The Daughter's Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel by Paula Marantz Cohen, and: Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel by Hilary M. Schor (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 19, Number 1, Summer 1993
- pp. 73-76
- Additional Information
Reviews73 Paula Marantz Cohen. The Daughter's Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991.226. Hilary M. Schor. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. vi + 236. $41.95 Cdn. As we reread the Victorian heroine in the 1990s, we tend to recognize her creator as a closet structuralist, a deconstructionist, a post-modernist, certainly a feminist. We find ourselves, in others words, strangely in tune with our Victorian forbears and grateful to recognize such relationship. Because fiction both reflects and anticipates the intellectual and cultural developments of its time, contemporary readings often identify without anachronism the sources of power in these texts that have been felt but never so satisfactorily identified. Our concern as latter-day readers, however, must be constant and sensitive attention to the text so that we mediate between its possibilities as a cultural product and our interpretation of its psycho-linguistic minefields. Theory, in other words, needs to be handled with sensitivity and discretion, to respond to texts flexibly and to avoid determinism. Here and now in the Age of Theory, such issues become both fraught and personal. With deference, therefore, to an impressive body of work, I confess to having difficulty with Cohen's rigorous and superexplanatory use of family systems theory in The Daughter's Dilemma. On the one hand, she makes necessary and interesting connections between the evolution of the family and the novel in the nineteenth century. She focusses on problematic issues in the one that are enacted in the other; her particular choice of texts and her focus on family relationships in those texts elaborate her discussion of family systems theory. Her connection in each case between text and author's family experience seems to me more dubious. At best, Cohen is intellectually rigorous; her readings and observations give intense satisfaction as the logic of her analyses "works." At worst, her procedure is mechanistic, inflexible, uni-paradigmatic. And her discussion of the texts themselves, while always interesting, frequently provokes in this reader at least a desire for freedom, for flexibility, for doubt. Describing literature as a tool of social criticism, Cohen combines social history of the daughter's role in the family (in England) with the history of the form of the novel itself (from Clarissa in 1748 to The Awkward Age in 1899). From open to closed to fragmentary, family and novel-form have evolved in parallel fashion and Cohen identifies the 74Victorian Review daughter, the ideal woman, mediator for her father's combined roles in the world and in the family, as the site both of family stress and of family change. Cohen begins with the given of the incest-taboo as described by Levi-Strauss: women in primitive societies may not be kept by their fathers and brothers but must be given up in exchange for other women. This organizing principle becomes complicated by familysystems theory according to which the original dyad of mother and father triangulates (for stability) with the daughter as the ideal regulator and (in fiction at least) the modulator of male identity. In this capacity, she becomes a mediating consciousness and is defined not only externally as object but also internally as subject. The structural complementarity of daughter with father explains the absence or the unimportance of the mother in nineteenth century literature. The courtship plot, furthermore, is illusory; it does not take the daughter forward into motherhood because its role is essentially to prolong and elaborate on the closed formula for the family of origin. Cohen is interesting on the subject of mothers and daughters and follows through the evolution of family and novel forms to reveal the mother regaining importance at the turn of the twentieth century. Cohen elaborates on the ideological dominance of closure in nineteenth century families and novels by tracing the instabilities and adjustments of family life in Clarissa, Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, and The Awkward Age. She connects Clarissa to the contemporary anorectic, the family scapegoat, the violence of whose suffering and death represents the unconscious of the family and provides the site...