A Straining in the Text: Women Writers and the Deconstruction of the Sentimental Plot 1845-1900

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Taylor, Megan Gray
Smith, Martha Nell
In the nineteenth century, most sentimental marriage-plot novels by women include a female bildungsroman that terminates with the heroines containment in marriage. The tension between this bildungsroman and the expectations of the marriage-plot novel are examined as a deconstructive gap through which women interrogated the cultural and social realities of their lives under cover of the socially accepted form of the marriage-plot novel. A discussion of the historical realities of women's lives is presented and an embedded interrogation of this reality in the novels is exposed. This examination is Anglo-American in nature including studies of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. At the heart of this deconstructive gap is the experimentation with female relationships, relationships that progressively emerge as the focus of these novels and the decentering force of the marriage-plot. Specifically, female mentoring relationships, which educate the heroine in the ways of the marriage market and, by implication, in the ways of survival in patriarchy, are the source of experimentation. In addition, the psycho-social underpinnings of female development are explored to facilitate an understanding of the nature of these relationships. All of the authors considered in this study have a self-consciousness about their participation in the sentimental tradition and an irony about the expectations the form contains and the reality that their characters experience. Bronte's Shirley, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Alcott's Little Women and Work: A story of Experience, and Phelps's Silent Partner demonstrate the power of female relationships to facilitate private survival in a world marked by separate spheres and limited opportunity. A recurring theme in all these novels is the idleness imposed on middle-class women and the heroine's desire for meaningful work. In a chronological progression, the resolution in marriage becomes increasingly less tolerable and/or satisfying, a progression that culminates in the deconstruction of the marriage closure in alternative communities of women (post-marriage) or single alternatives.