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Emma Bovary's Sisters: Infectious Desire and Female Reading Appetites in Mary Braddon and George Moore Ann Heilmann "The grand work ofliterary genius," Matthew Arnold wrote in Essays in Criticism (1865), "is a work of synthesis and exposition [. . .] its gift lies in the faculty ofbeing happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere [. . .] when it finds itselfin them" (5). One ofthe central intellectual-spiritual influences which exercised the Victorians, rather unhappily, was the woman question and, in its specifically cultural configuration, women's troubling engagement with literature.1 Particularly in the latter halfof the century the "perceived invasion offiction by the feminine" (Pykett, "Improper"Feminine, 4) raised anxieties about the potential (ef)ferninisation ofculture, the "contamination " of a once "virile" national literature with feminine and foreign disorders (see Miller 10-38). Fears about the socio-cultural and political repercussions of the increasing prominence ofwomen writers on the literary marketplace coincided with a marked preoccupation with the woman reader and the moral, sexual, and medical dangers of intemperate female self-absorption (Flint 4).2 At thefin de siècle these concerns eliminated in visions of cultural atavism which found their most prominent expression in Max Nordau's Entartung {Degeneration, 1895). Realist-naturalist literature ofFrench provenance was among the cultural phenomena mcrirninated for the "ego-mania" ofthe time. Nordau was particularly apprehensive about the pernicious effects, on the "superficial [read female] reader" (488), ofthe literature of the Victorian Review (2003)31 A. Heilmann "Diabolists," among whom he counted Gustave Flaubert (267). This paper examines the influence ofFlaubert's MadameBovary on Mary Braddon's The Doctor's Wife.(1864) and two of George Moore's short stories, "Emma Bovary" (1902) and "Priscilla and Emily Lofft" (1922), in order to explore the way in which Victorian anxieties about literary infection and contamination were reflected and ironicised in later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century narratives about women 's transgressive reading practices. Like Emma Bovary, Isabel Gilbert, the heroine ofBraddon's The Doctor's Wife, is discontented with the prosaic reality ofmiddle-class domesticity and bored in her marriage to an undemonstrative, pragmatically -minded and obtuse, ifmildly affectionate, country doctor: A dull despair crept over [her] as she thought that perhaps her life was to be only a commonplace kind ofexistence; a blank flat level, alongwhich she was to creep to a nameless grave. She was so eager to be something. (73, emphasis in original) Sentimental literature, Romantic poetry, and day-dreaming offer an outlet for her understretched mind, enabling her to realise her desire for a more active and fulfilled life, ifonly in her imagination. This imaginative capacity is at once propitious and harmful to Isabel; it sets her apart from the other characters, marking her out as a heroine possessed with an aesthetic sensibility, but it also points to the dangers ofsubject-constitution through over-identification with narrative constructs. The problem foregrounded in the novel is precisely that to women like Isabel, imagination and reality are indivisible: "[s]he wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine" (28). As everyday life falls short of the expectations raised by her literary models, the dreams begin to take control: she "carried her ideal world wherever she went, and was tending delirious Byron at Missolonghi, or standing by the deathbed ofNapoleon the Great, while the shop-man slapped the butter on the scale, and the vulgar people hustled her before the greasy counter"(29). When a handsome, young, aristocratic poet — the very protagonist ofher sentimental visions — enters her life, she abandons herselfto the delight oftheir 32volume 29 number 1 Emma Bovary's Sisters romantic interchange until she is jolted out ofher dreams by his proposition that she become his mistress. Yet even in her disillusionment she is incapable ofresponding to her experience other than through the tropes of fiction: He was not the true and faithful knight [. . .] He was the fierce dissolute cavalier [. . .] Hewas a heartless Faust, ready to [. . .] betray poor trusting Gretchen [. . .] He was Steerforth, handsome , heartless, irresistible Steerforth, with no pity for simple Em'ly or noble Pegottys broken heart [. . .] She was totally unable to understand him as he reallywas [. . .] (277-78). Day-dreams induced by poorly digested...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 31-48
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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