The psychological novel allowed anyone to enter into literary action as a substitute for his [sic] own, to use the relationships between the figures, between the author, the characters, and the reader as substitute relationships for reality.
Citations en double
Rather than evinc- ing a turn away from "public knowledge" and "civic activity," the novel's realist fictions support the development of a literary sphere emerging within civil society as a public and imaginary space conducive to unofficial critical debate. The threat posed to classical republicanism by the novel thus results more from its recoupling, than from its decoupling of fancy and virtue, of fiction and fact, of personal sentiments and public discourse.
Rather, it initiates an alternative regime for the production of the real or, in the case of senti- mental novels like The Coquette, for the production of what the Salem Mer- cury refers to as "our feelings" concerning the public significance of events like Elizabeth Whitman's death39 Nowhere is the importance of such "feel- ings" more evident than in the scenes of reading that populate early novels. In the most-read, banned book of the Enlightenment, for instance, the philosophical heroine Therese concludes her narrative by recounting the seductive "effects of reading and painting.
If she can peruse the collection every morning for two weeks without resorting to "manualism," the library is hers. If she fails, she must accept a "divorce from manualism. I threw off the sheets and covers and, without pausing to think whether or not the door of my room was secured, I prepared to imitate all the positions I saw.
Both the bedroom's open door and the novel's publi- cation reveal that Therese's fired imagination and the vice it provokes are neither private nor solitary. The structural kinship between the pornographic and sentimental novel will be the subject of my sixth chapter. For now, suffice to say that this second understanding of the relations among publication, sensation, and the novel informs the critical re-evaluation of what Jane ibmplcins refers to as the "sentimental power" of fictions like The Coquette.
Unlike most early novels, The Coquette contains no generic attack on either novels or novel-reading. The Coquette, Davidson suggests, critiques the sexual double standard, debunks the cult of domesticity, and provides a rare opportunity for the novel's readers to see, "in print, women very much like them- selves. In contrast to the news accounts that trace Whitman's death to her failure to marry wisely, Foster's novel allows its readers to shift the blame to Wharton's male suitors.
Positioned between the "attentive and sincere" reverend Mr. Boyer and the "gay and polite7 liber- tine Major Sanford , Eliza faces a dilemma common to eighteenth-century heroines. Again, Therese Philosophe is exemplary. Just as that narrative be- gins by noting two contradictory "passions" that war within Therese "the love of God and the love of sensual pleasure" , Eliza's first letter opens by opposing her "obedience to the will and desire of [her] parents" to her "plea- sure.
They must, however, meet in the man of my choice; and till I find such a one, I shall continue to subscribe my name Eliza Wharton" This "subscription" allows Eliza to maintain the patronym that she inherits from her now dead father. As such, it places her momentarily outside of paternal or fraternal control. In a letter to her mother, Eliza repeats this assertion of autonomy in reference to Boyer: "Ulf I must enter the connubial state, are there not others, who may be equally pleasing in their persons, and whose profession may be more conformable to my taste?
The singular ap- pearance of a third suitor for Eliza toward the middle of the novel—Mr. Emmons, a "respectable merchant" from the city—seems to have no other narrative function than to highlight the possibility of marital choices beyond either Boyer or Sanford Such modifications are not definitive, of course.
Labeling Eliza "a spoiled and artful flirt who refuses good marriage offers," Baym echoes both the Chronicle's identification of Eliza as a "coquette" and Lucy Freeman's re- sponse to Eliza's objection to Boyer. In contrast to both Baym and Lucy; Davidson encourages the reader to side with Eliza. Her refusals of Boyer and Sanford thus become signs not of her "coquetry," but of her commitment to an emerging redefinition of marriage as a purely contractual relationship grounded in mutual affection and heartfelt senti- ments, rather than economic or kinship structuress' Eliza's "coquetry," in this sense, typifies what Davidson sees as the sentimental and romance novel's "reappropria[tion] of choice" for female protagonists and readers: "By reading about a female character's good and bad decisions in sexual and marital matters, the early American woman could vicariously enact her own courtship and marriage fantasies.
By highlighting the unpredictable and liber- atory effects of such readerly identification, Davidson skirts Baym's claim that Eliza's story produces "[firom a woman's point of view. By positing fantasy as the mediating link between identity and publication, Davidson positions the reader as an agent capable, through the force of fantasy, of choosing to iden- tify with Eliza as an independent agent, without choosing to identify with Eliza's death as the narrative outcome of that autonomy.
Fantasy, in other words, renders the reality of Eliza's seduction and abandonment potentially unreal. As Lucy points out in one of the novel's many self-reflexive mo- ments, the topics of Eliza's letters "a bleeding heart, slighted love, and all the et ceteras of romance" chart only one of many narrative possibilities This insight into the political significance of fantasy enables Davidson to read The Coquette as historically continuous with nineteenth- and twenti- eth-century feminism.
Rather than simply initiating a privatized "cult of true womanhood," The Coquette utters what Davidson refers to as a "smothered cry for female equality, a cry faintly but subversively heard in those senti- mental novels. The problem with this as- sessment lies neither in its pathos nor its anachronism, but in its failure to extend Davidson's insight concerning the phantasmatic nature of identifica- tion to her own critical practice.
Bruce Burgett | Genders | University of Colorado Boulder
Davidson notes the naivete of nineteenth- century readers who viewed The Coquette as a roman a clef and attempted, in their critical fantasies, to determine its significance by establishing the historical identities of the fictional characters Aaron Burr or Joel Barlow as Major Sanford, for example. But she also repeats that strategy by reading the novel sociologically and attempting, in her critical fantasy, to determine its significance by establishing the historical context and probable response of the "early American woman reader"s5 In accordance with Foster's asser- tion that the novel is "founded in FACT," nineteenth-century readers lo- cated the factual in specific historical personalities; in accordance with the same assertion, Davidson locates the factual in a generic historical and na- tional personality.
While Baym and Davidson explicitly disagree as to the effect that The Coquette had and has on the "female reader," they implicitly agree that the "female reader" is a useful and realistic critical fiction with which to interrogate the novel's political implications. And as a strategy within a larger project aimed at the retrieval of novels written by women, it seems to me unobjectionable.
As a tool for reading those novels, however, the category of the "female reader" becomes problematic both theoretically and historically. In theoretical terms, the problem with this sort of critical essentialism is that it repeats the novel's own encoding of fiction as fact. By identifying the real as primary in this case, the "fact" of the "female reader" , it misidentifies fantasy as sec- ondary in relation to the real in this case, as a "strategy" used by the "female reader" to avoid the "demoralizing" conclusions of seduction narratives.
In doing so, she produces an uncritical fantasy of identification that becomes convincing only when, in Butler words, its "own phantasmatic status is eclipsed and renamed as the real. Many of the disorders, not only of domestic, but of political society, I believe originate in the inver- sion of this order. As Nancy Armstrong and Robyn Wieg- man have suggested, sentimentalism's focus on bodies and affect contributes to this naturalization of sexual difference when it reduces the politics of gender relations to the corporeal "reality" of the sexed body. From Pamela to Emma, Armstrong concludes, sentimental fiction transforms "political in- formation into the discourse of sexuality.
Repeating Baym's often-cited description of sentimentalism as writing "by and about women," Davidson stages the interpretive controversy over Elizabeth Whitman's death as a battle be- tween opposed communities of male "moralists" and female "readers. For Davidson, this preponderance of letters written to and from women indicates the novel's public affirmation of what she refers to as "woman-talk: women confiding, chiding, warning, disagree- ing, and then confronting one another.
Let them despise, and for ever banish the man, who can glory in the seduction of innocence and the ruin of reputation" While Davidson and Baym read this concluding moral as addressed to an already existing "female reader," I will argue that it constructs that category by encouraging a fantasy of identification between the republican citizen whose "mind has no sex" and the sentimental subject for whom anatomy is only in the pro- cess of becoming destiny But this reading does not tell the whole story. It is certainly significant that Foster highlights the duplicity of the sexual double standard by positioning Eliza between Boyer and Sanford as symmetrically undesirable male suitors.
If nothing else, this narrative deviation from the earlier news reports expands the boundaries of the "American fair" by com- plicating any facile categorization of Whitman as a "coquette. Richman flanked, on one side, by aristocratic women like the "agreeable" but "soulless" Miss Lau- rence and, on the other, by lower-class women typified by the circus per- formers who appear as part of Lucy's censorial reflections on public enter- tainments 21, Just as Boyer and Sanford mark the two extremes Eliza must negotiate in her search for a republican husband, Miss Laurence and the circus performers mark the extremes she must avoid if she is to move from the margins to the center of republican womanhood.
Both Eliza and the reader must learn to defend their "dignity and honor" from the "snares," as Rowson puts it in her preface to Charlotte Temple, "not only of the other sex, but from the more dangerous arts of the profligate of [their] own.
In contrast to the middle-class women who pro- vide the novel's moral center, Miss Laurence is as bad a reader of generic and social conventions as the news reports made Whitman out to be. Edu- cated in aristocratic fashion, she lacks the insight necessary to plumb the immoral and impoverished reality behind the fortune-hunting Sanford's "su- perficial, ensnaring endowments" Foster leaves little doubt as to where such misguided faith in the class-based conventions of public representation leads: Miss Laurence winds up unhappily married to a second "fortune hunter," Mr.
Laiton At the opposite end of the social spectrum, the circus performers present a more complicated and revealing set of problems. In a none-too-subtle warning to both Eliza and the reader, Lucy prefaces her comments on the circus by cautioning against tragic drama. An open grave cannot be a source of amusement to any considerate mind!
She then quickly moves to the circus performers whom she condemns not, like Miss Laurence, for their excessive attention to the conventions of public representation, but for their inatten- tion to those same conventions. To see a woman depart so far from the female character, as to assume the masculine habit and attitudes; and appear entirely indifferent, even to the externals of modesty is truly disgusting, and ought not to be countenanced by our attendance, much less by our approbation. The "rational and refined amusement" of "Mr.
Bowen's mu- seum," Lucy suggests, "will bear frequent review without palling on the taste" Foster positions Miss Laurence and the circus performers antithetically: Miss Laurence's aristocratic education makes her too conventionally femi- nine vulnerable to men of "show and fashion" , while the problem with the circus performers is that they do not appear to be feminine enough "indif- ferent, even to the externals of modesty".
But together these two extremes allow Foster to achieve one of the prerequisites of any successful ideology— to portray an historically specific code of behavior middle-class femininity, in this case as universal. Miss Laurence and the circus performers fall out- side the category of the "American fair" due to their inappropriate enact- ments of the relation between sex and gender, not because of their respec- tive class positions.
As Armstrong suggests, this depoliticization of class difference through reference to naturalized gender conventions is typical of both the sentimental novel and contemporary middle-class reform move- ments. In his "Thoughts upon Female Education," for instance, Rush pro- vides what could be taken as a gloss of Miss Laurence's romantic fate.
Upper-class educational practices, he argues, exaggerate gender difference by depriving women of the "useful branches of literature," thus rendering them susceptible to the "intrigues of the British novel" and the "refinements of Asiatic vice.
Like Lucy, Rush This comparison disguises an important difference, however. Foster may agree with Rush that gender conventions are grounded in the sexed body, but Lucy's judgment of taste is not as simple as his anatomy lesson. For Rush, the question of the relation between the body and the body politic— between sex and gender—is merely rhetorical. Sex the "original difference in the bodies and minds of men and women" naturally expresses itself as gender girls play with dolls, boys straddle sticks. Equestrian- ism is unsuitable to the "female character" not because it is counter-factual she testifies that women may straddle sticks , but because it is distasteful.
This substitution of aesthetic for anatomical judgment both reframes the question of the relation between sex and gender, and provides one typically sentimental answer. In response to democratic feminists like Mary Woll- stonecraft and Olympe de Gouges who attacked the masculinist foundation of contemporary republicanism, many social conservatives drew upon the discourse of manners, refinement, and taste in order to shore up patriarchal gender conventions. It is this counter-revolutionary discourse that Norbert Elias refers to as -civilizing" and G. Barker-Benfield as "sentimental- izing.
As a metaphor for aesthetic sensibility, taste is perhaps most familiar from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment where it tends to be shorn of any sentimental residue. The "Sachem" may not yet be able to render universal aesthetic judgments, but neither can Kant's preferences determine without his assent what such judgments will reveal. The metaphor of taste thus con- tains a paradox since it confirms the autonomy of every body's sense percep- tions while evoking, at the same time, what Kant refers to as a sensus com- munis—a socio-aesthetic consensus that transcends without violating individual sensibilities.
Playing a role analogous to that of the circus performers in The Coquette, the "Sachem" must be othered within the Critique without becoming alien to it. His aesthetic judgments may vary from those of en- lightened Europeans, but Kant warns that such variations ought not lead to skeptical or relativistic conclusions.