Radical Renovations in the House of Fiction

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Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2007
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,692 words

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[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Gentile contends that Compton-Burnett's novels "resist the imposition of a christianised supertext or superscript" that enforces the subordination of women.]

The narrative patterns available to British and American women novelists have too often been structured by implicit christianised standards. The restrictive fictions about women represented in Jewish and Christian religions have strongly influenced the fictional 'reality' perpetuated in novels. Recently feminist critics have uncovered the strong female tradition of the British novel. Before Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson were 'fathers' of the British novel, Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood and Delariviere Manley, among others, were chronicling the adventures of fictional heroines, and the majority of the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were written by women. As Jane Spencer and Nancy Armstrong have found, however, women were able to achieve success in this profession by conforming to prescribed formulae, a code for female conduct, set out by the conduct books which flourished at the time, and reinforced by Samuel Richardson (in Pamela and Clarissa) and other guardians of female purity.1 Thus the adventurous heroines of early British fiction, including Betsy Thoughtless in Haywood's The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) and Olinda in Catharine Trotter's Olinda's Adventures (1693), gave way to the christian ideal of the virtuous retiring maiden in need of the protection of father, husband, home and church.

In her monumental 1893 study Woman, Church and State the American historian Matilda Joslyn Gage charges Christianity with responsibility for degrading woman as original sinner and confining her to the home under man's care in order to protect her from her sinful nature. The work focuses on the long, inhumane history of the church's treatment of woman and its definition of her as a being created to serve others:

The whole theory regarding woman, under christianity, has been based upon the conception that she had no right to live for herself alone. Her duty to others has continuously been placed before her and her training has ever been that of self-sacrifice. Taught from the pulpit and legislative halls that she was created for another, that her position must always be secondary even to her children, her right to life, has been admitted only in so far as its reacting effect upon another could be predicated.2

No wonder that fictional narratives by or about women became either providential or punitive, depending on whether the heroine acquiesces to societal expectations by making a suitable marriage or foolishly defies society by trying to act independently. While these moral patterns continue to be reproduced in the twentieth-century novel, some women writers, including Compton-Burnett, have broken with precedent. Her novels set aside these restrictive narrative structures as arbitrary literary conventions and resist the imposition of a christianised supertext or superscript that enforces subordination and encourages woman's view of herself as an exclusively relational being.

While Compton-Burnett shuns the theological superstructure of the novel, her house of fiction is nevertheless constructed upon a foundation laid by male and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420073195