Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Construction of Gender: An Introduction

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Construction of Gender: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Gender issues are important for understanding many works of nineteenth-century nonfiction prose. More important than conditions of race and class, gender relations in Victorian texts are battlegrounds of power. The ground of gender relations is highly contended. The construction of gender is open to interpretation and definition by twentieth-century readers and in classroom discussions. How men and women ought to and actually do behave are always difficult matters to resolve. Many nineteenth-century writers of prose offered opinions on these matters in their writings.

A few general questions concerning gender issues and the reading and teaching of Victorian nonfiction prose come to mind:

* How are issues of gender and power displayed in Victorian prose works?

* How do we as teachers present the complexities of these gender issues to students at this time in history?

* What are some concepts of "feminine" and "masculine" that Victorian prose writers portrayed in their texts?

* How do the politics of gender transfer into artistic and rhetorical strategies?

* What are the most effective pedagogical approaches to help students understand gender issues and stereotypes?

* What new connections between gender and genre can we define?

* How did the rhetoric and content of nonfiction prose texts in the Victorian period regulate sex?

In my Introduction to this Special Issue on gender issues in nineteenth-century nonfiction prose I wish to reflect upon two things: first, why have I revised the syllabi for my courses in Victorian prose over the past twenty-two years; and second, how do the essays in this issue relate to one another in ways that have meaning for our teaching and research interests?

At the midpoint of my professional career I changed my courses in both Victorian poetry (adding many more poems by women) and in Victorian nonfiction prose. When I first arrived at the University of South Carolina in I977 there were three undergraduate courses in the Victorian period: poetry, nonfiction prose, and the novel. Of these three courses, it was always most difficult to enroll enough students in the course that treated nonfiction prose writers. One semester I even had to pass out flyers at registration to interest enough students in the course. In retrospect, part of the course's drudgery may have been due to the male-centered ponderous anthologies compiled by either William E. Buckler or G.B. Tennyson. Buckler's paperback (Houghton Mifflin, I958) offered selections from eight Victorian male writers, including Macaulay, Carlyle, Newman, Arnold, Mill, Ruskin, Huxley, and Pater. While his selections from John Stuart Mill include essays on such abstract concepts as liberty, individuality, and nature, there is no mention of his work on suffrage and women's rights. Not one selection of nonfiction prose in the 570-page textbook was written by a woman.

When I taught the course a second time, I used the G.B. Tennyson anthology, Victorian Literature: Prose (Macmillan, 1976). Selections from twenty-nine male writers and four female writers were included in the hefty anthology, but none of the selections by Victorian women dealt with issues of gender or power: some were travel sketches, but most were impressions of meeting male writers of the period. These few selections by women were featured in a women's issues week on my syllabus. The readings served as a small sideshow, but were not enough to save a rather dreary course. By 1985, the English Department had voted to combine the two undergraduate courses, Victorian poetry and Victorian prose, into a single-semester course in Victorian literature.

The curriculum at the graduate level at the University of South Carolina may be more conservative and less subject to revision than the undergraduate one. For more than three decades, the following course has been listed in the graduate catalogue: "English 727--Victorian Prose, Excluding the Novel. …

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