Illness and the construction of femininity in the English novel, 1840-1870 (1993)
AuthorsCurtis, Jennifer Maryshow all
This thesis investigates the part played by the idea of illness in the mid-nineteenth- century construction of femininity and women's sexuality. I have investigated a variety of discourses - medical writing, the debate on prostitution, the conduct books of Sarah Ellis, and the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Braddon, and Charlotte Yonge - with the hypothesis that, in the hierarchized opposition that defined gender in the mid-nineteenth century, femininity was constituted in terms of illness, and "to be a woman was to be ill". I have used the theoretical works of Michel Foucault to look at the way in which discourse transmits and produces power. In Part One, I show how the 'masculine' discourses of medical texts and the debate on prostitution produced an ideal of femininity which confined woman to the domestic sphere, and pathologized her sexuality by defining it in terms of reproduction. In these texts, in order to universalize the ideal of domestic womanhood, the differences of class are of less importance than those of gender. Conduct books by women, on the other hand, while constraining women to the domestic sphere, produce a construction of womanhood which is active rather than passive, healthy rather than ill. In Parts Two and Three, I have shown how novels by women engage with the ideal of domestic femininity, and the strategies these authors have used to redefine, appropriate, endorse, or subvert it. In each of these, illness appears in some form - madness, disease, invalidism, or "decline" - in relation to the feminine ideal and the construction of women's sexuality.