Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Curious Genre: Female Inquiry in Amatory Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Curious Genre: Female Inquiry in Amatory Fiction

Article excerpt

Curiosity, particularly sexual curiosity, is an impulse traditionally attributed to women. From Pandora's peeking and Eve's eating to Alice's anxiety in Wonderland, female curiosity in religion, myth, popular culture, and high literature has meant a perverse desire to spy things out. Traditionally, however, it has entailed a complex of impulses--exploration, penetration, investigation, and perception--that aroused hostility as the misuse of the mind and spirit for worldly instead of divine things. In early modem culture, it was depicted as a waste of the wealth and energy that should be spent serving God rather than indulging the selfish appetite for novelty, beauty, material items, and pleasure, all roundly characterized as the "lust of the eyes." For women, these arguments had particular resonance: defined by their sex, they were adjured not to use their bodies either to excite visual lust or for private recreation in place of the social ends of procreation. Such ideas were rooted in the biblical story that Eve was responsible for man's fall, and for the discovery of carnality(1) Steeped in this cultural construction, early writers represented female curiosity as the destruction of a spiritual definition of man's nature, and the self-pleasuring perception of its true heritage of flesh and decay, sex and death.

In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood find a cultural space for this spying in the novel. They use the contemporary endorsement of inquiry in the New Science to eXploit new kinds of visual lust and new representations of peeping, and to provide an ideology for the publication of sexual novels, works vaunting empirical exploration, sensation, and novelty itself. As many critics have noted in connecting females and fiction, novels often valorize romantic empiricism, but these amatory writers manifest this enterprise as experimentation in love.(2) They exploit the generic link in the novel between two kinds of exploration of the unknown for personal gratification--the desire to find something out, curiosity, and the desire to be aroused--and they use the technology of the novel to represent these impulses visually. In their novels, Behn, Manley, and Haywood endow female or feminine narrators with a scientific posture of objective analysis to lend public authority to previously censored explorations of a physical nature equivalent to--but different from that examined by natural philosophers. This physical nature comprises both sensual experience and the material items, including literature, that induce them. Like other eighteenth-century fictions, therefore, their novels dwell on fashionable details and draw attention to their own textuality as aspects of an empirical reality confuting old-fashioned metaphysical and Petrarchan ideals of love and experience. In both matter and manner, these novels triumphantly provide a feast for the physical senses, and particularly for the eyes.

Contemporary newspaper discourse supplied a context for these writers that addressed women's inquiry. Since early-modern scientific institutions excluded women, print became the only public venue for women's questions. Even the curious Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, expressed her theories and queries about "Atomes" and other scientific matters through poetry, not fellowship in the Royal Society.(3) No one saw the opportunity created by these restraints more clearly than John Dunton. When he created the Athenian Mercury, he explained his purpose as providing a forum "to satisfy all ingenious and curious Enquirers in to Speculations, Divine Moral and Natural, Etc. and to remove those Difficulties and Dissatisfactions, that shame or fear of appearing ridiculous by asking Questions may cause."(4) By answering private inquiries in public and preserving the anonymity of both the inquirer and the replier, Dunton opened a new printed venue for curiosity intriguingly parallel to the novel itself. …

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