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NARRATIVE VOICE AND THE "FEMININE" NOVELIST: DINAH MULOCK AND GEORGE ELIOT J. Russell Perktn Saint Mary's University Altiiough novels were certainly being read and even written by die socially privUeged—Scott being the standard example—the novel at tile beginning of the nineteenth century was a literary genre of relatively lowly status. However, it is a commonplace of literary history that by the end of the century the novel had become the dominant literary form, and also that it had stratified into clearly defined subgenres, including the "highbrow" or "highculture " novel, which claimed first and foremost to be a work of art.1 Furthermore, as feminist literary historians have shown, the novel in the latter part of the eighteenth century was a form more associated with women than with men, but as it became more prestigious the occupation of writing fiction was "invaded" by male practitioners. This process has recently been documented in considerable detail by the sociological investigations of Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin's Edging Women Out.2 My purpose here is to investigate one aspect of these changes in the cultural status of fiction writing, namely the way mat some women writers in the nineteenth century, of whom George Eliot is my representative example, were able to resist the process of being marginalized and to establish themselves, against the odds, as legitimate literary artists. For the purpose of contrast I will look at the work of Dinah Maria Mulock (also known as Mrs. Craik), with whom Eliot was compared early in her career.3 Mulock is an example of a woman who, in spite of a promising beginning as a writer, was "edged out" of the field, and who dierefore was unable to achieve recognition as a serious writer. I will focus on the narrative voice of these writers, paying attention to the way that narrative voice implies particular kinds of readers as well as a particular kind of implied author. My argument is that the values shared by diese textual constructs correspond to the ideology of specific social groups. I will Victorian Review 18.1 (Summer 1992) J. Russell Perkin25 document diese values through attention to both the novels of Mulock and Eliot and to the contemporary reception of these works. In Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), Q. D. Leavis analyzed die way tiiat a relatively homogeneous bourgeois sphere of fiction production and reception broke up into different sectors, and she lamented this process of stratification as the loss of a kind of unified sensibility, making use of die typical narrative of fall from unity into heterogeneity favoured by die critics associated with Scrutiny. Leavis describes the emergence of the "middlebrow" novelist, who provided no intellectual challenge to readers, and die "highbrow" novelist, who wrote over most readers' heads, for a smaU élite (169). Her study identifies a recognizable cultural change, but the rather moralistic nature of her argument lessens its force as a contribution to the history of this change. A clearer account of the formation of the high-culture novel might be provided by taking the example of George Eliot and looking at her work in relation to the literary institutions of her time. Although Eliot enjoyed popular success, she also set her own fiction apart from that of other novelists, and saw it as something possessing a more transcendent value. She is, for example, far more comfortable with the Romantic vocabulary of artistic inspiration than are writers like Dickens, Thackeray, or Trollope, and she saw the occupation of author in Romantic terms as a calling or vocation. As N. N. Feltes observes, the concept of "vocation" is the ideological form of die process of monopolization of status and work privileges which defines professionalization (42-43).4 As Eliot wrote her novels, a new élite was being formed in England, an élite of wealth and professional skill which consolidated its position by appropriating the cultural symbols of the previous aristocratic élite (for a description of this social transformation see Harold Perkin 428-37). In an analogous manner, Eliot appropriates the classical learning, die reflective commentary, and the ironical or satirical tone associated with a particular, largely masculine tradition of fiction and puts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 24-42
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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