Romantic lineages… 3


By far, the most popular form of literature for women throughout most of the nineteenth century were the ‘domestic novels.’ These novels and the sensation fiction of the 1860s, mostly from england, come together to form the prototypes of the modern soap opera. Elaine Showalter credits sensation writers with a subversive appeal, claiming that they inverted ‘the stereotypes of the domestic novel.’ Certainly the sensationalists ‘expressed female anger, frustration, and sexual energy more directly than had been done previously.’ Nevertheless, several important studies by women scholars have shown that the domestic novel itself was subversive, thus challenging the orthodox view of the genre, advanced by Herbert Brown: ‘The domestic novels in which these writers sought to glorify the American home were as limited in scope as the narrow sphere of interests of the women readers for whom they were designed. …Domestic fiction records few instances of discontent with this circumscribed life.’ James Hart corroborates Brown’s assessment when he speaks of the women novelists as ‘middle-class ladies… busy fashioning their homes into the land of the heart’s content.’ In sharp contrast, Helen Waite Papashvily characterizes the novels as ‘handbooks… of feminine revolt,’ encouraging ‘a pattern of feminine behavior so quietly ruthless, so subtly vicious that by comparison the ladies at Seneca appear angels of innocence.’ How is it possible for people to read the same group of books and come up with such wildly divergent ideas about them? The answer, I believe, is that many critics tend to take at face value the novelists’ endorsement of the domestic ideal and ignore the actual, not very flattering portraits of domesticity which emerge from their works. To be sure, as Brown notes, the novelists tended strenuously to affirm the sacredness of the marriage tie, but they were concerned primarily to show how far short of the ideal many marriages in real life tended to fall. Some of the very titles of the fiction of Mrs E.D.E.N. Southworth, one of the most prolific writers of the age, suggest the grievances against marriage, fathers, and husbands Brown says are nowhere to be found: The Fatal Vow, The Discarded Daughter, The Deserted Wife.” (p.22)

“Nina Baym,” Modleski goes on to say, “who is more moderate than Papashvily in her account of the [-p.23] novels, even takes issue with the term ‘domestic,’ which she says reinforces the stereotyped idea that the novelists wallowed in domestic bliss. On the contrary, in this fiction
‘home life is presented, overwhelmingly, as unhappy. There are very few intact families in this literature, and those that are intact are unstable or locked into routines of misery. Domestic tasks are arduous and monotonous; family members oppress and abuse each other; social interchanges are alternately insipid or malicious.’
In much ‘domestic’ fiction men are the culprits responsible for the intense suffering of wives and daughters. Mrs. Southworth, in particular, delighted in portraying men as tyrannical, foolish, untrusting, and untrustworthy.” (pp.22-23)

Soap operas continue the tradition…

Soap operas continue the tradition of portraying strong women, who, if they no longer single-handedly run large farms, nevertheless must struggle to keep intact the worlds which the weakness and unreliability of men threaten to undermine. However, men in soap operas tend not to be the bullying tyrants frequently found in domestic fiction. The evil ‘villain’ in soap opera is generally female, and in this respect soap opera closely resembles the nineteenth-century sensation novels written by and for women. In the fiction of Mary Louise Braddon and the recently discovered ‘thrillers’ of Louisa May Alcott, the happiness of the ‘good’ woman is jeopardized by the infernal machinations of a clever and beautiful temptress who gains control over the haples man with ridiculous ease. In the chapter on soap operas I will explore the appeal of such a character and show that this plot is not really the ‘inversion’ of the ‘domestic’ plot but it s complement. Soap operas may also be indebted to the sensation novels for the emphasis on violence, crime, and sexual scandal.” (p.23)

“Not only did the domestic novels call into question the felicity women were supposed to experience in making home-life the center of their existence, but they also revealed, as Papashvily shows, covert longings for power and revenge.” (p.24)

“…even the contemporary mass-produced narratives for women contain elements of protest and resistance underneath highly ‘orthodox’ plots. This is not to say that the tensions, anxieties, and anger which pervade these works are solved in ways which would please modern feminists: far from it.” (p.25)

Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut [refer also: Romantic lineages… 2]


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