The spirit of cleavage : pedagogy, gender, and reform in early nineteenth-century British women's fiction
Robson, Lisa Marie
By the end of the eighteenth century, women's education had become a topic of serious cultural debate. In my dissertation I examine the ways in which six early nineteenth-century noncanonical British women novelists--Eliza Fenwick, Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Hannah More, Sydney Owenson, and Mary Brunton--attempt to reconstruct culturally dominant gender representations through their discourse on education. More pointedly, I measure the possible efficacy of these reformist efforts in light of the political and cultural forces and conditions which demand their suppression or co-option. My analysis suggests that these writers were accomplished readers of the polemics and politics of their period, creatively appropriating turn-of-the-century intellectual and philosophical debates and constructing an alternative history through their fictions. Far from homogeneous in their responses to the cultural text of their era, these women and their fictions are marked by differences in politics, nationality, class, and religion, yet they all attempt to transform female pedagogical practices and dominant gender constructions through an appeal to balance and reconciliation. For disparate reasons, these novels defy customary, binary constructions of complementary sex-based schooling by revalorizing or rewriting culturally prevalent notions of a properly feminine education in the decorative accomplishments and arguing for women's access to masculine, rational pedagogy in both form and content. Because education plays a pivotal role in the ideological construction of gender, in envisioning a comprehensive alternative mode of female instruction which reconciles the masculine and feminine, these novelists also construct an alternative gender representation for the early nineteenth-century woman, a vision of gender parity which translates into expanded opportunity, cultural agency, and socio-political significance for British women. In challenging dominant notions of rationality, furthermore, these novelists also rewrite conventional terms of cultural cohesion in an attempt to augment communal benefits and individual happiness. Such efforts, however, are qualified by the author's limited concern with reconstructing gender through education for the turn-of-the-century male, as well as by the shift in the underlying logic for these educational and gender reforms from a matter of rights to one of religion, a transition which gradually lends to an appropriation of these disruptive efforts by the dominant order. Nevertheless, through their discourse on education these women breach any illusions of social consensus and stability, thereby creating the fissure, the opening, the "spirit of cleavage" in the cultural fabric that remains to disrupt dominant prescriptions throughout the nineteenth century. By choosing education as their point of intervention, these six writers adopt the position of the intellectual, a primary site of opposition that helps clear a space from which to gain the perspective, resistance, and mobility necessary to begin to envision and effect lasting, far-reaching cultural change.