Academic journal article ARIEL

Rewriting the Female Gothic in the Antipodes: Fiona Kidman's Mandarin Summer

Academic journal article ARIEL

Rewriting the Female Gothic in the Antipodes: Fiona Kidman's Mandarin Summer

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay makes a case for Fiona Kidman's inclusion in the international feminist canon and focuses on her contribution to feminist metafiction in her redeployment of the Gothic genre in her second novel, Mandarin Summer (1981). In her reinvention of the genre, Kidman departs from the compromises of "victim feminism" that Diane Hoeveler has identified as characterizing the Female Gothic in favour of a tactical feminism that brings about the triumph of female cognitive power. This essay uses the successive contexts invoked by Kidman's particular brand of feminism, the Female Gothic tradition, and Mandarin Summers textual ancestry in Jane Eyre to consider how a female epistemic site emerges through the novel's tactical containment and encircling of patriarchal plots. This is partly enabled by the Janus-eyed vision of its central protagonist, who rejects patriarchy's binary divisions between women, and partly through the protagonist's refusal to be complicit in the symbolic and actual murder of mothers. However, in Kidman's denouement, the rescuing of women comes at a price.

Keywords: Female Gothic, metafiction, tactical feminism, matricide, female madness, (female) sublime

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Fiona Kidman's reputation as a major New Zealand novelist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is secure, but her place in the international canon, as a woman novelist who has changed "the tradition," in Gayle Greene's understanding of this important shift (1), is less certain. In her 1991 book, Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition, Greene studies four transatlantic women writers-- Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Laurence, and Margaret Atwood--whose ventures into metafiction "challenge the cultural and literary tradition they [have] inherited]" (2). In parentheses, Greene defines metafiction as "fiction that includes within itself commentary on its own narrative conventions" (1). Unsurprisingly, Kidman does not make the cut, nor for that matter does any Antipodean writer. The reasons may be entirely innocent. At the time, Kidman was still establishing herself as a writer; there was, and still is, a poverty of scholarly and critical evaluation of her work; moreover, the global reputation of the transatlantic writers Greene names could not be gainsaid in the 1980s. However, a quarter of a century later, with a prolific output in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and drama behind her, her national reputation and popularity assured, and numerous honours to her credit, including the title Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997 for her services to literature, the time has come for sustained critical attention to Kidman's work, particularly her feminist challenges to traditions of fiction.

Most of Kidman's early oeuvre, from her first novel A Breed of Women (1978) to True Stars (1990), has performed the typical act of feminist intervention by remaking inherited genres, literary forms, and texts in order to reverse their entrenched sexual politics. In A Breed of Women and Paddy's Puzzle (1983), she interrogates and subverts the female bildungsroman's traditional investment in the marriage plot; in Mandarin Summer (1981), the Female Gothic is her target for revision. In True Stars, she develops a curious mutation of the female detective genre to provide a vehicle for political fiction that is critical of the New Right reforms of the 1980s. In The Book of Secrets (1987), arguably her most accomplished work, she uses fictional female testimonies to recuperate female genealogies and histories and thus moderates the patriarchal bias of official colonial history. The gendering of colonial historiography through literary strategies also dominates her much later novel, The Captive Wife (2005). The unrelenting objective of her literary labours appears to be the refiguration of an androcentric national imaginary to include female ancestries and subjectivities. …

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