'Magic, spectacle and illness' : masquerade and gender identity in nineteenth century fiction by women
Catherine Clément, in The Newly Born Woman, regards 'magic, spectacle and illness' as the performance of the feminine. In studying the narratives of masquerading and miming women, these are the images which I locate: the magic of the sorceress, the spectacle of the transvestites or the illness of the hysteric. Within this thesis, I study instances of masquerade or mimicry, and their influence upon gender identity, in a selection of texts by nineteenth century women written for a particularly feminine audience: Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth, Lady Audley's Secret (1861) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Chase, Or, A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866) by Louisa Alcott, Through One Administration (1883) and The Secret Garden (1913), both by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My approach is neither historical nor chronological. Moving away from historicising the masquerade, I mirror the fate of the masked occasion in history: its attenuation and sublimation inside the domestic. Rather than focusing on contextuality, I concentrate on textuality. The interiorised nature of that performance demands that my approach becomes theoretical, and in particular, psychoanalytic, given that both the masquerade and psychoanalysis deals with gender as construction and representation. By resisting chronology, I can express a reluctance to assume a progression towards a 'truth' or 'reality' and allow the masquerade to remain complex. Primarily I am interested in examining the 'theatrical' representation of the various female bodies written into the narratives. However, I am also concerned with textual masquerade/mime: whether the novels studied operate within a system of masquerade or mimicry and whether the discursive impulse is one of the capitulation or subversion. As I read femininity as performance, or as spectacle, constructed by a masculine audience, and represented by the feminine, I question the area 'behind-the-mask', and what lies there - indeed, whether it is possible to articulate it.