Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel

Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel

Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel

Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel


Desire and Domestic Fiction argues that far from being removed from historical events, novels by writers from Richardson to Woolf were themselves agents of the rise of the middle class. Drawing on texts that range from 18th-century female conduct books and contract theory to modern psychoanalytic case histories and theories of reading, Armstrong shows that the emergence of a particular form of female subjectivity capable of reigning over the household paved the way for the establishment of institutions which today are accepted centers of political power. Neither passive subjects nor embattled rebels, the middle-class women who were authors and subjects of the major tradition of British fiction were among the forgers of a new form of power that worked in, and through, their writing to replace prevailing notions of "identity" with a gender-determined subjectivity. She also examines the works of such novelists as Richardson, Jane Austen, and the Brontes to reveal the ways in which these authors rewrite the domestic practices and sexual relations of the past to create the historical context through which modern institutional power would seem not only natural but also humane, and therefore to be desired.


Thus towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.

VIRGINIA WOOLF, A Room of One's Own

From the beginning, domestic fiction actively sought to disentangle the language of sexual relations from the language of politics and, in so doing, to introduce a new form of political power. This power emerged with the rise of the domestic woman and established its hold over British culture through her dominance over all those objects and practices we associate with private life. To her went authority over the household, leisure time, courtship procedures, and kinship relations, and under her jurisdiction the most basic qualities of human identity were supposed to develop.

To consider the rise of the domestic woman as a major event in political history is not, as it may seem, to present a contradiction in terms, but to identify the paradox that shapes modern culture. It is also to trace the history of a specifically modern form of desire that, during the early eighteenth century, changed the criteria for determining what was most important in a female. In countless educational treatises and works of fiction that were supposedly written for women, this form of desire came into being along with a new kind of woman. And by representing life with such a woman as not only desirable but also available to virtually anyone, this ideal eventually reached beyond the beliefs of region, faction, and religious sect to unify the interests of those groups who were neither extremely powerful nor very poor. During the eighteenth century, one author after another discovered that the customary way of understanding . . .

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