New Woman Sympathies: The Affective Innovations of Fin-de-SiĂ¨cle Feminist Fiction
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AbstractThis dissertation argues that the late-Victorian construct of the “New Woman” was integral to the development of a previously unrecognized literary and historical form of sympathy. Examining contemporaneous discussions of evolution, art, and affect alongside New Woman fiction, I explore how fin-de-siècle feminist authors uncoupled sympathy from essentialist understandings of femininity in order to align their heroines with more expansive forms of selfhood. This new sympathetic subjectivity was flexible rather than biologically fixed, socially directed rather than limited to the home, and imaginative and unorthodox rather than defaulting to normative familial allegiances. My first chapter reads Hester, the New Woman heroine of Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage, in relation to Edward Carpenter’s theory of the gender malleability and sympathetic elasticity of the intermediate sex. I argue that Hester’s fluctuation between “masculine” and “feminine” dispositions redirects her sympathies from circumscribed domesticity to wider possibilities of aesthetic and social commitment. Chapter two situates Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins alongside Vernon Lee’s concept of aesthetic empathy, which builds on William James’s embodied theory of emotion, to assert that corporeal responses to art can extend one’s sympathies. I suggest that when Grand’s Angelica cross-dresses as a boy, her newfound physical mobility and aesthetic invigoration lead to vitalizing sympathies antithetical to the imperative of feminine self-denial. Tracking another relationship between sympathy and art, chapter three shows how Mabel E. Wotton’s “The Fifth Edition” undermines the Victorian conflation of a supposedly imitative female sympathy with forms of literary derivation such as plagiarism. Instead, Wotton casts the transpersonal feelings of her female author figure as a creative force. The final chapter examines how Mona Caird’s Daughters of Danaus draws on post-Darwinian concepts such as atavism and ancestral memory to uphold inter-temporal sympathies, which enable its New Woman, Hadria, to transcend narrowly biological notions of sympathetic descent. Repurposing Victorian theories of the evolutionary diffusion of sympathy, these authors position their New Woman heroines as the harbingers of a more capacious affective age. This project thus illuminates how New Woman authors supplanted the fundamentally “feminine” feeling that constrained nineteenth-century women, reconfiguring sympathy as gender hybridic, socially expansive, and ultimately transformative.