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The Uncanny Mother in Vernon Lee's "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady" Mary Patricia Kane In her seminal study of the fantastic RosemaryJackson observes that the genre "traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made 'absent'"(4). It is precisely this revelatory power of the fantastic that has led, in recent years, to its recognition as an essential interpretive tool in critical reconsiderations of the Victorian canon.1 Victorian ghost stories, often the vehicle for meditations on the absence and exclusion of women and other marginaUzed subjects from mainstream culture, reveal the shadowy areas around the edges of the reaUstic and scientific discourse that dominated the age. That Freud had early on intuited this dimension of the fantastic story is evident from his use of E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" to expUcate his thoughts regarding the origins of certain unsettling phenomena (repetition, coincidence, doubUng) in "The Uncanny." Like "The Sandman," "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady"2 explores unconscious fears in early childhood, focusing on the fantastic visions that are caUed into existence when the child projects his fears onto the real world of social experience. But the unruly symboUsm that commingles male and female, East and West, past and present in "Prince Alberic" could never have provided Freud with a neat set of narrative paradigms that would aU faU 'naturaUy' into place behind his explanation of the constitution of the subject. According to Freud, fear of castration is the key to understanding the fantastic events in "The Sandman" and his characteristicaUy compeUing reading gives this thesis an aura of inevitabiüty. "Prince Alberic," in contrast, resists Victorian Review (2006)41 M. Kane the Freudian interpretive process because of the radical eccentricity of its symboUsm and its continual subversion of the very myths that hold that interpretive scheme in place. Lee's particularly skilful use of the fantastic tale as a tool for studying the constitution of the subject owes a great deal to her famüiarity with the surreal and dreamUke stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann3 but her personal innovations to the genre give her narratives of the fantastic the subversive, de-centering quaUty that is now associated with the postmodern. Decades after Freud's revolutionary contribution to Western thought post-Freudians such as Lacan, Foucault and Cixous broadened his exploration of the relations between art, the fantastic, and human psychology by chaUenging Freud's totaUzing romance of the constitution of the subject in which biology plays the central role. It is my intention here to read one of Lee's most suggestive tales of the fantastic, "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady," as a text which, while sharing Hoffmann's interest in the subject's growing awareness of self as distinct from the Other, completely sidesteps Freud's Oedipal take on "The Sandman" in favor of a post-Freudian and post-structuraUst vision in which language and the symboUc order play the crucial roles in the subject's coming into awareness of himself . Alberic's childhood is narrated in three phases which resemble Lacan's three stages of development (1-7). Moreover, by insistendy subverting estabUshed order with the reversal of romantic myths and by suggesting the existence of occulted versions of history, the story undermines the aura of inevitabiUty surrounding patriarchy, engaging in what Cixous describes as the "open, extravagant subjectivity" of a feminine economy of writing ("Sorties" 97). Further evidence of the postmodern vision that informs "Prince Alberic" can be found in its presentation of courdy education as an indoctrination accompUshed through constant surveiUance - the system of control that Foucault identifies with the emergence of the modern state. Jackson's description of the fantastic as a 'Uterature of subversion' finds a perfect iUustration in "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady" since, lurking beneath its surface narrative of generational and ideological conflict, there is an uncanny version of the maternal nurturer which subdy 42volume 32 number 1 The Uncanny Mother and gently undermines the authority of the symboUc order in which young Prince Alberic is meant to be initiated. Nearly aU of Lee's tales of the fantastic are developed around one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 41-62
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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