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Key Note Speakers:
• Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Jane Smiley
• Professor Jo Phoenix, University of Durham
• Dr Kate MacDonald, University of Ghent
Kyle Barton (Iowa University), Freedom through Fragmentation: Rosamund Marriott Watson and Feminist Mastery.
Helena Michie has stated that “Victorian novels are frequently about women’s hands,” yet little
critical attention has been directed toward the instances in Victorian literature in which those hands are disconnected from the body. The violence of Victorian synecdoche, present in the concept of giving one’s hand in marriage, isolates the entire identity of a woman in a single appendage which can then be “given to,” or, rather, taken possession of by another. Nineteenth-century literary depictions of the amputation of women’s hands engage with this rhetorical violence. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Lockwood attempts to amputate Catherine’s hand in his dream, acting out his already-glimpsed marital desires and anxieties; and in George Meredith’s The Egoist, Clara Middleton mentally severs her hand from the rest of her bodily identity, in an attempt to preserve a section of herself while still “giving” her fiancé what the culture has determined she owes him of her body and identity.
This fragmentation of the female body operates most subversively and revolutionarily, though, in Rosamund Marriott Watson’s fin-de-siècle poem, “A Ballad of the Were-Wolf.” Through a close reading of this poem, incorporating feminist criticism and psychoanalytic theory, I will examine the thematic and formal methods through which Watson depicts the unleashing of female autonomy and bodily mastery through bodily fragmentation. When the farmer in the poem literalizes the synecdochal signification of his wife’s hand by cutting it off, he also unknowingly frees her body from those connotations. Through corporeal fragmentation, the fracturing induced through rhetoric heals and wholeness of identity emerges as all the previously shattered pieces re-connect. Language is a well-known assaulter of women; in her poem, Watson formally and philosophically labors to use the system against itself. Ultimately, she achieves the same mastery over language as her werewolf wife does over the patriarchal figure of the husband.
Siobhan Harper (Durham University), The Healthy Female Body and the Mid-Victorian Novel.
The female textual body in the nineteenth century is so frequently framed as ill and unhealthy, given the propensity of Victorian authors to write illness, that these female textual bodies are rarely, if ever, discussed in terms of their health. Interestingly, this trend occurs with male textual bodies as well; however, it is the female characters’ textual illnesses that are most frequently and comprehensively scrutinised.
Healthy female bodies are clearly present within the fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, but critical interest has tended to centre on representations of bodies and minds that depart from healthy, normative models, rather than on these healthy models themselves. The healthy female bodies depicted within these novels are directly and indirectly contrasted with both healthy and unhealthy male bodies, unhealthy female bodies, and indeed their own bodies when they (almost inevitably) succumb to illness or become unhealthy. Furthermore, the contrast between the healthy female body and the healthy male body takes on a new aspect when that healthy male is a doctor. Health is implicitly and explicitly connected with agency and power, which is in turn inevitably connected with gender, but the healthy female textual body is also crucially presented as attractive and is therefore objectified – a phenomenon made particularly evident when that healthy body is contrasted with other unhealthy characters or their own (formerly or yet-to-be) unhealthy selves.
Through consideration of a number of novels by Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Elizabeth
Gaskell, this paper will explore the cultural meanings associated with the Victorian ideal of health in relation to the female body, with particular reference to the fictional representation of female bodies, and the norms and anxieties that cohered around them in the period.