Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Not a Novel, nor Even a Well-Ordered Story": Formal Experimentation and Psychological Innovation in Sarah Grand's the Heavenly Twins

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Not a Novel, nor Even a Well-Ordered Story": Formal Experimentation and Psychological Innovation in Sarah Grand's the Heavenly Twins

Article excerpt

From the time of its publication, Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893) has been recognized not only as sexually polemical but also as a formally intractable novel. On the one hand, the structure of this extraordinary work, as a number of modern scholars have acknowledged, seems both retrograde and ahead of its time. (1) Even though Grand's narrative was published at the tail end of the vogue of the highly conventionalized three-decker novel, given the striking manner in which it combines different narrative modes--allegory and realism, linearity of plot and fluidity of dreams, third-person omniscient and first-person narrative voice--it would not be unreasonable to style The Heavenly Twins as an artifact of nascent modernism. On the other hand, it is equally possible to view this experimentation as resulting in an unwieldy, clumsily constructed piece of work. Looked at unsympathetically, the novel can appear as an awkward, unclassifiable creature whose structural eccentricities may seem the result of the author's mishandling of her material. However we judge its interweaving of the stories of three women engaged to varying degrees with emergent ideas about educational and matrimonial rights for women, as well as the alleviation of the moral and sexual corruption of men, it remains the case that The Heavenly Twins goes about its business in a manner that complicates its polemical intervention in feminist debate. To be sure, Grand made it quite clear that her purpose in writing The Heavenly Twins was to reveal and condemn the iniquities of modern marriage practices, "not to lower the woman, but to raise the man" (Sex 6). Most modern commentaries on the novel therefore understandably focus on its sexual politics. Far less has been said, however, about the ways in which the novel's generic hybridity, as well as its equally unconventional engagement in social-scientific discourses, complicate its feminist aim, opting for a mode of aesthetic innovation that at least initially appears to run directly against Grand's didactic intentions. (2)

This apparent discrepancy--between the novel's heterogeneous rhetorical method and Grand's unabashedly political purpose--was justifiably met by the novel's first readers with a mixture of befuddlement and approbation. (3) Despite its popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, some early reviewers pointed out that this hulking three-decker is "abnormally misshaped," even "monstrous" (qtd. in Bjorhovde 94). John Habberton, reviewer for the popular lady's journal Godey's Magazine, went so far as to make the following observation:

   It is not a novel, nor even a well-ordered story, yet there are
   some stories in it, with a tiny bit of romance and not a little
   religion. The writer seems to have thought about almost everything,
   with thinking apparatus which was not completed before being put
   into service, and she unloads her conclusions--whole heads full of
   them--without much system or purpose, yet with frequent exhibitions
   of skill in the art of unloading. (761)

In Habberton's view, The Heavenly Twins therefore is not quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is disordered and confused, full of conclusions which are hardly conclusive. The resulting "three-volume tract" (as Lippincott's reviewer tagged it) abounds in contradiction (Bird 637). Besides its clashing narrative modes, its very form as a three-decker in 1894 was scarcely the preferred medium of progressive ideas, considering the traditional associations of the three-volume format with upper-middle class privilege (especially the patronage of the circulating libraries). (4) As Norman Feltes observes, the "demise of the three-decker" (78) was part of a larger "conjunctural crisis" (77) affecting many levels of Victorian society. Feltes uses this Althusserian phrase in the limited sense of an overlapping and mutually influencing "decline in the [lending] libraries' profitability, the appearance of new publishers, and the death of the three-decker" (77). …

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