor's and Moll's literary styles is blurred: the burden of moral responsibility is placed on the reader instead of being mandated by an authorial voice.
Language is discussed as the province of women and their only weapon in a patriarchal system. Moll uses verbal art to ensure financial prosperity via marriage, and she employs similar techniques to help her friend secure a husband. Moll Flanders is, hence, discussed both as satire and as the first semiotic novel. The crux of Moll's experience is...