In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

THE POWER OF PRETENSE: IMAGES OF WOMEN AS ACTRESSES AND MASQUERADERS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN FICTION Eugenia DeLamotte* In 1912, a historian of feminism compared nineteenth-century woman to an actor, who, "like the woman, makes his place in life chiefly by the cultivation of manner and appearance. He, like her, depends for success upon pleasing rather than being admirable. The matinée idol' is an extreme example of character—or, rather, perversion of character— by the social necessity of being charming and of trading in assumed emotions.'1 This vision of acting as the center of a nineteenth-century woman's relation to her world is particularly apt. Again and again both in England and America, discussions of "woman's sphere" assumed that pretense—rightly, wrongly, or simply inevitably—was integral to the nature and vocation of womanhood.2 Harriet Martineau observed that female education trains women "to consider marriage as the sole object in life, and to pretend that they do not think so."3 Margaret Fuller said that "all wives . . . inevitably influence their husbands, from the power their position not merely gives, but necessitates, of coloring evidence and infusing feelings in hours when the patient, shall I call him? is off his guard. "4 Jane Vaughan Pinckney wrote, "women are greater dissemblers than men when they wish to conceal their own emotions. By habit, moral training, and modern education , they are obliged to do so."3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw "cunning evasion" as one result of woman's "thwarted will."6 Florence Nightingale said that women "must act the farce of hypocrisy, the lie that they are without passion. . . . "7 Samuel Jennings encouraged wives to adapt their personalities to their husbands', however alien, "by observing with accuracy, and guarding your words and actions with prudence."8 Through the mouthpiece of her heroine the "southern matron," Caroline Howard Gilman said bluntly that a wife's "first study must be self-control almost to hypocrisy."9 Nineteenth-century woman's "[trade] in assumed emotions" resulted from two related phenomena. The first was her subordinate economic and political position. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, "to allow to any human beings no existence of their own but what depends on others, is giving far too high a premium on bending others to their purposes. *Eugenia DeLamotte is an Assistant Professor of English at Bowdoin College. She is at work on a book entitled Boundaries of the Self: A Gothic Theme in the Nineteenth Century. This essay was first presented at the American Literature Symposium at the. Universitv of Warsaw in 1980. 218Eugenia DeLamotte Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desire; those to whom others will not leave the undisturbed management of their own affairs, will compensate themselves , if they can, by meddling for their own purposes with the affairs of others. 10 The techniques of such meddling were hardly new in the nineteenth century; they were the methods "indirect and cunning" which, as Zenobia says, are the only ones available to "an hereditary bondslave."11 But the second phenomenon was specifically a product of the nineteenth century: the doctrine of "woman's sphere," which idealized woman 's old subordinate position as a position of power and created an ideal woman to fill it. Proponents of the "cult of domesticity or "cult of true womanhood" idolized this morally superior woman, on whose private domestic "influence" no less than the fate of the world appeared to hinge.12 Catherine Beecher saw American women, in particular, as endowed with "the exalted privilege of extending over the world those blessed influences, which are to renovate degraded man" and waxed lyrical over the influence even of the poor seamstress, "who, in her retired chamber, earns, with her needle, the mite, which contributes to the intellectual and moral elevation of her Country. . . . "13 Women were exhorted to wield their mighty power privately, subtly, quietly, almost imperceptibly. As the Congregationalist ministers of Massachusetts made clear, speaking publicly about the evils of slavery was not what was required. "The power of woman is her dependence, they explained in their attack on the Grimkés; it flows from her...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 217-231
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.