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TAKING ON TENNYSON: SARAH GRAND'S THE HEAVENLY TWINS AND THE ETHICS OF ANDROGYNOUS READING MICHELLE J. MOUTON University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill The opening section of Sarah Grand's 1893 New Woman novel, The Heavenly Twins, immediately begs attention to issues of interpretation. Archaically titled "Proem," it begins by citing Mendelssohn's Elijah — "He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps" — and moves on to situate this refrain within a community of varied listeners called Morningquest: "From the high Cathedral tower the solemn assurance floated forth to be a warning, or a promise, according to the mental state of those whose ears it filled; and the mind, familiar with the phrase, continued it involuntarily, carrying the running accompaniment as well as the words and the melody, on to the end" (x). The church bells reiterate the refrain's patriarchal and protectionist message hourly, reinforcing its sentiment for each listener. The narrator proceeds, in past tense fairy tale mode, to problematize interpretation: "there were many who doubted" that the refrain sounded at all; to others "it sounded . . . like the voice of a tenor who sings to himself softly in murmurous monotones"; still others could not hear it, but nonetheless asserted its reverberation within their hearts. The message is controversial: "differences of opinion regarding it had always been numerous and extreme, and it was amusing to listen to the wordy warfare which was continually being waged upon the subject." The narrator goes on to catalogue Morningquest's specific arguments and struggles over the meaning of these lines. Whom does "He" represent? What values does "He" hold? Does the line represent truth? And so forth. Although the Proem's narrator seems to relish these differences of interpretation, when we have ceased to expect a definitive comment, the narrator at last identifies the referent of "He, who watches" and, in Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) MICHELLE J. MOUTON1 85 addition, distinguishes those progressive voices who interpret it "with extraordinary sweetness": In these latter days, however, it began to appear as if the supremacy of the great masculine idea was at last being seriously threatened, for even in Morningquest a new voice of extraordinary sweetness had already been heard, not his, the voice of man; but theirs, the collective voice of humanity, which declared that "He, watching," was the all-pervading good, the great moral law, the spirit of pure love, Elohim, mistranslated in the book of Genesis as "He" only, but signifying the union to which all nature testifies, the male and female principles which together created the universe, the infinite father and mother, without whom, in perfect accord and exact equality, the best government of nations has always been crippled and abortive, (xliii) The novel as a whole will propose that the masculine literary canon with its standard interpretations, too, is a synecdoche for this "masculine idea at last being seriously threatened," and is similarly a site of contention and misinterpretation. I argue that, although less directly than the Proem, The Heavenly Twins as a whole remarks on various interpretive possibilities of itself, and by the novel's end, it will have implicitly defined those of its own readers who interpret it "with sweetness of voice." Critics of The Heavenly Twins generally note that Evadne Frayling, one its central characters, responds to novels unconventionally, recognizing a masculine bias in the canonization of particular texts; but more significantly, The Heavenly Twins as a whole posits, situates itself within, and revises a masculinist literary history. And, I argue, Grand produces this revision largely by citing and rewriting Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot." Indeed, the very shape of Grand's novel — its experiments in narrative voice and structure — invites comparison with Tennyson's poem. For example, the novel's Proem alludes to "The Lady of Shalott's" first section: both describe a community's theories about a disembodied song, emanating from a nearby towered structure. Through such invocations of Tennyson, I demonstrate, the novel's conclusion invites its readers to interpret The Heavenly Twins as each sees fit. In so doing, the novel ends as it begins — by problematizing interpretation. However, The Heavenly Twins' invitation to readers to judge the novel for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 184-211
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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