Gender Construction and the Kunstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh

By Houston, Gail Turley | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Gender Construction and the Kunstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh


Houston, Gail Turley, Philological Quarterly


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A nineteenth-century Romantic genre, the Kunstlerroman, as a kind of palimpsest, conceals the material concerns of the writer by asserting that self-making is an art. Indeed, a rewriting and erasure of the self, the Kunstlerroman's conscious project displays a stabilized and authorized reading of the writer, and conceals the eruptive, unstable, and unconscious process of that construction. Furthermore, this generic form makes claims that it is representative of everyman at the same time that it formulates a special and lucrative category for the writer as artistic genius. Kunstlerromane such as Wordsworth's Prelude, Thackeray's Pendennis, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Dickens's David Copperfield exemplify this double vision of the author as typical but also as special creation and creator. These works reveal, too, that the paradigm of the artist as universal and unique is grounded in the notion that the artist is male. This makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, the most famous nineteenth-century English Kunstlerroman by a woman, a natural site for studying how this genre constructs and is constructed by gender. (1) I would suggest that comparing the male and female authored Kunstlerromane (2) David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh provides an important strategy for studying Victorian gender construction vis-a-vis the construction of the self as artist within the constraints of a market system.

To begin with, it is questionable whether the Kunstlerroman could have been written before the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalist economics, for in the nineteenth century to pursue the literary profession the writer literally had to sell himself as the most valuable distillation of the wisdom of his culture. As Catherine Gallagher and Mary Poovey point out, by the nineteenth century no professional writer could assert his independence from the market. Mary Poovey argues that the nineteenth century added a conflicting perspective to the traditional view of the artist as poet-prophet: the writer also came to be viewed as a commercial being deeply embroiled in concerns about profit. (3) Likewise, in her provocative analysis, Gallagher notes that the historical conjunction of the "activities of authoring, of procuring illegitimate income, and of alienating one's self through prostitution" became closely associated in the Victorian period for two reasons: the growth of a mass audience in the 1830s and 1840s and the establishment of cheap serial publication allied to the practice of paying authors by the line. Thus Gallagher asserts that the metaphor of the artist as generative father was not the only paradigm through which the nineteenth century viewed the writer; an equally important and suggestive metaphor was also in place, one which viewed the writer as prostitute. Hence, as Gallagher explains, the author "does not go to market as a respectable producer with an alienable commodity, but with himself or herself as commodity.... This combination puts writers in the marketplace in the position of selling themselves, like whores." (4)

I have chosen to read David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh as a pair for a number of reasons, not least of which being the way they represent the material conditions of writing and the construction of gender: first of all, both Dickens and Barrett Browning were extremely popular writers who reached a large and diverse readership, particularly with the novelistic renditions of their own rise to fame. (5) Drawing on the metaphors of prophet and prostitute, both David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh articulate but also mask the interrelations of gender with material and aesthetic success; but it is also important to note that the conflicting metaphors of prophet and prostitute mean something quite different to the male and female writer. That is, I will argue that where David Copperfield uses the feminine to mask his materialistic motivations, Aurora Leigh pointedly demarcates how in Victorian culture every woman signified prostitution. …

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