Academic journal article ARIEL

'Re-Formed' Women and Narratives of the Self

Academic journal article ARIEL

'Re-Formed' Women and Narratives of the Self

Article excerpt

Krupabai Satthianadhan's novel, Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life, (1) was first published posthumously in 1895. (2) More than a century later Oxford University Press reissued the novel under the altered title Saguna: The First Autobiographical Novel by an Indian Woman. (3) The new title, along with the altered paratextual context, substantially reconstitutes the reader's reception of the text. Paratexts act as significant regulatory devices, shaping the transactions between texts and readers, indicating the historical location of the text, the location of its dissemination and circulation, and the historically specific set of intentions that situate a text for a distinct reading public with particular intended effects. (4) The paratextual reissue of Satthianadhan's novel invites a return to historically available discourses, a revision of the repertoire of narrative self constructions, and the legitimated practices of femininity that made possible the writing and shaping of the female autobiographical I in late nineteenth-century India. The twenty-first century reader's simultaneous access to both editions of Saguna works to historicize the novel and makes possible a textual self-reflexivity, which, I would argue, undermines its representational transparency as an autobiographical novel.

Throughout the nineteenth century, upper caste/class women were appropriated re-formed and re-cast in the service of Hindu social and religious reform, missionary proselytizing, British colonialism and, later in the century, Indian Nationalism. The formation and reform of the nation was, very significantly, developed alongside the "re-forming" of the upper caste/class woman's modes of access to what was constituted "education": the structures of her familial and sexual relationships, the spaces she could and could not occupy and the ways in which she could occupy them. The "woman question," which was central to the male-operated reform movements of the century, centered on what could be done to ameliorate the condition of the "new Indian woman." The social evils of child marriage, sati, and the re-marriage of widows, which were the focus of missionary, colonial and reformist interventions applied to the lives of upper-caste/class women in some regions. But within the reform debates these issues were expanded to encompass all women who inhabited the abstract space of the nation. The "new woman" who emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a marker of the "re-formed" nation. Education had modernized her and enabled her to remake the private sphere. She was a companion to her husband who was, most often, a Christian evangelist and/or an official in the colonial bureaucracy or educational system. She also had access, albeit under careful male supervision, to some areas of the public sphere. (5) Her so-called emancipation was structured as a movement from the dark, oppressive confines of the zenana into the open enlightened spaces of the school, the church, the drawing room, and the women's organization. Here, under the tutelage of her husband, father, or brother and with their approval she came into a "realization" of her true potential as enlightened mother, wife/companion and saviour of women who had not yet had access to the privileges that she now enjoyed. This was the standard plot trajectory of the reformist narratives available to women of the upper caste/class, and, if they chose to change or challenge them, they had to face the censure and withdrawal of male support.

A number of these formulatic autobiographies were written by women in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (6) The historical conjuncture that made space for and necessitated the sculpting of this autobiographical female self also made available to these women the skills and techniques needed for such self-fashioning and self-display and decreed the contours that this self could take. But as women entered material and discursive spaces hitherto closed to them they changed these spaces, whether consciously or unconsciously. …

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