Lillian Nayder, Ed. Dickens, Sexuality and Gender

By Cole, Natalie | Dickens Quarterly, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Lillian Nayder, Ed. Dickens, Sexuality and Gender


Cole, Natalie, Dickens Quarterly


Lillian Nayder, ed. Dickens, Sexuality and Gender. Farham: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xxviii + 634. $285.

Lillian Nayder has judiciously selected twenty-two essays featuring the "interplay of gender and sexuality" in Dickens's thinking and arranged them in five categories: "Ideals and Transgressions," "Intersectionalities," "Mind, Body, Language, Voice," "Queer Dickens," and "Gender and the Law." Her "Introduction" primes readers to consider Dickens's "double-edged" representations of gender and sexuality throughout his canon. Though Dickens "proves willing to draw on conventional ideas of sexuality and gender to serve his ends," she argues, and also to idealize or vilify his characters, he represents those ends--artistic, political, personal --as "inadequate and confining" through "humor and skepticism" (xiii).

The collection opens with "Ideals and Transgressions" and examines constructions of nineteenth-century femininity and masculinity through oppositions: the "sublime" domesticity yet transgressive rage of Dickensian women (Barbara Black 1998); the "adulterous virtuous" daughter of the house (Hilary Schor 1999); the ideal girl symbolizing a rural past and lost childhood and her antithesis, the laboring female child (Catherine Robson 2001); and the flogged male feminized by corporal punishment but masculinized through stoicism and self-discipline (Natalie Rose 2005). These essays draw from a range of relevant cultural discourses, including revolution, industrialization, marriage, art and education.

Essays in "Part 2: Intersectionalities" emphasize the "convergence and divergence among categories of gender and sexuality" as well as the "ideological work that gender performs" (xvii). Convergences/divergences discussed here all include gender and class, while individual essays add categories such as nationality, race, empire, authorship, readership, urban space, eroticism and violence. Contributions by Mary Poovey (1988) and Catherine Waters (1997) offer valuable starting points and examine the politics of gender, class and profession, and gender, class and family, respectively. Deborah Epstein Nord (1995) analyzes Dickens's discomfiting reminder to his middle-class readers of the "paradoxical role of the streetwalker as urban outsider and social connector," a prompt which also allows readers to position themselves in otherwise forbidden gender, class and metropolitan spaces (249). Nayder (1991) explains that Dickens wanted to protect the ideal of "Arctic exploration ... as a pure form of imperial endeavor" and enacted this protection by displacing blame onto "barbarous" Others--Esquimaux in his Arctic essays in Household Words and the working-class Scotswoman in The Frozen Deep. Suvendrini Perera (1991) reads Edwin Drood's "pre-conjugal rights" to Rosa Budd in terms of his imperial, "territorial rights" (201) as an Englishman, while exploring the complex nexus of masculinity, race and nationalism of England's opium trade with China and Drood's orientalism; Natalie McKnight (2009) acknowledges that "Eros has never been considered Dickens's forte as a writer" but persuasively argues that Dickens "mates" a series of polarities in Barnaby Rudge to reveal how "Sexual and violent passions share elements of danger, abuses of power, and destructiveness and there is no end to trying to satisfy them" (296). Together, these "Intersectionalities" convey the spectrum of interests current today.

The third section, entitled "Mind, Body, Language, Voice," features complementary essays on the menopausal woman with "phallic economic power"; the blushing/scarred body; the struggle for identity after maternal/infant death; and the female voices and histories of Augusta de la Rue, Dickens's mesmeric subject, and the Urania Cottage "girls." Susan Walsh (1993) reads Miss Havisham's aging body as a "body of capital" that signifies a "dysfunctional market economy," and her "sterile wealth ... [as indicative of] how much Victorian capitalism depended upon women's traditional [yet changing] habits of investment" (303). …

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