Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Trans-Tasman Boomerang: The Dialectic of Convention and Individuality in A Pagan's Love (1905)

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Trans-Tasman Boomerang: The Dialectic of Convention and Individuality in A Pagan's Love (1905)

Article excerpt

The "New Woman' is a convenient shorthand term for the figures of women rebelling against social conventions that became prominent in the English fiction of the 1890s. Gail Cunningham explains the origin of the term:

In the 1890s a group of popular writers dubbed 'the New Woman novelists' created a sensation with their highly polemical, and often lurid, feminist fiction. Heroines who refused to conform to the traditional feminine role, challenged accepted ideals of marriage and maternity, chose to work for a living, or who in any way argued the feminist cause, became commonplace in the works of both major and minor writers and were firmly identified by readers and reviewers as New Women (3).

Terry Lovell emphasises that the New Woman figure arises from a particular social milieu, that of the moderate middle-class feminism which dominated the suffrage movements:

The 19th-century women's movement generated by and large a moderate feminism which developed along the lines of fault of the dominant domestic ideology. It explored the internal contradictions of the ideology and opened up new opportunities for middle-class women in the public domain of work and politics. The major faultlines had to do with the plight of the single woman; with that of ill-treated or deserted wives; with the sexual double-standard and the doctrine of female moral superiority; and with philanthropy (95-6).

Given the class basis of the social movement which produced her, it is not surprising that the New Woman embodies a middleclass standpoint, characterised by intelligent individualism, combined with a respect for 'convention.' This in fact means consciousness of conformity as the price of retaining the economic and social privileges of the middle class.

The rebellion with which the New Woman is most strongly identified is against prevailing conventions of sexual behaviour. This may not necessarily entail any actual unconventional sexual behaviour on her part, but perhaps simply the willingness to discuss such matters. Cunningham claims that One of the New Woman's most unpleasant characteristics [was] an almost terrifying frankness about sex' (47, emphasis added). Similarly, Laura Hapke says that New Woman characters 'invariably espoused, but did not usually act on, advanced views about marriage and suffrage' (102, emphasis added). Anti-conventional thought coupled with behaviour which eventually submits to convention is a near-constant feature of these 'liberated' female characters.

Many critics take it for granted that the New Woman and the romance heroine are polar opposites; that the romance novel's convention of marriage as the happy ending is something like the New Woman's Other'. However, some critics argue that the New Woman as a middle-class heroine is actually complicit in the perpetuation of the 'marriage plot'. Terry Lovell suggests that

[middle-class] women had a real material interest in submission to an order which identified them as inferior to the men of their class. The middle-class woman enjoyed material advantages through marriage which could not have been hers had she struck out for independence (84).

If the New Woman novel is primarily the novel of ambition of the middle-class woman, the apparent conflict between her independence and the romance convention in which she submits to the role of wife and mother is not necessarily a contradiction at all. Simplistic equations of the New Woman novel with rebellion (or 'feminism', however defined), and the romance novel with submission to patriarchal norms, explain nothing. Lovell notes: 'It must be doubted whether any ideology can become powerful without the active and positive compliance of those governed by it ... middle-class women had a very serious stake in their ideologically sanctioned role' (84).

The New Woman novels' apparent refusal to allow their heroines to express their freedom is thus not simply, as Ann Ardis suggests, a reflection of social reality (154). …

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