Ritual Violence and the Maternal in the British Novel, 1740-1820

Ritual Violence and the Maternal in the British Novel, 1740-1820

Ritual Violence and the Maternal in the British Novel, 1740-1820

Ritual Violence and the Maternal in the British Novel, 1740-1820

Synopsis

This book brings to light a mythic dimension of seventeen important eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century narratives that revolve around the persecution of one or more important female characters, and offers original readings of novels by Richardson, Fielding, Burney, Radcliffe, Godwin, Austen, Scott, and others. The myth in question, which Raymond Hilliard calls "the myth of persecution and reparation," serves as a major vehicle for the early novel's preoccupation with the "mother," a mythic figure distinct from the historical mother or from the mother as she is represented in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century maternal ideology. Hilliard argues that the myth of persecution and reparation derives from the topos of female sacrifice in the romance tradition, and shows that this topos is central to several kinds of novels - realist, Gothic, Jacobin, feminist, and historical. Hilliard contends that the narrative of persecution and reparation anticipates the twentieth-century maternal myth associated with the work of Melanie Klein and other "relational model" psychoanalytic theorists, and he thus also examines the psychosexual significance of the "mother." Hilliard explores the relation of psychosexual themes to social representations, and delineates a new theory of plot - both tragic and comic plots - in the early novel.

Excerpt

Edmund Burke's well-known description of marie antoinette as a victim of “popular persecution,” in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), borrows from, and contributes to, an important contemporary myth that attained its complete expression in the eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century novel. Though Burke’s “great history-piece of the massacre of innocents” includes Louis xvi and his children, as well as his wife, he eagerly foregrounds the “suffering” or “persecuted woman,” “the Queen,” “the great lady” who is not simply “a mother” of “infant children” but a veritable “Roman matron.” Her torments are inflicted by a frenzied crowd, “a band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with … blood” who “rushed into [her] chamber” at the royal palace, a site they leave ominously “polluted by massacre, and strewn with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses.” Deploring “the strange and frightful transformation of [the king’s] civilized subjects,” Burke depicts this crowd as carrying the royal family from their palace on a twelve-mile (“slow torture of” a) journey toward confinement in an older palace. Composed of a vaguely specified but large number of women who noisily heap verbal abuse on the royal family, the crowd metaphorically “consecrates” its “triumph” at sacrificial “altars”: “amidst horrid yells, and shrill screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.”

Burke invites us to view the queen’s persecution as a public spectacle, and, referring to her career as an “elevation” followed by a “fall,” descants on it at length as an instance of tragic drama. After noting that the “sufferings of monarchs make a delicious repast to some sort of palates,” he pursues the idea of oral consumption by quoting in a lengthy footnote from a letter written by a dissident member of the French National As-

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