The application of twentieth-century gender-relations theory to the nineteenth-century novel is a fascinating exercise, producing genuinely new feminist readings of canonical texts as well as some extremely interesting bases for conjecture about their authors' psychic wounds and defenses. Like classical Hollywood cinema and realist painting, the realist novel is particularly amenable to such an inquiry because its overt gender ideology is so rigidly defined, making its covert agendas all the more powerful and compelling. The refusal of the feminist reader to read these texts on their own terms exposes their ideological underpinnings, throwing into sharp relief each novelist's relation to the reigning patriarchal norm.
The vexed question of female desire is especially revealing of such relationships, running counter to the prevailing ethos in a particularly subversive way. Nineteenth-century females, fictional and otherwise, were culturally constructed as aesthetic and sexual objects, existing to be looked at, spoken to (and of) and actively desired by male subjects inside and outside novels. The extent to which novelists contravened this cultural imperative provides a useful index to their dissatisfaction with women's traditional position in the gender hierarchy, and with the hierarchy itself. Such an investigation goes beyond a traditional "representation of women" approach to an analysis of representational structures, and an assessment of each novelist's attempt to work within or around them. A novelist's attempt to create room for a desiring female subjectivity, either within or in spite of these structures, constitutes, I believe, a strong measure of that novelist's feminism. A full-fledged female subject of desire, so difficult to envisage even in twentieth-century terms, is unlikely to be found in the nineteenth-century novel; but the tendency of each novelist to push toward such a possibility signals a significant disruption of traditional erotic para-