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Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge's The Clever Woman ofthe Family Janice Fiamengo As Kim Wheatley points out in a 1996 article, The Clever Woman ofthe Family (1865) is a difficult text for the feminist critic, at least for those ofus who believe that the oppressed don't enjoy their oppression. CharlotteYonge (1 823-1901), loyal mouthpiece ofthe Oxford movement and devoted pupil ofJohn Keble, set out to write an explicitly antifeminist novel. The unconventional heroine, Rachel Curtis, is a zealous social reformer and women's rights advocate whose long process of re-education through humiliation is represented as the triumph ofher true nature; marriage and motherhood decisively cure her insubordination. In "Death and Domestication in The Clever Woman" Wheatley notes that although one reviewer protested the "excessiveness of Rachel's punishment" (898), no reviewer doubted that she needed to be cured (898-900). If one ofthe pleasures of a feminist hermeneutic involves discovering defiance and subversion in those classics ofwomen's literature one has been taught to see as decorously submissive (think of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's TheMadwoman in theAttic), then the failure offeminists to reclaim The Clever Woman is understandable. Moreover, although it is tempting to believe, asTerry Lovell phrases it, that "behind every submissive, feminine woman" there is "an angry, raging feminist struggling to come out" (70), such readings rarely do justice to the complexity ofnineteenth-century women's lives. Wheatley claims that Yonge's anti-feminism makes her "a tempting target for feminist recuperation" (895), but recent criticism has instead stressed Yonge's historical context: Barbara Dennis and June Sturrock demonstrate, respectively, the coherence ofYonge's support forTractarianism and her Victorian R e ? i e w ( 1 999) J. Fiamengo ability, despite such orthodoxy, to engage with contemporary debates on the Woman Question. Sturrock in particular reveals how complex and interdependent feminist and anti-feminist arguments were during the Victorian period. Wheatley goes on to make an even stronger claim about the impossibility ofa feminist interpretation when she argues that feminist attempts to read discomfort, tension, or contradiction in Yonge's novel aremisguided. Sturrock, for example, has commentedon the "considerable anxiety" (66) betrayed in the text's extreme punishment ofRachel, and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlström finds an awareness of women's victimization alongside anti-feminist assertions, exploring how "the novel shows usaspectsofwomen's lives that cannotbe accommodated adequately within the ideology the book upholds" (151).' Wheatley argues, in contrast, that any such readingviolates the text's thematic and narrative unity: "while one is free to make (say) a feminist or psychoanalytic reading which would challenge the didactic aims ofthe novel, one is also not free because the realist and nonrealist strands ofthe novel work together to promote those aims" (912). Detecting contradiction or unease, then, means applying modern ideas to a text that simply does not support them. Wheatley's argumentassumes that her analysis ofthe novel, which focuses on the process by which Rachel learns that "cleverness requires both masculine and divine guidance" (895), successfully accounts for all the novel's "strands." In emphasizing the coexistence of psychological and moral explanations of the main characters, however, Wheatley's reading inevitably minimizes orelides those narrative strands that disrupt didactic coherence. Here, I would like to re-open debate about The Clever Woman and its subversive possibilities by following two ofthe strands that have received little critical attention to date: the Sepoy Rebellion in British India and the sexual exploitation ofwomen and children. While the central narrative (over)stresses theinevitabilityand tightness ofRachel's suffering, the novel's references to colonial insurgency and the abuse of girl children make counter-readings possible and help us to recognize that the novel is not only atroubling reinscription ofconservativeideology but also a very troubled one. il vo 1 u m e 2 5 ? u m b e r 2 Forms of Suffering Rachel's domestication certainly deserves to be classed with what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the "spectacle ofthe Girl Being TaughtA Lesson" (834). Her initial rebellion against societal authority —her "hot and eager haste, her unconscious detachment from all that was not visible and material" (286)—is subject to a narrative indictment that seems, to a modern reader...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 80-105
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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